This week I’m thrilled to welcome Stephen Weinstock to Create An Enchanted Life. He is the author of this week’s blog post- and certainly knows a thing or two about following your bliss, creating an enchanted life and faithfully doing the work that often demands! I hope you’ll check out his work and links below. For now, on with the show–or blog st least!..
SCHEHERAZADE TAKES ON THE KARATE KID: HOW CROSS DISCIPLINES FEED EACH OTHER
by Stephen Weinstock
Like my talented webhost, Fiona, I have crossed between musical and fictional worlds in my career. This combination goes hand in hand with an affinity for magical realism. Literature and poetry of the magical realists often has a musical flavor, and a magical piece of music conjures real narratives in our imaginations.
Let me share what I’m writing now, because it will inform how my musical work informed my current work in surprising ways. I have published 1001: The Qaraq, Book One of The Reincarnation Chronicles, the first novel of a magical realist series where a group of souls (the qaraq) presently in suburban New Jersey, discovers its ability to recall past lives. They have been traveling from lifetime to lifetime together, from Carboniferous era dragonflies to 4th Century Persian harem dwellers. The whole insane series (11 books, thank you!) is a giant puzzle of their karmic relationships.
In crossing between the two disciplines, I have grappled for years with the same questions: do I focus on one field at the expense of the other? do I work at one until I am discouraged and then switch tracks? do I just relax and enjoy the abundance of creativity in my life?
I have tired of this dialectical struggle, and recently realized these are the wrong questions. They are perfectly fine questions for day-to-day planning, but they have no ultimate answers. What’s way more interesting is how music and literature feed each other, from writing while listening to tunes, to adapting novels for music theater projects. I have received other benefits from my performing arts work, which have guided my novel writing in unconscious ways. Now that I see them more consciously, I cannot condemn any creative work I have ever done as ‘on the wrong path,’ but rather I thank the Infinite Intelligence for moving me through many spheres of influence.
Back to The Qaraq. Structured after The Thousand and One Nights, the book has a modern Scheherazade story set in the present, from which the characters recall and narrate their past life tales, just as Scheherazade told a part of a story every night to the King. Each chapter has a present day frame that transitions into a past life tale about, say, two atomic particles in a love spat. Again, the insane part is that the series contains 1001 chapters, with 1001 past life tales, just like the 1001 Nights. Oy, how to keep it all straight?
Back to the music vs fiction thing. As a composer for the theater, I wrote and taught new musicals and operas. I invented curriculum at the first musical theater writing programs in the country (in San Francisco and at NYU). Doing this work, I learned that in the traditional Broadway musical, the basic unit is the scene-to-song. If you don’t like musicals, this is the form where people are talking and then some idiot breaks into song. For the Broadway lover, this form is as complicated as a Sondheim show, where characters elegantly glide between spoken scene bits and the next verses of the song. I learned from teaching this form that you find it everywhere: recitatives leading to arias in opera, pantomimes leading to pas de deux in ballet. I analyzed dozens of them for my students, critiqued hundreds of them in our workshops, and desperately tried to improve on them in my own works. It was a grand adventure, but did it help me write Reincarnation Fiction? Well, yes.
A decade later, when none of my half dozen musicals and operas had been produced, not even the promising Rock and Roy (with writer Barry Jay Kaplan), based on the double life of Rock Hudson (so politically important, too!), I slowed down this work and started my past life series. Facing the problem of not boring my readers with each chapter having the format of present day frame into past life story, I played with possible variations: starting a chapter in the present, going to a past life tale, then processing the past back in the present; starting with a mysterious tale from the past, coming back to the present to understand it; going back and forth between present and past so they informed each other; embedding a second tale inside the first and proceeding accordingly. There weren’t too many possible forms, but each had its own variations, and the form successfully moved the action forward.
Just like in Oklahoma! OMG, I was re-cycling the scene-to-song as a present-frame-to-past-life-tale form. And I thought it was a neo-Arabic literary device. It was Score Doctor Stephen to the rescue, creating as much variety of this form in my novel. Looking back, I’m put in mind of that scene in the first Karate Kid film, where the master makes the kid with attitude wash his fence. Wax on, wax off, is the drill, using his two hands in the same repetitive way for hours. The kid’s pissed but does it, and then at the next sparring, the master gets the kid to make a karate move, and he sees that the wax on/wax off drill actually trained his muscles to do the move perfectly. Same deal, here: years of working in scene-to-song prepared me to structure and vary each chapter of my magnum opus. Did I do my musical theater work so I could write the series? Or was I unconsciously influenced by that work to re-invent it in my book? Whatever.
As I moved on from musical theater, I did one of those career guidebooks, and realized that the work that had brought me the most fulfillment in my past life was accompanying dance classes. The goal of each class was for the music to bring the dancers to physical and emotional ecstasy: what more do you want? A decent wage, for one, since accompanists are the lowest paid in the music biz. But the point was clear, and so I went back to beating a drum and piano for dance. After a bunch of years free-lancing, I ended up at LaGuardia HS, the “Fame’ School in New York, where the kids are the most appreciative of dance music in any studio I’ve experienced. And the wage was decent.
I play for modern dance, which means that I must improvise everything, although within a fixed structure. Being a self-taught musician, accompanying for dance was my daily practice, my piano lessons, and my performing opportunity rolled into one. When Martha Graham says “And!” you play whatever’s in your head. You trust your first instinct, and build on whatever comes out. Being an organizer and a structurer from my other endeavors, dance exercised another part of my creative brain, and taught me to take whatever material you start with, and elaborate, energize, and make it work. To bring everyone to ecstasy.
For my series, I have to come up with 1001 stories. I have a simple rule: any idea that pops into my head is welcomed and put into the series somewhere. There’s no time for picky judgment. Even if it’s a ‘mediocre’ idea, like a seven-inch plant squashed into a chunk of coal, I can use it somehow, elaborate, energize, and make it work. Hey, where did I learn that? That’s right, you’re catching on, by improvising for dance I learned to improvise for fiction. Not that I don’t plan to a fault: there are eleven hidden structures in The Reincarnation Chronicles, woven into each chapter. Structural puzzles come from my work as a composer of non-improvised scores, but that’s another story, and another gift from my musical work.
The norm is no longer to land a job and keep it until you retire. First of all, nobody’s retiring anymore, and secondly it’s cool to fluidly move between career options. Juggling two or more fields is something you may be dealing with on a daily or yearly basis. I’ve learned that sweating the decision about which field to follow is important for basic time-management issues, but don’t sweat it too much. I dealt with the stigma of changing paths, and failed to see how my energy in one place was feeding my energy in another. Now I believe this is why I made all the path choices I did, or why those paths opened to me, to keep replenishing my creativity and suggesting new ways to approach a task. If I hadn’t waxed on and off, I wouldn’t have been able to handle a modern day Scheherazade.
STEPHEN WEINSTOCK’s bio and links:
STEPHEN WEINSTOCK has created scores for theater companies (Magic Theater, Eureka Theater), choreographers (Margaret Jenkins, Adam Barruch), and dancers (the Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham studios, Juilliard, LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts). His musical Rock and Roy, about the double life of Rock Hudson, has been performed at New Dramatists in New York and the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Mr. Weinstock is author of the series 1001, based on the Arabian Nights, about a group of people who discover they have shared 1001 past lives.
Find 1001: The Qaraq, Book One of The Reincarnation Chronicles at his website: