Learn to work the saxophone


Yesterday was Father’s Day.

Each year I do roughly the same thing. I call my father, spend some time with my wife and eldest daughter and end the day at my inlaws’ house celebrating with my father-in-law and other family members.

Tucked in the middle is a trip to the cemetery where I do some writing on a bench next to my youngest daughter’s grave. I never plan what I’m going to write. I show up and write what I feel.

I thought yesterday would be different. I headed off for the cemetery knowing what I was going to write about. There are two ghost stories I’ve been meaning to tell for years and I biked down to the cemetery with a notepad in my pocket intending to describe two ghostly encounters while surrounded by a field full of ghosts I’d never met.

It didn’t happen.

I should know better. Whether writing fact or fiction, prose or poetry, I can only consciously shape the content so much. I might tweak a word or a sentence, I might move a paragraph, or I might abandon a line of exploration which is leading nowhere. I don’t seem to be able to write from an outline or follow a path.

Clarence Clemons, the Big Man, the saxophonist who helped define Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band and much of my youth, died Saturday night. I loaded up some of their music onto my iPod shuffle and biked over to the cemetery. Somewhere during the twenty minutes it took me to bike from my home to the grave, the story must have taken shape.

I don’t know how else to explain it.

When I sat down on the bench and took out my notebook, the words just seemed to write themselves. The ending surprised me and the title suggested itself.

The point is not whether or not the writing was good or bad. My point is that you have to show up to write, you have to be prepared, and you have to be open to what comes out — often it won’t be what you expect.

There’s a video on YouTube of a live performance from 2009 of Jungleland. The piano open set my pen in motion. The guitar solo pushed the story onto the page with a greater urgency. The sax, however, made me pause. Clarence wasn’t providing a soundtrack, he was speaking. It was the ghost of concerts past. As his final note gave way to the piano the end of the story was clear.

Sometimes as a writer I’m not sure what my role is. It’s as if I’m just there to write things down.

Show up, be prepared, be open, keep writing.

More on that tomorrow. Because folks will ask, here’s a link to the story I wrote yesterday. What I wrote is not the point — the point is how it came to be.