As many of you know, I wrote a book about my life (mostly my professional career) called the Flight of a Wild Duck. It was published in the fall of 2021. It took three years to write. Even though I had written 100s of blog posts, professional articles in both medical sciences and later business publications, I had to learn a whole new set of skills to write the book. It turned out pretty well, I believe. Now I am looking for some new challenges. So I thought I would explore writing fiction. Below is my first attempt. It is largely based on a real story but augmented.
I am using ChatGPT these days to help me do research and also to correct my many spelling and grammar mistakes. I don’t have do actual writing for me. It is not able to capture my objectives and my voice.
After writing this short story, I asked it to give me advice as to how I could improve it. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts about all of this. Don’t be afraid to be critical. I know that my fiction writing needs a lot of improvement. It will take me years to write compelling fiction if ever. Not sure I am up to that task.
The night my musical career ended
The house, a run-down Victorian, had been transformed into an illegal after-hours club, a gathering place where musicians could play for each other once they finished their gigs. It was located in the Fillmore district of San Francisco, which once housed Jewish immigrants and later became home to a thriving Japanese community. However, World War II changed all of that. The American government removed the Japanese and interned them, as they were wrongly deemed a threat to the security of the USA. African Americans, who came from southern states to work in the Bay Area war industry, replaced the Japanese. The Jews who once lived there had moved out earlier, but many had kept their businesses on Fillmore Street, including several family members. My father had a cigar store on Post and Fillmore, not far from this after-hours club and just a few doors from the famous Jazz Club, Bop City, where many of the top Jazz musicians had once performed, such as Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker. Ironically, just up the street was the Fillmore West, the iconic rock venue started by Billy Graham.
While studying music composition and arrangement at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, I discovered jazz when a black student named Oscar invited me to his home to listen to some music. He played Coltrane’s performance of “My Favorite Things.” That changed my life. My piano playing was not adequate to play professionally. So I now made my living by arranging music for some of the very successful rock bands that had taken over the music scene in San Francisco in the 60s. Names you would recognize. Sometimes I played piano at a coffee house, The Blue Unicorn, which was to become home to the nascent hippie movement.
My friend, Bob, a professional trumpet player, had decided to learn to play classical piano. He was about twenty, a few years older than me, and lived just a few blocks from me in the Inner Sunset district. Bob set himself a very ambitious objective: to play both volumes of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier perfectly. He practiced piano for at least four to five hours a day. To accomplish this, Bob would put 20 matches on the left side of his piano. Whenever Bob played a piece without making a mistake, he would move one of the matches from the piano’s left to the right. But should he make a mistake, he would pick up all the matches on the right back and bring them back to their original positions on the left side of the piano. It would easily take him several hours to get through one piece. Sadly, he severely injured both his hands, rendering him unable to play piano or trumpet. By this time, he could barely communicate. We lost touch. Bob used drugs, especially stimulants, and eventually died of an overdose.
It was a bit after 2 am when Bob and I arrived in my old Volkswagen Beetle. I had picked him up after his last set at a topless bar on Broadway Street in North Beach. It was a cold and wet night, not unusual for San Francisco. Luckily, there was a space on the street close by where we parked, then walked through the front yard and entered the house. There was just enough space for six small tables in what had been the living and dining rooms. A small stage stood at the end of the area. The ceiling was low, and the room dark. The smell of cigarettes was everywhere. We found a free table and sat down. We were the only white people, but we did not feel uncomfortable.
The club charged for admission and offered no food or drinks. The person who ran the place approached us, asking each of us for $5. The audience was primarily musicians, all men, many of whom would play during the night. They brought bottles of alcohol in literal brown paper bags. There was no chance I would be playing piano that night, not in that room where I suspected there were many very talented musicians. Bob, while a skillful trumpet player, was not really into jazz. It had been my idea to go to this club. I wanted to connect with the San Francisco jazz community. The rock music scene in San Francisco held no interest to me. Screaming guitars and loud drums playing songs mainly consisting of only three chords did not inspire me. Instead, the music of giants like John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Bill Evans inspired me. Sometimes, I would hear their performances at the Jazz Workshop, near the club where Bob worked. Being only 18 years old, I was not allowed to be in nightclubs that sold liquor, but fortunately, I had a friend working there who could sneak me in. I dreamed of composing a tune that one of the great jazz players would perform and record.
