on 99th St: late night dialogue

It's 10:10 pm. Mary, a musician, and Lizzie, a writer, are about to sit down with cups of fennel tea at Lizzie's kitchen table. Mary is on her phone.

 

Mary: —so it would be fine if I was there at eleven? Or would eleven-thirty be fine? Yeah. Just let me know when we're playing and I'll be there. I mean, if there's four bands and no one's started yet, I probably don't need to leave now, you know? Eleven. No, whatever. See you later.

Lizzie: Are you going to be able to play this show? Do you want food? Don't eat that rice. I oversalted it. I don't know what I have that's vegan—uh, do you want some tea, some dried apricots, hummus . . . do you want some oatmeal?

M: Just water would be fine. I'll just drink out of this measuring cup. 

L: Tea?

M: Sure. I'm sorry, I'm so weird right now.

L: Caffeinated or uncaffeinated? Do you want some apricots? You look like you're going to keel over.

M: Actually that would be nice. But it's all good, you know? I'll go play this show, and I can keep going on my harp, kind of indefinitely. 

L: Your harp instructor really drilled that into you, hey?

M: Her advice to her student who was applying to grad school was forget relationships, forget kids, forget reading and exercising. And then the student came back and said she didn't know how she could do it and my teacher said, Learn to sleep less. But I do love it.

L: Whereas most writers I know feel that they've put in a good day if they manage to sit at their desk for four hours. And they also expect to be able to maintain an artistic lifestyle revolving around sex and cheap but decent wine. I mean, I expect that too. But writers can be so fucking precious man. They don't want to work. Is fennel tea ok?

M: You were talking about this before--yeah, that's great--about writers complaining about how hard their work is. And the thing they're complaining about--sitting down and just making something--that's what I enjoy most about music. 

L: Right. The musicians and the sculptors and the filmmakers I know aren't like that. They not only put in the work, they also seem to fool around with their medium. Like jamming tonight. We took Dylan's chords and went through them a few times and then recorded it. Writers don't do stuff like that with writing. You never have a bunch of writers sitting around writing a collaborative story just for the fun of it. 

M: What's always confused me is when writers talk about putting in their twenty pages a day or something. 

L: Jesus is that a standard quota? I don't think I've ever written twenty pages in a day.

M: Twenty pages or whatever--the idea of writing a certain amount, just scribbling if necessary and not caring whether it's good, you know? That's exactly the opposite of the way musicians look at practicing. If you're not focused, you're actually regressing. You're better off stepping away and going to do something else. I never just sit down and start running through a whole piece. I say, I'm tripping up on this bar because my third finger isn't making it across that interval in time. And then yeah I might play that bar fifty times, but I'm concentrating. 

L: I think that a lot of writers spend most of that time just trying to develop a state of concentration. It's hard to come in from grocery shopping and plunge into a new scene in your novel or something. I think some of that shit writing is more analogous to a physical warmup. You need to do it just to get into a semi-appropriate headspace.

M: That might make sense. I'm not condemning writing a certain amount every day, but I really don't understand it. 

L: As in, why do it if it's so unnatural, such a strain?

M: Maybe. These are pretty good. Writers always talk like writing is literally the hardest thing in the world, you know?

L: It's definitely the hardest thing I'm capable of doing. 

M: Ok, but what makes it harder than music or brain surgery or whatever you want?

L: It's weird, hey? Because we talk, use words, all the time. Constantly. And in writing too--texts, emails, manuals, advertising. Writers are trying to make art out words arranged in a very similar way for all kinds of mundane purposes. Writers are trying to make art out of communication, or communication into art. It would be like the job musicians would have of composing meaningful pieces of music if everyone was already going around singing improvisations to each other all day. 

M: So other mediums are easier to work in because the medium itself signals an artistic attempt? 

L: Yeah. I know I'm in the minority here, but I do think that the artist's intention--and the audience's knowledge of the artist's intention--contributes pretty heavily to our conception of something as "art". With a portrait, that intention is very obvious because people aren't in the habit of  slapping oil paint on canvas in everyday life, you know?

M: And it's like the writer has the extra strain of convincing his reader that a particular arrangement of words should be elevated above the deluge pouring from everyone's mouths and fingertips at all times?

L: I think so? Maybe writing is the hardest thing. But music is pretty ubiquitous. And filmmakers are literally just rearranging select pieces of life. I don't know. What time is it?

M: Yeah, I have to go. I'm sorry I'm so scattered. Can I leave my baby harp in your livingroom? I'll pick it up tomorrow. 

L: For sure man. Have a good gig. Send me those lyrics.

M: Ok. Thanks. And thanks for the tea. There's my other shoe. Goodnight!