Writing Compared with Composing Music

Music proceeds from the beginning through the middle and finishes at the end. There are various patterns that have been developed over the ages and musicians learn them as they learn how to play their instrument. In classical instruction, the musician learns to play music that is written out in manuscript form. In some, more informal, forms of musical instruction the student is taught to reproduce the notes that the teacher plays for them.

Literary pedagogy is different. The student writer is given reading assignments that are intended to inform his or her grasp of the structure of various forms of literary expression. Sometimes, they are given writing assignments that serve to help bound the universe of potential topics and help the novice writer have a place from which to embark on their exploration of the literary landscape. Seldom are they told that the process is easier if you know what your destination is before you’ve made the trip.

Coming from a background where I have had more experience with musical composition than with literary composition, I struggle with this concept. It leaves me staring at the blank page wondering where it is I want to be when the page is full.

I have to admit, on those occasions where I have successfully approached a piece in that fashion, it has been orders of magnitude easier to write. It seems to me to encourage a kind of multi-pass approach to writing. In the first pass, you wander around looking for something interesting, recording your travels as you go. Then, once you’ve found something interesting that you want to write about you go back and edit out everything that is irrelevant to the point and fill in anywhere the supporting narrative is week.

It’s not the way I have worked. I’m not saying that it isn’t the way I ought to work but I have always just set out on the first pass and accepted whatever I ended up with as my final product. When that works it is exhilarating. When it doesn’t it’s depressing. I think it is time to start using method instead of depending upon serendipity to fuel my literary journeys.

Aristotle taught that every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. He never mentioned in what order you should create them. Therein lies the difference between knowing what to write and how to write it. I won’t lie. I struggle with both questions. But at least now I have a better handle on the how, if not the what.

Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.