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Finding Their Way, But Not in Total Darkness

With the words of jazzman Clark Terry still resonating in his ears since adolescence, Steven Rogers investigates how far the trumpeter’s musical maxim can be applied to the writing process

“Imitation, assimilation, and innovation.” That is the key to mastering jazz improvisation, according to the great trumpeter Clark Terry. I have a vivid recollection of discovering this dictum during my formative years as an aspiring jazz drummer. It was an epiphany, and seemed to make perfect sense, at least my crude interpretation of it did: Learn how your predecessors do it, incorporate that into your own repertoire, and then build on it and forge new ground.

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Despite subsequent hours spent in the back room – deciphering, analysing and attempting to emulate Elvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones and suchlike drumming deities – I never got beyond imitation, let alone any sort of assimilation, and it was a pallid simulacrum at that. Nevertheless, Terry’s words linger on in my memory to this day.

I have often privately conjectured that some parallels must exist between the creation of jazz music and fiction writing. For one, jazz improvisers appear well-equipped to express themselves individually in the same way a writer does, more so than those who perform recreated music, classical musicians for instance, whose parameters are prescribed for them on the page. With this ingenuous analogy in mind, I thought I would throw it out there and ask six writers, all published to much acclaim, just how applicable Terry’s imitation-assimilation-innovation maxim is to the process of writing fiction.

Immediately, Dan Rhodes warns me that “any close analysis of the creative process will contain conspicuous holes, because you can’t account for the weirdness of it all – the way so many ideas seem to come from nowhere.” Neither does Matt Thorne warm to it at first. He feels slightly uncomfortable about the maxim since “it seems to fit the poetic model more than fiction”. What Thorne says rings true, especially given the close association the Beat generation, for example, had with jazz, in terms of both the musicality of the poetry produced by Kerouac et al. as well as the outlets through which it was expressed, such as the famous Six Gallery reading.
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I begin to wonder if my question is a non-starter when Ben Myers tells me the imitation-assimilation-innovation maxim can “almost certainly” be applied to the process of writing literature. “I think all art is deep-rooted in imitation at the earliest stages,” he says. Tony O’Neill echoes this, declaring that the maxim is “actually pretty true across the board for art”. Tom McCarthy also identifies with it. “I think Clark Terry is bang on the money,” he says. “It exactly concurs with my experience of learning to write.” In what ways, then, might imitation, assimilation and innovation take place in the context of writing fiction?

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Clearly, rather than promoting plagiarism, Terry was inciting jazz players to study others when he encouraged imitation – get the records, go to gigs, listen and learn. Likewise, books can serve as the real school for writers, according to O’Neill. That and “getting out there and living life”. Thorne lends further weight to this, contending that it is hard to write well without reading a lot. He recalls that while he was learning to write, he would read certain books over and over to gain an idea of how a novel worked. “I went through a period of rereading anything I felt a kinship with that I also thought I could learn from,” he says. Valérie Mréjen used to engage in a similar process. Reading passages from novels several times over, she would try to “understand and integrate the mechanism which made such a balance possible”. McCarthy remembers actually copying out whole paragraphs of Conrad as a teenager. He also recalls that, in his early twenties, he would make pictogram sequences out of passages from Genet as well as note down, in clusters, all the adjectives employed by Mirbeau. He points out to me that the really big writers do literally sit down and assimilate. Joyce, for example, could ‘do’ a passage of Dickens or Swift. “And look how much meticulously-studied Ovid and Petrarch there is in Shakespeare,” he adds.

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There are, however, words of caution regarding any deliberate examination and assimilation of literature. Thorne admits that when he was studying English at university and was forced to read many different authors, his fiction writing became “terrible” for a while, such that he concluded conscious influence led to bad writing. O’Neill experienced a period void of creative fecundity when he thought that, to be a writer, you had to emerge fully formed, without any discernable influences. “It was only when I was finally able to relax and allow my writing to come out naturally that I could write productively,” he says.

Whether consciously, subconsciously, willingly or unwillingly, it appears some form of influence from other works or authors is inevitable, even beyond a writer’s early development. “Sometimes you’re trying to do something and you think ‘Oh, Robbe-Grillet does that really well in that sequence in The Voyeur’, so you use that as a template for your passage,” says McCarthy. “Sometimes you’re not thinking of a particular writer at all, and realise way later after writing your own book that theirs must have been kicking around the back of your mind at some point.”

