BY SCOTT PRESTON
We writers are all seeking the same thing, really: a spot next to the campfire.
And we know that to get that spot, we need to develop a knack for recounting stories that have been told for thousands of years—stories of adventures and triumphs, of tragedies and lost loves, of found rivalries and rediscovered strengths—but with our own nuance. Establishing a distinctive voice, however, can be a formidable task. Scarier still is the possibility that others might not want to hear it. How, then, do we bottle our own brand of tone, plotting, word choice and character, and distill it onto the page?
Every writer has his own approach. In seeking mine, I found inspiration in an entirely different medium: music.
WRITE LIKE JAZZ
In the late 1950s, a budding saxophonist named Ornette Coleman took to New York City’s Five Spot Cafe to showcase his recent album “The Shape of Jazz to Come.” Even if you’re not familiar with Coleman’s name, I’m confident you’ve heard his music—if not note for note, then in his profound influence on the genre. He cut up the tight structures of the bop jazz that came before and created a sound that raked through heads with melodies howling like he’d stepped on them.
On first listen, we might sit with hands in lap, wondering if Coleman knows what he’s doing. Yet soon we recognize his complete control of the instruments at his disposal, and become transfixed by his skill.
When we think of writers formed in this free-jazz mold, novelists such as Thomas Pynchon, James Joyce and Martin Amis come to mind—elite-educated scribes who left full sets of teeth marks on high literary tradition. Impeccable prose, vivid imagery that draws from classic poetry, and metaphoric language run liberally through their writing. These features work like the steady swing rhythm of a jazz band, creating a backdrop for structured improvisation. The only real difference between good improvisation and a shapeless mess is this: players drawing on honed skills to create something shattering, unpredictable and new.
If we look to Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, we are thrown into a story that opens with “Once upon a time,” in which livestock are called “moocows.” On the surface, such writing could be deemed juvenile. Yet with Joyce, we know immediately that he is playing as a child. The novel’s first few paragraphs show a powerful mastery of language, and include a footnote straight out of a literary journal. It’s clear through these elements that Joyce is in control. This jazz-like approach makes for complex, layered stories owing everything to the author’s sheer mastery.
To infuse jazz into your own writing, begin by shoring up the sides of your story with comfortable and recognizable elements. A crime novel might begin with the archetypal brooding detective on the trail of a kidnapper. With the crime genre’s signature hard-boiled dialogue and action, readers will know where they are and what to expect—until you hit them with experimental elements. Turn your voice loose and see what it has to say. Perhaps large parts of the story are told in a modern-day epistolary style through social media posts, or there are frequent digressions about seemingly unrelated characters that all come together at the end.
The key is to make sure that from the start, your writing is such that the readers trust you to take them along for the ride. Then they’ll already be onboard when you take a turn off the usual route.
While free jazz came from talented musicians purposefully playing in a way some traditionalists called “out of key,” early punk rockers were homespun musicians driven by instinct. Followers thus had little interest in where the melodies were going, but came to see if the band would still be standing at the end of the show. Their lyrics had the logic of fever dreams on paper—the meaning derived from what they made you feel. Though perhaps not instrumental virtuosos, their passion came in the form of bloodied fingernails on guitar strings.
Writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Charles Bukowski and Irvine Welsh, then, might be seen as punks: With their less-pedigreed backgrounds, each forged his own literary path, questioning what it meant to even write stories down. These novelists brought to their work a Spartan simplicity not unlike punk’s 4/4 time signature. Their themes might be deep, their language might be moving, but they otherwise depart from norms of literary fiction. Such work is characterized by breaking with conventional form, incorporating use of nonstandard English, or refusing to do the imaging of a scene for the reader. Speaking strictly in terms of voice, these stories are, like punk anthems, antiestablishment: They exist without the same reliance on training found in the work of jazz writers.
Take Hemingway. Although it’s hard to imagine now given his place in the literary pantheon, his true artistic career began like that of any other punk: when his parents cast aside his first published short story collection as “filth.” They were objecting to his obscenity, but others reacted with similar shock at his simplicity and honesty. In another’s hands, such lack of detail or showmanship might have seemed amateurish or lazy, but Hemingway’s minimalism works because he tells us devastating and everyday truths that could be lost in an overwrought literary style.
To consider how a punk writer might handle the same detective story mentioned earlier, let’s return to our lone detective. Perhaps he’s a drunk. The real mystery of the story could be him struggling to remember the details of the case. Hallmark elements of crime fiction can be dropped—crisp prose, explosive drama—readers won’t miss them if they are compelled by the drama and intensity of the protagonist’s struggle with sobriety. We might take a cue from Welsh and have the entire story told as a rambling confessional. If captured accurately, lack of so-called sophistication can come across as brilliantly authentic and real.
Try listening to these different musical styles as you work to develop your own voice. Let the free-jazz artists remind you how important it is to demonstrate an awareness of the conventions of the genre before boldly breaking them. And let the punks illustrate that if words convey frankness and authenticity, readers will accept them stripped down to the raw emotion at the core.
Scott Preston (scott-preston.com) is a short story writer, essayist and copywriter. He is a graduate student at the University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing. This article originally appeared in the February 2016 Writer’s Digest.