Posts Tagged ‘verve’

Yesterday was spent doing family things. Specifically going to see my niece in her Senior Spectacular, which is a performance of high school seniors, mostly from the choirs. And let me say here, Skippy, you were fantastic. I really wish we could have seen more of your concerts an dI wish you the best where you’re going. You’ve allowed an uncle to be very proud of you. And I think I said this once, but let me say it again, you really get performance. And that’s a rare gift.

So, today I’m going to discuss performing. I have some experience here. Since I was in grade school I’ve performed in plays, written plays (for both church and for high school, and have been selected for performances), played in bands (concert, marching, stage, and a garage band or two) and performed guitar as a busker and on stage for my own high school’s talent shows. I’ve given readings, reports, was a certified organizational change management leader (at E&Y, don’t ask). I’m trying to be a successful writer. I’ve been in front of microphones, tv cameras, given personal interviews to reports, lead mobs, and written this blog for how many years.

All of those are performances, btw. Some of them you might not think of as performing, like blogging, but really it is. At a convention a few years ago, I signed up for a breakfast with John Scalzi where he held court with about eight of us on several topics, one of which was blogging. As John said (and to paraphrase here), “I’m always surprised at the people who think they know me (and Krissy and Athena) because they read my blog. The blog is only what I choose to show the world, so nobody sees the times Athena is being a normal 10 year old, or Krissy and I have a problem. So people get a distorted view of my life.” We then had a more indepth discussion of what successful blogging is. And just to be clear here, it always means telling the truth about yourself. It also means you don’t have to share what you don’t want to share. And so, blogging is a performance art. Just like public speaking.

So here is something you probably don’t know about me. I’m introverted. Not as deeply as some friends I know, but it’s still there. Another author (who will remain nameless here, but I’ve mentioned him before) I had the fortune to see at a conference “putting on his game face.” Afterward I talked with him and mentioned I noticed him doing that. He’s also an introvert. We shared a moment of connection as I told him I recognized the action because I do that myself.

This doesn’t mean we’re being false. But it’s a recognition that we’re about to perform. And now I’ll get to what that means.

To dispel some myths. The people you see performing are rarely the best at what they do. Performance is hard work, no matter what the movie/recording industry wants to portray about “talent.” As John Lennon Ringo Starr shouted on Abbey Road The White Album, “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!” Most people who perform are doing things they love to do. And when you love doing something you do it if somebody’s watching and you do it when nobody is watching. And you do it until you get blisters. And then you keep doing it. Nobody just walks up on stage and performs like they’re a star. Everybody who has karaoked has sung in the car to the same song. See how good they do up on a stage? The woman from England who took everybody by surprise? Yeah, she belonged to a choir and I’ll bet she practices singing as she walks around her house (or flat). And she does it because she loves it. Also, for those people who are out there performing in clubs and bars, they know they’ve all met people better than they are. People who don’t perform anymore. Perseverance is the name of the game.

And when those people are performing, they aren’t doing it for themselves. At least the good ones aren’t. Performing is about giving. Giving to the audience, the other members of the troop, to the art, to someone who may not even be there. As Stephen King says in On Writing, most authors are telling someone their stories when they write. For him, it’s his wife. He’s trying to impress her and make her laugh (and yes, his stuff is funny). That’s his goal. He tells the story about an author he knows who is writing to someone whose been dead for many years. Performance is all about the people you’re performing for. If all you’re doing is going up on stage and reciting a song, well, that’s a form of mental masturbation. Artist who are all about themselves rarely make it far, and their self-indulgence comes through their performance and leaves most people wondering just what the heck is going on and the performance goes flatter than three-day old beer. But those who go up there and give it all away, those are the artists you remember. I should state here that performers are (mostly) consummate liars. If you ask them, many times you’ll get the “All about me” answer. Watch them on stage, though, and you can practically see the energy flowing into the audience. And if it’s done right, the energy flows back.

And we do it because we love our audience and we love what we’re doing. When Jackson Browne sings, “So just make sure you got it all set to go before you come for my piano,” that’s what he’s talking about. You’ve all come out to see us. In some cases you’ve paid good money to do so, given of your time and energy. To give ourselves to you is the least we can do.

It takes a lot out of you if you do it right. That’s the whole satiric point of Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing.” If you’ve ever seen musicians after a show, they look rung-out. Because they are. Not only were they playing the songs, they gave of themselves to their band and projected that out to the audience.

