Saturday, May 31, 2014

Editing, Writing, Teaching; Conducting, Performing, Instructing

This morning, I had an interesting conversation with my son's vocal performance instructor. I'll call him "B". B is an outstanding teacher and we have seen my son's abilities coaxed and coached to a level that he (my son) didn't think possible. We are very pleased to have B work with our son. B is very patient and he is able to break vocal performance down into discrete chunks in a way I've never seen before. I have learned a lot about singing just by being in the same room as B and my son go over practice pieces.

B also teaches music at a local private school. In fact, he attended my son's (and other of his students') high school choir concert the other night and told me about the extensive time and effort he had put into a performance by his own students. I would have thought that he would have been ecstatic, knowing what I know of his personality, but B just seemed drained. He told me that while he had taught his kids where to be, when to be there, and how to sing, some well-meaning parents inadvertently made things difficult by not trusting their own children to do as instructed, as they had done several times before in rehearsal.

Fast forward to today, when I had a conversation with B, after my son's lesson was over. I honestly don't remember how the topic came up, but B essentially let on that he was looking for other opportunities, that teaching, he is finding, isn't as rewarding as it once was. He said he had come to a realization, only recently, that what he loved to do was to perform in front of an audience, not as part of a larger choir (which he does with a church choir), but with a small group, a band.

There have been times when B has interrupted himself while teaching my son. He stops playing and singing along with my son and says "Sorry, I'm showboating. I'll stop that." Most of the time, I don't even notice that he's been showboating. I just assume he's trying to lead my son with a little more emphasis, and sometimes that's the case. But there are occasions when I can tell that B is showboating. Thankfully, he knows that instructing my son is not the same as being on stage. Yes, he can emphasize certain phrasings, even exaggerates things so that my son, in reaching for the exaggeration, hits the right tone. But when he finds himself slipping into performance mode, he catches himself and resets.

When we had our conversation, I remarked that his desire to move from instructing and participating in choirs to more focused vocal performance with a small group reminded me of my own journey as a writer. The corollaries are not exact (are they ever?), but when I look back on my writing career, it goes a bit like this:

In the beginning, I edited. My writing at that time was overly baroque and florid (some will argue that it still is, but I have some MSS hidden away from my early days that will have you puking purple in no time). I had a good grasp of grammar. I knew a good story when I read it. I knew how to organize a theme. And I had (and still have) distinctive tastes in fiction. So what better way to learn how to write than by exposing myself to a large amount of short fiction in a short time? At around that time, Jeff VanderMeer asked if I would like to help him edit the Leviathan 3 anthology. I had loved the first two Leviathans and Stepan Chapman's The Troika, all of which Jeff had edited. So I jumped in.

I learned a great deal from Jeff. We compiled the anthology, and won a World Fantasy Award for editing. I took on a few other editorial projects, while, at the same time, working on honing my short fiction skills. I found some measure of success there, but considered myself more of an editor than a writer. I'm not quite sure why: I had more stories published even at that time than many others who considered themselves "writers". Maybe it was some internal coding I had that left me feeling that my writing wasn't as good as many other people's writing or not as recognized as others' writing, but I knew that my editing had garnered some attention. Ah, that inner demon, self-esteem!

As time wore on, however, more comfortable with my abilities as a writer. As the writing credits racked up, I still felt like something was missing. That something was long-form fiction, novellas, novels, the big stuff. The important stuff. The stuff that shows "I am a writer," at least how I conceived a writer at that time.

Short fiction came quite naturally to me, with little effort. I'm told that this is all backwards, that most writers write novels first, then short stories, and that writing short stories is the most difficult of writing arts. Not for me. The long-form was my bugbear. This probably has something to do with a short attention span and my penchant for being distracted by responsibilities and other interests. So I attempted to write a novel. I had had a few different ideas brewing for some time, so I thought it was time to give it the old college try.

What a disaster . . . The novel, as a novel, never materialized. Well, it did, but it was an ugly, mutated mess. I had a few writerly friends read it and the best advice I received was to split it into two. I could see that they were right, so I did so. In the course of splitting these, I discovered that what I had was not a novel, nor a short story, but two novellas. After thorough editing, I had created two long, but not-novel-length stories that I was pleased with. I found the exercise so enjoyable that I went on and wrote several more.

One of them I sent to editor John Joseph Adams, who said, in effect, "what you've got here is a novel". He said that it had made the short list for one of the anthologies he was editing at the time, but he felt that it just needed more breathing room, so he rejected it. Best . . . rejection . . . ever. I took his advice and unraveled the "end" of my novella to open up the door to . . . more. How much more, I didn't know at the time. Well, to make a long-form story short, I ended up with the rough draft of Heraclix & Pomp.

So this transition from editor to short story writer to novelist parallels, in some ways, B's ongoing journey from instructor/conductor to performer. But what about "showboating"?

Many years ago, I was lambasted in a review for being too enamored of words. That might have been true. I love beautiful words and beautiful sentences. I found that my editors for Heraclix & Pomp were frequently chastising me for using overly-complex metaphors and odd constructions that, while they made sense to *me*, were becoming stumbling blocks for the editors and would, hence, get in the way of the common reader (and I use the term "common" with the greatest affection). My job as a writer is not to impress, but to communicate. If I can communicate effectively *and* beautifully, all the better. But clarity must come before elegance, at least in the long form novel. I'm afraid, though, that you'll have to tolerate some level of experimentation and overt playfulness of language in my short fiction. I love words, I love beautiful sentences, and sometimes, at least in the short story form, I have to wear my emotions on my sleeves. I am, after all, a romantic at heart.


  1. I respectfully disagree with your editors re: stumbling blocks...something about a beautifully wrought image, said in a non-standard way, will always communicate its freight of meaning to most readers. Just get off the train before you hit DavidMitchellVille. Ye gawds.

    1. In the specific cases I was talking about, the language was getting in the way. Don't worry, I haven't compromised my writing principles! :)