I sometimes wonder what would have been my destiny if I had decided to be a writer with a capital W instead of a composer with a capital C. In so many ways writing seems to come easier than does music. I have certainly made far more money from writing than music. Somewhere within this question lies a subtle paradox. For I am sure if I identified myself as a capitalized Writer, I would most likely face the same conundrum of questions: art versus commercialization, what it means to be true to self, am I selling out. Questions that never even occur to me when I write. My written words I release to the world with nary a thought. Music I try to hone to perfection before I would ever let it see the light of day and an audience’s ears. If my ego identity was reversed – and writing wore the capitalized letter, I am sure words would be the harder road to travel and the musical life would be a far easier, simpler – and maybe far more successful.
Like all stories, there is a history here to tell. As a young child I was slow to speak. I could babble incessantly, but was told later that it made little coherent sense. Once I got the hang of language, the babble became non-stop talking – and story-telling. By age 5, still pre-literate, I would dictate stories to my mother who would dutifully write them down. Sorry that the old leather bound journal has long disappeared. As I recall, the stories were the adventures of a 5-year-old hero figure named Cutty Sark – an amalgam of dream remnants and stories I had seen on television – primarily from the old Flash Gordon series. (Cutty Sark is both the name of a mid-century British clipper ship – I remember seeing a model of it somewhere – and a storied whiskey.) The moment I learned to form words and put them on paper, I wrote my first story and toted the 20-page manuscript off to school to read out loud in front of Mrs. Levin’s class. By age eight, I was writing scripts for my puppets, nailing together stages, painting scenery, recruiting friends as actors and performing. By 11, I was working on my first novel – a science fiction saga about dangerous identical twins who could synergize their thoughts into powerful energy fields to control the people and the world around them.
But then music intervened. I was handed a bassoon in first period on my first day in junior high school, assigned first chair in the school orchestra, not that I could play the thing, and everything changed. But I still had a writing hankering, penning my stories – often bloody nightmares – the stuff of teenage fantasy that Stephen King so ably exploited. The next memorable experience was in college at Haverford. I was a sophomore. The college literary magazine had died a death of indeterminable boredom. So a few of us got together, took charge and came up with an idea for a college erotica magazine. Now back then what would pass for erotic would barely scratch the surface of note today. Still it was the 60s and it all seemed so daring. The upperclassmen involved were into a Victorian SM vision and called the magazine The Whip. The first edition even included a poem by one student who was destined to become one of the most famous humorists and writers in America today. (For the sake of reputation, we will leave his authorship anonymous, as were all the contributors.) My contribution was the only real story, and, at least, was slightly explicit. Once it was printed, one morning we secretly set up piles of the mimeographed tabloid at the entrance to the school dining room. I watched silently as fellow classmates picked up The Whip and took it into lunch. My story was an instant sensation. I remember looking out over the dining room. The room was abuzz with almost everyone reading my barely titillating story. At the same time the few conservatives – there we were an admirable few who bucked the mass cultural trends of the day – were burning copies in the courtyard in protest.
So the administration had no choice but to pull the plug after the conservative student wing complained that their money was being used for such scandal. My junior year I left for Sarah Lawrence to study music. A few months later I learned that a few alumni had privately funded The Whip – at least for another year – as they thought it was the liveliest thing that had ever seen come out of the school.
