Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Writing about Writing: The Muse and Music

"The muse; she speaks through me. I am but a humble servant."

Inspiration can come from the most unusual places, even on episode 2 of Better Call Saul season 2, when actor Bob Odenkirk's character Jimmy/Saul comes up with a wild excuse to shake off the police from his client with a strange concept: that he's a "Squat Cobbler."

You'll have to watch the show to find out what that means. In the meantime, here's a rumination on the volley of inspirational essays and other sources that have filled up my days and nights, days and nights that should have been filled with writing. But I have excuses, plenty of them, and none of them have anything to do with Squat Cobbling.

There are more essays about writing than one can absorb, but I try to read as many as I can, without, quickly scanning them and forgetting the gems of inspiration.

Author Alexander Chee offers the most poetic variation in How to Write an Autobiographical Novel.  It begins with:

"You are like someone left in the woods with only an axe and a clear memory of houses deciding to build a house.

You will furnish everything with that axe.

Also the woods is your life.

You are the axe."

Chee's new novel The Queen of the Night is getting much well-deserved praise. It's been years since his last novel Edinburgh, and he spent a long time researching 19th-century opera. That must have included a lot of music listening.

And while listening to music isn't writing, it's part of the process. One of my upcoming projects is closely tied to rock music of the 1970s. I've been making music mixes privately on YouTube, SoundCloud, and downloading a lot of classic rocks concerts by several popular bands of the day, in the hope of finding an accurate historical record of where and when my characters would have attended such concerts.

Again; not writing, but part of the work. And so is witnessing other works of art that may at first seem to have nothing to do with your own art. 

Take, for example, American Conservatory Theatre's co-production of The Unfortunates, a blues and hip-hop operetta about a ham-fisted hero's descent into a plague-ridden Underworld. While the music is not of the genres included in my next work, the sheer energy and vibrancy of a musical theatre work taking on some rather morbid themes in a brilliant way led me and an artist colleague to walk from the theater fully energized to make our own interpretation of some classic themes; love, loss and mortality.

Even scrolling through Facebook, alleged to be a complete time-waster, can bring a spark of inspiration. Since once again, I'm going back in time for the setting of a novel, this video, linked by an old ACT UP pal, brought back a flood of memories from my college days at Ohio State. Here, a local TV reporter tries to explain the then-unusual phenomenon of fans flocking to see The Cocteau Twins. 

My characters may not have seen that concert (I didn't), but it recalls the setting for that possibility. Bigger arena rock concerts by David Bowie, Aerosmith, Yes, Pink Floyd and other mega-bands will play a part in the work.

This photo, posted by a 1970s Facebook Group, from the 1978 World Series of Rock provides countless details of an event which I attended but have few memories, other than complete exhaustion.
The World Series of Rock, July 1978

Listening to such historic concerts on YouTube sets my mind for the framework of "then," those days of bootleg T-shirts bought in parking lots, souvenir tickets, and the communal high, literally and figuratively, that will become an essential part of the writing.

So is sheet music. 
Singer-composer Kristian Hoffman recently post a page of music for Bowie's classic song "Life on Mars."  

I had the honor of interviewing Hoffman for his 2013 San Francisco concert with Joey Arias, which was dedicated to their colleague Klaus Nomi, whose visage made a brief appearance in my last novel, Message of Love. In all likelihood, I may even include that sensational 1979 Saturday Night Live episode with Bowie (and Arias and Nomi singing backup) in my next novel. It could happen. But will it further enhance the story? 

Reading, too, plays a significant part in eventual writing. But even that led me to save some books while other have fulfilled their duties. I had begun to break my rule of not letting books stack up beyond what could fill my shelves. I vowed not to hoard books, because what good are they doing piling up in my home, when they should be read by other people?

Certain books are keepers, such as those by the recently departed: locally, Justin Chin's recent death, and those by authors Umberto Eco and Harper Lee.

Yes, we love to collect books, at least I hope you like to collect mine. But my recent bout of housecleaning led to more sorting, through files and folders of resources, old clippings, and even sheet music! Yes, I hauled out a cheap keyboard to try to physically recall the sensation of playing along to some classic rock. 

There'll be more about that as my writing continues. The process of hunting down some cherished items, sort of my Rosebud sleds (from Citizen Kane), led to some amazing discoveries. Placing those items front and center, as opposed to being hidden away in a box, has sparked entire chapter ideas that had only previously been running around in my head.

All this research and rumination may not spark The Muse into invading my thoughts, with creativity springing forth like Athena from Zeus' head. But it is setting the table for The Muse to more easily pop in for a visit.

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