Growing up, I always loved music notebooks – you know, those notebooks that had staves instead of simple lines on them. I knew that I couldn’t write music, and so, they were useless to me, but I just loved the unconventionality of them. I remember buying one and writing in the lines of the staves, as if it were a real notebook. Still to this day, I often buy graph notebooks for writing. Although they’re not ideal, I just love how unusual they are.
Today in Harvard Magazine, I read about a fellow alum, Tom Wolf, who also got obsessed with the idea of writing prose in music notebooks. He took his desire one step further than I did, though – he actually wrote a novel, Sound, in the style of a musical work. In the book, there are several tracks running at the same time. There is a “verbal track”, that is bolded, and comprises the dialogue. There are also “thought tracks” and “background music” and “talk radio” tracks. This might seem overwhelming to the eye (and indeed, it might be – I haven’t read this myself), but if several sounds at once can create an atmosphere to our ears, maybe several words at once can create an atmosphere in our minds. Personally, I never liked writing fiction because of the seemingly “required” structure. I didn’t like the idea of describing something purely in words, in paragraphs, with quotations sticking out here and there. This is why I like plays – all dialogue, with the scene set beforehand and open to interpretation. This is why I also like novels that use unusual structures. For example, Pale Fire, one of Vladimir Nabokov’s most compelling works, is written as a 1000-line poem with extensive footnotes. In the footnotes lie the story. As the protagonist (the author of the poem), explains his work, he reveals much about his biography and inner life. (Note: I think that Wolf was inspired by Nabokov, since he named one of his characters after Nabokov’s wife). Blindness, by Jose Saramago, lacks paragraphs completely. It is complete stream-of-consciousness, with dialogue intermixing with plot and with thought. It’s brilliant, both because it is still somehow decipherable and engaging, and because it is a perfect allegory for life without sight; life in which lines cannot be drawn between objects, and you are just flooded with sound and smell and touch. In the more recent novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, my favorite chapter is presented entirely in Powerpoint presentation form. The narrator, a young girl, explains her whole family dynamic in a deeply affecting way, using bubbles and arrows and flow charts.
I applaud Wolf for his idea, because I truly think that upending the narrow structure of the traditional novel is the future. Of course, I admire writers who can create atmosphere with their words in well-structured and well-organized paragraphs, but I can’t wait to see how paradigms will continue to shift in fiction writing.
I recently watched Kirby Ferguson’s 4-part online documentary, “Everything is a Remix” (watch on Youtube here). The message of this series is that no work of art is truly original; all are just conglomerations of elements of art that existed before. Sometimes, this is obvious (like when someone does a cover of a song, or a remake of a movie), but at other times, the “ripping off” is really subtle. The documentary is interesting, because of the well-researched examples that Ferguson gives for this phenomenon (who knew exactly which works Led Zeppelin was inspired by? Who knew where George Lucas got lots of the most important aspects of Star Wars from?). But the argument of the doc is not news to me. Of course, nothing is really original – but I don’t think that that cheapens great achievements in art (as well as science!).
What this documentary does emphasize to me, though, is the importance of being familiar with the existing “canon” of your particular field. Lucas might have copied some of Japanese director Kurosawa’s films, but he put his own spin on what he borrowed. And if he hadn’t ever watched Kurosawa, we might not have ever gotten Star Wars! In an extreme case, Hunter S. Thompson literally transcribed The Great Gatsby from beginning to end, to feel what it would be like to write a great novel. Waste of time? Probably not. Studying what’s out there is incredibly important, if you want to inform your own work. Finally, The Beatles – who, despite being guilty of “remixing”, are still credited with being one of the most original groups of the ’60s – spent years playing covers in Hamburg, as they perfected their craft. Most musicians learn their instruments by playing classical pieces, as well as songs that they actually like.
[Side thought: If nothing is original, what gives some works of art more staying power than others?]
Even though Ferguson doesn’t talk about science as much in the series (except for touching on technological history, with the story of how Apple coped Xerox), all of this is true in that domain as well. Great scientists read even the smallest, most insignificant papers to look for ideas and construct theories. And most scientific progress is incremental. The era of the “flash of inspiration” or “genius” is over (if it ever existed)…science moves in small steps, not huge bounds. As Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen farther, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.”
And as I say, “The one thing all great artists have in common is that they all consume art.”
So, don’t be afraid to be “unoriginal.” Everything is just a remix, anyway.
I know that it’s been a while since I’ve posted – turns out that it only gets harder to update once you’ve been away for a while. But I suppose I can solve the issue by taking away the self-imposed pressure to produce an insightful article every time.
This time, for instance, I just want to rave about one of my favorite new albums – channel ORANGE by Frank Ocean, one of the Odd Future gang. I don’t know why I’m so into R & B lately. At the surface, it just seems to be an outlet for talented singers to lay their emotions out on the table, over minimal instrumentation. But there are a couple of things that make R & B into really good R & B – first of all, the rhythm of their singing is, as you’d guess, really important. For example, in one of my favorite tracks of the Ocean album, “Thinkin Bout You”, a solitary string instrument sets the tone, and then Frank’s voice comes in, and it sounds like this (my emphasis):
A TORnado flew around my ROOM before you came exCUSE the mess it made it USually doesn’t rain in, southern california MUCH like arizona, my* eyes* don’t* shed* tears but boy they pour when
(* sung in staccato)
The verse sounds like a tornado, with a strong beat cascading into a ramble, and then back to a beat again. The staccato single-syllable words then center the content on the speaker. It’s a whirlwind of a beginning to an incredibly touching song.
The other thing about R & B is that it makes me appreciate lyrics, because of the skill in timing of the vocals. In “Super Rich Kids”, the lyrics are very insightful:
Too many bottles of this wine we can’t pronounce
Too many bowls of that green, no Lucky Charms
The maids come around too much (long pause)
Parents ain’t around enough
Too many joy rides in daddy’s Jaguar
Too many white lies and (beat!) white lines
Super rich kids with nothing but loose ends
Super rich kids with nothing but fake friends
The beat between “white lies” and “white lines” would seem to be a poet’s worst nightmare – why not fill the line with enough syllables to avoid that? But R & B is a different kind of poetry, and the beat there emphasizes both 1) the humor of juxtaposing “white lies” and “white lines”, which differ by one letter, but one is (by definition) harmless, while the other is very harmful and 2) the seriousness of this song and this topic. It might seem like Ocean is making fun of rich kids (after all, “too many bottles” of fancy wine doesn’t seem like a problem), but in fact, he sees the pain inherent in being closed off from the real world, and the irony that too much is actually never enough. And “loose ends” and “fake friends” are significant causes of distress, no matter what socioeconomic bracket you fall in. Indeed, suicide is the main theme of the song (“I say I’ll jump, I never do”…”close my eyes and feel the crash”). Earl Sweatshirt’s beautifully delivered rap in the song also makes it an extremely worthwhile listen.
R & B has a very loose definition, and goes back a long time. At the root of all good R & B, however, is raw honesty. Even a song like “My Girl” by The Temptations – the seeming antithesis to “Super Rich Kids” – makes you feel the protagonist’s pure emotion. Frank Ocean’s new album qualifies as good R & B, because of the emotion and honesty he brings to it.