Find your Writing Standards
An approach to writing inspired by the use of standards in Jazz music.
I conceived this article while I was trying to write another one, but I couldn’t go on. I was completely stuck.
I was listening to I Fall In Love Too Easily, played by Keith Jarrett Trio. Almost unconsciously (what a devious procrastinator!) I searched google for more information on this song, discovering that it was composed by Jule Styne and was first sung by Frank Sinatra in 1945 movie Anchors Aweigh.
Since then, many jazz musicians around the world have played it.
Nothing new. It happens every day that a piece of music is performed by artists other than those who composed or performed it initially. We usually call this “to cover a song.”
There are many reasons why an artist can decide to cover a song. Sometimes she simply wants to pay tribute to a musician or a piece. Other times, he wants to exploit the success of a song to gain visibility. Occasionally a cover is so successful that it literally “covers” the original version.
In any case, different versions of the same piece always remain very recognizable.
In this case, Jarrett started with a melody and a chord progression that vaguely recalled the original song, then developed a piece of his own. A piece he probably won’t play two times in the same way because he was improvising.
In fact, this version of I Fall In Love Too Easily, is not a cover. Keith Jarrett is executing a standard.
In Jazz music, a standard is a widely known song every jazz player must (or should) have in his repertoire. Each musician adds his own voice and improvises to an otherwise very known piece so that the song acquires a different personality.
There are thousands of standards, regularly played by jazz musicians all around the world. This ever-expanding musical heritage is the inexhaustible source from which new musical ideas continually spring.
The standards provide a framework within which musicians can improvise, freeing their creativity.
The starting point of each standard is a document called lead sheet. A lead sheet is a sort of musical score reduced to the minimum. It contains only the essential elements of a piece: the melodic line, the chord progression, and possibly the lyrics.
Standards for writers
What if writers had their standards repertoire, and used them as starting points to write a novel, article, or essay? In fact, this is something that writers have been doing for centuries.
For example, Gustave Flaubert was deeply inspired by his beloved Don Quixote when he wrote Madame Bovary (would you ever have said that?). Easier is to find out what was the work that inspired James Joyce for his Ulysses.
The starting point does not necessarily have to be a pre-existing novel.
It can be an invented book. Jorge Luis Borges was a master in this art: his work is full of reviews of non-existent books and skillful blends of real and fictitious literary references.
We a writer’s standard can also be an essay, an article, or simply a good sounding title.
One of the most performed standards on Medium is How to Make Money with Medium.
It is very difficult to say which was the original piece that inspired the others (if it exists), but certainly these theme is very inspiring for medium writers.
Here are a few examples.
This topic has been addressed hundreds of times by different writers. Yet, almost every piece says something different in an original way.
Would you feel like doing your take of this standard theme or another?
We have just explored one of the most common topics on Medium.
Let’s try to identify some others:
- Unlock your creativity
- Boost your productivity
- Improve your focus
- 10 habits…
- What I learned from…
For each of these topics, you can find dozens of different articles.
Outside of Medium, the world offers endless examples of themes from which to be inspired.
Let’s see some typical themes of fiction:
- Unrequited love
- The call
- An Unexpected Journey
- An old manuscript
- A life-changing choice
Can you extend this list? Can you identify at least a book based on each theme of this list?
There are themes for each area of interest. Here are some typical topics for guitar players, for instance:
- How to play this famous lick
- New stuff review
- Top 10 guitars players
- What you need to know about…
- How to master (the fretboard, scales, etc)
The hero journey
The hero Journey (also called the monomyth) is one of the most famous narrative schemes. It derives from the studies of Joseph Campbell, a scholar of comparative mythology. He discovered that all the myths of antiquity share a typical pattern, which he described in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. One of my favorite books.
In Campbell’s words:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
How many stories can be invented starting from this simple -yet eternal- pattern?
Almost all Hollywood movies are based on the hero’s journey scheme, as well as many books. It’s also interesting to see how many creatives squeezed the hero journey in the cramped space of an advertising spot, and it still works!
Be inspired by this wonderful video:
The hero journey explained
Let’s play the standards
Starting from a theme, we can compose our piece, that maybe one day will become a standard that will inspire others.
But we can also start from an existing standard: a book, an article etc. Trying to guess its lead sheet to improvise over it.
But which standard to choose?
This is a very personal choice.
If I had to write my version of “How to make money …”, for example, I would choose two articles as standards, from two different authors.
One by Casey Botticello, of whom I admire the accuracy, clarity and amount of data he manages to put in every post. And one by Shaunta Grimes, who I adore for the warmth, passion and persuasiveness he puts into writing.
I wonder what a nice piece would come out of this mixture!
It all started from here
Frank Sinatra movie version
Keit Jarret Trio version
I wish you a good listening.