Why I Write (It Ain’t Pretty)

I write because I have no choice in the matter. The words are inside and they need to come out, sometimes in a rapid flow, sometimes like squeezing blood from a stone. I write every single day of the year. I don’t want a break from it; in fact, it feels wrong if I don’t write.
As I grow older, this compulsion, this obsession, grows stronger, and I come to define myself more and more as a writer. I’m one of the lucky ones, since a fair bit of what I finish these days gets published in one way or another, even if it’s no more than one of these blog pieces.
Writing is my gift and my curse. It’s also what I’ve dreamed of doing since I was 11 years old. At school we had to write an essay, to tell a story in three paragraphs. It was an exercise, of course, so show us how to use paragraphs for developing a thought. But after I’d finished my piece, it was as if a switch had clicked in me. That’s how it’s done!
Writing might be an art but it’s also a craft. I wrote plenty of unpublished novels, short stories that perhaps saw print somewhere or other but were mostly rejected. And rightly so, even if I was less certain at the time. The craft part has come from years of music journalism, where there isn’t the luxury of time to go through endless revisions, and you learn to pick the right word or phrase the first time. And good editors who pushed and prodded me.
But I’m not an artist. I’m an entertainer, someone who tries to take people out of their lives for a few hours and make them believe in somewhere else, some other time. There is no magic, perhaps, beyond sleight of hand. When a book is finished, people are back in themselves again. They might enjoy what they’ve read, but only a few books have the power to change people’s lives. I’m not sure I’d even want mine to be among them.
I’m just a person who sits down at the computer in the morning and writes down the movie playing in my head. If I’m lucky it’s because the film rarely breaks or fades to scratches and white noise. I’m still the 11-year-old understanding how this can work. And doing it because I have to.

Musings on Monk

My other job – well, one of them, anyway – is as a music journalist. It’s something I’ve done for the last 20 years and helps me combine my two great passions, music and writing. Over that time, inevitably, my tastes have changed and broadened. From listening mostly to what might generally be termed rock, I’ve moved towards world and folk music, both quite broad churches. But you can add in some classical, mostly sacred choral music, and a smidgen of jazz. Today is a jazz day. More specifically, it’s a Thelonious Monk day. Monk on his own, just letting his mind and fingers wander around tunes.

 

As a pianist he’s unique. All too often his playing sounds on the edge, as if it might fall into complete dissonance. That’s especially true at the start of a tune, when he seems to be feeling his way into a piece, some chords played delicacy, others hammered, with notes and harmonies that shouldn’t fit but somehow do. And he sounds as if he’d be just as happy with a barrelhouse piano as a full-size Steinway grand. Whether on standards or his own compositions, he’s instantly recognisable, always throwing in a surprise, be it a beautiful, lyrical run or a change that offers a lurch, a shift in rhythm. In its own way it’s very meditative music. The meditations are Monk’s. He loses himself in his own vision of the music, and that vision is unlike anyone else’s. To this day, the better part of 60 years since he appeared on the jazz scene, there hasn’t been another like him.

 

He may well have had mental problems and a drug habit, as some have claimed. I don’t know and it doesn’t matter to me. I only know him through his music, and it seems that when he sat at the piano, his particular genius emerged through his fingertips. He played solely for himself. He was lucky in that people liked it, even if many didn’t understand it. With bebop in the ascendant, he happened to be in the right place at the right time. To hear him perform April In Paris, one of those glorious standards, is to see someone open up the petals of a flower and arrange them anew.

 

As a music journalist, to return to his work is a way to cleanse and open the mind again. As a novelist he can be an inspiration. He didn’t attempt to play to the crowds. He didn’t soften things, he didn’t round off the corners just because it would be easier to the ear. He was true to himself. I was to be the writing equivalent of Monk when I grow up. If I ever develop the courage.