Friday, February 23, 2007

The Writing Is Not Going Well

When asked how he would teach someone to play the piano, jazz great Theolonius Monk said that he would take them for a walk around Central Park and make them listen to the sounds. I love this answer -- as a teacher of writing for many years, I'm always struggling with what to say to make students understand the process, a process that becomes more mysterious and incomprehensible to me with each passing year, much like Mr. Monk's brilliant compositions. He's not, as they say, for all taste, but what he does is something so beautiful and horrible that nobody else does it half so well. I once saw a documentary about his life -- he wasn't much of a talker, had a reputation for being moody and difficult. But he managed to keep a wife and a mistress, and they got along fine and even sat together at his funeral. His wife said merely that Thelonius was a bit too much for one woman to handle, that she was glad to get some help with his moods and needs and strange ways.
The only thing I remember about the mistress is that she lived in a penthouse in New York with twenty-seven cats. It wasn't a small place, but it wasn't large either, and twenty-seven cats -- dear sweet Jesus! I've never been one for normal arrangements, but I can't imagine all those kitties and their evil little ways. You could never get away from them! On a bad day, that's what writing is like -- all these distractions and miseries heaped on one another, demanding that you attend to them. You can't quiet your mind, but luckily you can drink later and complain to friends that the writing is not going well. It helps if you hold your hand against your head and look down. That might get you a free shot of something. But if you really want to work, take a walk around and start looking at people. You can pretend that Theolonius is with you as your teacher and it wouldn't be that much different than if he were alive. He hardly ever said anything. His band listened intently when he spoke, so rare was the event. And you can always go to his mistress' penthouse and write about the cats. Sometimes that's the best you can hope for.
Michelle's Spell of the Day
"All art is a prayer for a new image." Charles Simic
Cocktail Hour
Drinking short story collection suggestion: Bear and His Daughters Robert Stone
Benedictions and Maledictions
Happy Friday!
45 Days until The Sopranos airs!


Meadow Soprano said...

I got into T. Monk at Columbia, but my mother got me hooked on comics at a young age. So I prefer Bro. Juniper to Thelonius as far as monks go.

the walking man said...

I took a class once on writing and the professor sent a sheet around asking the students to write thier goals for the class. Mine was to learn how to make my poetry better.

This professor with four simple words tuened me into a poetry junkie. She never told me what Beat Generation or New Generation styles of the art were. She never tried to formalize my rhyme, meter, or rhytm.

She never said read this book on writing or that book, or read this poet or anything else.

With four words she put me in an apartment with twenty seven cats and now each one of those cats are cool cats a band with a melody to thier mewing and meowing and thier need to get out. Sometimes the bastards scratch me and then one or two come and lick the wounds. And it is better and the writing is easier not hard but nicer to the world around me. but when I realize what a pain in the ass these twenty seven muses are it's hard and mean. I never have a problem writing aything, but especially poetry because she told me those four words.

"There's poetry in everything."

Brynne said...

Lovely post...I often struggle with my art such as it is, and when I listen to the sounds the most is when I am the most creative.

Oh and walking man...beat writings, do you remember herbert Huncke? What an odd man.

Bird on a Wire said...

I used to work with a woman that had a gazillion cat. Customers began to complain about the amount of cat hair that clung to her sweaters.

realbigwings said...

A penthouse with 27 cats could just about do me in. I am saved from ever becoming a crazy cat lady by my surprisingly extreme allergies.
~So are you saying a hand on the forhead + downward gaze is like a free drink coupon?

the walking man said...

Huncke arguably the beginner of the what became the beat generation and arguably the coiner of the phrase "Beat" to describe the turmoils of his life and that of his friends in New York. The term is usually attributed to Kerouac but I think Huncke had it right. Not as familiar with is work as some of the others of those days but you're right he was a strange man who always seemed to find a way to feed his drug habit even in the military...strange yes but sounds like my kind of guy.

paul said...


JR's Thumbprints said...

I certainly can identify with this post. My writing never goes well. I can't keep normal writing hours, I lose scrap sheets of paper with ideas, and I've received at least a dozen rejection letters these past two months. One editor claimed, "Your story's a jumbled mess." My reaction: She didn't get it. Now it's my turn to take a walk and try to figure out went wrong.

Charles Gramlich said...

I spent quite a few hours pretending to be a cat among our cats when I was growing up. What a psychotic little kid I was.

Susan Miller said...

"that's what writing is like -- all these distractions and miseries heaped on one another, demanding that you attend to them"

Loved that line, Michelle. As always, it's a pleasure to read your thoughts.