Essays on Writing and Life
by James Sallis

Never mind working without a net; living as a writer is like working without even the tightrope, learning to balance, suspended, in mid-air. That's the way James Sallis has lived for almost forty years, publishing a blizzard of novels, short stories, poems, essays, translations and biographies in everything from "Transatlantic Review" to "The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction." Two rules, he says. Put your butt in the chair. Don't look down.  
WFL columns

Writing from Life
Babe the Blue Ox, and Mike
Stalked by Poetry!
Approaching the Page
Repopulating Oz
On Just Saying No
Distress Signals
Tiny Blurbles
Writing By the Seat of Your Pants

Singing In the Sheaves

Often, asked what my major literary influences are, I respond, only half joking, "science fiction and horror movies of the Fifties."

It's true. Their proletarianism, the undercurrents of political and social themes, their mistrust of government and of received wisdom, their demotic nature and simultaneous insistence that the phenomenal world was not the true or only world — these all marked and in many ways formed me. I went right from Them! and The Thing from Another World to Richard Matheson and Robert Heinlein, from This Island Earth to Dickens and John O'Hara, from Forbidden Planet to Hemingway and Faulkner.

Another statement I frequently make in interviews is that some years back I wearied of the well-made story and began improvising, improvising the way a musician does, sketching out the theme, then going where the story takes me. Surprise for the writer, the very joy of discovery, would become discovery and surprise for the reader.

After many years I recently began playing again, and so have been thinking a lot about the relationship between writing and music.

I find that I use music metaphors a lot in teaching or talking about writing. Get your body into it, I used to tell guitar students who sometimes seemed little more than a pair of hands. Pat your foot! Sway! Where's your heartbeat? Now I tell writing students: Write longhand! Read it aloud! I've even been known, while discussing how intimately fiction and poetry are connected, or how to present a complex narrative in a few well-chosen scenes, to bring my guitar to class and play something like "Betty and Dupree."

I grew up listening to classical music, a taste for which, like the taste for books, came in part from my older brother. But I lived in the South and, as Mozart or Shostakovitch spun on the turntable, strains of Jimmy Reed and Hank Snow from the drive-in just down the road beat mothlike at my window. Each day at noon on KFFA, the King Biscuit Hour played the music of my townsman Sonny Boy Williamson. Later I would write:

He was a tall, hawklike man who hunched about his harmonica when he played, fitting his body around it as he might a woman. In later days he took to wearing a bowler hat and houndstooth suit. He'd been over to England, he said. Had made some records there, all these young white kids coming to see him, wanting to play with him. No one in Helena believed any of it.

Gone so long, he'd sing, the carpet's half-faded on the floor. Years later, playing blues harmonica myself, I would listen to Sonny Boy's records over and over. As title for one of the first good poems I wrote, I took his title "Nine Below Zero."

Of another man who became a major influence in my life, the band director who first taught me, by example, what it is to be an artist, I wrote:

Mr. Cinq-Mars lived in a converted garage behind someone's house. I saw it once on a Saturday morning, going over to pick up keys to the band room. I had formed a quartet for which I did arrangements (French horn, violin, bassoon and saxophone: a curious ensemble) and we needed our instruments for rehearsal. Where are you getting your music? he asked, emerging from the kitchen looking more rumpled than usual. I told him that I was writing it and he looked at me as though recognizing something for the first time. He said nothing. I don't know what he felt for me then, pleasure or sympathy; sometimes I wonder.

In college I put down the French horn and trumpet I'd been playing and picked up guitar, adding in due time harmonica, mandolin, banjo and nonpedal steel guitar. For many years in the 70s and 80s I reviewed music and wrote on musical topics for Frets, Pickin', the Dallas Morning News, Texas Jazz and many others. I played in country, blues and oldtime string bands. I taught stringed instruments. I wrote a book on American music, The Guitar Players, and edited two others, Jazz Guitars and The Guitar in Jazz.

So I'm thinking these days, as I look around at the instruments here in my workroom and the sheaf of fiddle tunes I've downloaded from the Internet, about writer-musicians. Paul Bowles. Anthony Burgess. Boris Vian. My old friend Barry Malzberg is a fine violinist. A more recent friend, comic novelist Keith Snyder, is a composer; yet another, Anthony Weller, an outstanding jazz and classical guitarist, has just published his fourth book. I'm thinking how so often, as Mann did in Doctor Faustus, writers cast their artistic protagonists as musicians rather than as writers. I'm remembering that Garcia Marquez says he listens to music all the while he writes and how he once explained, to a reporter who asked why he never wrote about music, that this was because it was simply too important to him.

Music and writing... Is there a connection, beyond creativity itself, beyond the fact of the scant materials we use — sounds, settings, words — and the threads of abstraction with which we string them together? Begin with a block of marble and simply cut away what does not belong, Michelangelo is said to have told a student. What we cut away remains as much a part of the form as what we leave. Tone, meaning, suggestion, silence.

I know that when I hear good music, when I read good work — and yes, when I play or write — I am drawn out of myself into a world that, somewhere beyond or beneath language and the small resources of my intelligence, makes sense. I become larger, more intelligent, wiser, better — more human. Nothing else so joins the world within and that without.

One who writes wonderfully about the music with which he grew up, music much like what I love to play, is Appalachian poet Fred Chappell. This is from his novel Farewell, I'm Bound to Leave You.

Dr. Bancroft had the impression...that he was involved with a place and a people, with a time and circumstance, that was not only human in all its affections and interests but linked also with nonhuman nature, with sky and stream and mountain, in its reverences. He felt that he was standing near the origins of a strength that helped to animate the world, a power that joined all things together in a pattern that lay just barely beyond the edge of comprehension.

And now, if you'll grant pardon, my banjo calls from its cradle aside one of the bookshelves.

Little birdie, little birdie,
Come sing to me a song.
I've a short while to be here
And a long time to be gone.

Jim Sallis' acclaimed Lew Griffin series is now available in trade paperback from Walker & Company. A new collection of his short stories, A City Equal to My Desire, will be available this fall from POINTBLANK, an imprint of Wildside Press.