A few years ago I took a workshop at California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco with singer and arranger Linda Tillery. Linda said many remarkable things in that workshop. She has a profound understanding of the roots of African American music and she interprets traditional music, from children’s rhyming games to spirituals, in a way that makes those sounds as contemporary as Kanye West.
At one point in the workshop, Linda asked everyone to clap. After a few measures, she waved her hands in a Stop, Stop, Stop gesture. “That’s not how you clap!” she shouted at us. We were trying to make music in that I’m-so-embarrassed-to-be-clapping way where our hands had all the crispness of two overcooked butterfly pasta noodles.
“If you clap, you have to commit to it!” Linda insisted. “You were clapping like this…” And she made us laugh by imitating our half-hearted, self-conscious motions. “No, you cup you hands, and you bring them together like this!” She pounded that left hand so hard against her right one (I think she’s left-handed), I couldn’t believe how loud the sound was that just her two hands made. “Now you do it!” And sure enough, when we cupped our hands and brought the strong one together with the still one, using concentrated force, the sound was ten times louder, and so much clearer, and so much more powerful. “That’s what I’m talkin’ about!” Linda praised.
If you want to see an example of what Linda means by clapping with commitment, watch the video below and pay attention to the woman on the left—that’s Linda. It’s amazing how something so simple, something we all think we know how to do, can be done much better if it’s done with conviction.
So, what does this have to do with writing? I think it’s true of all art, that if you take on a project, if you give yourself a homework assignment, you have to it with all your heart. You can’t do it half-heartedly, or self-consciously, as if you didn’t have the right to do what you’re doing.
That doesn’t mean that if you compose a sonnet it has to be exactly fourteen lines with just the right rhyme scheme and number of syllables and stresses. Writing with commitment is not about following rules. It’s about following through on your idea.
For example, if you write a story or a novel or a persona poem with a certain type of narrator or if you create a character in a play, that voice has to be true to the person who’s speaking, and true throughout. You can’t just phone it in if your narrator or character is of the opposite sex from you, or has a different way of talking. You’ve got to make every word ring with that voice.
Similarly, if you’re writing about some part of your life or about an issue that’s important to you that you’ve never revealed or confronted before, you can’t just give little hints that hide the story more than tell it. You’ve got to let it rip. If you’re making the rhythm of the words an element in the poetry or prose, those words, those sounds, have got to have the impact of Linda Tillery’s hands when she claps.
Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry?
Poetic Forms: Introduction; The Sonnet, The Sestina, The Ghazal, The Tanka, The Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry