how to tell a story #2 | virtual book

how to tell a story #2

(This is an excerpt from my piece The Virtual Book.)

#essays #mediums #story-telling #music #photography #videos #journalism Mentioned in Herbie Hancock: Possibilities (2014), how to show instead of telling

As satisfying as it was to hear Herbie narrate the

stories in his audiobook

how to reinvent yourself

(This is an excerpt from my piece The Virtual Book.)

#essays #music #jazz #creativity #religion #art #career Mentioned in Herbie Hancock: Possibilities (2014), how to show instead of telling, how to tell a story #2

The first song of Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi is hard to describe. It eases in with watery synths and a muted trumpet, then a jagged riff played simultaneously on bass guitar and bass clarinet. The repetition of the riff becomes our steadying grip as the pace quickens and more instruments enter the flurry, each swirling in its own direction. For thirteen minutes, we follow Herbie and his crew as they chase the thrill of charting new territory.

Navigating Herbie’s diverse discography is just as difficult. A musical genius with a tinkering habit, Herbie composed jazz standards like Cantaloupe Island in the 60s, made funk classics in the 70s, and brought DJ scratching into the mainstream in the 80s. Often he’d reinterpret his old compositions using whatever new sounds he was experimenting with. The new millennium still did not slow Herbie. In 2008, he took home the Grammy for Album of the Year for a tribute to singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell. Now in his 80s, he tours the world playing his music. Spanning decades and genres, Herbie’s career almost makes more sense as the work of Herbie Hancock, Herbie Hancock Jr, and Herbie Hancock III.

In his memoir, Possibilities (2014), Herbie tells the stories that spurred his musical digressions. In the late 60s and early 70s, at a time when Herbie and his band engaged with Black Nationalist ideas of self-discovery and self-determination, Herbie’s music was spontaneous and experimental. Each band member adopted a Swahili name. Herbie became Mwandishi, meaning ‘composer’ or ‘writer’. The group improvised freely, unconcerned with reaching a wide audience. At their peak, their performances were spiritual experiences for the band and the small, captivated crowd.

It felt like the music was playing us, coming down from somewhere above, and we were just the vessels…everything my fingers played was connecting perfectly to everything [they were] playing. As we got deeper into the music we became one big, pulsating creature…

One day, after a rare night of partying through sunrise with his bandmates, a sleep-deprived Herbie could not muster the energy to start the show. He figured Buster Williams — AKA Mchezaji, ‘skilled player’— could ease them in with the bass; but then the intro became a 10-minute solo that jerked the band awake. By the end of the night, audience members had tears in their eyes. Herbie demanded an explanation from his bassist, and the answer would change his life: Nichiren Buddhism.

The couple hours that the band had spent sleeping before the show Williams had spent chanting Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō, a Buddhist meditation aiming to “fuse your life with the mystic law of cause and effect through sound.” Until now, Herbie had only found spiritual philosophies preaching esoteric ideas, demanding blind faith, and promising little until the afterlife. Buddhism offered a simple practice to empower him as a musician in this world. So Herbie did what Herbie does: he experimented.

As Herbie delved deeper into Buddhist practice and Mwandishi came to a natural end, he discovered a desire to connect to a broader audience. He nurtured inspiration from The Pointer Sisters and Sly & the Family Stone, resisting the “musical elitism” that would have him look down on funk music. In 1973, months after releasing his last Mwandishi record, Herbie released the groove-riddled Head Hunters debut album, one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time. Actual Proof, a song from the second Headhunters album, is named after Nichiren Buddhism’s promise to benefit one’s earthly life.

, it was frustrating to never hear his music. Music snippets would’ve expressed much more than descriptions like “gorgeous house of sound” and “river of gorgeous sound”. Instead of working with a ghostwriter to write a book, perhaps Herbie should’ve collaborated with Ken Burns, creator of the Jazz documentary series, to create something more.

To tell the story of jazz music, Burns uses images and sound: narration, interviews, photos, videos, and music. The documentary series looks like a great PowerPoint slideshow. It’s not flashy, but it’s illuminating. The narrator doesn’t have to shower us with adjectives for us to imagine the scene because we can hear it in the music and see it in the photographs. Words tell us what is true, but our senses convince us of it.

In the introduction to his new book, Our America, Ken Burns writes:

I don’t just look at the photograph…I listen to it, as well. Are the troops tramping, the cannons firing, the leaves rustling? Is the bat cracking, the crowd cheering?…it has been my essential responsibility in every film I’ve made to try to animate that moment, to bring it alive.

Like Burns, YouTube video essayists offer us raw material instead of flattening it into words. Thomas Flight’s Why Are David Lynch Movies Like That? is dense with samples of Lynch’s works, and much better for it. His description of Lynch’s worst work as “still [radiating] a unique quality” would be abstract, unclear, if it weren’t spoken over clips from Dune. Dubbing audio over video is so common on YouTube that it’s easy to overlook how well it works. Imagine What Song Are You Listening To? videos without the song snippets: suddenly it would be as awkward to watch as it probably was to record.

