Issue 51 Contributor Joseph Cavano blogs about…[wait for it]…
Erroll Garner, the great jazz pianist who never bothered to learn to read music, was making a record when the tape burst. His manager, Martha Glaser, signaled him to stop. He didn’t. Instead, he continued to play for another ten minutes. When he finished, Ms. Glaser stormed out of the control booth and inquired why he hadn’t. Erroll’s reply: “I wanted to see how it turned out.”
That simple, elegant story illustrates one of the most important lessons a writer must learn if he is going to improve: Knowing exactly where a story (or musical piece) is headed is often more curse than blessing.
The wonderful (and too-short lived) Flannery O’Connor said much the same thing. “I write to discover what I know,” she often explained, at once putting to rest the assumption by many readers (and perhaps some writers) that an author knows exactly where his story is headed. Writing based on such an assumption cheats both reader and writer.
Accomplished writers know better, and they aren’t afraid to say so. When Truman Capote was cornered by an obviously disappointed fan who had just discovered Truman often took months to finish a story while Jack Kerouac needed only a single session to complete his, Truman replied, “That’s not writing. That’s typing.”
Accomplished writers take the time to listen to their characters. If we’ve treated them fairly, they tell us the truth. We’re not upset when they surprise us.
Awhile back, a friend told me a story about an experience of his back in Vietnam during the war. He’d unknowingly gotten into a card game with a disreputable group of soldiers. A fine card player, he was well ahead by early morning. When it came time for the last game, the others doubled down in an effort to recoup some of their losses. A card counter, my friend knew the queen of hearts was the only card that could beat him, and it had already been played. When it magically re- appeared, he had the choice of calling someone out and risking a severe beating — maybe death — or folding his cards and walking away. He chose the latter and got to tell the story.
The point is this: that story became a short story I wrote called “Comet’s.” The heroine is a sixteen year old girl from Georgia who struggles to not repeat the mistake of her older sister and end up pregnant.
How did I go from Vietnam to Georgia? From a twenty year old soldier to a country girl and a handsome new bad-boy in town who threatens to ruin her life? I suppose my friend’s story led me to think about how vulnerable we all are — especially when we’re young and something as strong as sexual attraction corners us. In the end, maybe we too have no choice but to fold our cards and try to walk away.
I took the time to listen to my characters, and I wasn’t afraid to follow wherever that led.
I think the best writers are a lot like jazz musicians. Neither knows where he’s going until he gets there.
Joseph Cavano is the author of two short story collections, Half-Past Nowhere (2008) and Love Songs in Minor Keys (2009). Twice a Glimmer Train finalist, his stories have earned many awards and appeared in both print and digital media. “Story Cloth” recently appeared in Potomac Review Issue 51. His latest story, “The Honey Wagon,” took second place in the 2011 Doris Betts Fiction Prize and will appear in the Summer 2012 North Carolina Literary Review. Cavano has an M.A. in English from American University and a B.A. in English from Marist College. An accomplished jazz pianist, he often performs at signings.