Tuesday, December 22, 2009

What have you done for me lately?

It is no exaggeration or hyperbole to say that you have listened to music for thousands of hours; this statement is true in consideration of a work-week being forty hours, a day being twenty-four, a year being eight thousand seven hundred sixty hours.  So exaggeration is off the table.

The hours spent listening to such genera as classical, ballet, jazz, chamber, folk, blues, and film scores renders you only slightly educated.  You can often separate Mozart from Haydn or Beethoven; you can surely tell such distinctive tenor saxophone voices as Coltrane, Webster, Hawkins,and Rollins or Getz from one another, and you would have no trouble with various other virtuosi.  To a satisfying-but-not-extensive degree, you can even distinguish the particular sounds of seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth-century music.

If your abilities with music amount to a six on a scale of ten, you could extrapolate your awareness of writing and story at a high seven or eight, looking enviously and with determination toward nine, which is what leads you to the connection between the musician and writer you wish to consider today.  Musicians and writers do not, to overstate the obvious, grow up in a vacuum.  The memorable composers in either art have grown up hearing a particular sound or set of sounds, recognizing themes, cadences, use of detail and form.  These memorable ones have each contributed one or more things to the evolution of a particular zeitgeist, have broken one or more traditional boundaries to arrive at a new, recognizable plateau so that, for instance, hearing the third movement of any of the nine Beethoven symphonies, you could identify him as the composer of that particular symphony, or if you already knew the symphony to have been written after Beethoven's time, you would be aware that this particular segment was influenced by Beethoven.

You grew up in a zeitgeist dominated by Hemingway, although you gravitated toward Fitzgerald and Cheever and Shaw, becoming increasingly aware of Hawthorne and Twain, lurching bumpily over a road crowded with the two O'Hara's John and Frank before you began to discover the nuance and freedom of women writers, major among them Louise Erdrich and Annie Proulx, but not to forget Alice Munro and Bobbie Ann Mason, who in person gave you a shove into what ending a story meant that you had not got from anyone else.

So the question for you to ask yourself and, when the occasion warrants, your students and even into your clients, is this:  What thing or things do you do to help your zeitgeist evolve?  You could follow up with questions about form and vision.  You could even play a sort of devil's advocate role with yourself and with such critics who come along from time to time with pronouncements that the novel is dead, that short stories are too structured or not structured enough, that flash fiction is the future because no one has the patience to read any more than a few hundred words without needing to do something else.

Ah, Mozart, you were thinking yesterday morning while driving to a meeting and listening to Classical KUSC, undoubtedly a piano sonata, if your memory held, likely it was the piano sonata in C, and if your ear was on, the performance was by that wonderful Mitsuko Uchida.  Well, you were wrong about her; although the announcer said that most performers except her and the current player tended to render it in the same manner.

Sometimes a story seems to want to fit itself snugly into the zeitgeist you have immediate access to, the one in which you learned to read, the one in which seemingly wherever you turned, there were stories fitting a particular pattern so that you could almost anticipate the outcome before you were halfway there.  And so you tell yourself, why not see what you can do to your stories to help them out of the increasingly crowded shopping mall and into a landscape of its own.

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