Moving Out of the Comfort Zone
In the January 2003 issue of DOWNBEAT MAGAZINE, editor Jason Koransky uses his column to wax poetic about musicians who write about music. He titled the column: Those Who Know
the Music, Write. He was specifically talking about jazz saxophonist Greg Osby who wrote a cover story about pianists Jason Moran and Andrew Hill. Koransky writes about Osby, Im
glad he (Osby) enjoys writing, because having him interview artists provides a perspective on the music to which most writers arent privy. Prominent musicians interviewing
prominent musicians, or writing essays with an insiders perspective on the scene, elicits a level of musical
comprehension--an affinity for a shared cause--that makes for
DOWNBEAT, with its subtitle: Jazz, Blues & Beyond, has a long history
of musicians writing about their industry, their craft and each
other. If I
were one of the writers [who] arent privy, I think I might take offense
to Koranskys assertion, but to his credit he never says that
musicians-writing-about-music are better than us non-musicians. He only states that their work makes for fascinating reading. One can only surmise that he was saving his
editorial hide in that regard.
Nonetheless, he piqued my interest and to further my curiosity, the
title of the article included the phrase: On Composition,
the Creative Process. Always drawn to anything that has to do with the
creative process, I went directly to page 24. Now lest anyone think that I
have some sort of expertise in jazz, blues & beyond, the only reason
DOWNBEAT happens to be resting on my desk is that I have a son who is
studying jazz at the
University of North Texas and this subscription was a
Christmas gift to him (not me).
So, okay, Im thinking. Lets take a look at this fascinating reading. I
realize, after the first few lines that the teacher in me is challenging the piece. Im approaching it with the old English professor adage that a well-written essay should
appeal to anyone. In other words, if the writer has done his or her job well, a lay reader should be able to enjoy it without too much of a struggle. In fairness, this was a
rather mean-spirited approach on my part. After all, DOWNBEAT is primarily directed toward a targeted audience, and not necessarily to musicians mothers.
commercial magazine, in order to survive, also has to have
enough broad appeal that an outsider might subscribe to it or at least pick
it up in the doctors office.
Right? So was the reading fascinating? Actually, most of it did fall into that category. It was obvious throughout that the author truly admired the two people he was
interviewing, that he had a firm grasp of the technical aspects of their conversation, and that his questions could probably only have come from someone who understood the
challenges and triumphs of performers as only a fellow performer could. (I confess to feeling a little dusted when the discussion became technical, but a small bit of confusion
doesnt bother me).
So what does any of this have to do with students and publishing?
First of all, I hate to say that it reaffirms the old tenet write what
know, because I believe that the actual process of writing helps us
find what we know or at least leads us to those places where we can come to
having a foundation of knowledge can provide a starting point, but
too often I think it can be a trap as well. To follow the tenet too closely
can be deadening and cut
us off from further discovery. If we urge our
students to write what you know, arent we also giving them the unspoken other half of that rule: dont venture into unknown
territory. I have an image of a winged demon with a huge red pen waiting to strike anyone venturing into such a realm.
But theres that tiny element of truth, isnt
there? The author Greg Osby clearly knows the territory hes writing about. Hes steeped in it. Not only that, but hes a personal acquaintance of both of his subjects. Hes well
within his comfort zone. However, to say that the piece is comfortable would be an injustice. In fact, theres an edginess about it that makes the reader just a bit
uncomfortable. Osby asks his subjects hard questions, questions that delve beneath the superficial aspects of playing jazz piano. I suspect that he could have written an article
on the basics with questions like: how many hours a day do you practice? or what is your favorite brand of electric keyboard? or even who inspires you? and in fact, these
questions were inside of the tougher questions that he did ask about composition, imitation, listening, and relationships to other musicians.
So maybe thats what were
missing when we teach writing--discomfort.
What if, instead of urging our students to write what they know, we pressed
them to write into the discomfort zone? In other
words, what if we
encouraged them to write past what they knew, so that they were forced to
ask questions and to push beyond where they felt comfortable?
convinced, based on my college students writing, that we have not
done a good job of teaching our students how to ask questions. Not only
questions of technique, but
questions that can bring life to their art. At
the most basic level, we can help a student bring his or her writing to a
higher standard by simply getting them to
incorporate the five senses into
One of my students, a very bright college junior, wrote a series of poems based on her painful experience of being sexually abused by an older
relative when she was quite
young. For her to even write the poems was a
monumental and hugely courageous step, but when she did finally get them on the page, they failed to represent the profound pain
that was so apparent in her desire to write them. She could name the feelings--anger, sadness,
depression--but those came across as generic. When I encouraged her to
return to the poems and simply incorporate colors, smells, sounds, tastes
and textures, the poems came alive. She walked out of the comfort zone of
naming into the
discomfort zone of imagery.
By discomfort, I dont mean to confuse topic with process. Im not a
therapist and I dont push my students to write about these hard
unless they choose to do so. But I do push them to ask deeper and deeper
questions about whatever topic they are writing about. Its not until they
run out of
questions that their work can fully emerge.
At a higher level, beyond the senses, we can encourage our students to
ask the more abstract questions of how, why, and
what if? In the case of
my junior, these questions werent necessary because the entire process of
writing and reading her poems continually asked the question why.
Once a writer has pushed into the discomfort zone, the reader can become engaged. Its the same thing as having a cliffhanger at the end of the chapter. Its the discomfort of not knowing that
makes us turn the page. If we were comfortable at the end of the chapter, wed never finish the book.
Discomfort makes us act.
Political writers know this: If
you elect a Republican, the forests will die. If you elect a Democrat, well all be on welfare. Quick, to the polls! Advertisers know this: Without beer, we cant have a party.
Add Millers to the grocery list!
Its our nature as humans to move toward a sense or feeling of comfort,
but ironically, the only way to get there is by being
If were comfortable, we dont solve problems.
In the publishing industry, its not the topics that get published.
DOWNBEATs articles examine
the same topics over and over--jazz, blues & beyond. Those articles that make the cut go beyond whats comfortable,
beyond the superficial, they go beyond beyond.
When we urge our own young writers to go from the known into the
unknown, were also educating them to be a good reading audience. Students who are able to ask questions about their peers
work can become better questioners of their own work and thus better questioners of print media in general. This can never happen if the interchange is only between teacher and
writer. It has to happen in an open atmosphere where the goal for everyone in the class is to publish and the exchange of ideas is a given.
If the audience is too small, the
writing is small too.
So Mr. Koransky was correct in his assertion that essays about music
written by musicians can make for fascinating reading. But if I were
authors teacher, I would encourage him to think beyond the targeted
audience for in fact his article felt a little clubby and despite my
fascination I felt a
little excluded. I would urge him to move beyond what
he knew--and in this case what he knew was a particular audience. And it
was too small. Next time I would encourage
him to consider his audiences
mothers and others of us who love music and musicians even though we arent performers ourselves. Because you see, Mr. Koransky, its not only
those who know the music who write. More importantly, its those who want to know the music. We write too.
Kathi Appelt is the author of over twenty books for children and young adults. She teaches at Texas A&M University and in the MFA in Writing for Children program at
Vermont College in Montpelier, Vermont. She lives with her husband Ken in College Station, Texas.