On Music and Writing
But not at the same time.
This article was originally a guest blog post that appeared on the website of award-winning Canadian writer Gail Anderson-Dargatz.
Yesterday I found myself in a Brooklyn grocery store buying a bag of kitty litter and carton of milk. The litter was for the cat, the milk for my two-year-old daughter, and the two items struck me as disparate, rarely purchased together, especially along with nothing else. “The meaning of life,” I said to the guy as I hoofed the kitty litter and milk onto the counter. He didn’t laugh. “The meaning of my life,” I said, thinking it might be funnier the second time around. But this was Brooklyn, no room for funny on a Monday morning. I walked home, sustenance in one hand, necessity in the other—kitty litter and milk, together again for the very first time.
I am the personification of disparate things, kitty litter and milk wrapped in a pair of writerly specs and concert tees—I’m a writer and musician. In a perfect world, I’m a writer by day and a musician by night, moving from one pursuit to the other as easily as switching up a pair of shoes. But reality is much different. Often I’m a musician for a month, and a writer for two. Sometimes I’m a musician for six months, and writer for five. Internally, the two disciplines battle for my mental screen time, two summer blockbusters competing for advertising space.
I don’t dabble. I’m not the guy who pulls out a guitar at a writing retreat, cozies up in an Adirondack chair, and winks at his fellow writers as if to say, “I don’t really play guitar, but here goes.” I take music too seriously for that. Besides, I play the bass, and in my twenty years as a professional musician, no one has ever asked for an impromptu bass line while sitting around a campfire. The same goes for writing. When friends ask what I write, they give me a glassed-over look when I launch into a fifteen-minute diatribe on the differences between Dan Brown and serious literature. “Take it easy, Chris,” they usually say. “What you got against Dan Brown?”
After I published my first short story in a little-known literary journal based in Washington DC, a teacher (knowing I also played music professionally), looked at me and said, “Congratulations! You’ve managed to pick the one profession that pays less than music.” It seems I have a love for disparate things, lofty artistic pursuits that demand excellence while shunning finances. I could learn a thing or two from Dan Brown. When it comes to music, I should listen to more Kenny G. But more difficult than the financial intricacies of negotiating a life in New York on two equally low-paying jobs, is the brain space that the two professions demand. It is hard to do both well.
A few years ago I published a chapbook that was also a jazz album. I wanted to create a CD that was the culmination of everything I loved, writing and music together in a kind of art school mashup. The music I write is considered modern jazz, music without words, so because of its instrumental nature, the project didn’t lend itself to the usual lyrics vs. literature comparisons. This was a jazz CD that tried to tell stories with melodies, a book of stories that attempted to define plot melodically. I know, one can practically hear the cha-ching of the cash register.
When the book/CD combo was released, the press had questions, and man-oh-man, did I have answers. In interviews I’d wax poetically about the relationships between composition and short story form. I’d profess to know a thing or two about writing a tune with a strong melody, and raise my hands all theatrical-like when I explained that the arc of a short story was practically the same thing. Radio hosts would nod their head approvingly. “Of course,” they’d say. “Music and writing are very similar.” I’d smile in a way that made it seem like I understood something about my world, an understanding that came from a deep and truly inspired part of me. I was a guy seriously in touch with his process.
On paper the two seemed similar. Back then, if you’d given me a pencil, I would have drawn a line, connected melody and story, shown you where they converged. If you’d handed me a protractor, in a grandiose arc I would have proven how rhythm and pacing were inherently linked. If you’d brought me a calculator, I would have mathematized the overtone series, pressed a button, and shown you a world where harmony and plot coexisted. But these were just theories. Tricks for radio, feeble attempts to explain the inextricable link between my ass-in-the-chair and the inspiration behind two very different art forms.
“I’m a little tired of hearing about your process,” my wife said to me one day as we were walking down 2nd Avenue. She looked at me in a way that suggested my musical and literary parlor tricks were just that, discussions about nothing. Dancing about baseball. “There is only doing,” she said. “The rest is talking about doing.”
When I’m deep in music, playing a lot, writing feels far away. Like I’m on the shore of a lake and writing exists somewhere on the other side. I wonder if I’ll ever write again. I wonder if I remember how to hold a sentence in the tips of my fingers and make it vibrate. Then, for a moment, the music business slows down. I step into The Boat-of-Life and leave the shores of Music Lake behind. I make a beeline for Writing Beach (the new shiny beachfront subdivision on the other side of the lake). Hey, look at me, I say to myself once there. I can still piece a sentence together! Then another sentence comes, and another. Pretty soon I’ve purchased property on Writing Beach, a lake front bungalow with views of my other life.
Eventually, a call comes from across the lake. It caries itself on the wind, plants itself between my ears. My bass is calling to me. It has a voice that can carry great distances. Do you remember how to play? It want’s to know. Do you remember what it feels like to hold me in your hands? And I stand there looking out across the lake from the deck of my new bungalow, and a longing sets in, a guilt beset by the knowledge that I should be practicing. So back across the lake I go, and it is a large lake, and deep, and requires many days of hard sailing.
And this is how it really is. Forget the protractor and the calculator. The mathematical connections and talk about process. Yes, the connections have been drawn, the skeletons of each artistic pursuit X-rayed, their bones inspected for similarities. But one can find connections anywhere; even kitty litter requires a cat that drinks milk.
In the end, all the math and talk about process can’t put your ass in the chair. Especially doing two things at once. So once you’re in the chair, which do you choose? Music? Writing? Google? Diapers for the kid from Amazon? One must try and focus on the task at hand, trust in your ability regardless of how long you’ve been away. The chops never leave you, the words don’t disappear, they retire to the other side of the lake and wait patiently for your return. And when you appear on the horizon, pulling at the oars, they stoke the fire, and wait for you to crawl exhausted onto the shore. For in the return to that sacred place, inspiration is born, and creativity thrives.