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WARNING: Incoming music analogy

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.
Michelle Schusterman

Michelle writes books for kids, screenplays for a tv/film production company, and music for anyone who'd buy a "groove matters" bumper sticker. She lives in New York City with her husband (and band mate) and their chocolate lab (who is more of a vocalist). She is the author of middle grade series I Heart Band - 2014, and The Kat Sinclair Files - 2015 (both from Grosset).

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  1. Good Luck with your Writing.

  2. Yay :)
    I always have this same struggle.

  3. I can very much relate to this post. I love researching how to write, but when I'm actually writing, it's so much easier to get things right when I follow my instincts and stop worrying about whether I'm getting things right or not. A lot of my favourite things I've written almost seem like they happened by accident.

    I don't play any instruments but I've always wanted to. I love the way that musicians look so effortless, even when I know they've spent hours and hours practising. It looks like a blissful place to be.

  4. I wish I were there! Sounds like a lovely place to be.

  5. I forgot to say before--that is an adorable picture.

  6. Yes - Leila, that's exactly what I meant, the effortlessness. And I love accidental writing successes too.

    (And thanks, Kaitlin, re: the picture) :)

  7. I'll second on Leila's comment about loving to learn, but then seeing it hamper my expression (at least in the short term).

    I love your integration of creativity: music vs. writing.

    Our lives are certainly all about finding our own unique expression of that infinite synthesis. :)

  8. The learning never ends. Every time I send a draft out to beta, someone picks up on a nasty new habit I've picked up. The great thing about writing is that there is always room to improve!

  9. HI there, great blog post. I have been thinking a lot about these very same issues, actually. Very true, all of it!

  10. I love this, Michelle. I've been thinking a lot about how I have a hard time writing about my writing and I think you've turned the light on for me: I haven't read lots of books on writing or taken classes or learned theory. I've just read. A lot. And I guess I've internalized a lot of things that then carry over into my writing. My writing is organic and seat-of-my-pants and flowing. Maybe it's because I trust the things I've internalized? Sorry to take over the comments with my self-exploration. *goes off a-pondering*


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Item Reviewed: WARNING: Incoming music analogy Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Michelle Schusterman