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O’Neill believes that the little things other writers do – the odd turns of phrase, the unique use of language – is something that writers surely absorb and regurgitate in some way their own work. “You would have to exist in a cocoon for this not to happen,” he says. Dan Rhodes recalls his tour of Ireland with DBC Pierre, who was reading from the then unpublished Ludmila’s Broken English. When Rhodes read the novel a few months later, he realised that, in the interim, he had taken an entire phrase from one of the passages the Australian had been reading out. “I caught myself out that time,” says Rhodes, “but it must surely happen here and there, just odd words or phrases that I flatter myself by attributing to my own imagination.”

These examples notwithstanding, Terry’s maxim, even in a musical context, is conspicuously lacking in another component, and one that seems to have as much if not more bearing during a creator’s development than imitation or assimilation per se: inspiration.

Myers articulates the feeling derived from an inspirational read as an “I can do that!” or “I’d certainly like to try to do that” impulse. O’Neill describes a similar sensation: “Reading a book that really blows me away,” he says, “will spur me to write by giving me a burst of, well, I don’t know if its creativity, or just competitiveness.” Mréjen conveys this too, referring to what seems to be a dual instinct felt by a writer stimulated by the words of another: “You’re absorbed as a reader because you’re particularly moved, but at the same time your mind is a bit elsewhere, already envisaging how you yourself could compose something inspired by the same form.”

O’Neill’s first novel Digging the Vein is based on his time as a heroin addict. Reading Dan Fante’s Chump Change had given him faith that the kind of novel he wanted to write – autobiographical but non-memoir – was still a viable form. “I also didn’t want to sell anyone a ‘this is how I got clean’ book,” he says, “because I’m not sober and that would make me a hypocrite or, even worse, a drugs worker, a snake oil salesman. So reading the likes of Bukowski, Hemingway, Céline and Burroughs, who were able to present their lives in a novelistic fashion, gave me a blueprint.”

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Like Tony O’Neill, Dan Rhodes has other writers who have, as he puts it, “cleared paths” for him. When he started writing his new novel Gold, he was in thrall to two books – Patrick Hamilton’s Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky, and Rhapsody by Dorothy Edwards. “I loved the way Edwards wrote brilliant stories in which often next to nothing happened, and I thought I would give that a go,” says Rhodes. “Also, Twenty Thousand Streets is a great, maybe the great, pub book, and I thought that perhaps my time had come to write my pub book. It turned out that what I ended up with read nothing like Dorothy Edwards or Patrick Hamilton, which I suppose is for the best.”

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For many, of course, reading certain authors extends far beyond literature. Henry Miller’s work offered Ben Myers an entire philosophy and imprint for living. “It seemed to exude a glorious sense of freedom and abandonment which can affect your entire outlook, especially if you’re young, impressionable or susceptible to creativity, romance, hedonism, unconventionality, rebellion or flights of fancy,” explains Myers. “He made me reject the notion of working the traditional nine-to-five job and sent me reeling into the world, intent on devoting my life to high times and lots of writing.”

Just as the influence exerted by authors and books carries over into life beyond writing, there are naturally those elements beyond literature that inform writers and their works, which possibly comprise the “weirdness” that Dan Rhodes was alluding to earlier. Indeed, Rhodes claims to take his cues from songwriters as much as other fiction writers, maybe even more so. For him, The Smiths had a big impact. “As well as being deeply melancholy,” he says, “their songs are extraordinarily uplifting, and I’ve always striven for a combination of sadness and joy.” Myers mentions that the music and ethos of punk is another example of an external influence that seems to be having a lasting, and possibly increasing, effect on literature, certainly among the emerging young writers he knows. Not surprisingly, Valérie Mréjen lists Jean Eustache and Hou Hsiao-hsien among her influences. She too is a director, and this goes some way to explaining the distinct style of her novels – short blocks of text, fragmented and shuffled in such a way that they could serve as written mini-storyboards for one of her films. Myers concludes that “whether it’s music, politics, drugs, sex or travel that gets you off and makes you write, almost everything we do is drawn from experience, and if not that, then from natural instinct. A good writer combines both the pragmatic with something more impulsive, more animalistic.”

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Into this growing mix, we can also throw another ingredient. Rhodes claims one of the things that got him writing fiction sensibly was that he was disappointed by every modern book he read. “I was only enjoying old stuff,” he recalls, “and decided that if I wanted to read modern writing that I enjoyed, I would have to write it myself. Reading a dull book will fire me up to go out and do a much better job.” Myers also recognises that writers can react against other works, adopting an ‘I can do better than this’ line. He says: “Sometimes you can hate something so much you’re inspired. Inspired to attack it, or render it worthless and irrelevant. In fact, sometimes this yields better results. I would call this ‘anti-inspiration’, a tactic of reproach.”

