While writing and simultaneously listening to a new recording of the Mahler 3rd Symphony, I began thinking about the strange decisions we are called upon to make continuously when we are working on any artistic attempt. Sometimes strange decisions. Always tough decisions.
Mahler’s 3rd, for those of you who are unfamiliar with it (which is probably most of you), is two hours of savage symphony sounds, primal goop (as opposed to other GOOP). Well, much of it, anyway. But in the middle of the first movement, which begins with the creation of the cosmos from dissonant and indistinct rumblings, we suddenly switch to…a jaunty parade melody.
I’ve been listening to this symphony for years. But yesterday I really started thinking about what I was hearing, as I was trying to decide on different directions to take in my novel, and I thought, “What on earth inspired him to segue into parade music?! And how did he know it would be successful?
How did he know he wouldn’t be laughed out of the concert hall and be called a fool? Of course, you could argue the same thing with Fellini, who loves to put circus parades in his movies. But with the surreal Fellini, the absurdity seems to fit. Mahler’s 3rd is in the midst of somber gurglings of the primal earth when suddenly a jaunty little march breaks out. And don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing deliberately fey about this music. No irony or post-irony or post-post-irony. Mahler is taking it all with upmost seriousness and gravity, and wants you to, too.
I realized for the first time yesterday what balls ol’ Gus had to do this. (I wonder if Alma had an opinion.) I remember when I took driving lessons to get my license many years ago. The instructor said that as a driver you have to make decisions every few seconds. It’s that way with creative endeavors too. (Many would argue that driving these days is a creative endeavor in itself, especially finding parking.) When you’re writing or composing or creating in anyway, you make a decision about some aspect of your creation every few minutes. “Do I go this way or that way? Does this end here or there? F Minor or B-flat Major?” These decision can make or break a work—in several ways. First of all, if you make a choice and you quickly perceive it as the wrong choice (“I knew I shouldn’t have killed off the detective’s girlfriend here”) you lose days of writing. You have to go back and correct. I have many crossed out pages in my notebook.
But the bigger issue is if you take a wrong turn and do not become aware of it. Your work ends up very different than how you planned, of course, but that’s not always a bad thing. However, when it is, well, that can be anxiety-inducing.
I kept fixating on the question of how Mahler knew turning the bubbling creation of everything into a gay little parade wasn’t the dumbest idea ever after moving Jay to prime time. Where did he get the self-assurance to know his decision was right?
Can one ever have that self-assurance, really?
People laugh at all the stupid television program ideas, but consider a nun who flies. A romance between a jeanie and an astronaut. A crime fighter with a talking car. A bunch of people stranded on the weirdest tropical island in the history of the world. They were all smash hits.
Dancing cops. A boy whose next door family is literally a living, breathing TV sitcom. Moving Jay to 10:00pm. All flops. Not just flops. Stupid ideas.
Who could know?
I think of that that every time I am faced with a new direction my plot could take, no matter how small. Will I lose everyone? Will they hate me now? I guess I’ll find out the hard way. Like everyone else.