I had the pleasure of stopping in at Ginsberg-Gainsburg last Wednesday night. It is the sister Spoken Word to Spoken Word Paris. Its structure is the same, 5 minutes to do whatever the heck you want with the two microphones they have in the basement of Lolita Bar.
There was an inundation of Stand-up comedians that I am told is not always typical. There’s not much I want to say about the Stand-up comedians other than, keep going, guys, and maybe someday you’ll get good. I’ve seen it happen.
What I do want to talk is one performer than read excerpts from her notes on a play that she is writing. I am not against sharing drafts or "raw art" or whatever you want to call it. I have occasionally done it myself.
But I dimly perceive that there are people who think that somehow this way of presenting unrevised, unpolished work is somehow more authentic than revised work, which some see as easily cliché or conventional.
I think it’s understood that free-writing is a bit like "writing improv" that can produce spontaneous genius the way rehearsed or revised writing cannot. It’s a free ticket into the authentic experience of the artist’s mind.
I disagree. I free-write a lot and rarely share it for the following reason: The results are often too disjointed to be meaningful to anyone but me.
Whatever medium of expression you’re using, language, paint, wood, fashion, thread, film, metal, clay, the body and blood of Christ, the substance of your art exists outside of your own mind. If there is a substance native to the human mind, that is a substance to thought, I do not know what it is. Art is a conduit of communication between your mind and the minds of others.
So when you pick your medium, you must be conscious of its conventions and physicalities.
Especially in performance, even 5-minute performances in dingy basements.
The reception of your audience has been shaped by what has come before and what is happening now. If you are conscious of this, you do not need to worry about being cliché. Clichés are things that have been used so much and in so many varied contexts that where they once meant just one thing, they meant many things, then too many things, and now, nothing at all. A work that is produced mindfully and imaginatively cannot produce a cliché because mindfulness and imagination require being present in this place, at this moment, which has never existed before and will not exist again.
It’s well-known that Shakespeare (I’m going to take a leap here and assume Shakespeare revised his work) coined more than 2000 words and many more phrases. I have read scholars who attribute something more like 15,000 words to Shakespeare. Let’s stick with at least 2,000 neoligisms since it is more than enough to impress. Nearly every new usage is unique: It was born of a single, apt context.
That context wasn’t Shakepeare’s mind, it was the events and the poetry of his play, which he carefully crafted so that we might experience the intricacies of his thought. Each situation, each phrase was an original invention for a unique situation You can read about this in many places, including the introduction to this book.
People who present their drafts as if they deserve attention should keep this in mind. Everything you create is new. Congratulations. But to make it unique, to make it seem new to other people, you have to be conscious of your piece as a whole, you have to imagine specific contexts that haven’t been imagined yet. The effects should seem spontaneous, but really they are the result of careful thought and deliberate construction.
As for conventions, they are useful to know and fun to play with. They guide how your art will participate in all the art the audience has seen before. There are a million and seven examples of this. The common example: Joyce’s Ulysses would not exist without the narrative conventions of The Odyssey. The contemporary example : Girls would not be nearly so interesting if we weren’t constantly comparing it in our minds to depictions of the female body and sex in shows like Friends and Sex and the City. The obvious example: Everything Quentin Tarantino has ever done. Ever.
I’m not saying it’s bad to share drafts at Open Mikes. Do as you like. Maybe it helps the creative process or impresses a cute someone in the audience. Maybe it helps you get over stage-fright. Whatever. Thank God, we all only have five minutes.
I find my mind coming back to those stand-up comedians. Poor bastards. Nowhere is polish more necessary and more difficult than in stand-up comedy. You have to rehearse your jokes so that they rise above the level of everyday funniness, but the jokes will fail if they seem rehearsed. It’s not an easy task to take what comes spontaneously to your mind and to transform it into something worthy of repetition, attention and (fingers-crossed) laughter.
A bit of polish - editing, rehearsal, practice, anything really - can make whatever creative chaos springs from your brain into a powerful shared experience, which is the point of art in the first place.
Ginzberg-Gainsberg is every other Wednesday night at Lolita in Soho. It starts around 8pm, which still feels early.
Like a fool I missed Patrick Hipp’s Spoken Word New York last Sunday. It’s the... uh... other sister to Spoken Word Paris. The sororial relations of open-mike nights are an endless adventure. I’ll be there next month and in the meantime, I’m checking out other venues.