My Online Literary Experiment: Be John Coltrane

One of my favoritesSince I started my online literary experiment, Permanent Spring Showers, a novel written off-the-cuff, with a new chapter each week, I’ve had quite a few writers ask me about the experience.

Some seem to have a dark fascination, much like a driver passing by an accident on the road, while others seem to be excited by the prospect, wondering if they will risk attempting the experience themselves.

If you have been following these occasional editorials I  have created around the experience… well.. you can tell it is kind of emotional with a lot of highs and lows. Basically, the best way to explain what it does to your nerves is what you experience while writing a book but heightened a great deal and rushed, since there is always the pressure to make it work and you can’t go back. Because it has to work, and if one chapter falters I have no excuse but to continue. So somedays I think I am the biggest idiot in the world, while on others I would kiss a mirror of myself. (Actually, I’ve been known to go through those feelings in the same hour of working!)

This Friday, I am sharing the last chapter (which is in a first draft form now) and I am now, finally, more in a position  to look back over the experience and feel out how it worked for me… and one word comes forward more than any other:


Do you know jazz music?

I’m a fan. My big event this year I am counting down to is seeing Sonny Rollins, one of the true legendary greats, this May.

Actually, I got into college on a jazz scholarship if you can believe it, playing alto and soprano saxophone (I think it helps when one of your instructors is also a teacher at the school, but I digress). I focused on my music for the first year and a half in college until I threw that part of my life away, moving towards writing and English. The fact is I knew I had reached my limit on what I could do and accomplish; I knew my worth as a musican. I haven’t really picked up my horn since then (And even a few years ago I sold my soprano to the amazing saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, seriously check out his music, you can thank me later).

But here is the thing… creating this book felt in many ways like a return to jazz for me. How so, you might ask?

Well, do you know what it means to improv in Jazz?

Okay, well, let’s use something to help… Let’s start with a classic recording you might have heard- “My Favorite Things” by John Coltrane, one of my jazz heroes (You can hear it on youtube here). In most jazz performances you have improv, which means the musicians are playing off the changes in the melody, inventing their own melodies and expressions off of it.

So, let’s think of “My Favorite Things.” Coltrane begins with the familiar melody (after a great and haunting piano opening.) It’s straight, there are no changes to the melody; in a way he is setting the groundwork for what is to happen next. And THAT is where the art of jazz takes place. So when Coltrane returns to the melody at the end of the song, he has taken us on a journey that no one, definitely not the original songwriter, planned or anticipated, but our lives are more rich for it.

Okay, so how does this relate to writing a book in real time?

My outline, or the original screenplay, was the melody. And I began with the “melody.” The first and second chapter were in many ways me performing that initial melody, setting the piece, creating the chord changes. The last bit in chapter two, when Rebecca talks at the phone at the airport about missing books, my improv begins. For see, in the original outline, there were no missing books.

Like a jazz artist on a stage performing a solo if I liked an idea at that moment I ran with it, almost immediately, with absolutely no idea where it was going to take me.

  • Jenn writing a book about Steve and being crazy? New.
  • Ralph being gay? A surprise the night before the chapter came out.
  • Viv sleeping with Vince? Out of the blue.
  • Vince becoming an important artist? There was the painting idea, but nothing on that scope of importance.  That idea came to me at 2 AM, when I was helping my daughter fall back asleep.

Heck, I couldn’t even have told you the ending until Chapter 20, only then able to make out the last five chapters; creating my checklist of “answers” I needed to go through before the end.

By the fourth chapter, the original “melody” was only a shadow to what I was doing on the page then and I can only point to a handful of moments when bits of my outline returned to the book. Marty performing Romeo and everyone going to Ralph’s on Memorial Day coming to my mind, for example.

In a previous post I talked about the importance of trust in one’s ability and that is definitely true. I learned that trust over the course of the writing. That is not to say that each chapter wasn’t scaring and exciting all at the same time. It was, I always wondered at the start on one whether I was making a mistake, but once I began the part in my brain I tap into for my creativity took over. I trusted in my creativity as I began my “solo.”

Permanent Spring Showers is not my first book (Of course anyone reading my blog knows that because A Jane Austen Daydream just came out), it is my seventh. And that is not including the 60+ short stories I have written, five screenplays (three I think are great), and one stage play that I am debating what to do with. Also, I have a background in reading and studying literature. I love analyzing what makes a story work (I lean towards the Joseph Campbell hero angle more than any other for why things succeed).

So what I am saying is I am not just jumping on the stage for the first time with the band, I prepared and trained for this moment. I know what works for me, and I know where my weakness are. I know what voice I wanted to use for the writing. I would never have considered attempting this if I didn’t think I had the performance in me.

Yeah, I called the writing of this book a performance.

Because in a way it was a performance for me, but if I did it right, if the book truly worked, you as the reader would not have known. It being… well… a book. Simply a good story that worked.

I don’t recommend doing this lightly to any writer. I could never have done this during the early years of my writing. Oh, no, no no.  It would have caused a writing block, I’m pretty certain, and I would never have attempted to go on the “stage” at all again… Yes, I am saying doing something like this in the early years of writing can have longterm effects on your writing confidence… because frankly, to be a good writer you need confidence; you need to believe what you are doing is important, needs to be read. I mean, if you don’t believe that, why bother writing?

So if you have enjoyed reading my book/experiment, I would not recommend running into the process lightly for yourself. But if you have a few books under your belt, and are pretty confident in your ability, I would then say jump on the stage. There is room under the spotlight.

I’m about to end my solo this Friday…

If you liked reading the article (the chapters of the book can be found on the Permanent Spring Showers page), why not check out some of my published books? I’ve had three novels published in the last few years, A Jane Austen Daydream, My Problem With Doors and Megan. You can find them via my author page here, or as an eBook on Google eBooks here.  Thanks for reading!

3 thoughts on “My Online Literary Experiment: Be John Coltrane

  1. Well, as usual, I have really connected to this post. As a classically trained musician, I often compare my writing process to the creation of music. The rhythm of the words and tapping on my laptop fuel the process. I think it’s an amazing thing how one can start with a small image or idea and somehow stretch and pull that idea forward and backward until the entire story reveals itself. I have also had the experience of not knowing the ending of the story until it was upon me, much like improvising a melody. It’s really quite a lovely analogy. Here’s to the creative process, always revealing itself in mysterious ways! Good luck to you with your books!

    • Glad you like it. Having a music background also helps me with pacing I believe. Feeling the rhythm in a scene or dialogue (Also, in the last chapter, 24, I had someone speak who was entirely without correct pacing and you could tell something was off… or at least it did to me). Good conversation should feel like a song in a way, shouldn’t it?

  2. Pingback: Finding the Soundtrack of Jaleel Shaw | The Musings & Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard

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