How to Write Like Jazz

I found myself sitting in a chapel full of jazz musicians, listening to professionals wail away on stage, feeling inadequate and out of place.

I play flute, but this year my schedule cut out the wind ensemble’s rehearsal hour; in a bid to keep playing something, I learned saxophone over the summer and since then, I’ve muddled along with reeds and odd fingerings and jazz rhythms I never imagined before, and somehow nobody’s figured out that I’m really not good enough for a university jazz band.

This weekend the group attended the Elmhurst College Jazz Festival. As I listened to musicians answering questions and handing out jazz advice, I realised, Wow. Jazz is just like writing. You start with an idea and you get going, and when you’re done, the result might sound nothing like the original, but you never lose the heart of it. It takes all kinds of timbres and rhythms to make music, and it also takes silence. It takes courage and inspiration and hours upon hours of hard work.

So today, let me tell you how to write like jazz.

charlie parker

Don’t count the hours–but remember that part-time work earns part-time pay.
People will tell you formulas for becoming better. Write 1,000 words a day. Write an hour a day. Write. Just write. Whether it’s a hundred words a day or a hundred thousand, just write. Stop fixating on the number, on the amount, on the total. Focus on the words. Focus on what you have to say, and just write. At the end of the day, you get out what you put in. A hundred well-written words a day may serve you better in the long run than a thousand haphazard cliches.

Decide what’s wealth to you.
Everything in life pays, but not everything pays in dollars and cents. Writing probably won’t make you a millionaire, but it pays back in other ways, and let’s be honest–which of us started writing because we honestly thought it would make us rich? We all know the broke-and-living-on-Ramen-in-an-attic stereotype.  But writing gives you intangible wealth. It makes you part of a history as old as humanity, forces you to explore yourself and the world around you, teaches you to find beauty in the mundane and intricacy in the simple. And as one musician pointed out, work hard enough and long enough at an art, and the chance to meet someone you admire–to interact on equal ground–is wealth.

Everyone has a gig, and nobody’s gig is certain.
Musicians get a gig here, a gig there; some pay well, some don’t. Writing is the same; we publish here and there, and sometimes we get paid, and sometimes we get unpaid exposure, and sometimes all we get is experience. But the most prestigious job in the world is just another gig, and no matter how well it pays, it ends at some point–sometimes sooner than expected. Put your best into each one. Relax, quit worrying, and take life one gig at a time.


In jazz, you’re usually not playing the same note as anyone else. You might not even be playing the same rhythm–but the whole thing has to come together. All those individual notes and rhythms, all the varied thoughts, all of it has to blend into a unified piece of music. You have to think about how you fit in with the other people playing and the people listening. Writing’s the same. Your words are unique, but if you want anyone to read them, you have to both stand out and blend in; you have to know where your writing fits in with other writers’ work and how it relates to your readers.

Don’t give up if you don’t sound like the masters.
The masters sound like the masters because they spent hours upon hours upon years upon years practising. Guess what? They didn’t sound like the masters, either, to start with. You have to sound like you, and then you practise and practise, and once you finish practising, you probably still won’t sound like the masters. You’ll still sound like you–but a better you. The world would be boring if you sounded like them anyway. Imagine if the whole world tried to write like Dickens, or Hemmingway, or Vonnegut.


Appreciate what you do.
Sometimes we get so bogged down in “I need to practise” that we forget that what we do is pretty amazing. One of the musicians at the festival said, “How many other people in the world can pick this thing up and make music on it consistently, on command, at nine in the morning?” Who but writers can spin entire worlds out of nothing, create characters so real we fall in love with them, or tease at emotions so universal and subtle that we hardly realise we have them? Ella Fitzgerald said, “God gave me this talent to use, so I just stand there and sing.” We get to write, guys. We get to do something that most people only dream of. If working at it starts to suck the joy out of the process, stop. Take a break. Breathe. Read something beautiful and remember why you write what you write. And then remember: it’s a privilege.

Fear is okay.
Everyone’s afraid. I’m afraid.You’re afraid. Our parents are afraid. Professionals are afraid. Being afraid is nothing to be ashamed of, but letting fear keep you back–that’s a different story. Everything worthwhile is hard, and everything you are about is scary. Admit that, accept that, then get off your tush and get at it.

Something else I learned about jazz and writing this weekend: the reason we make music is the same reason we write. It’s a love affair with a medium that moves us so deeply we can’t understand it, can’t overcome it, can’t walk away from it. It’s not about perfection or success; it’s about feeling.


**A note: most of the things I learned here were said or implied by Ralph Lalama, Sean Jones, or Dennis Mackrel; I regret to say I did not take notes on who specifically said what.


Easy Ways to Survive Writing a Novel

My memory extends back as far as, oh, about two minutes ago. And it’s J-Term, so I have no routine. And I never know what day of the week it is.

Okay, let’s be honest–I’m not even sure what time it is, much less what day it is….

Actually, I can’t remember how many weeks it’s been since I wrote a blog post.