By the time I returned to Haverford for my senior year, I had at long last joined the counter-culture – at least to the extent I was smoking grass – though still sexually chaste and stiffly classical in terms of music. When not lost in dreamy clouds of hallucinogenic smoke, or traveling back to Sarah Lawrence to play in the orchestra, I was still left with the task to write two theses. I was a double major in music and philosophy. As music was my passion, I insisted – against all faculty advice – to score my first full-fledged symphonic work. I was not to be daunted by my lack of adequate training in theory, compositional technique, or orchestration. Arranging and orchestrating a music composition for full orchestra takes time, as it is simply a lot of note writing, whether you’re the most experienced composer or just a neophyte. In addition, I had to write a philosophy thesis. Typically, the other philosophy majors were churning out their classic 30 to 40-page papers – their commentaries on some philosopher or other well-traveled territory. All rather dull at least to my perspective. So I wrote a 140-page treatise on Diamond-ism. It was a compilation of erotic parables, stories, plays within plays, and dreams sequences – featuring cameo appearances of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Nietzsche, Jesus – and even God. It all comes to a head at the Mountain of Diamond, where ultimate Truth (capital T) could be found. It was 1971, and at Haverford, each student had to defend his thesis – similar to a Ph.D. thesis defense. In those days, the cultural norm was that we were supposed to dress up in a costume, both professors and students, for the conference. Literally true, and this was Haverford, reputedly the best undergraduate philosophy department in the nation at the time. So at my board of inquiry I was met by a faux Catholic priest, a Buddhist monk, an old Rabbi and others – all dressed in full regalia. Unfortunately, since I was on the periphery of the department, I had never gotten the costume message. So the encounter seemed quite silly. In essence, I was accused of doing creative philosophy. Though everyone enjoyed the writing, similar to the charge of the music faculty, I was guilty of reaching too far. To me, it all supported one of the underlying premises of my thesis – that academia was more about commenting on creativity than actually being creative or original. Several years later though, one of the philosophy faculty members did nominate me for a prestigious grant.
That summer, after graduation, living at my parents’ home, not knowing where to begin a life, I started looking for work. In the Village Voice I found an ad that seemed promising given my experience. They were looking for writers of adult fiction. A copy of my thesis in hand, I dressed up in my one black suit and tie, and went to the interview. The office was above the old cigar store, at the corner of Christopher Street and Seventh Avenue in Greenwich Village. A dark narrow hallway led to stairs, and a broader hallway – then a gray tin door with the appropriate number. I pushed the door open. There were four or five rows of men and women sitting behind small school desks, several puffing cigarettes, all furiously tapping away on electric typewriters. In the front of the room was a larger metal desk with a man sitting behind it. He beckoned me to come and sit down on a chair on the other side of his desk. I handed him my resume and thesis. I tried to point out to him the “sexy” parts. He briefly looked at a page or two and shut the book. He then gave me an on-the-spot 5-minute test of my erotic writing skills. Not sure how to handle an electric typewriter, I pressed a key and rows of AAAAAAAAAAAs, one after the other, rolled out indelibly inked onto the page. I pushed ahead, and enough of my sexual sentiments came across, and I got the job. But since I didn’t want to commute, I chose to work on a freelance basis. Taking home a two-page document that laid out the strict rules of structure and format that the book had to adhere –number of chapters, pages, kink, etc. - if one was to be paid. To be successful and make money, speed was the game – one had to write quickly. But as my little story began to take shape, I decided that my story about a love triangle about a boy, a dog, and his mother was not pornography, but the Great American Novel. I might have continued in that direction – and who knows what the final outcome, except music intervened again, as Sarah Lawrence invited me to get a Master’s degree – full fellowship, no application, just an invitation to come and study music. It was a very different era in higher education.
After the next graduation, I lived in the Lower East Side, struggling to establish myself in music. However, without barely a thought, before or after, I would get work as a writer – whether it was authoring chapters in college level text books (no, the editors wouldn’t let me include myself in the history of music, at least not yet) or writing music reviews for local magazines (yes, I could write about myself and my friends). All this on the side, of course, as I focused hours a day composing my next masterpiece.
The scene now moves to the Upper West Side of Manhattan – I am in my 30s. I had a roommate, a writer with a capital ‘W’, living with me. I would watch him every day, all day, struggling to eke out a stilted story. After a few weeks, I decided I could certainly do that. So every morning, I would be up early, sit at the kitchen table, and go to work. He would wake up to find me at work, typing away furiously. Much to his annoyance I had a novel done in six weeks.
So given I had a book, or at least a first draft – revision, or second drafts, hadn’t yet entered my vocabulary – I decided I might as well try to get it published. So I bundled up the manuscript – this was still all pre-digital – and took the subway downtown, walked into one of the top literary agents, dropped it off on top of the pile, where all the unsolicited manuscripts went.
I quickly forgot about it and went back to my work in music. A few months later a letter arrived. Three pages of densely written critiques and suggestions with a note, that if I would revise the book according to the recipe, I should please resubmit. I checked with a few writer friends who assured me that this was unheard of. But then again, since I was busy being a Composer, I couldn’t be bothered with actually rewriting and moved on.
