This has been floating around in my mind for a few weeks now, but I haven't blogged about it because I couldn't quite grasp the connection my brain was trying to make. I think, maybe, I've got it now.
I'm a musician. (That's me on the left.) For me, the best way to express myself musically is through improvisation – aka, not pre-composed notes on a page, but whatever comes out in the moment of performance. Improvisation is most commonly associated with jazz.
It wasn't always something I enjoyed – in fact, I used to dread it, because the pressure of coming up with a cohesive musical thought on the spot in front of others scared the hell out of me. A performance in that kind of setting was a very new and different experience compared to my years of playing what was written on the page, or what I had memorized. But improvisation is more than just "making it up", of course – there's all that mathematical theory stuff that is both everything and nothing about the craft of music.
I studied. Chords. Inversions. Leading tones. Modes. Blues scales. Transcriptions of solos by legends like Monk and Parker. And when it all comes down to it, when I'm playing, am I thinking "what's next an A minor 7 chord with a flat 5 should I do a run down starting on Eb or play a lick in thirds oh crap what would Louis Armstrong do –"
Call me crazy, but I don't think any musician actually thinks about all that music theory while in the actual moment of making music. You study and absorb it, and it becomes instinctual. And of course, you break all those rules every now and then because well, rules are made to be broken.
Wait, this is a blog about writing, right?
So I'm working on a first draft that's very new and different for me. Different voice, different tense, different target audience, different POV, different pretty much everything. And for the past few years I've read everything I could find on how to write. The rules, all the technical stuff that is both everything and nothing about the craft of writing.
I studied. Watch the adverbs. No info-dumping. Show don't tell. Use all five senses. And when it all comes down to it, when I'm writing, am I thinking "wait don't use 'softly' change the tag to whispered or should I stick with said and I haven't mentioned what it smells like and this character is angry so should I show it by having him throw that puppy and oh crap what would John Green do –"
Actually, I used to. When I was editing my last book, I overthought the snot out of every single thing I typed. Which, by the way, is no way to enjoy writing. But I'd studied so much and learned so much and I just wanted to put it into practice so badly, because that's improvement, right?
I've realized, while working on this latest first draft, that it's already better than my second draft (and third draft) of my last book. I've found that musical improvisation zone, where the things I've studied and the rules I've committed to heart are there, in the back of my mind, but now I can trust my instinct and let myself create what's natural for me.
I know that's nothing groundbreaking, and for writers this could all be summed up by saying first master the rules, then break them. And I'm by no means suggesting that I've mastered anything – far from it! But this journey towards finding that place where the knowledge I've soaked in is something organic in my writing, and not something I've forced upon my writing, has been a really great experience.