If Miles Davis’ music told us anything, it’s that there is meaning in silence. In the spaces between the notes. And in good writing we can find ourselves transfixed by the beauty and meaning of, yes it’s true, the spaces between the words:
If Miles Davis’s midcentury trumpet solos can be described by a single phrase, it might be “doing more with less.” Despite his renown, Davis wasn’t a flashy or highly technical player during the late 1950s and early ’60s. He was melodic and economical, and his approach can teach prose writers a lot about the power of concision, suggestion and space.
It’s difficult to characterize music in simple, sweeping terms. Davis explored numerous styles in a catalog that spanned decades; change defined him as much as his Harmon mute. But in the 1950s he started moving away from the early bebop of his mentor and band mate Charlie Parker to explore a leaner sound. Rather than squeezing as many notes and changes into solos as possible, Davis dispensed with clutter and ornamentation and pared his mode of expression down to one defined as much by the notes and phrases he played as by the silences left between them. As the critic Stanley Crouch once observed: “Part of his genius as a musician was that he edited what he heard Charlie Parker play.”
Where David Foster Wallace showed writers like me the possibilities of labyrinthine stories and digressions, Davis showed me how to be affecting without being opaque, lyrical without being verbose. Editing imbued each of Davis’s notes with more weight. It also let his melodic lines breathe, an effect that highlighted the depth and strength of his lyricism. No matter the tempo, Davis’s precise, deft touch produced solos whose moods ranged from buoyant to brooding, mournful to sweet.
Many writers fall prey to the quintessential American notion that bigger is better. They overload their sentences, adding more adjectives, more descriptions, more component phrases, tangents and appositives to form sprawling, syntactical centipedes (like this one) whose many segments and exhausting procession repeat themselves and say the same thing in different ways, with different words, and exhibit an entire ideology: that prose’s sensory and poetic impacts exist in direct proportion to the concentration of words. I know: I succumbed.
For many years I was impressed by flamboyant displays like the 255-word sentence in the journalist Marshall Frady’s essay “The South Domesticated,” a monument to excess held together with only three dashes.
Calvin Trillin’s sinuous, compound sentences also enchanted me. The problem was that when I aped Trillin’s style, I imitated only his long sentences, not the short ones he interspersed. This disparity gave my early essays a manic quality that frazzled the nerves and tired quickly.
Something about youth draws many of us to maximalism: Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac, Terry Southern, Tom Wolfe. Maybe the style — the sentences’ wildness, decadence and audacity — mirrors youth itself. The opening line of Southern’s novel “Candy” seemed to confirm to me that iconic stylists are the ones who pen mouthfuls:
“‘I’ve read many books,’ said Professor Mephesto, with an odd finality, wearily flattening his hands on the podium, addressing the seventy-six sophomores who sat in easy reverence, immortalizing his every phrase with their pads and pens, and now, as always, giving him the confidence to slowly, artfully dramatize his words, to pause, shrug, frown, gaze abstractly at the ceiling, allow a wan wistful smile to play at his lips, and repeat quietly, ‘many books … ’ ”
Yet the more I listened to Davis’s music, the more his approach started to influence my writing style. His solos in “Diane” and “It Could Happen to You” show how measured, uncluttered phrasing increases rather than decreases the impact. Unlike so much fat-cat prose, Davis’s solos didn’t divert from their emotional center by wowing the audience with speed and facility. With less distraction, the force of his music landed more squarely on me.
I started to experiment with economy as a form, hanging fewer phrases and images on the white walls of my essays. I also began to seek out writers who utilized this sparse style. Take Abigail Thomas. In her career, Thomas has distinguished herself, in part, by her brevity. She begins her memoir “A Three Dog Life” with succinct, meticulous bursts:
“This is the one thing that stays the same: my husband got hurt. Everything else changes. A grandson needs me and then he doesn’t. My children are close then one drifts away. I smoke and don’t smoke; I knit ponchos, then hats, shawls, hats again, stop knitting, start up again. The clock ticks, the seasons shift, the night sky rearranges itself, but my husband remains constant, his injuries are permanent.”
Like Davis’s trumpet, Thomas’s short sentences create mood. Structurally, she spins an ingenious centrifuge to take readers through the whirlwind of her confusion and despair. Beginning with blunt declarations, she builds momentum with a list and then uses commas to amplify the pace and tension, creating turbulent whitecaps on the flat, sullen surface of her introductory statement.
Davis’s saxophonist Cannonball Adderley once described him as “the type of soloist who implies a lot of things.” What is left unsaid colors much of Tony Earley’s book “Somehow Form a Family.” To describe his poor family’s character Earley chooses basic, unadorned details: “Our clothes were clean. My parents worked. We went to church. Easter mornings, Mama stood us in front of the yellowbell bush and took our picture.” I don’t know what a yellowbell bush is, but I know that these people are upstanding, proud, independent, tight-knit, without the writer’s spelling it out.
Some of Raymond Carver’s best writing also operates in the realm of suggestion. Describing his father’s 1934 departure from Arkansas in search of work, Carver wrote: “I don’t know whether he was pursuing a dream when he went out to Washington. I doubt it. I don’t think he dreamed much.” The impact of these short sentences stems less from mood or tension as bluntness. His brevity registers as acceptance, a pragmatic, maybe even disappointing, shrug at life’s deprivations: It’s unfortunate, but that’s how Dad was. At least, that’s how I interpret the passage. It’s also how suggestion works. Brevity often invites speculation and facilitates a dynamic interaction between reader and writing.
Listening to Davis taught me these things. He also underscored the value of experimentation and reinvention, the fact that it was all right to change, to try new styles, even when evolution meant abandoning your old comfortable routines, or worse, forsaking peoples’ favorites. Even though I don’t particularly like the musical directions he took later in life, I admire his need to explore, to test the limits of his form and himself. “The way you change and help music,” Davis said, “is by trying to invent new ways to play.” Every day I sit down at the computer, I try to remember that.