‘Never cheapen the beat,” some journalists advise. “Never cheat the beat,” say some musicians. Two totally different meanings of the word “beat,” but two very similar pieces of advice, as we noted in last week’s column in this space.
Given that similarity (and given also that we are about to play host to a gathering of writers and literary-minded people), we wondered: What else could we writers learn from musicians?
For starters, there’s structure. Symphonies have it, four movements in most cases. Do we journalists have anything in common with that? Well, when I am writing or editing a long feature story, I’m always mindful of the need to present the relevant facts of the subject’s life — the time line of events from birth to the present. I know I have to insert it somewhere where it won’t derail the flow of the story. I call that section the “biographical interlude.”
Matter of fact news articles have their “who what when where and why” leads standing on top of inverted pyramid structures. It’s not much different from those top 40 hits and their formulaic structure. If you’re a pop song writer, you better make that song not much longer than four minutes, with an intro of no more than 15 seconds, leading up to a memorable hook that jumps out rhythmically.
Writers, even those creating little after-dinner mints such as this column, are always looking for their hook, too. One of the writers in the early days of U.S. 1, Chris Mario, used to call it the “nut graph.”
One of my favorite columnists — when I was a young writer back in Binghamton, New York, in the 1960s — wrote a piece about a dogged New York City investigator who figured out a way to use mainframe computers to track down scofflaws from places like Binghamton who had failed to pay their parking tickets in the Big Apple.
I complimented the columnist, Tom Cawley, for his deft presentation. The key, he told me, was figuring out that he shouldn’t identify the strong-armed bureaucrat by name until the fifth or sixth paragraph. Then Cawley slipped it in: The man who was bullying the rubes from upstate was . . . drum roll, please . . . Charles Atlas, no relation to the legendary strong man but still a perfect name for a guy muscling Binghamtonians into paying their parking tickets.
One of the challenges for musicians, I am learning from my two musically accomplished sons, comes when they have to throw away all those years of training to follow every note and adhere to every beat and instead play an improvised solo. Some skillful musicians just can’t make the transition. My otherwise unflappable older son, the trumpet player, makes solos look effortless now, but admits that wasn’t the case when he was first thrust into the soloist’s role in high school.
A few years ago, needing a quick column to fill out a Summer Fiction issue of U.S. 1, I concocted a fictional story about a man who faked his own death somewhere in the Bermuda triangle, triggering what I imagined would be a fast-paced tale of intrigue and adventure, with a little gratuitous sex and violence thrown in. I managed to write two installments — a grand total of about 2,000 words — before I floundered in the high seas of fiction writing. Operating without the constraints of real life, I was paralyzed. What happens next, I wondered about my character. Anything I wanted to have happen.
If I had been writing a non-fiction piece at that point I would have turned to my reporter’s notes. But there were no notes, and no further fictional sound from me.
Writers and musicians, I suspect, are not the only creative people who struggle with this challenge. In this week’s issue of U.S. 1, Ilene Dube writes about the Trenton-based artist, Mel Leipzig, and a painting in which he depicts “Andy Warhol and Josef Albers, with whom Leipzig studied at Yale. It was a difficult time for Leipzig, a dyed-in-the-wool realist coming of age at the dawn of Abstract Expressionism.” I wonder if Leipzig ever tried his hand at abstracts.
Then — whether it’s fact or fiction — there are the endings, sweet endings. That’s what we readers are all looking for — something reminiscent of the 1812 Overture to let everyone know it’s time to pack up the lawn chairs and coolers and head for the exits.
Back in the day when I was listening to top 40 music on my Channel Master eight-transistor radio, I never liked the songs that ended with the fading repetition of a tired chorus. Maybe those endings were designed to allow a DJ to segue from one record to another on his turntable. But I always preferred the songs that ended on an uptick — when it was over, you knew it was over.
These days, reading the submissions to the annual Summer Fiction issue, successful endings are clearly one of the great challenges for our writers. Some stories end, and then end again with a summary of what we have just learned. Or like some of those 1960s top 40 songs, just fade away and away and away.
Others, much to the reader’s disappointment, develop the characters to a point where they are ready to do something that could be new and interesting, possibly even intriguing and adventurous, but instead do nothing. At that point you half expect the basso profundo voice of a disc jockey to announce that “it kind of makes you think, doesn’t it?”
So on Thursday evening, August 16, between 5 and 8 at Tre Piani restaurant in Forrestal Village, we will hear the poets bring the rhythms of their verse to life. And we will read some excerpts and some endings from a few of the short stories. We invite you to join us. And we will try our best to end it on a high note.