When I was fourteen I started taking electric guitar lessons at a music shop in a strip mall in suburban Baltimore. The shop was called The Guitar Shop. Lessons took place in the back, in a small room that smelled of mildew and Parliament Lights. The guitar teacher appeared to be both young and old, with hair both long and short depending on which part of his head you were looking at.
His name was Joe, and he started me and each of my friends off by teaching us the main lick to Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe,” though he clearly had never made the connection. He wore exclusively Pink Floyd and Dire Straits concert t-shirts, and at that time that meant he wore the same “Division Bell” and “Sultans of Swing” Ts to every lesson. The shirts also smelled of mildew and Parliament Lights.
Joe’s lessons consisted of an amalgam of far too loose and far too rigid advice in a combination that spun me around in circles, and set me back between three and eternity years from ever becoming a passable electric guitar player. I’d played violin and viola since I was four, and I could read music. Joe wanted me to unlearn everything I’d ever learned.
“Man, you gotta unlearn everything you’ve ever learned if you wanna ride with me,” he said, which is how I knew that was his philosophy. Mainly he wanted me to learn chords and licks through tablature—a series of dots on diagrams that would show you exactly where to put your fingers on the guitar’s frets—but he also wanted to talk in a very advanced way about scales.
“Man, I can teach you to do Dorian or Mixolydian scales and sound like Jimmy Page,” he said. For whatever reason all the guitar heroes of the moment were either named Joe or Jimmy. I told him I didn’t know what that meant, and he tried to show me by playing them very fast and in what seemed to me a different order each time, so that I understood what it meant even less.
“Man, we need to take a big step back,” he said. “Here’s all you really need to know about playing guitar, man,” he said. I waited while he played the moment for ultimate drama, swinging the section of his hair that was long back over his shoulder, and then he said something that would fuck me up for years:
“The truth is,” Joe said, pausing for effect, “all you gotta do it start on a note from the key you’re in, and land on a note from the key you’re in, and in between you can play fucking anything you want.”
While Joe stepped out back for a smoke, I pondered and then tried to employ his advice. I played a G chord, which took my fingers three to five seconds to grab. Then I… just kind of mashed the guitar, wailing like a dying cat, then slowly placed my fingers back into a G chord again.
It did not sound good.
But here’s the thing: it’s not that he was wrong. The trouble was that I knew what the key was, and I could start there and end there.
But what to do in between?
That was the question at the very heart of making art. And man I was not making art. Luckily years later I became a proficient bluegrass mandolin player—it’s basically a combination of the skill sets from guitar and violin—and then came back to acoustic guitar, where I learned that if I actually played the notes I wanted throughout, I could play passably.
Which, I’d guess I’d have to say, is how to write a novel as well. But writing a novel is a little like inventing a guitar, inventing some scales, and then both sticking to them and straying from them. The thing I tend to find myself saying most in the workshop classroom to aspiring writers is: art is variation with repetition. Which in a way is a version of what Joe was trying to teach me.
What’s available to you as a novelist early on, then, is really just what you’ve read in novels before. It’s the guitar players named Jimmy or Joe you’ve known long enough to play their licks, to know what they sound like and then stray from them.
Which is a little simplistic. The truth is that by that time, by the time I was fourteen, I’d already read a good deal of Shakespeare, where the iambic pentameter that was being drilled into my young brain was something like the four-on-the-floor that I was trying to play over in those guitar lessons.
And if I’m being honest now, the lesson of messing around between landing on the root note of the scale that Joe taught me back then might have set me back a ways on guitar—but I carried it with me into the stories and novels that got me rolling. When I finally did learn to play those more straightforward scales of bluegrass guitar, I realized a lot of new things about what Joe was saying: you can’t play anything anything. Sometimes a good melodic line means stepping out with the notes—but sticking to a rhythm while playing the melody that the reader finds familiar.
I suspect that’s what one of my favorite writers, George Saunders, is doing most of the time. Take his short story “Spiderhead”: in the beginning of the story, our narrator, Jeff, is with another character called Abnesti. From the first moment in the story, we hear dialogue between them that we can’t quite parse. Here’s how the story starts:
“Drip on?” Abnesti said over the P.A.
“What’s in it?” I said.
“Hilarious,” he said.
“Acknowledge,” I said.
Abnesti used his remote. My MobiPak whirred.
It displaces us for a second. We know how to read dialogue. So even if we don’t yet know what “drip on” means to Jeff and Abnesti, we know how to, you know, read the scenes. It’s the key of G, the way the dialogue is set up—we just don’t yet know what the notes are. By the time we get three or four pages in we glean that Jeff is a prisoner in a futuristic, Clockwork Orange-esque situation where the “drip” that goes “on” is a psychotropic drug he’s forced to take, while giving overt approval by saying “acknowledge.”
