Ben Peek (benpeek) wrote,
Ben Peek

  • Music:

Cruising Paradise.

I've been reading, in bits and pieces, Sam Shepard's Cruising Paradise. I've only recently become aware of Shepard the writer, and this is the first collection of prose that I've read. It's a strange little beast, a mixture of diary entries, short stories, and dialogue pieces that blend until you're not quite sure which is about Shepard and which is not. This could just be the downside of my own personal desire not to find the author's life in every piece that he or she writes, but there is, in the book, a line that is blurred. It's hard to talk about the single pieces of the book, because there's no real piece that jumps out and defines the collection. Rather, Shepard has created a weave of short pieces that, at the end, feel as if they're blended into one. It's a rare trick, I think, and is done through Shepard's fascination and love for America and the sharp images he creates.

However, one of my favourite moments is in a story called 'Wild to the Wild'. It's about a three teenagers who are trying to be a band, but are always breaking their practice to go off in search of the wolf that they own. (Apparently, at one stage in American history, you could buy wild animals through mail order.) Anyhow, they find the wolf by the train line and break into an argument about the band.

"I hate 'Old black Magic,' to tell you the truth," Mitchell said as he tossed a chunk of gravel at the iron rail. "Stupid lyrics. 'Those icy fingers up and down my spine. That same old witchcraft when your eyes meet mine.' What kinda corny horseshit is that?"

"We're not playing the lyrics," Nat said. "That's not the point. It doesn't matter what the lyrics are. We're playing the tune. You hate the Peggy Lee version, but I've been trying to tell you we aren't trying to imitate the Peggy Lee version."

"What are we trying to imitate, then?" I asked.

"It's not a question of imitation," Nat persisted. "It's more like laying foundation. We can't just develop our own style out of thin air."

"Why not?" Mitchell said.

"Because that's not the way it happens!" Nat got more agitated with his handkerchief-rubbing. "We have to memorize the old standards. We gotta get those down so well we could do them in our sleep. 'Blue Moon,' 'Down by the Old Mill Stream'--stuff like that. Classics. Then we can start to innovate and develop our own sound. It's a slow evolution. That's how a band gets born."

"Well, I'm sick of that forties shit," Mitchell said as he grazed the rail with another chunk of gravel. The wolf pricked his ears at the high stinging sound, then rolled over on his side and kept up his rapid panting.

"I think we oughta try some improvising," I said. "What's the point of memorizing the standards if we're never gonna play 'em? We never play them at the sock hops."

"Because it gives us a background to build on. A foundation," Nat said. "We're not gonna play sock hops forever.Without the basics, we're just finishing in the dark."

It struck me as interesting, and not in a brand new way for me. It's an old thought. I've never been any student of music, outside the fifth to ninth rate ability I have to play the harmonica badly, but it struck a cord in me in the way that you teach people to write. You skirt the idea that you should copy an author's work because it's plagiarism, which yes, it is, and that's just bad. But language is learnt, primarily, through reading and hearing it from somewhere else, so there is an automatic degree of plagiarism--it's just that after we hear it for a while, we translate it into our own voices, our own language. Indeed, I find myself these days in my classes that I tell people that the aim is to copy an author and turn it into their own work... but I was thinking, while reading this, was that maybe it ought to be said that it's okay for a writer, either at the beginning, or learning a new genre style, to linger and recreate author's works in private. That indeed, this is a good, valuable thing to do, and is part of the process to building up to an individual voice.

At any rate, who knows. It was just a thought that occurred to me, and it might not even be a good one.

I've also been thinking about other genres, of late. The two topics tie in with each other, and maybe I've just gotten a bit restless; but of late, a lot of the things I see round local and international speculative fiction scenes are a bit of the same old shit. Probably more of the former scene than the latter, since I haven't been able to keep track of as much as I usually do, and most of my publishing is done locally. But to reference back to Shepard's story, there is  this sense that things haven't properly gotten to the stage where they're innovating, where they've gotten their own voice. Being, of course, that that is just one person's opinion, it's easy to ignore it, but it's a thought that has been catching my feet for the last six months, maybe longer. Might just be me. Might be that I've been standing still too long, and the grass has grown long and bright green under me like it does when you put a car up on cinder blocks.

Probably is.


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