Wednesday, September 14, 2011

CHARLES JOHNSON IS MILES AHEAD. Wouldn't you say, mate?

E. Ethelbert Miller asks: Miles Davis was always looking ahead. Do you often go back and read your old fiction? Do you go back and revise things that are published? Do you read your fiction aloud when composing? If so, how might this change what you've written on the page?
The answer for today's first two questions is, "No." And for the last two, "Yes."
I've been publishing stories and drawings for 44 years. When a work is first published, I look over it, but I have to very quickly forget about it. In other words, I have to get it out of my head because the in-progress work currently on my desk requires that I try to maintain what Buddhists calls "beginner's mind." In order to create something fresh, I do my best to forget about previous performances. This practice can often lead to moments that startle me when old work re-enters my life. For example, I did a speaking engagement at a California school a couple of years ago. The gentleman who introduced me quoted from an important passage in my short story "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," then from another paragraph in Middle Passage.  The material he read was written 30 and 26 years ago. I felt almost as if I was listening to the work of a stranger. Why was that? Well, I'll tell you why.

Jean-Paul Sartre once said something about writing and writers that I know to be true in my own experience. He said it takes about 20 years for a writer to be able to experience his own work the way a reader experiences it. Shortly after a work is written or published, all a writer sees----all that I see---are my own decisions on the page. I look at a passage and I think about its earlier drafts, what I took out, and the various options or approaches that were before me during the creative process, ones that I rejected or decided not to pursue. But after 20 years a writer forgets all that "back story" for what he is reading. The prose is in a certain way more opaque. I no longer see my own mind at work---only the meaning that the words window onto. At that California school, as my host was reading from older works, I thought to myself, "Did I write that? Hey, that's damned good." On the other hand, when I've had the occasion to look again at some passages in Faith and the Good Thing, I've wondered, "What in the world does that statement mean? What was I thinking?" Honestly, after so many decades, I sometimes don't have a cross-eyed clue and find myself in that innocent position of the reader who encounters something for the first time.

As for reading aloud when I'm writing, I always do that. My wife will step into my study when I'm working and see me silently mouthing sentences as I write them. Or if my lips aren't  moving, I'm hearing the music or lack of music in my head as I'm composing. And if the rhythm, meter or music isn't there, then I'm revising words and playing with sentence forms, draft after draft, to increase its musicality. Even adding a word or sentence simply for the sake of sound if the beat of a line requires that.

 Here's a confession: Sometimes when I do radio interviews, my host will request that I read a particular passage that he or she likes. But I can't do that well if I haven't tested that particular passage for a reading performance, i.e. test-read it several times to determine (as an actor would determine with a script before him) where it speeds up and slows down. Where the silences are. And the words that require a particular emphasis or that I want to put a spin on through pronunciation. I can read Chapter One of Middle Passage or the Prologue for Dreamer in my sleep since I've performed them hundreds of times before microphones in America, Europe, and Asia, and in every imaginable acoustic situation. The same is true for the story "Dr. King's Refrigerator." I can sing sections of those works the way Mick Jagger does "Sympathy for the Devil." Or the way Aretha would belt out "Respect."

Before September 30, for example, I'll take the new sci-fi story I finished writing a little over a week ago, "One Minute Past Midnight," close my study door, and read it aloud over and over, checking for the words or sentences that make my tongue stumble, revising them so they read more smoothly, and  experimenting with how I want to render the voices (dialogue) for Ethan Bean and Jessica Sweeney, the story's two principle characters. A minor character has a bloody Cockney accent, which will be fun to play with, wouldn't you say, mate?

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