(I have a really great one worked up — it’s all about pottery and clay and how I’m a perfectionist and totally terrified that I’ll make things explode in the kiln — but I’m saving it for next week, when all the pieces come out of their last firing and I know for certain whether anything of mine blew up or not.)

No blog posts does not mean no writing. I’ve been writing a lot, and it’s been terrifying, and I’m going to tell you about it…

See, I tried doing NaNoWriMo this year, and last year, and the year before…and you know what? November is a horrible month. November is Thanksgiving and final projects; it’s last-minute Christmas plans and last-minute registration; it’s reworking my four-year plan for the fifth time in two years. I gave up on NaNo because I spend the whole month feeling guilty–guilty for not writing whenever I’m doing other things, and guilty for not doing other things whenever I’m writing. It’s a lose-lose situation.

But January is J-Term, and J-Term is only two classes and almost no homework; it’s too cold to go outside and too quiet to be distracted. J-Term is endless pots of tea and supportive friends who do things like researching chemistry for me so I don’t overdose my characters and reading my awful first drafts and still telling me to be a writer. This is the J-Term of Actually Submitting Essays and of Resubmitting Rejected Things.

And it’s the J-Term of monomaniacally writing 50,000 words of a novel. This is a scary experience, but a few things are helping:

First of all, tea. Tea is not just about “oh Elizabeth is an addict.” (I am.) Tea is about putting your mind in a place that knows it’s writing a thing. Dieticians say (I know, because a dietician said to my mother) that if you build up a habit of eating something at a specific time or during a specific activity, you always feel hungry at that specific time or during that specific activity. Conversely, specific foods can make you think it’s time for a specific activity, like how that one spicy candle scent always smells like your grandma’s kitchen at Christmastime. I have taught my brain that when I sit down with whole pot of tea, it means it’s time to write a whole lot of words. This is not a guaranteed Writer’s-Block-Away, but it’s a definite help. (As a bonus, sipping at tea while staring intently at the last sentence you wrote improves your Wise Writer Appearance and looks impressive.)

The croissant is optional. The chocolate is not.


Second, Scrivener. I guess this isn’t really a tip of any kind, but I’m excited about it. I got the free trial over the summer, and I ran out of my free trial last week and bought the full programme. As an organisationally-challenged visual planner, it’s a lifesaver. It allows me to see my whole novel at a glance, to know where I’m going, to see tangibly how long or short the space is between an element’s introduction and climax. Plus, having spent money on it, I now feel compelled to use it regularly to make it worth the investment.

Third, attraction. Now, this can backfire, as I discovered. I’m spiralling into a depression because my favourite character is fictional and therefore not in my life, and I had to stop writing and go to bed the other night because I felt so guilty over breaking his wrist that I couldn’t focus. On the plus side, though, the more attracted I am to my characters, the more I want to write about them. When cranking out 50,000 words in a month, it helps if you want to be writing. And if you’re attracted enough to your character to want to write about him, you might also want to spend a while stalking celebrities scouring the internet for a playby–someone who looks similar. Snag a photo, keep it with your story, stare into your character’s beautiful eyes glance at it for inspiration when you’re not sure what your character would say or do at any point.

Fourth, prioritising–otherwise referred to as “stopping trying to change all the things before the whole draft is done.” Every time I start working, I remember some detail that will be important later and hasn’t been brought in yet. I remember some character who’s going to die and isn’t yet likeable enough to make the readers grieve. I notice that I called it a “wrought iron fence” in the first chapter and a “cement wall” in the sixth. I realise that Alex’s tell–the one Helen mentions a lot but never expounds on–only actually happens once. I realise I’ve mentioned Helen’s hair in every chapter and never said that Alex is blonde. But…I don’t fix these. Instead, I use the wonderful comments feature and leave a note to myself. “At some point, this needs to become important.” “Maybe we could make this consistent. Later.” “The second draft should probably include this way earlier.” And then I move on. It’s really hard to get words written when you’re busy trying to tweak other words. And a novel is kinda like one of those connect-the-dots pictures–until you’re finished connecting all the dots, it’s hard to know which lines you should have curved which direction. So I’m leaving the lines alone till the whole picture is done.

Fifth–no deadline. This is a personal project. I gave myself a goal to see if I could meet it. I told myself to finish during January because I have time during January, and in February I will not have time. But if I don’t finish by the end of January, nothing horrible will happen. I will not have an irate publisher or professor sending me angry emails or marking me down. My goal is 50,000 words by the end of January. If I get 40,000 done–or only 20,000 done–that’s still 40,000 or 20,000 more than I had at the end of December, and it’s still an accomplishment. Turns out I like soft deadlines. Not feeling panicked about the impending cutoff date clears my mind to think, to create, to critique. Turns out it’s easier to write when you don’t feel guilty.

Maybe I’m not a genius, and maybe you were hoping for a much deeper blog post–and maybe you’re a writer who’s feeling guilty about not working on a project, and today you needed me to give you permission to drink tea and search for playby photos instead of cranking out another few hundred agonising words.

I give you permission.

In fact, come by. I’ll make a pot of tea, and we’ll drink it together.

Books and tea