Namo amitabha Buddhaya, y'all.
This here's a religious establishment. Act respectable.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Spooky New Orleans Experiences, Part Two

Playing in the background: "Dammerschein" by Deuter

For all intents and purposes there's about a seven-year gap in my adult life between about 1999 and 2004. I won't go into all of the whys and wherefores but let's just say I got very, very sick around then and quit doing everything that didn't involve immediate survival. Like, say, going to work every day. True nervous breakdowns, in case you did not know this, are the province of the very rich and the very poor. The rich can just check into a hospital until it passes (or more likely, be very sick in their own homes with lots of servants around to clean up the mess.) The very poor can wander around on the streets being completely insane and no one bats an eye. But us middle class schlubs just have to soldier on somehow.

So I kept going to work every day because I had to, but I quit karate, quit the bagpipe band that I loved, quit writing for the most part. It was not a happy time to be me. Things got better in 2001, then got worse all at once when 9/11 happened, my mother in law died, someone I had tremendous respect for killed himself and a guy who sang in my church choir suddenly died, all within about eight weeks. Another not very happy time to be me. Then, again, things got gradually better and this time I stayed marginally sane.

I bring this up because the last writer's conference I attended, prior to Pen to Press, was in 1999, in San Diego. I can't remember what it was called. And just to show you how very sick I was getting, a literary agent gave me his card there and told me to call him--not just send in some pages or something but actually call him, which does not happen--and I never did it. I can't even remember his name now. Whoever you are, I humbly apologize.

Back to New Orleans, though. What goes on at these writer's conferences, you ask. Well, at this one there was a lot of classroom instruction. What about, you ask. Well, about what you'd expect. Plot. Characterization. Pacing. Tension. All the things that make a novel a novel. How to construct a good scene. It was basically a master class in how to write commercial fiction for publication. And strange things happened to my head while all this was going on. In a way, I knew all this stuff, but in another way I didn't know any of this stuff. It all clicked into place like a firmly struck E-chord with a mild buzz of resonator.

Here's the best analogy I can come up with, and it's not very good. A million years ago I went to music school. (No, really, I did.) Part of the curriculum was music theory. In case you don't know what music theory is, it's the inner workings of music; what makes it sound the way it does, the mathematical constructions that go into chording and melody, and how composers of the past used different constructions different ways to get different sounds. Ferexample: When a piece of music is about to end, you know it. You can feel the unresolved tension in the air, in a manner of speaking, and when it settles into the final chord, there's a sense of release, a kind of "Aaah." Especially if the piece has been 45 minutes long, which some of them are.

In music theory, this is called a IV-V-I progression, which is to say, the usual sounds that you will hear at the end of your usual piece of music are the IV, V and I chords, in that order. There are about a million different ways to do IV, V and I chords--the flute can have the low voice, say, and the trumpet the high voice, or they could be broken up into an arpeggio, or sustained, or--whatever--but the chords themselves don't change. They're still made up of the same notes. You hear them, you know them, and you expect that this is The End.

Take "Cats in the Cradle," for example. "The boy was just like me, yeah, the boy was just like me." This is your classic IV-V-I progression, times two, with a little twist; the song's in mixolydian mode instead of ionian mode. I don't really wanna go into the difference between modes, though, so let's just take my word for it and say that the phrase has kind of a dark feel to it, a somberness that you wouldn't expect at the end of a tune. The somberness fits the words perfectly; it's kind of haunting and, on occasion, makes me cry, especially if it catches me unawares.

Well, in music theory class, the professor spelled it all out for us, using "Cats in the Cradle" as his example. This is a IV-V-I progression, this is mixolydian mode, this is why the phrase sounds the way it does and evokes the feeling that it does. He probably did it a lot more artfully than I did just now, but on some level it completely clicked with me. I got it. Suddenly it wasn't just a somber phrase that made me cry. Suddenly it made perfect scientific sense. The phrase was constructed in a certain way for a certain reason and it wasn't magical anymore. And while it was totally cool that I got it, in a way it was sad. Because the magic was gone. Or was it?

Anyway, that's what these Pen to Press classroom instruction sessions were like (Ha! You didn't think I was going to get back to the point, did you? Fooled you!) I kept having moments where I got it. Oh, I'd think, and then I'd think, I knew that, and then I'd think, But I didn't really know that, it was just kind of magical and now it's scientific.

So is the magic gone? Yes and no. Writing is work. Writing is not magical. But sometimes it is.


India Drummond said...

Thanks for writing such a moving post about your personal experiences.

I love the name of your blog, by the way. I didn't become a Buddhist until years after I left the Bible Belt, but it brought a smile to my face anyway. :)

Jen said...

HI!! Thanks for stopping by! I actually have a gang of Buddhists I hang around with here but there are times I feel like a lone voice chanting in the wilderness, that's for sure.

Let me know when the book comes out and I'll make a big plug for it here. Will it be available in the US?

India Drummond said...

Yep. My publisher, Lyrical Press, is a US publisher.

Thanks so much for the interest!