While listening to a trio consisting of a saxophone, bass, and drums, I noticed that the saxophone player, a slight man with a mustache and a cap, was moving dangerously close to the end of the stage. He looked like he was high. Sure enough, he fell off the stage without hurting himself too much and just got back on, continuing to play. No one seemed to find this strange, but I found it very upsetting.
I went to the restroom and saw someone lying on the floor, semi-conscious. I thought he might have been taking heroin. I didn’t know what to do but decided to get Bob and leave. That was the night I gave up my musical career. I stopped hanging out with musicians and stayed away from drugs. Looking back at that night, I realize it may have saved my life.
I never played with other musicians. The ones I knew always wanted to get high. I used to joke that they wanted to get high and then practice, and I wanted to practice and then get high. But actually, I did not want to get high. I just wanted to play.
Overall, your story has some interesting elements and potential, but there are a few specific areas that could benefit from improvement. Here are some specific suggestions:
- Clarify the time frame: The story jumps around between different time periods and events, which can be confusing for the reader. Consider starting with a clear time frame or setting for the story, and sticking to that timeline throughout the narrative. This will help the reader follow the story more easily.
- Develop the characters: While you introduce several characters in the story, they are not very fleshed out or developed. Consider giving them more depth by describing their personalities, motivations, and backgrounds. For example, you could describe the narrator’s relationship with Bob in more detail, or explore the saxophone player’s backstory and how he ended up playing in an illegal club.
- Build tension and conflict: A good story needs tension and conflict to keep the reader engaged. Consider how you can introduce more tension into your story, such as by having the narrator face some obstacles or challenges in his pursuit of music. You could also introduce more suspense by foreshadowing the narrator’s decision to give up his musical career.
- Show, don’t tell: Instead of simply telling the reader what is happening in the story, consider showing the scene through sensory details and evocative descriptions. For example, you could describe the atmosphere and sounds of the after-hours club in more detail, or describe the physical and emotional toll that Bob’s injury takes on him.
- Revise and edit: Finally, remember that writing is a process. Once you’ve written a draft of your story, take some time to revise and edit it. Read it over with a critical eye and look for areas where you can improve the pacing, dialogue, or description. Consider sharing your work with a writing group or a trusted friend for feedback.
By focusing on these areas, you can make your story more engaging, vivid, and compelling. Keep practicing and honing your writing skills, and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a great fiction writer.
Amazing that at this stage of your life you are undertaking this journey of being a fiction writer. Best of luck!
Yes. It is amazing that I am not waiting to I am more mature.
ChatGPT gave you some great advice. I didn’t realize it was that good. Wow.
I’d add that you may wish to consider strongly editing down your prose. Tight, like elegantly written computer code, yet with a Jazz like verve.
One example: “He played Coltrane’s performance of ‘My Favorite Things.’ That changed my life. ‘ Could be edited down to “Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things’ changed my life.”
Sometimes less is more. Sometimes it’s not. Art and style lies in where you strike that balance.
Thanks. I learned that writing my book but I am just starting out with fiction. I have at least three years ahead of me before I can write well if ever.
You my friend have a life well lived keep sharing.
The ChatGPT comments were interesting. It writes well and understood the request for feedback better than I would have expected. Your writing is very good as is. You were wise beyond your years to avoid drugs. As for the story above, it’s a bit rough. More details would be nice and would complement the reader’s curiosity. I’d like to see more definitive comments about the decision to end your musical ‘career’ and how you integrated music into your life afterward. Cool!
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Thanks for the comments and suggestions.
Although, I gave up on the idea pursuing a musical career, I did not give up on music. While, I started playing piano too late for a career playing classical music, I was not too late for Jazz, I realized. Paying jazz required much more than great technic. Improvising is like doing math but in time. I continued to study piano and play until this day, some 50 years later. I still have a dream to compose but the involves writing the score for a documentary.
Jazz is such a wonderful styling. It requires not only competence in the instrument at hand but an ability to improvise. And that generally means you have to play the original thing a number of times before you feel how to ‘jazz it up.’ I never compared jazz to math but have always viewed it as extreme competence exploding into improvisation. Check out my two favorite Boston area musicians: Laszlo Gardony (piano) and Yoron Israel (drums). They are on YouTube. My husband and I love hearing them live . . . and it’s been way too long. Hoping maybe to hear them live this year (with masks of course).