A professional Writer friend was kind enough to read the manuscript and provide a detailed summary: On one hand the piece was primitive and amateur - on the other brilliant and innovative, especially the use of time and structure. However, there was one characteristic of my writing that she felt was the why of what caught the agent’s interest. The writing had an original and unique “voice” – the rarest of all commodities in the world of the written word. It is the one aspect of writing she confided to me that could not be taught.
So I went back to my composing, but in the meantime writing every which way. I wrote my own librettos for my operas – embarking on what I consider the most challenging of tasks – creating seamless prosody – the joining of music and text. I collaborated on a stream of screenplays – some of which were actually produced and won awards, including a best screenplay. (But that’s another story.) Then there is poetry. Dozens of poems – a few of which found their way into journals abroad. I had a stint writing programs on good parenting – especially paradoxical as one who has no children. Add in a book about my take on spirituality, a fictional autobiography of one of Shakespeare’s lovers, science documentaries for television, and endless scripts for videos, commercials, and other marketing pieces. Most of which I self-edited, directed, produced – and when called for composed the music. I even wrote and produced educational programs for one of the largest financial institutions on the very nature of money. (Go figure.)
And then somewhere along the line. I became a journalist. Like much of my career, I discovered I was a journalist after the fact. As a budding entrepreneur, I became a partner in Empowered Media and subsequently Empowered Medical Media (aka Empowered Doctor). We were one of the first online marketing agencies, scrambling and inventing on the way up… and down. In that process, we began writing video news stories on healthcare. In the early days, we were dominant on Google – our clients and stories often were in all of the top 10 positions on any Internet search. Eventually, Google and its brother search engines wised up, and changed their algorithms. For better and for worse, as the search engines matured, success on the Internet became more commercialized and institutionalized – more a matter of money than cleverness. (In a contrarian move, we recently moved back to newsprint.) But through the years, we trudged on. To date, I and my teams have written well over 2000 health related stories – most with video. As we became more established, I found myself interviewing and writing stories about the most important medical research scientists and physicians in the history of modern medicine (many via The National Physician of the Year Awards). And once I became comfortable with this group, I moved on to other top scientists and Noble Laureates – just for the fun of it.
Yes, I write freely, but is it any good? Much of it is mediocre – simple and workman-like at best, sometimes brilliant, I am told – and on occasion, it has been cited as “genius”. I say this as a matter of fact, nothing more. I rarely rewrite, or self-judge. I don’t quest to write novels, yearn to be published, or even a have a twinkle of a thought to care what others think about what I write. I have no goals as a writer. But composing music is another matter. Getting the initial notes down on paper or tracks recorded is as easy and effortless as when I write. The initial creative impulse seems to come from the same internal place as does my writing. But once I have the initial draft down on paper or recorded, I then delve into the rewriting, the honing, chiseling to my perceived sonic image of perfection. When it comes to music I do think, question my choices, and directions. I ponder upon its meaning and place in the aesthetic firmaments. In the realm of music I do dream of success – and suffer (to some extent) the pangs of artistic struggle and turmoil.
So does all it comes down to a question of identity? Who am I? The fundamental philosophical question. The reality is that I am neither Writer nor Composer. Of course. But it is my ego identity – where my thoughts and feelings of how I see and feel about myself, and how I envision how the world should see me – that changes the dynamic of how and why I compose versus how and why I write.
Now don’t get me wrong, there are many upsides to self-identity with an art form – the commitment that leads to self-discipline which in turn leads to the layers upon layers of accomplishment, the entrée to a network and community of like-minded souls, and access to an appreciation and knowledge of humanity’s crowning achievements – and ultimately, a deep satisfaction in the creation of a work of art.
But does that very self-identity also limit me as a musician and a composer and lack of identity as a writer leave me free to write encumbered? It is a profound question: How we form our identities – for it is these underlying elements of identity that shape in large part our destinies of who we become, what we do, and how we merge into the larger cultural communities and society at large.
Fascinating questions that should be explored. But let us first circle back to writing – for there is one more topic on writing that is a worthy conversation. But I think I will make it a sequel – keeping whatever readership there is on the brink – peering over the cliff to see what comes next.
Let’s call it “Love Lettering.”