What I’ve Been Up to Lately (Mr Xquisite, pt. 1)

It’s that time of year again… School’s out in a few weeks, and my mind is turning toward creative projects I’ll want to tackle over the summer. Right now, I have two in mind. The first is a short work of nonfiction about a fairly obscure album by a legendary band that I’ve always been a fan of. Assuming all goes according to plan, the other project will be an extremely obscure album by an even more obscure band that nobody has ever been a fan of–yet!

With any luck, I’ll get to talk about the book project somewhere down the line. For now, here’s what’s up with the music…

My friend Shaun Haurin got in touch with me a while back to ask if I’d be interested in writing some music for a concept album he had in mind. He and I met when we were both on the editorial board of a local literary magazine, and then we were in a couple of writers groups together. A few years back, I edited a volume of short stories he wrote for PS Books titled Public Displays of Affectation.

Given our track record of working together, collaborating on an album sounded like it could be fun. But there was a catch: Shaun has no real musical training to speak of. As a result, we frequently have conversations that go something like this:

Me: Any thoughts on how you want this one to sound?

Shaun: Hard-driving and fast, like a maelstrom of sound and fury with a real punk edge. Like someone losing his mind. Completely schizophrenic.

Me: Like this?

Shaun: No, not like that. More like the Cure’s “Pillbox Tales.”

Me: Uhh… (Taking a second to find the song on YouTube.) Okay, like this?

Shaun: Kind of. But with the sound of breaking glass. Not actual breaking glass, but the sound that the sound of breaking glass sounds like. Something big we can use as a leitmotif throughout the song.

Me: Wow. Leitmotif.

Shaun: Nice word, huh?

Me: Very nice.

Shaun: I learned it in college.

It’s a challenging process–and fun, too. I’m writing music that I never would have written on my own, and as a result, I’m also pushing into new territory. Here’s a brief snippet of the song we were working on when we had the conversation above:

Definitely different from anything I’ve recorded in the past! The song is called “The Bride (A Web of Men),” and it’s based on Marcel DuChamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. (Hence the “breaking glass” request.) So far, we have rough sketches of three songs down, and there will likely be a total of nine for the whole project. They range in style from very heavy (like “The Bride”) to mellow and jazzy.

Shaun has proposed Mr Xquisite as a band name, and the album will be called Doppelgangerous, as his lyrics swirl around themes of doubling and duplicity. In terms of my own role in the project, I’m reminded of something I read about the recording of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Basically, Roger Waters described the sounds he wanted, then David Gilmour and the other members of the band brought the album to life. Of course, working relations in Mr Xquisite are much healthier than they were in Pink Floyd, so we should be able to get the album done without all the melodrama. (Or so one hopes.)

More to come as our work continues…

Plays Well With Others

On Friday night, I had the good fortune of seeing the Madhouse Theater Company perform a short piece that I had written called “Whatever.” It was the third piece of mine that they had done, and I’ve always been blown away by seeing the group in action. But it’s not just just seeing my words come alive that’s so gratifying; I also love working with Madhouse because the company’s co-director, John Stanton, is great about sharing ideas and working with writers.

Since I’d written for Madhouse before, John emailed me with the very basic idea for the piece, and I gave him a rough draft, which served as a good starting point. We went back and forth for a bit, tweaking the script here and there until it really popped. For example, after I showed him the first draft, he suggested making the actor more of an egomaniac. In the original, the actor was just kind of dumb and couldn’t remember his lines, but John’s suggestion to turn him into an egomaniac opened the door for more comic potential. From there, we started thinking of the actor as a minor celebrity, which paved the way for the director to openly pander to him. The end result was, to my mind, anyway, hilarious — and much better than my original draft.

Coincidentally — or perhaps not so coincidentally — I’ll have a piece called “Blurb of Myself” going live on the online edition of Pank magazine this Monday. Once again, it’s the result of a healthy, creative dialogue between myself and an editor. Much like “Whatever,” “Blurb of Myself” started out one way and ended up another; this time around, I had written a straight essay about my ambivalence at seeing excerpts from book reviews I’ve written appear on book covers and on blogs. The editor of Pank sent me an email asking if I’d be willing to rewrite the essay in blurb form — that is, to make the essay consist entirely of blurbs. As with my rewrite of “Whatever,” the final version of “Blurb of Myself” was a lot more interesting and packed a much funnier and poignant punch.

The point of all of this is to underscore some related points that I frequently try to make to my students (with greater or lesser success):

  • Let go of your ego. This is probably particularly difficult for writers, especially since we spend so much time playing God with the lives of our characters. But if you don’t let go of your ego, you’ll never be able to engage in the kind of creative dialogue I’m talking about.
  • Be open to outside input. This input can come in many forms — editors, friends, and writers’ groups, to name just a few. As my experience with Madhouse and Pank suggests, being open to other people’s ideas can lead your work in delightfully unexpected directions.
  • Be willing to cut. This is probably the hardest concept for my students to accept, but my experience bears out the value of this advice. With “Whatever,” John Stanton basically told me to junk my first draft and start over. The same goes for “Blurb of Myself.” And The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl. Is it always easy to cut something you like? No. But in the end, it can make for a stronger piece of writing.

Needless to say, not all writers are cut out for the kind of give-and-take that collaboration entails. But if my own experience is any indication, collaboration can lead your work in new and exciting directions, particularly if you’re willing to put your ego aside and accept that some of your best writing might actually come as a result of listening to somebody else’s ideas.