Hang on a minute. Clark Terry never envisaged this when he came up with his three-pronged maxim leading to creative mastery. He accounts for the incidents of imitation and assimilation that the writers relate, but he gave inspiration, impulse and anti-inspiration no mention. It is likely that most artists have experienced these phenomena at some point. But it does make me speculate that a writer’s modus operandi distinctly differs from that of a jazz musician, which might invalidate the applicability of Terry’s maxim to writing. After all, isn’t there a group dynamic in jazz that is less common in writing? Isn’t there more ‘We’ than ‘I’, more ‘Us’ than ‘Me’, when jazz players discuss their lifework? Theirs come across more frequently as a collective journey of discovery, feeding off each other, using each other as a sounding board. “Writers are naturally more solitary and it’s rarer that they’ll work together” says Mréjen. “I think there’s a taste for the secretive and the withdrawn in writing, which is nothing like the collective dynamic you find more often in music.” Rhodes appears to corroborate this, saying “I can’t speak for other writers, but I’m very cagey about talking about my work until it’s near completion. This has more to do with superstition than anything though. And I only rarely read other writers’ work in progress.”

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Matt Thorne sheds some further light on this, referring to the group ethos of the New Puritans movement that he helped establish. Inspired by the pared-down approach of the Dogme 95 filmmakers, the New Puritans transposed such cinematographic techniques to literature, creating a manifesto calling for grammatical purity, textual simplicity and integrity of expression. An example of assimilation, if you will. Thorne says they were trying to reach an audience who had perhaps been put off by some of the pretensions, stiffness and snobbery from the likes of Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie. Some more anti-inspiration then. Fifteen writers contributed to the anthology All Hail the New Puritans, published in 2000. When they first got together, there was an intensive swapping of ideas, but this has since fallen away. “I only talk about writing to a few of the group now,” Thorne admits. “Some of the writers now feel very anti the whole experience, which I find sad.”

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I start to wonder if writers are more disposed to intense exchanges of ideas in a performance context. Are there any parallels between book readings, for example, and public jam sessions performed by jazz players? The logic behind my curiosity is that book readings can act as modern-day equivalents of literary salons: symposia of like-minded people, where writers can listen to other writers, just as jazz gigs are attended by fellow musicians. Do book readings regularly serve as fertile ground where performances, as in the case of DBC Pierre and Dan Rhodes, rub off on other writers in the audience? “Not really, unfortunately,” laments Thorne. “I think the problem is that while it’s great to be a writer and do a reading, and great, most of the time, to be an audience member, it can be quite frustrating being a writer and listen to another writer read at these events. I’m not sure why this is, but most writers I know feel it.” O’Neill confesses that he often finds readings uninspiring because even great writers can be boring readers. “They’re two different disciplines,” he says. “However, it was a thrill to meet someone like Laura Hird and hear her read because her work is incredible, and it was inspiring to meet a ‘real person’ behind the expectations I had of her.”

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Interestingly, O’Neill believes it is the internet, an impersonal medium on the surface, which provides one of the most effective platforms for writers to swap and assimilate ideas. “I can correspond with writers scattered across the globe that I would never have got to meet otherwise,” he enthuses. “We’ve struck up correspondences all of which inform me. I’m a sponge. Something someone will say or write will inspire a related idea in me and I will work from that point.”

If a group dynamic similar, if not identical, to that of jazz players does exist among writers, then Terry’s imitation-assimilation-innovation maxim may not be not totally flawed in the context of writing. Whether the trilogy occurs in that order, though, is up for debate. Myers believes a writer could conceivably be just as successful following it backwards, or missing out one of the stages, or, as he says, “putting it through a mincer and into a frying pan and nailing the greasy slop to the page,” before conceding that “the best writers probably do imitate, assimilate and innovate, though I’d never advise anyone to follow any formula too rigidly, because then it would be…formulaic, and that’s to be avoided if at all possible.” McCarthy is more convinced that a writer does develop closely according to Terry’s dictum: “It’s hard to imagine a proper writer, I mean someone doing literature rather than middle-brow entertainment, not going through all these stages, and in that order,” he says. “There’s the same paradox as in music, or sport, whereby you have to studiedly learn technique from past players in order to forget it again, or at least forget that you’ve learnt it, and move into the ‘zone’ of your own craft.”

