Writers on Writing #8: L. E. Kimball
Not long ago, I was watching my son play in the Upfront Bar here in Marquette, Michigan. Through the years, he has played lead guitar (and sometimes trombone) in various bands, including the NMU Jazz Band. Years ago, in high school, he organized his own “Ska” band, which was a form of music that originated in the 1950’s in Jamaica, continued in various forms into the 1990’s, and apparently was the precursor of reggae music also developing at the same time. I’d follow him around to various coffee shops and clubs, to be sure he didn’t get “in with the wrong crowd,” and because, as his unbiased mother, I thought he was inordinately talented.
(I know, what does this have to do with writing? Well, bear with me.)
This new band is sort of a contemporary rock band, I guess sort of, in which I thought I could see influences (and I’m sure they’d all deny this), of The Doors musically, Bob Dylan lyrically, and I’m still trying to figure out who else. This was difficult to conclude because the music was mixed wrong, the acoustics terrible, and I could hardly understand a word, though my other son (with Down Syndrome) was transported by the beat and was essentially head-banging with the best of them, right from his chair.
At first, I wasn’t sure I liked it all that much; the lead singer, who had written most of the music, had a nice voice quality, but didn’t seem to have much range, the songs sounded a bit too similar and somewhat static, and though I’m told he is a fabulous lyricist, I could only understand a word or two: something about a demon, I think, in one song, and some phrase about “touching me, touching you,” which vaguely brought up images of Neil Diamond’s old song “Sweet Caroline,” sans any real melody, an image I’m sure they all would have abhorred.
But this performance was hardly boring.
There was an array of star-struck young people lined up in front of the lead singer and it wouldn’t take long to see why. He had long Robert Plant frizzy hair, (only it was black with quite a bit of premature gray). He was dressed in a loin cloth that was sort of tied around his drawers, some very skimpy looking tight boxer shorts, and he was a tremendous athlete, having played football in high school (and still being extraordinarily “fit” shall we say). He did most of the singing. He played guitar some of the time, wore a big stuffed tiger’s head part of the time, would leap around the bar sometimes banging a tambourine, and at one point he actually did a back flip off the stage, landing on the dance floor. He would pull back his hair seductively with one hand, throw his arms around young men on the dance floor, in a somewhat androgynous, (if athletic), manner that smacked of a Mick Jagger pose, but fell short of a David Bowie or Queen routine.
But what kept my attention (and what was drawing the crowd) was his willingness to “hang out there,” in every sense. The lack of clothing represented his emotional freedom; he didn’t care what anyone in the room thought of him, and he let you know that from the get-go. And I started wondering if it was “real,” this complete and total abandon. And when I say “real,” I mean: was he cheating it? Was it an “act,” a “novelty” a “gimmick,” an “imitation,” that he hoped would catch on, or was it really tied to his commitment to the material? After all, he had a somewhat chipper demeanor despite a few intense moments. He seemed to lack (though I wasn’t totally sure of this) the suffering angst of a Jim Morrison or Janis Joplin, the compelling vulnerability of an Elvis Presley.
As I watched, and for fun, I developed a very cursory and clearly incomplete list of those who had this “connection”: Merrill Streep, Pablo Picasso, Jimmy Hendrix, John Belushi, Louise Erdrich, Ernest Hemingway …. oh, Jesus Christ. (No, I’m not swearing—he makes the list; He certainly had it.)
I started thinking about how a true artist has that all-essential—in the case of my singer (and excuse the phrase) “balls-out”—attachment to his/her material, and it was that material that was the necessary conduit to the audience; the attachment to the medium, the material, the art, was everything—if he was cheating it, we would know. Eventually. The problems with the sound quality added to my doubts, but this young man’s performance, and the songs he’d written, kept me thinking about the evening long into the next day.
And this, of course, got me thinking about my writing and my attachment to my own material, to my process. I likened my writing process to how a sculptor (or someone working in ceramics) must work; how at times she must close her eyes and just let her fingers move over the piece like a blind man, afraid to open them and be distracted and jarred by the immediacy and falsity of her surroundings. Feel her way. That’s how I type, sometimes, with my eyes closed, to shut out the real world around me, to immerse myself in the imaginative one (though never completely since the real world informs the imaginative one). And I concluded that during the writing process itself, I was close to that kind of attachment.
Reading or “performing” my work?
I wasn’t at all as sure in this regard.
I wondered if it mattered. A painter or a sculptor never has to “perform” his work like a singer/song writer, a writer or comedian or musician does, and I wondered how/if they all fit together; I suspected they really could not be separated if that attachment existed at all. For a person who has suffered all her life from extreme stage-fright, this was an epiphany.
Coincidentally, I recently made the acquaintance of a young “performance” poet. She did have her poetry written down, she admitted, in that she made notes that corresponded in a rudimentary way to her reading, but it in no way resembled the aural presentation she gave for her audience. She had the same quality when she performed this poetry as my young singer, and when I explained how my attachment to my written word diminished once the words started coming out of my mouth, she looked dumbfounded, “But those are your words, she said to me,” as if that notion was as foreign to her as breathing underwater. It was her words, spoken or not, that transformed this shy young poet into—for lack of a better word—into herself.
Still, I thought of myself as a “writer,” someone whose words came from her brain, skipping her mouth, down her hand to a pen in the most mysterious kind of way, and on to a blank piece of paper. I was a “writer,” not a “talker.” I’d always believed this about myself, yet there was something about the “words,” the “material” itself that haunted me. “Those are your words,” the poet had said, as if to not speak them, to not “own” them in every way was tantamount to denying my first born child—or in a nearly religious sense—like Peter saying three times “I don’t’ know him.” And though I’d been anti-organized religion for as long as I could remember, I could see the religious aspect to this whole thing.
How much did I really “believe” in those words? My words?
And when I thought about that young singer, I thought I could see it. And I could see that his, “words,” his “music,” his “material,” protected him, in a way, from the harsh opinion of his crowd, served as a buffer from a world about to eat him alive; that he was really interacting with “it” and only in a lesser sense, with us. If that attachment was real, it was the material that would continue to protect him—and paradoxically, it was that “conduit,” that intermediary attachment to his art that might, might, provide any potential connection to his audience.
When it came to my own words, I doubted I’d ever “perform” them in quite the way this young singer or poet performed theirs, but I realized I was coming “to believe,” I was fairly sure, they would provide the conduit to the real “me.”
So what did I conclude? Was my young singer cheating it?
I don’t know.
I don’t know.
After all, I’m told Jesus had his doubts.
L.E. Kimball's stories have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, the Massachusetts Review, Lynx Eye, Orchid, and Washington Square. Her first novel, A Good High Place, was published in 2010 by Northern Illinois University. Her essays have been published in dozens of venues such as Exceptional Parent and The Detroit News op ed section. Her latest fiction piece—a piece from her new novel—will appear this April in Gray's Sporting Journal. Visit her website at lekimball.com.