Saturday, January 22, 2011

Etudes for Writing?

Scott D. Parker

Here we go again: another week, another essay about possible links between music and writing. But first, a golf reference.

I don’t get to play golf much. When I do, I adore the four hours or so to play my neighborhood course out in west Houston. The last time I played, my wife and I paired with a senior citizen originally from England. He was pretty good while I had the occasional duff, slice, and wet golf ball. At one point during the match, I lamented how, when I only get to play a few times a year, there’s really no incentive to go out to the driving range and hit a bucket of balls. Our English gentleman enlightened me with the way he practices his golf game: by playing golf. He said that the price difference between a bucket of balls at the driving range and a discounted 18-hole game of golf is so negligible that he prefers to just play the game.

That little piece of advice came back to me this week as I was contemplating the etude. In music, etudes are pieces of music ostensibly designed for study and practice. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the etude--particularly the piano etude--became not only something to study, but a piece to perform. Not sure Chopin would have agreed with it, but but then he probably would have been blown away by a synthesizer, too.

As I was listening to Philip Glass’s CD of etudes, I started wondering about writing etudes. Or, for the lack of a better term, writing lessons. Do we need them? Do they exist? Do they help? On Thursday, Dave mentioned that he’s stuck in his writing. Yesterday, Russell touched on how a writer feels when the words don’t flow. The bookstore shelves are lined with scores of books that purport to teach a person how to write. And, in those tomes, are writing lessons. The selections I’ve seen are, frankly, somewhat tepid. One might be “Write a paragraph based on the word “orange.” Another might be “Write a scene of dialogue between a man and his butcher.” Like hitting a bunch of golf balls at the driving range, after about twelve of them, you want to start aiming at something more substantial than a hundred-yard marker. Chuck the writing lesson book and just write a story.

Writing etudes, writing lessons, do they help?

On a larger sense, you could make an argument that short stories are the etudes of writers while novels are the concertos and symphonies. Am I stretching the metaphor too far? Probably, but I’m discovering that, as I creep out of the morass of my own blockage, every little paragraph and page of prose helps. The thing is, however, I’m working on something bigger. I’m not just writing prose to practice. I’m writing prose to create something larger: stories and a novel.

The prose is the practice. In that sense, perhaps, everything we write is an etude, even a first novel.

What do y’all think?

Movie of the Week: House of Sand

Not to be confused with The House of Sand and Fog, "House of Sand" is a Brazilian film starring Fernanda Montenegro and Fernanda Torres, a real-life mother/daughter team playing a fictional mother and daughter. Set in the barren desert of Lençóis Maranhenses in northeast Brazil, the movie follows the lives of pregnant Áurea and her aged mother as they are, through tragedy, left stranded in the middle of nowhere. It’s 1910. Nuance is a characteristic of few American films, but this one has it in spades. The passage of time is only hinted at through the vehicles we see. And, in a wonderful touch, well, hang on. I can’t spoil the coolest thing about the movie. Let’s just say that the two lead actresses must have really loved working on this magnificently subtle yet wonderful film that speaks to loyalty, love, devotion, and perseverance. Click on the link above and check out the trailer. You'll also get a glimpse of the stark beauty of this, to me, heretofore unknown part of Brazil.


Steve Weddle said...

Nice stuff.

Why hit the same shot over and over. You end up with a dead-straight drive of 300 and what do you have to show for it? A conversation with your butcher. I mean, what good does that do you?

Dana King said...

As a recovering musician myself, I like the analogy. I'd bend it just a little.

Novels are the orchestral works, short stories are chamber music, and flash fiction are the etudes. The reason I suggest the change is that I know how much my writing has benefited since i started participating in various flash challenges, the conditions of which are more realistic than what is usually found in the realm of "writing exercises."

Also, I'm an argumentative bastard by nature. I forget who it was looking for a feud here last week, but, in case it was you, there you go.

David Cranmer said...

I switch genres when I'm stuck. I spend quite a bit of time in the 1880s western US and when writer's block strikes I move to crime or this week working on the fourth Simon Rip sci-fi adventure. I also believe in just getting the crap down and sort it out later.

I also haven't played golf since an unfortunate incident (on Johnston Atoll's 8th hole) involving some Hungarian acrobats.

Hot Wallpaper said...
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