Like authors, journalists and essayists insist on writing things the reader needs to see or hear. Pieces like The New Yorker’s recent one on painter Florine Stettheimer lack samples of the visual art they talk about, leaving the reader to collect descriptions of the painter’s style — “feathery, ornamental…faux-naïf, fluorescent” — and try to hold them, as they spill out of mind like water out of cupped hands, until they can look up her paintings. Why work so hard? Is this the writer’s job or the reader’s? The piece leaves a faint impression compared to Affairs of the Art, a short film available on The New Yorker’s YouTube channel: a shiver-inducing yet hilarious piece that combines writing, narration, drawings, sound effects, and music.

This is


how to justify writing

#essays #mediums #art #writing Mentioned in how to tell a story #2

Writing The Virtual Book forced me to ask: when is writing the best medium?

Something wonderful about writing is its economy. The only equipment you need is brain, paper, and pen. To document a journey through the Alaskan wilderness, for example, you don’t need to bring cameras, microphones, or personnel. The trip continues without the slowing of setup and teardown. You move as you would if there wasn’t a writer tagging along.

What’s more, there is no extra gear or logistics to obstruct encounters with the landscape and your fellow humans. The writer and all others are freed into the experience.

The experience is different for the audience, too. Writing sacrifices the sensorial experience for one deeper into the realm of imagination. The action is staged entirely in the mind. The reduction of reality into abstract symbols is both a restriction and a release. A loosed connection to time and space means the reading experience is less grounded in reality, but also less confined to it.

to say we abandon writing. But can we compensate for its weaknesses by

exploring other formats

how to show instead of telling

(This is an excerpt from my piece The Virtual Book.)

#essays #mediums #story-telling #education #interfaces Mentioned in how to tell a story #2, how to tell a story

A modern torchbearer of

Thompson’s immersion journalism

is comedian-journalist Andrew Callaghan. He roams America in his RV interviewing the country’s kookiest characters and recording their antics. Like Thompson, Callaghan throws himself into the action. With false innocence, he encourages his subjects to rant and reveal their quirks and delusions. In Return to Tallega, Callaghan shows the unhinged debauchery of beer-soaked racing festivals of the American South much like Thompson did with The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved. Tom Wolfe compared the techniques of literary realism

to electricity

in the otherwise mechanical machine of journalism; he might’ve enjoyed seeing Callaghan modernize the practice with literal electricity.

Ironically, the old writing principle show don’t tell can lead us

beyond words

as it has The Pudding: a digital publication specializing in ‘visual essays’ developed by ‘Journalist-Engineers’ that write both prose and source code to create their articles. Their piece How Music Taste Evolved, more app than article, lets the user click through pop music history to hear snippets of songs that topped the charts from 1958 until 2016. Instead of forcing you to read about the contrast between the swaying, dreamy sound of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and the youthful pep of Stagger Lee, it lets you hear it. And if you’re not interested in pop music from early 1959, then you can leap forward to whatever decade interests you. The involvement of the reader is literal.

As refreshing as it is, the piece is far from fulfilling its potential. The first improvement is obvious: automatically update every day with the newest song at the top the charts. (The equivalent for printed books, publishing new editions, is pathetic in comparison.) The piece could take its interactivity to the next level by letting you save songs to your music library or dive into specific artists by linking to their Wikipedia articles, which also update with new information and themselves lead to other articles. Or it could browse the internet on your behalf to find live performances and interesting articles, showing new things every time you visit.

Using technology, we can bring information alive and make our interactions with it more meaningful. As Michael Scott puts it:

You don’t go to the science museum and get handed a pamphlet on electricity…you put your hand on a metal ball and your hair sticks up straight. And you know science.

The benefit of combining mediums is clearest in education, where you want to build both analytical and intuitive understanding. A musician trying to teach music theory should think twice about writing a traditional book. Alongside their theoretical explanations, they could offer an interface that lets the user add notes to a music staff and hear what they sound like; or listens to the user play their instrument and transcribes it in real time. A writer passionate about Hemingway’s writing principles and bent on teaching them may feel the urge to write a book; and, although it would educate aspiring writers, it would lack the interactive experience offered by Hemingway App, which shows a writer in real time what rules they are breaching. (To what extent the rules can be codified is a different question.)

As one of the architects responsible for the daring design of the Seattle Central Library said:

Books are technology; that’s something people forget. But it’s a form of technology that will have to share its dominance with any other form of truly potent technology or media.

What if a memoirist publishes a piece overlaid with their revisions to show the process of expression and expose the artifice of memoir? Or what if an English professor does the same to compare writing styles and the emotions they convey? What if a novelist publishes a first-person novel in real time to make it feel like the character really exists and is experiencing events alongside the reader? What if the author then goes back and rewrites previous parts of the novel to show the decay of memory and its corruption in the construction of personal narratives?

Long before the birth of the digital world, writers like Hunter S. Thompson breached conventional forms to create new experiences for readers. And writers can continue to experiment within the book-bound format without intervention from outer disciplines. But they could also work with designers and engineers to create literature’s equivalent to musical technology like synthesizers and drum machines — the tools that Herbie Hancock used to

reinvent his art

time and time again. If we give artists creative technology, we’ll get back experiences we didn’t even know we were missing.