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Sunday, January 23, 2011

If I Could Play Music, I'd be a Musician Instead of a Writer. If I Weren't a Writer

I was asked to write about a vocation I might have followed had I not been a writer. Writing about what I might do is a sneaky way of really writing about what I actually do. Which is write.


So here goes.

If I hadn’t been a writer, I’d have liked to be a musician. Be it known, I have absolutely no musical training whatsoever. My sister Chris plays the guitar and the piano, as does my brother Homer, although I don’t believe he’s done either in quite a while. I can’t even read music. I ache to read music. When one of my friends – multitalented rascals that they are – sits down to play piano or picks up a guitar and strums a few chords, I am so harrowed with envy, I can barely stand it. It hurts not to be able to play an instrument. I would give my left hand to be able to play, but then, without my left hand, I probably wouldn’t be able to play anyway.

But I’m not a musician, I’m a writer. Which is maybe just as well.

I get the feeling some of my colleagues are more ambivalent. Some, I think, would rather be in a movie than in print. They talk about being adapted for film as if this were something to aspire to. Not that there’s anything wrong with movies. I love movies. It’s just that writing uniquely accomplishes some things that movies can’t.

In movies, you get everything all-at-once. So in the Coen brothers’ version of True Grit, the first time we meet Rooster Cogburn, we see him silhouetted in the parchment-colored light of the courtroom. Tendrils of gray smoke – we don’t see the cigars, just the smoke – rest in the air as if hung there. We hear the shuffling and rustling of spectators. The occasional bump or scrape of chair legs on the floor. And Jeff Bridges’ magnificent rich gravelly baritone. We get all of this information simultaneously and I admit it’s pretty effective. No one sets a scene better than the Coens.

Information in a book isn’t given all-at-once, but comes in a stream, and a skillful writer, manipulates that stream, creating rhythms and patterns.

Here’s how the author of True Grit, Charles Portis, handles the same scene. Mattie Ross, the heroine, narrates, “I was surprised when an old one-eyed jasper that was built along the lines of Grover Cleveland went up and was sworn. I say ‘old.’ He was about forty years of age. The floor boards squeaked under his weight. He wore a dusty black coat and when he sat down I saw his badge was on his vest. It was a little silver circle with a star on in. He had a mustache like Cleveland too.”

A movie could give us the dusty black coat and the squeaking floorboards, but no movie can tell us that Mattie thinks of Cogburn as “an old jasper,” or that mentally she compares him with a familiar face in the late 19th Century, Grover Cleveland. And not even the Coen Brothers – and they are great – can give us Mattie’s syntax, those short declarative sentences that are as direct and straightforward as she herself.

Notice too, how Portis moves from the squeaks of the floorboards, up Cogburn’s black coat, to linger on his silver star, where he lingers for an additional sentence, and finally to the mustache, bringing us back to Grover Cleveland.

If you want to compare the Portis to the Coen Brothers’ version I gave earlier in this essay, guess what, Chuckles. It’s still a written version! Do you think a film can tell you light is parchment-colored? That the smoke rests “as if hung there?” In the writing biz, we call these things metaphor and simile, and ain’t no movie can do that yet.

Portis’ version and my version are different; he starts with sounds and moves to sights, and I start from the other end, moving from lighting effects and smoke, then to ambient noises, and finally to Jeff Bridge’s voice. The cool thing is, or one of the cool things among a nearly infinite number of cool things about writing, is that if Portis, I, or any writer on the planet, tried our hands at the same scene, we would each come up with something different.

It’s all a matter of rhythm, you see, of pacing – the speeding up and slowing down of the information stream, the repetitions, the variations. It’s a lot like music, after all, come to think of it. Only music is more elegant. Writing builds its movements out of irreducible chunks of words and punctuation, clunky stuff, when you get down to it. Music works with notes, and notes themselves are rhythms; frequencies of vibration are the only difference between C Sharp and Middle C. To make art of pure rhythm, that is work for a great soul.

But I’m a writer. Maybe it’s just as well.

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