In fact, that last short paragraph in the opening does kind of return to the key of G: Abnesti has a “remote,” and Jeff has a thing called a “MobiPak.” We’ll have to move up to the C in the chord progression to get all the way there, but we at least know what key we’re in.
The same thing feels true when playing those guitar licks. Even if it feels like you’re inventing something wholly new, like you just wrote the bass line to “Immigrant Song,” all of art is repetition with variation, I repeat. Once you’ve got that first bar or two of the bass line down—dun-duh-nah-nah-nah, dun-duh-nah-nah-nah—your audience already knows what to expect. They know when you’ve strayed from it.
This is exactly what Joan Didion means when she famously says that after a sentence or two you’re locked into a style for your whole book. You’ve already laid down that bass line. Your reader already knows what to expect. And after that breath it’s up to you to decide when to confirm those expectations, and when to vary them to keep the work alive.
I remember reading years ago about some neurological researchers who had used F-MRI technology to study how the brain works when we’re listening to music. They wanted to discover something seemingly small and idiosyncratic: what’s happening in our brains when that thing happens where you’re listening to a record you know well—say, Let It Be—and you begin to hear the next song after the one before it ends? That experience where you can hear that opening G lick John and Paul play together on “I Dig A Pony” right when “Two of Us” ends, but before “Pony” has started yet.
What they found was kind of mind-blowing—and says a lot about what makes writing a novel so hard. Rather than lighting up the part of the brain they would use to listen to music, it was actually the part of the brain that would be signaled to begin playing the next song, that lit up. And this was just as true with non-musicians as it was with musicians.
When we start to hear “I Dig a Pony” in the gap after “Two of Us” it’s not because we remember it like we’d remember a summer day—it’s because we’re getting ready to pick up a Hofner and play the bassline. As Saul Bellow says: a writer is a reader moved to emulation, but it would seem she might be moved to emulation just by reading. We’re all writers waiting to write.
There’s some similar research into how we listen to music that I find even more useful for us as we’re editing drafts of a story or a novel, though exactly how to employ it is a bit more complicated. Early on in the proliferation of moving from cassette tapes and vinyl to listening to music on CD’s and then compressed music via streaming services, researchers wanted to understand why we find the sound of those LPs so much more appealing than the compressed music we hear so frequently now. Part of it may be the pure nostalgia of that crackle of the needle hitting the record.
As Jaron Lanier details very thoroughly in You Are Not a Gadget, some of it is likely that MIDI technology, the technology that allows the ringtones on our phones to almost sound like real instruments but not quite, was “locked in” from an early period of the internet, though it is clearly inferior to other similar types of synthesized sound. We use it in our phones and computers not because it’s the best technology, but because it’s the technology we’ve always been using, and at some point it would simply be too hard to implement a better technology we’re not already using.
But neither of those things fully account for the fact that Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” simply sounds better on the original LP than it does on Spotify (I mean it sounds earth-shatteringly good anywhere). What they found was, to me, everything. Turns out that when a needle passes over the grooves of a record, even when the record is pristine, there are tiny, imperceptible gaps in the music we then hear. Moments when our ear isn’t fully hearing each thumping of the bass. Instead, our brains as listeners receiving that music are filling in the gaps from the patterns we know are being put down by the musicians. Our ears and eyes want to be more active participants in the art we hear or view or see.
So one question I like to ask writers in my classes is: how might we achieve that effect in our writing? What kinds of gaps need to be in a piece of writing to allow the reader not to feel they’re being fed synthetic prose music?
Mainly this is a rhetorical question, but I have come to believe that some of our work in editing on the line level can help achieve this effect. Going back into a draft and just cutting and cutting and cutting—sometimes not just to trim it back, but actually to cut past the quick. To make it bleed. To make a sentence reach a point where to be fully parse-able, it requires the participation of the reader in her mind. “The apparition of these faces: petals on wet, black bough”—the colon in that famous one-line Pound poem doesn’t really work just as a simile, just as a “like” or “as” that’s missing or has been elided. Our job as a reader is not just to let that colon be a fulcrum on which the two sides of the image balance, but to push a little on what words aren’t there.
I once heard Lydia Davis give a long talk about what might be her shortest short story. It’s called “PhD” and here’s the entirety of the story:
I thought I had a PhD.
But I do not have a PhD.
In her lecture, Davis talks about how she had pages of this story at one point. She’d heard about an ongoing controversy in South Korea, where PhDs were so important and academic jobs so desired that a number of prominent faculty members in Korean universities had been found to have falsified their CVs to appear as if they had more degrees than they actually had. But she found herself cutting and cutting and cutting prose until this was left.
This is an extreme version of such an edit, but I think it demonstrates well the vinyl-to-Spotify dilemma. It starts in G, and ends in G, and we walk away from reading those two lines with our heads brimming with all the notes Lydia Davis chose not to let us hear her play.