Finding Your Material — and Billie Holliday September 20, 2017

The question is, how does a writer recognize what is uniquely her material? Save herself from wrong turns, dead ends, dead writing?

The subject has always been central to me—an obsession—and years ago, I was able to ask two very distinguished men how it had played out in their careers.

One was John Hammond II, the legendary music producer and scout who discovered Billie Holiday singing in a bar when she was eighteen years old. As a producer for Columbia Records, Hammond spent the 1930s signing contracts with big band leaders like Count Basie and Benny Goodman (who became his brother-in-law). Later, he was the first to sign Aretha Franklin, Pete Seeger, Leonard Cohen and, again very famously, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.

Billie Holiday to Bruce Springsteen. That’s quite a range.

I interviewed Hammond several times for a series of documentaries I produced when I worked at CBC Radio, and sat down with him once in person a few years before he died in 1987, aged seventy-six.

Out of all the eighteen-year-olds singing in Harlem, I asked, how on earth did you recognize Billie Holiday as Billie Holiday? What was it about the young Bob Dylan mooching around Greenwich Village that led you to recognize Bob Dylan?

People ask me that, he said, and I’ve never been able to come up with much of an answer. A bell just goes off inside.

It was the same with Robert Weaver, the Canadian editor, producer at CBC Radio and founder of the influential little magazine, The Tamarack Review. He was the first one to promote the work of Alice Munro, Mordecai Richler, Margaret Atwood and, again, Leonard Cohen, this time wearing his poet’s hat. (Or fedora, whatever.)

Why these people? Why Alice Munro and not a thousand other emerging writers?

A bell just went off, Weaver told me, interested to hear that John Hammond had said the same thing.

I’ve since come to feel that writers have to listen hard for the same bell. Experience something—read something, glimpse something, overhear something—and if a bell rings, grab your phone and dictate a memo, or pull out a notebook and scribble it down.

This is something I like to tell students: good ideas are the most precious things a writer has. Use your journal to worry at the glimpse you were granted. Write it out in a second notebook at home, create a file on your laptop, even open a paper file so you can accrue other material that for some reason seems to belong in there, too. One day you might get a novel out of it. A story. A script. At least a scene.

All of which is a convoluted way to bring up bell that rang not long ago when my hockey team was playing in a tournament in Arizona.

We were out for dinner in a restaurant near our hotel in Scottsdale. There were fifteen of us, a big party, but the restaurant was almost empty. Also under-staffed. There seemed to be one waiter on duty, and he quickly proved to be in over his head, taking forever to bring a couple of bottles of wine, forgetting orders or mixing them up, things like that.

None of this was unusual, but the waiter was also a little weird, leaving puzzled spaces when people asked for something, then repeating their requests as a question.

Could I have a knife and fork, please?

After a pause, You want a knife and fork? Looking as if there was something wrong with wanting a knife and fork.

Once, to me, Where are you from?

Toronto, I replied. (Puzzled silence.) Canada?

He thought about this for a while before saying, So what are you doing here?

We’re a hockey team. (Another puzzled silence.) There’s a hockey tournament in town, hundreds of people here to play recreational hockey, and we’re part of it.

A third puzzled silence, after which he said, That’s weird.

Of course, playing hockey in Phoenix is weird, but the man’s continuing disconnect led some people to think he was stoned, and the dinner proceeded with such a strange stop-and-start rhythm that in the end, when the cheque came, we decided to leave him an ordinary tip, eighteen per cent before tax.

A couple of people made the calculations, everything complicated by the fact some of us were paying with plastic, some by cash. But a couple of people checked the bill, and we left the restaurant sure that everything was covered.

A long block away, we heard someone running up behind us, which is a worry when you’re women, even when there are fifteen of you.

It was the waiter, swearing at us, waving the cash we’d left as a tip, yelling, You call that a tip? Eff you. Eff you. He thrust the money into the nearest woman’s hand and gave us the finger, swearing some more before storming back to the restaurant.

Some of us were upset, worried that we’d miscalculated his tip. Others were sure we hadn’t. In any case, should a waiter have run after a group of diners, swearing and giving them back their money? Not to mention giving them the finger. I’ve never had that happen before. What on earth was he thinking?

A bell was ringing. I know that the disconnect—in him, and between him and us—is something I’ll continue to worry over, come back to, maybe even use. What was really going on in that near-empty restaurant in Scottsdale, Arizona?

And does it matter that all of us are white, and he is black?

 

This blog originally appeared on Open Book, where I was writer-in-residence for the month of June. You can check out all the month’s blogs here.

Meanwhile, please check out blogs from Open Book’s September writer in residence, Andrew Kaufman.