So that’s the secret of performance. It’s not about the talent, the skill, and the ability. It’s about love. It’s about giving it all away and hoping it comes back. It’s about not worrying about saving something up for another night, because it doesn’t work that way. Pour yourself out into what you’re doing, give it all to one person or to twenty-thousand screaming people. It’ll come back. It’ll make the hair on your neck tingle to touch that live wire. And do it because you love something, someone, someplace.

And yes, I do this because I love you. Stop looking at me like that, you know what I mean. 🙂

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Everyone writes differently. That’s a statement that seems at once redundant and asinine. Because of course everyone writes differently, and, of course everyone to some degree writes the same. I’ve seen tons of essays on finding your writing voice, and in my opinion they are all hogwash. Whether you speak in sotto voce or in a medium forte, so long as you are writing from your heart, with intensity and desire, then your voice is already there. You’ve got to tap the well of emotion inside of you and pour it out onto the page or screen, let it surge through your fingertips, let your mind buzz with excitement. There’s your voice, and I’m sure you won’t be surprised to find it was with you all along.

Take me, for instance. When I write fiction it’s mostly edgy; horror or dark fantasy. Even my humor tends to have moments that might make you squirm. My true writing voice, the voice that I sometimes struggle to let loose, is generally unabashed and sometimes brusque, but if you’ve ever read my blog, you might know that my writing voice can sometimes come out (to my ears at least) almost preening, trying to tone it down, to write softly and in an inoffensive tone. If I were to write with my own voice all the time, the way I generally feel, well, let’s just say it’s more Motorhead than Air Supply; more Die Hard than Dances With Wolves. My style–or my voice–can be like a hammer pounding words down on the keyboard, in feeling as well as in application. But even at that, even with all the energy that I pour into my writing, it sometimes still doesn’t ring with energy because I didn’t pour ever ounce of verve I could into it. My writing can be brusque, but for it to be good, it must also have vigor. And only my soul can provide that. My hands and mind are as dumb to it as I am to a Meryl Streep flick.

Now, I have written softly, yes. Some of the best things I’ve ever written, like the story “A Scent of Rain (Southern Fried Weirdness Anthology, 2007),” were written with an almost feminine touch. I daresay even romantic, although I doubt I could ever write romance. But even then, even when my writing voice was fundamentally changed, I still wrote with a high level of excitement and intensity. Vigor. I know some of you will say that no matter what style I’m writing in, my voice remains the same. And I say Okay, sure. But if you’re not writing with vigor that voice you struggled so long to find might as well have its mouth sewn shut.

Nevertheless, there’s an urgency with my writing that, if I’m true to myself, will come out as I write. The problem is in being true, letting it all hang out, so to speak. And that’s what I’m really trying to say here: be true to yourself, in life as well as in your writing. Your writing will seem more real if you are,  it will seem less forced, more readable and infinitely more entertaining for the reader.

It’s for this reason that I sometimes simply can’t work on a specific piece. If I’m not feeling it, I can’t write it. And I know it by the time I’ve written four words. It’s just not there. Some people can make it happen, but not me. For me, there’s got to be an explosion, such as Ray Bradbury explains in Zen in the Art of Writing:

Every morning I jump out of bed and step on a landmine. The landmine is me.
After the Explosion, I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces together.

The world is full of would-be writers. Everyone who knows how to spell has at least once in their lives thought of writing a book. Some even sit down and wonder what a book they would write might be about. They write a word, and then two, and then buzz out a page or two of rubbish, thinking it pretty good. I did. You, as a writer, probably did at one time, too. For some of us, that moment of writing rubbish caused a little sort of explosion within us, however, and we realized there was something there that we truly loved, and it gave a spark to that chunk of coal deep within us that was for so long missing that one essential ingredient that could finally make it burn: fire. And, like the heroin addict, we went on and on and on trying to replicate that high. Thankfully, and unlike with heroin (or so I’m told), that is a high that we can experience over and over. And it’s one we should foster, welcome, and never pick up a pen without. That energy is what makes writers like Twain and Hemingway the children of gods. That fervor is what makes the books of Poe and King, Melville and Mitchell (haha!) so damned good. I’m feeling it right now, writing this blog post.

Anyone who can feel can write. But to be a writer, a person’s got to press their emotions up into their eyebrows and hold them there, as high as they can, let their heart beat wildly and their breath come in jagged spurts. And then–don’t write–pour. Unshelve your emotions. Run the gamut. Scream to the heavens and challenge the hordes. Give yourself over.

One more quote from Bradbury before I leave you:

If you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer. It means you are keeping one eye on the commercial market, or one ear peeled for the avant-garde coterie, that you are not being yourself. For the first thing a writer should be is–excited. He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms. Without such vigor, he might as well be picking peaches or digging ditches; God knows it’d be better for his health.

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