While eating breakfast before work yesterday, I watched this video.
About five minutes in, there’s an interview with Peter Hook about recording Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” While mostly focused on the song, Hook talks about the times and some bits about the process behind the recording.
He focuses a bit about his bass style with Joy Division. Many bassists lean into the lower strings when playing, but Joy Division had a different sound: a low and brooding singer and…higher bass notes.
It seems like something done by design, but it turns out Peter Hook had a crappy amplifier. When he played low notes, it sounded like sludge. Only when playing higher up could the bass actually be heard.
Later, when he got a decent amp, singer Ian Curtis told him to keep playing high.
It was a signature sound created not by design, but by circumstance.
I’ve written long enough that I can see how my writing has changed over the years. Older stories tend to have fewer settings and leaps in time. Part of this, I’m sure, was me figuring out how to write, but when it came to comic book scripts I was also writing early on, I jumped around. There’s something about the design of comic book stories that lends itself to that kind of thing, whereas the prose I used to write was more grounded in place.
Sometimes that place was one room, with flashbacks to other things necessary for the sake of the story. Other times, I might have jumped around a bit between characters and scenes, but the stories I told were linear. That changed when I was in a writing group with a couple friends years ago and often produced one or two stories a month for that.
One of my friends from that writing group recently mentioned how much he likes the changes of time and place in my stories today. No longer do I fret about smooth segues and explanation like I once did. If something requires what I might have deemed a jarring leap in the past, that’s what I do.
Sure, part of it is realizing that trying to explain everything slows a story down, but much of the things people like about the stories I tell today is not be design. Like Peter Hook’s high bass notes, it’s a result of what I have to deal with.
Not By Design
While I am very fortunate to often have hours to write before work, I still find myself writing when I can — sometimes, in less-than-ideal conditions. Right now, my wife is doing laundry back here in the office. I can hear her in the living room when she’s not back here. Shadows play at the right side of my peripheral vision as she moves around.
To be clear, my wife and I have long established boundaries when I’m writing or she’s doing art, but each of us often create not in solitude, but in what would be deemed chaos to others.
When I go into the office, I write by hand during lunch breaks in cafeterias so loud that music can’t block out the sound.
With the exceptions of very early morning writing sessions, I rarely have time for the intense focus I prefer when I write. (And even then, sometimes my wife wakes up very early as well, and she has every right to get up and move about. Perhaps when we have more room, I’ll find better solitude, but our apartment isn’t even 850 square feet, so we do the best we can with what we have.)
All this is to say that much of what might seem like style in my writing is really circumstance.
I used to have jobs that required little thought. Today, I’m paid better because my job requires me to give some of my brain to thinking about work even when I’m not working. Before COVID hit, my only writing time each day was an hour lunch break in a crowded cafeteria. Today, I often write among domestic distractions.
My process now involves writing little chunks by hand, or chunking out bits of stories in Scrivener as I build a new story from little more than an idea. While my phone makes no noise (and I’m good at not distracting myself online while writing), there are times I’m waiting for a message and I flip my phone over so I can see it light up or check email to see if the message has come through.
My choices are to deal with all this, or be precious about my writing time and end up pissy because things aren’t like they once were, when I had dark and quiet times during which to write.
The stories I write are, at least in part, a product of the environment and circumstances under which they are written. This is not to say I don’t have the luxury of those silent mornings I crave, but they are not guaranteed.
And so, I write when and how I can — and a fortunate side effect of that is people seem to like the effect of necessity on the stories I tell.
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Image: Darius Bashar.