I learned a good deal about writing from watching and listening to jazz musicians. More specifically, I learned about the effective use of surprise, play and dissonance from them. I would take—and still do—my older son, who has autism among other things, to hear the bands play live because he loves the music, especially when it’s being made right in front of him. I watched as the musicians, seemingly fearlessly, went off on what Phillip Lopate might call “thought excursions,” freely quoted each other, traded ideas back and forth, and, instead of avoiding discomfort, seemed to seek the counterpoint of the dissonant chord or the sudden pause.
Perhaps a writer’s notebooks bear a relationship to the practice sessions of jazz musicians, a safe place for exploration and a container for the chaos of experience and trying to pin it down. I understood, both from watching the musicians and reading certain essays and poetry, that surprising things happen when you dare to combine surprising things. (And a word about poetry here: Even though I now write prose, I find that poetry is a reminder of what is possible, because poets have been employing surprise, play and dissonance in a jazz-like manner all along). The first appearance of these combinations occurs, often accidentally, in the pages of a notebook where expectations are wide open, and quick observations of a stranger (a police officer is trailed by a little girl carrying a huge stuffed unicorn) can sit beside research notes on types of ice (brash ice, dirty ice, vuggy ice, growler ice, bullet ice), fragments of found poetry (Improper use may cause a hazardous condition), and varying amounts of white space (pause). Notebooks are the place where you can see how one “note” collides with another.
Play is a kind of daring, one where the required bravery is not about force but rather openness, and sometimes to get myself ready to play, I would read Lawrence Weschler’s Vermeer in Bosnia or Joan Didion’s The White Album or Annie Dillard’s To the Pole or Susan Griffin’s Our Secret—each of these a fine example of how to use one story to enliven or amplify the story of something else entirely. In Weschler’s essay, he begins by bearing witness to the testimony at the Yugoslav War Tribunals. As the stories of the atrocities accumulate, he seeks solace in the Vermeer paintings at the Mauritius, and his essay is an artful weaving of the paintings and the testimony, a kind of inventive play about unbearably difficult events (jazz, too, of course, is a long, transcendent conversation rooted in hardships, racism, and poverty). In Our Secret, Susan Griffin combines family history with her research about Heinrich Himmler and her extrapolations of how his childhood created a sadistic monster; these ruminations are intercut with fragments about biological cells and atomic weapons, among other items.
When I went to write my memoir, Know the Night, about my son’s loss of words and his sleeping disorder, I knew that I could explore the ideas of loss and isolation by incorporating not only components of jazz history but also the Antarctic misadventure of Admiral Richard Byrd in the 1930s (he stayed alone in a hut embedded in the Antarctic ice for four months and barely survived). My notebooks are full of the original collisions of the stories and histories, simply because they are notebooks and gathering tools. I didn’t separate my subjects but rather let them play in the accidental and sometimes serendipitous combinations and thought-leaps that occurred from page to page. My research ranged where it wanted to go, and I read through books of ice and snow, explorer bios, jazz, Thelonious Monk, silence, night, Camus and the Myth of Sisyphus, and more. I read literary nonfiction, fiction and poetry, listened to jazz, made observations about my trail runs (which also ended up in Know the Night) and allowed the whole commotion to stew in the pages of my notebooks and resulting manuscript.
At one point, I found myself in the Polar Research Archives at Ohio State University with one of the few items that survives from Byrd’s expedition in his hut: his auroral notebook. He used it to record (with pencil because ink would freeze) his observations of the polar sky; he was there during the period when the sun doesn’t rise and had a perpetual view of the stars and aurora australis. He recorded his data even as he was falling apart both physically and mentally. Partway through the notebook and alongside his columns of data, he scrawled in the margin something unexpected and real, “My physical condition is becoming very desperate.” The magic of the notebook is that its imagined privacy allows for revelation that can’t always be expressed elsewhere. Eventually, he was rescued and wrote a gorgeous book about his desperate condition, called Alone.
All of this is not to say that the process of combining stories and finding, ultimately, a structure comes easily or in a timely manner. The manuscript for Know the Night became a mass (or maybe a mess) of fragments and diversions. I played with juxtapositions and order for a long time and one day laid the entire heap on the kitchen table for open-heart surgery. In doing so, I found the spine of the whole narrative. Byrd’s story, his time waiting in his hut either to die or be rescued, was not only an adventure that I loved, but also a simple, linear structure that could support the sometimes chaotic, nonlinear elements of my son’s story. I started writing the manuscript again from the very beginning, and kept in mind what I had absorbed on those evenings listening to jazz.
Maria Mutch is the author of the memoir Know the Night, published by Simon & Schuster and Knopf Canada. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in Poets & Writers, Guernica, Literary Mama, Ocean State Review and Bayou Magazine, among others. She lives in Rhode Island.