Why writing is a performance art, like concert piano playing

Writing is as much a performance art as anything else. Let me explain.

Moonlight SonataWriting is a constant learning curve, but there are stages along the way – and these include the Pit of Illusory Skill. This happens when newly acquired knowledge isn’t accompanied by experience – because ‘the rules’, strictly speaking, don’t define quality. They’re necessary to know – but don’t express all that writing must be. The analogy is music, which delivers to listeners the same emotional charge that great writing also provides to readers. Naturally according to personal taste – among other things (more on that soon) – but there are still principles that work across the field.

Let me explain. If you play one of the classics, let’s say Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor, ‘Moonlight’, strictly according to the notation, it sounds plonky and stupid. I know: I started playing it like that, way back when.

That was soon corrected by my piano teacher: the trick is to infuse unwritten expression into the piece – something that has to be created by the performer, and which was always envisaged by the composer. Some of the requirements were obvious: Beethoven wanted the first movement to evoke shimmering, so the triplets couldn’t be played straight: they had to float dynamically. That demanded subtle changes of both volume and rhythm, something that from Beethoven’s perspective had only recently been made possible via that mad new keyboard instrument called a Soft Loud (aka ‘Tranquil Strong’). This was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori in the early eighteenth century, but it took a while for composers to figure out what it could really do emotionally. Bach didn’t like the piano he heard. Now go listen to one of Mozart’s piano pieces and compare it to Beethoven.

There was the time I talked my way into playing a 92-key Bösendorfer concert grand, which has a phenomenal tone colour that to my mind blows a Steinway Model D into the ground when it comes to being able to express emotional feel. I hit it with ‘Louie Louie’. But I digress.

I won’t inflict my own playing on you. Trust me, it’s better that way. There are reasons why I chose writing. Instead, check out this lovely interpretation by Tiffany Poon. Watch, particularly, as she prepares herself – the piece starts 45 seconds in. This is something writers need to do too, before writing. And yes, it’s a performance art – even if you’re writing for yourself – because it’s ultimately also about translating and transferring emotions.

That’s the thing about writing. You can obey the rules – but knowing how to make the writing express itself, to invoke the emotion you want in the reader is a learned skill. It means bending those rules in a controlled way – and that skill only comes with experience. What’s more, there’s only one way to get that experience – which is to keep writing, keep learning, and don’t be afraid to throw away the practise stuff. Engage in writing exercises. One of my favourites is this:

  1. Write a passage, say 150 words, involving (i) a character action, and (ii) their emotional response to it, ideally with dialogue. Write it as you normally would.
  2. Read something by an author of known quality – J K Rowling, for instance, whose work is extremely good on all levels, including styling.
  3. Look at the rhythm of the words – the flow of the text. Identify what the unique features are in the selected author’s work.
  4. Now write that original passage of your own again, this time deliberately ‘in the style of’ the chosen other author.
  5. Compare the two passages for flow.
  6. Repeat the exercise with another author.

Do this enough, and that ability to mould words – to understand how styling works – should emerge. Probably by bursting upon you, suddenly, when you least expect it.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


14 thoughts on “Why writing is a performance art, like concert piano playing

  1. The exercise you mention at the end is very effective for writing book blurbs. Studying the style and structure of professionally edited and written blurbs and then trying to recreate the style for your own work is an eye opening activity.

    I never thought of writing as a performance art, but I’m sure other writers have had that experience of ‘waking up’ at the end of a writing session, and the atmosphere of what you’ve written continues to follow you around for several moments. You were lost in the work.

    1. To me, ‘writing in the style of’ is one of the most important writing exercises, because of what it teaches writers about how to take command of words. It can only be gained, in any real sense, by actually doing it.

  2. I’m going to make your exercise my mission for this week, Matthew. Thank you for the inspiration. (And also for that *wonderful* interpretation of Beethoven’s famous sonata.)

  3. This is a truly brilliant post. I’m still listening to Poon’s interpretation (and it really is very different – and far better) that what I’ve heard before. The “rhythm” of the words is something I’m still working on. Some writers have the ability to make you “fall” into a story as though slipping into a dream. I imagine some are naturals at this. I’m not one of them. I really have to work at it. Every flash fiction piece I write has elements of this. I can’t always do it as long as I want because I want the piece to “move.” It’s that setting of the stage and the feel and the tone that I’m looking for. Asimov wasn’t any good at this at all, but Bradbury mastered it. I still tread in the path of Bradbury and hope, with exercises such as what you suggest, I can match the strides of my favorite author.

    1. They certainly work (well, certainly for me – and hopefully for you!). The Poon interpretation of the Pathetique is truly interesting – maybe a direction that this sort of music is heading in. I did wonder about putting up my own performance of the piece, but (and this is absolutely true) my concert piano career consisted of (a) my sitting down with a Steinway 9-foot Model D grand on stage in front of a theatre audience; (b) playing the first two or three bars of Beethoven’s “Pathetique”, and (c) Two gentlemen from offstage emerging shouting “Noooooooo!”, lifting me off the piano stool, and carrying me away. OK, it was by arrangement – this was in my student days when I was part of a student theatre group and it was a deliberate part of a comedy routine. But hey…🙂 These days I couldn’t play any of this to save myself (besides which, I don’t have a piano and my 1980s-vintage Roland poly-synth hasn’t been run in years…)

  4. I started to comment on this post and mentally composed three paragraphs before realizing I was straying from “comment” territory. I’d like to write a proper, long form response to this on my own blog (linking back to this post, of course, and with an honest recommendation that people ought to be following your blog anyway). Unless you object, I expect to have it ready early next week.

Comments are closed.