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By referring to this ‘zone’, McCarthy appears to be touching on the innovation phase of Terry’s maxim. But what, exactly, constitutes innovation in writing? Exploring taboo? Combining elements of literary and genre fiction? Subverting narrative expectation? Myers remarks that it is not, at first sight, an easy one to call. “If we’re sticking to the maxim,” he says, “the imitation stage is the big stumbling block, the wall to climb over, not least because innovation is a grey area. It’s hard to say what pushes the writer over the edge and into the realm of the innovative.” O’Neill’s attitude is similar: “Well, moving from imitation to innovation is the trick, isn’t it? And by innovation, I don’t mean writing a book that is so startlingly original that it seems as if it was dropped here from outer space.”

Despite the apparent greyness of the innovation stage, nearly every writer interviewed points towards something similar in what they perceive innovation to be. “This is all about, I suppose, the discovery of ‘voice’,” says O’Neill. “If you can tell a story as old as time, but tell it with a strong, new, distinctive ‘voice’, then you’re doing okay.” McCarthy also identifies with this phenomenon: “The really cathartic experience is when you’re drafting your own book and ‘the voice’ – its own voice, the one it’s meant to have – emerges.” The voice of the author, or the voice of the book? O’Neill goes some way to elucidating this: “I knew I was onto something when I was able to tell my story and not recoil when I read it. It was this kind of hybrid voice, not the way I speak, or even think most of the time, but a kind of new entity that captured what I was trying to say.”

Which begs the question: How does a writer eventually arrive at this ‘voice’? How does one scale the wall of, and leap beyond, imitation, something that many creators apparently engage in at the beginning of their development? “The trick is not to be deterred,” says Myers. McCarthy agrees with him: “The only way is to keep on at it – it just gels at some point. You can see the moment in other authors. Huysmans, for example, sat around imitating Zola until Against Nature took him in a totally new direction.”

Myers observes that few writers ever seem to hit on a good, strong voice early on. Both he and Thorne cite someone like Bret Easton Ellis as a possible recent exception to that. Equally, most jazz players who possess an original voice only seem to find it later. David Baker, Distinguished Professor of Jazz Studies at Indiana University, says: “John Coltrane only found his ‘voice’ five, maybe ten years before he died. How long did it take Wynton Marsalis to find his? He sounded just like Miles Davis of the 1960s for years. But in the last ten years, he has begun to find a ‘voice’ that is distinctively more Wynton. Charlie Parker was the exception.”

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Thorne opines that only a few writers are veritably innovative, while Rhodes remarks that he has “certainly read a few books that seem to have missed out the innovation stage”. If the passing of time reveals the true innovators, then jazz, the younger art form by a long way, will boast fewer than writing. “If I look at the history of jazz, which is less than a hundred years old,” says Baker, “I can only pick out twenty figures who have dominated, because they have an original voice. I think we always move from imitation to assimilation to innovation, but I can’t name you twenty people outside those we’ve already recognised who ever got to point three: innovation.”
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And this, I suppose, is where the parallels between fiction writing and jazz improvisation, if they have seemed at all tenuous so far, are thrown into relief. Both creative mediums are perhaps characterised by a relative paucity of genuinely innovative exponents, and where exponents do bear an original voice, it tends to be found only later on, bar the occasional anomaly. For every Joris-Karl Huysmans, there is a Wynton Marsalis, and for every Bret Easton Ellis, there is a Charlie Parker.

As McCarthy implied earlier, Terry’s maxim probably concerns a studied learning of past players’ technique (albeit “in order to forget it again”) more so than it does visceral sentiments that permeate the creative process, such as inspiration, impulse and anti-inspiration. Myers’ expostulation about rigidly following formulas is no doubt correct, but it is more likely that, rather than being didactic or prescriptive, Terry was providing a framework around which the tools for original conceptualisation and distinctive expressive dexterity could eventually be acquired. In that way, Terry’s triumvirate of imitation, assimilation and innovation, could, it seems, very plausibly underpin not only the development of a jazz player, but also that of a writer.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

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3:AM co-editor Steven Rogers fell into the oft-followed career path of many a language graduate, that of teaching and translating. He has lived and worked in Perpignan, Pamplona and Paris, teaching English for three years at the Sorbonne. He now earns his keep as a journalist in Ireland’s capital, Dublin. At the weekends he is Bedwhisperer.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, February 5th, 2007.