The way I look at it is, it isn’t jumping the shark — if you never come back down.
— “Carter Edlund” (Chuck Shirley)
So I am participating in this writing exercise at my blog hosting site along with about a million other people. (Feel free to peruse; there’s some neat stuff.) We’re writing in response to prompts, which really appeals to me because I use prompts all the time in my classes. It’s the natural way to get students to write about philosophical and/or literary topics (“Short Answer” mode, perfect for biology, doesn’t quite cut it in theology. Explain God. Use both sides of the paper if necessary.) I tell them all the time, there’s no “wrong” way to answer a prompt, but of course in a college assignment that’s a lie; they can a) not respond to it at all; b) write about cheese; c) answer each teeny tiny portion of the prompt with “yes” and “no” (“Yes, I think that people can behave morally. No, I do not think that morality has to come from a religion. Religion is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as…” That’s definitely the wrong way to respond to a prompt.) d) go on and on and on without a thesis. I, of course, get to do that. I write a blog. Thesis is a dirty word.
But is it really digressing if there’s no point?
The thesis, after all, is a choice. The prompt may be wide open, it may have infinite potential, but once an agent (me) commits to a point of view (I am writing on my blog, which has a finite potential audience) there’s thesis. The important thing is to commit. Then, stick to it — the choice has been made.
So that little introduction is not truly a digression, merely part of a larger choice. The other part is the prompt itself. We were told to respond (and encouraged to skip “thinking” and “logic” which is like skipping “breathing” and “having a pulse”) with “the three most important songs in your life.” Try as I might, I could not derive a thesis. I cannot come up with a coherent whole, true synthesis, a thematic unity, if I think of three songs. And we’re trying to talk about my WHOLE life here? I’m older than most of you. I know more songs. So instead of an impulsive response, which was what the prompt really wanted from me, I digressed. In musical terms, I vamped. One of the other no-rules rules was “Don’t cross out.” I haven’t, honest. But I digressed.
Three songs. One doesn’t exist. It’s called “Who Hit Nelly in the Belly with a Flounder.” It’s a family inside joke, a muted reference, a hypothetical reality, and it makes me think of two important people who’ve died; how much it hurts that no one reading this can really understand; I could explain it, but it wouldn’t be the same, and anyway I’d be digressing.
(Clears lump in throat.)
The second song isn’t a song, it’s an album, which is appropriate for the album-rock 1970s child I am. It’s called A Day at the Races, and it came to live with me in a beautiful gatefold black cover in January of 1977 because I didn’t get it for Christmas (you want WHAT is it called now? OK, go buy it; I’ll never find it.) Every note on it, every lyric printed inside the gatefold, every pixel of the blurrily indistinct photo, every Art-Deco line of the cover art, each and every credit, all the way down to the terse and final, “No synthesizers!” — all rushed their way into my consciousness and lived there, warm and loving, to emerge two years later (after some help from friends) in my novel/pretend real life. Sheer bloody poetry.
Anybody who gets that reference gets an ice-cream.
The last one starts with three chords: A minor, E minor, A minor. After which, the most beautiful voice I’ll ever hear sings to the health of the whores of Amsterdam, in the port of Amsterdam. Pain, ferocity, triumph, magnificence, transcendence; a voice I’ll never hear again; a moment I still feel, a moment when my love was alive; alive in every sense of the word. I wish for my sake even more than yours that I had a YouTube link to the real moment, the real voice I’m talking about. Cameras aren’t actually ubiquitous and not everything is on tape somewhere.
So. There is a thematic unity. Love, loss, a desire for something sublime that existed for one moment only and passed away, ephemeral; or never existed at all; or existed but not for me, not in the way I’d have hoped because novels aren’t real life. How silly of me to think that I wouldn’t find synthesis. Everything in life is the same; I’ve always known that.