September 30th, 2010 / 1:45 pm
Craft Notes

Writing Prompt: Ask a small person for assistance.

In 1966, Ornette Coleman did something odd. (Or, well, odder than usual for him.) He sat his ten year old son Denardo down at a drum kit in a recording studio and made a record with him called The Empty Foxhole.

Certainly this may not be the product of thinking something through completely. Having a shaky-timed ten-year-old play drums on your free jazz record plays into the “anyone can do that,” (see My Kid Could Paint That) critique leveled against Coleman’s pioneering musical career. And certainly, listening to the album reveals that the young man—now a respected pro—was, to be generous, a bit outmatched by his dad and Charlie Haden.

But what it may lack in musical virtuosity—a concept I will admit I am only passingly familiar with and devoted to, as I am more in the poorly record punk rock/noise/psychedelic/and black metal records camp—it sure does make up for with ENTHUSIASM! Enthusiasm is the wheelhouse of the ten year old. And the nine year old. And the eight year old. Etc. Working from a bed of this youthful enthusiasm, Coleman finds a way to weave some music I really like in and around the constraints of the young man’s limitations.

Here is a writing prompt. Ask a small person to tell you a story. Take notes. Tease out details when you think necessary. Encourage the small person to expand on promising ideas now and then. Mostly, though, just listen.

Treat the notes you have taken as a outline. Write a story or a poem. Whatever it is you write. Be faithful to your co-writer’s enthusiasm. But be your usual writerly virtuoso self within the outline’s constraints.

And credit your co-author.

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  1. stefan michael

      That’s an amazing album – anything with either Charlie Haden or Ornette in those days was a treasure. A drum set is probably the one instrument a ten-year-old can play intuitively. Telling stories falls into that same category.

  2. Matthew Simmons

      Heck, it may be worth noting that Denardo was, at ten, a four-year veteran of the drums. He had way more experience than Helen Wiggin at that point.

  3. herocious

      Drum playing is similar storytelling.

      Thanks for giving me something to mull.

  4. herocious

      Enlightening write-up! Had fun reading it. Haven’t watched the video yet. But I will.

  5. stefan michael

      And, let’s not forget, this was the same year Coltrane replaced Elvin Jones with Rashied Ali and McCoy Tyner with Alice (McLeod) Coltrane – Mingus and Coltrane, a well as Coleman, had both been blown away by Eric Dolphy. The “avant-guarde” had begun. Plastic saxophones would soon follow. This was a year of films of John Cage talking about “sound” with background music and commentary by Raashan Roland Kirk: B/T/W, one can still dig this and the Minutemen or the Vaselines, or Eyes of 99

  6. deadgod

      God puts fossils in foxholes to test the faith of geologists.

  7. letters

      Dolphy and Kirk – gods, basically. The live recordings of Mingus and Dolphy right before Dolphy’s death are maybe the most amazing musical performances I have ever heard.

      The Kirk/Cage thing is cool. Thanks.

  8. La Petite Zine
  9. mimi

      I might try this prompt idea tomorrow afternoon at an Alzheimer’s unit in East Oakland (where I volunteer) – I have the most bizarre ‘conversations’ there.

  10. Steve

      And I love that Denardo is still in his dad’s band today. I think Haden has been quoted as saying he was pretty skeptical, but that he would’ve done anything to keep playing with Ornette.

  11. Kristen Iskandrian

      yes to this. thanks.

  12. Khaleel

      If you need another awesome of artist+child projects, Axe Cop ( is a great example. A five year old writes the story, his older brother draws it.