The other night I went to my first ever jazz gig: Gilad Atzmon and the Orient House Ensemble (pictured in action above). As I watched and listened, I could see that Gilad (who plays sax, clarinet and accordion) was clearly getting ‘lost in the music’ at various points, improvising and seeing where it took him.
It reminded me of how I often approach my stories: starting the motor, putting my foot on the gas and seeing where it leads. Of course, this isn’t always the best technique. If I’m lucky, the improvisatory mess I create somehow starts to coalesce (after a few drafts) into a well-balanced story. But for every one story where this happens, there are five that just disintegrate in my hands and then begin their slow, dejected shuffle towards my bottom drawer.
It’s not the most productive way to work – especially as I’m only writing in my spare time – so I’m trying to plan my stories a bit more now, to give them a vaguely workable structure before I begin. It’s a tricky business though: too little planning and you may end up with a load of old cobblers; too much and the story may end up limp and lifeless.
I guess this tension between planning and improvising exists for most writers and, indeed, for all forms of creativity. There’s a silver lining though: I’m starting to find that providing a bit of structure before I begin is actually giving me more freedom to improvise because I know I have some kind of safety net beneath me.
And, thinking about it, I can now see the same was true for Gilad and his band the other night: there was actually some kind of loose structure to each of the pieces they played, which allowed the musicians to explore the spaces in between.
This talk of planning may seem bleedin’ obvious to many writers, but for someone like me – who loves the romantic idea of stories being pulled almost fully formed from my subconcious – it’s another few metres traversed on the learning curve. Don’t get me wrong: I used to do some planning in the past, but it was always at the later stages of a story, which was often an endeavour that resembled a desperate man clutching at wisps of air.
Anyway, I must say this self-comparison to a jazz musician is doing my ego the world of good. I’m off to acquire a dark raincoat and some shades, and then commission a set of moody black and white photographs of myself shrouded in swirls of cigarette smoke. Then again, I could just work at putting some solid chords together before picking up my pen for the solo. Yep, I think I’ll do that. One, two… one, two, three, four…