The Right Note

by | Feb 23, 2007 | Approaches to Writing, Literature

Jack Kerouac’s motto is supposed to have been “first thought = best thought.”  I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts that he thought up a lot of other mottos before settling on that zippy little nugget of wisdom.  Kerouac was even more of a liar than is usual with writers; he even lied about his methods of composition.

Kerouac’s writing is often compared with jazz, specifically bebop, the new wave of his own time, one of the key features of which is that the musicians take turns playing solos over the chords and rhythm kept up by the rest of the group.  To the untrained ear this can sound as though the soloist has total freedom.  Actually, what the soloist has is a great deal of freedom within the constraints of beat and harmonic structure.  Stylistically, too, the solo must bear some relation to the chart being played.  If the soloist ignores these rules, you have the equivalent of a musical non sequitur.

Does anyone else here notice that I end up talking about rules an awful lot of the time?

That solo by Eric Dolphy, trilling through the skies, free as a bird, only flies because it obeys the laws of aeronautics, and even a bird like Dolphy took years of preparation before he could soar the way he does.

Kerouac’s ‘first thoughts’ were the result of the same sort of preparation.  But, being more than a little bit rigid in his notions of the ‘right’ way to write, and not being averse to altering history to fit his theories, he claimed that his romans á clef were the first, unedited fruits of his loopy brain.  My guess is that he even came to believe it.

Virginia Woolf had a similar theory.  Though she spent a lot of time preparing to write each novel, plotting it all out and so on, once she began the actual composition she felt that the key was in finding the beat.  Once the writer was attuned to the rhythm of the piece, she said, it was impossible to put down the wrong word.

How different was James Joyce, whose sense of rhythm (in his youth he was widely regarded as one the finest tenors in the musical city of Dublin) is inferior to nobody’s.  Joyce adored words, and is supposed to have kept lists of especially interesting ones, which he crossed off after having found places for them within the intensely-revised manuscript of Ulysses.

Hemingway believed in a thing that he and his cronies called le mot juste, the right word.  This is the notion that there is always one best word, and that it is the writer’s sacred duty to hunt it down and use it.  The best of Hemingway’s writing has the precision of Bach.

Faulkner, on the other hand, often refused to make a choice at all, but liked to string together any number of adjectives or even verbs, each of which forms a part of his meaning, as each musical note is a component of the chord.

Thank goodness there are so many ways to make music, and so many ways to find the center of the maze where sound and sense come together to make literature.