Recently, an interesting new friend— “Metal bender, blogger, guitarist, teller of stories.Wannabe sculptor, writer, pianist. 5th generation Joe Kavanagh Co. worker & writer of our 152 yr. history” Joseph M. Kavanagh, @JosephMKavanag1 on Twitter—discussed music with me.
That conversation brought to life the profound impact of music. Most of you probably recognize the above title as a tribute to “Don’t Fear the Reaper” by Blue Öyster Cult. If you don’t, you should check out that timeless tune!
Most of us realize music is an important part of so many lives and typically a major theme in any given culture’s tapestry. But perhaps it’s a theme that runs even deeper than imagined, more integral to cultures than typically thought.
Cultural awareness can be a fun, albeit sometimes challenging, path to discovery of so many unexpected things. It’s possible the experience of different cultures—through expatriation or indoctrination or even short visits—doesn’t change us as much as it makes us more aware of who we are by stripping away layers of perception and subjectivity and self-serving bias by opening minds to the great powers of collaboration and exploration. Music can do this, too.
“If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.”
Perception can be such a sneaky and deceptive beast, making truth a slippery mark. The great band from L.A. known as the doors is often associated with a 1954 book by Aldous Huxley, in which he describes the experience of ingesting mescaline. That book’s title is based on a line from William Blake’s 1793 poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:
“If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would
appear to man as it is, infinite.”
Mescaline is probably not a typical path to enlightenment. Mind and moods of travelers can be altered at times by mescaline or things like saké, scotch, stout, tequila, Michelada, marijuana… and, yes, music, but beautiful people with their different ways of doing things provide the most meaningful enlightenment. They often change attitudes and opinions of receptive observers without changing their deepest convictions. However, by indirectly challenging those convictions through their contrasting approaches to life, they can strengthen them—and, in doing so, help make them true convictions. They can teach us why we believe.
“In my walks, every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson
But culture and music the inherent uniqueness of every single individual were not the original muses of this post. Music and culture were just concentric circles after some resonating chord caused the first ripple. The initial inspiration, that resonating chord, was farther out in the deep end—was at first merely disjointed sound with little substance, was an ephemeral seed swirling in the precipitous thermocline.
Don’t fear the deep end… it’s easier said than done. Like the dark, the deep end can conceal things we have yet to imagine. Don’t…
Lots has been written about the Don’ts of music and writing and other artistic endeavors. The word can be a helpful word in the proper context but can also be a set of blinders. Creator and editor should not sit on separate shoulders simultaneously like imp and angel, bickering back and forth about rules and Don’ts, but should be rulers of two separate worlds. Rules that strangle muses should be put in the timeout corner until the muse has had its say.
That’s why it’s a good idea to let things breath and to come back later with guidelines in mind, to go away for a while and let things ferment like fine wine or something much less pleasant under fresh eyes—to come back and see things under a different set of circumstances and through a different perspective. Again, it’s easier said than done.
Nonetheless, there are great books about the process of writing. It seems like K.M. Weiland, @KMWeiland on Twitter, alone has written half a million and if you’re seeking writing advice, she’s fabulous because she justifies her choices and uses interesting illustrations like the immortal E.B. White. She also provides lots of tools.
However, K.M. Weiland cannot remove a person’s skull and fill a brain with her knowledge, skills, and experience. Advice is a supplement that can only fortify a strong foundation. Advice alone does not create great writers. Experience is the most effective teacher, but even experience cannot teach until we accept our inherent limitations.
“True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us.”
Recently, discussions about a story’s point of view (POV), particularly one initiated by @WindwalkerWrite that involved a host of tremendous topics like culture, illustrated the marvelous benefit of reading across genres. Just as musical genres and the music of different cultures can provide illuminating contrasts for musicians, so can literary genres for writers.
Although science fiction and dystopian themes and similar fiction for years were among the things I read, I could not imagine writing that kind of stuff. However, most of what I’ve published and a lot of my works in progress and dozens of stories that need to be submitted or have been submitted are that type of fiction. Years of reading greats like Asimov, Bradbury, Huxley, Orwell, Vonnegut, Verne… and analyzing (keeping journals of quotations, impressions…) apparently left a residue, planted a seed, made a mark…
Characters in those stories are important, but those tales are typically driven by fantastic scenarios. However, in the literary stories written by Shakespeare, Updike, Hemingway, Faulkner, Irving, Dostoyevsky, Camus, Tolstoy, Roth, Bellow… characters are both thread and fabric. Without compelling characters, there is only a faded tapestry—unrecognizable as lit.
There are many sources of advice on characters and POV across all genres of fiction, but there are few absolute truths in writing.
“There are three rules for writing. Unfortunately, no one can agree what they are.”
– Somerset Maugham
Faulkner shredded convention and perception in 1930 when he published As I Lay Dying, still widely considered one of the best novels ever written. In The Coup, Updike eschewed traditional flashback in certain sections for a sort of melding, something of a semi-dream state but not psychedelic like Hunter S. Thompson’s drug-induced scenes in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Of course, those authors were accomplished writers and readers. Rules had become second nature to them, which freed them to experiment.
“The Six Golden Rules of Writing: Read, read, read, and write, write, write.”
Rules are there to keep us from our own good intentions, because the road to hell is paved with well-intentioned adverbs or works in progress—depending on whether you ask Stephen King or Phillip Roth, respectively—and good intentions can be the worse kind of intentions because they can create the most ruinous of unintended consequences or simply fail to see the most precipitous pitfalls.
“The evil that is in the world almost always comes from ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.”
― Albert Camus
Good intentions are not enough. We need courage, persistence, and fresh perspective. Whether it’s a foreign culture or the unique pursuits/beliefs/etc. of a new friend or a different genre, we need varied perspectives to lift the film from our eyes so we can begin the first step toward wisdom—whether as human beings or artists or both. We must not fear the deep end.