I struggle with the belief, like many writers, that I have only one story to tell. It’s partly why it took twelve years to write my first novel; if I only have one story to tell, I thought I’d best tell it right. I remember a lecture by writer Max Steele who offered the following closed-eye exercise: Think about your first image from childhood and quickly write it down. Then think about the first story you were ever told, or was read to you, or that you read, and write that down. That story, said Steele, is the one you will write again and again. Regardless of the origins of the story, the idea of having only one to tell is endlessly debatable, and examples can be pulled from literature for both sides of the argument. For me, and for many writers, it’s a steady source of anxiety as I venture into the next book, the next story.
Three things recently converged that make me think about this subject and the intersections of jazz, art and writing. A few weeks ago, I saw the comprehensive Arshile Gorky retrospective at the Philadelphia Art Museum. Then several days ago, author Paul Lisicky asked in a guest blog how writers who have other art backgrounds can apply those art forms to their writing. And then last night I saw Lena Seikaly (SIKE-lee), Strathmore’s artist in residence for January, performing with a combo in the intimate music room of the Strathmore Mansion. The young Ms. Seikaly’s rich and smoky voice hearkens the soul of jazz, and her youthful yet deeply muscular vocals erupt in electrifying scat. She delivered a strong performance with such classics as “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “Love Me or Leave Me,” and “Social Call,” along with her wonderful composition, “Here Again.” I look forward to hearing more of her original work, as it showed verve and a blend of the classic and musical movement that recalls Patricia Barber’s striking creativity.
But it was Ms. Seikaly’s interpretations of the classics that proved the same melody can be hit countless times to great effect. When she sang “When I Fall in Love” with guest Chris Vadala finding his own way into the theme on tenor sax, and when pianist Nathan Lincoln-DeCusatis did the same on keyboards for nearly all the pieces she sang, I felt reassured. There’s a lesson for Johnny One-Note (and Genie One-Story) in jazz’s tradition of new takes on old classics. Each interpretation held the excitement of the new, a refreshed known, and that combination is both compelling, fascinating and vibrant. And I remember that Johnny’s one note “was his ace.”
At an art exhibition, my expectation of what I’ll see is based on my knowledge of the artist’s body of work. Particularly since the Gorky show was a retrospective, that expectation was more than fulfilled. The history of his painterly explorations were on view, and his struggles and leaps--explosions, really-- still kept at their center his key themes in ideas, contrast, brushwork, composition, emotion and psychology. My spouse, who was barely familiar with and not a fan of Gorky’s work, still found the retrospective to be hugely interesting. What we were seeing from one gallery to the next of the mostly chronological display was Gorky’s process, his ongoing rediscovery of the core themes that inspired him to create again and again, each time anew.
The song is the same but the artist is different. The painter’s subject is the same but through his rendering of it the artist changes. Though I may be writing the same story, I am not the same writer that wrote its first iteration. And so as I accept the reality of Genie One-Story, to know that the oneness of my story is also the baseline for dynamism is a knowledge that reassures, inspires and challenges to keep one’s heart open to one’s art--the way to see it anew.