On reflection, Nick Jaina’s Get It While You Can is clearly a memoir, but while you’re immersed in it, that can be hard to tell. Mixed in with the journal entries, which often describe the Portland, Oregon, resident’s experiences as a touring songwriter and practitioner of Vipassana meditation, are stretches that seem like fiction, an array of unsent love letters, a DIY songwriting manual, and an encyclopedia-style taxonomy of sadness.
Jaina’s writing method appears to be derived from the contemporary technological landscape, with some of Get It While You Can’s 31 short chapters reading like elongated tweets and others like the kind of listicles that clutter Facebook. But Jaina’s fragmented musings are different: over the course of the book’s 208 pages, they acquire considerable cumulative power, perhaps because they’re a genuine reflection of how their author moves through the world.
Reached at home, Jaina happily admits that Get It While You Can has more in common with collage than conventional narrative writing. “Oh, yeah, definitely,” he tells the Straight. “I mean, it was kind of stuck together, just as the way I live my life is by pursuing coincidences. If somebody offhandedly says a place, and then somebody else mentions that place, and then it happens a third time, I just go to that place and trust that there’s a reason why I should be going there. I used to think that I needed a great reason to start a project or go to a city, but now I think I just need three okay reasons. And that’s actually better, because there’s some sort of magic brewing or something.
“With assembling a book and doing it while I’m living and travelling,” he continues, “I just wanted to trust in that magic‚ that if things were popping up, then I could just underscore them or stitch them together, and either they would make some connection or the reader would make a connection between them. That’s the world I love believing in—a lot of magical things just kind of flickering around.”
Magic and happenstance can make for murky art, however, and the literary world is lucky that Jaina honed his craft as a songwriter before deciding to make the leap into a larger format. As his five solo albums show, he’s mastered the curious balance of acuity and imprecision that characterizes the best songs, perhaps because he’s made a close study of the genre’s giants.
“With songs, you include personal details, but it’s always a little bit like ‘Is that real? When he says “I”, does that mean him?’ Sometimes you’re sort of playing sleight of hand with the truth,” he explains. “I mean, I read Bob Dylan’s Chronicles and really enjoyed that. In a way, he was really straightforward, more than he’s ever been, but then he’s also constantly saying, ‘Here’s what’s really important. If you’re interested in what I have to say, here’s the lineage of people who led to this, musically and lyrically.’ That was actually a big inspiration for how to approach a book that wasn’t just, ‘Here’s why I am so great.’ ”
Modest though he is—and Get It While You Can isn’t short of passages describing its narrator’s failings—Jaina also knows how to turn a phrase. That comes out most keenly in the love letters, which are so gorgeously frank you’ll be tempted to steal from them for your own. Writing to one apparently unrequited crush, he compares his passion to a bell that continues to ring long after being struck: “Sometimes I wish I could put my hand on the bell and stop the ringing,” he says, “but mostly I’m glad to have been struck at all.”
Unsurprisingly, these passages are the most poetic—and the most songlike—in the book.
“Songs are great for just mainlining emotions,” Jaina says. “You can take an image and just highlight that, and not have to explain it and flesh it out.…It’s liberating to just think, ‘Oh, yeah: I don’t have to tear myself apart and come up with a concrete, definitive position on what I believe about this or that in my life. I can just show a little glimmer of something beautiful.’ And that’s all you have to do.”
In keeping with his disregard for convention, Jaina’s upcoming Vancouver reading won’t follow the usual format. “My friend Kevin House is going to host it, I believe,” he says, referring to one of our city’s spookiest and most gifted singer-songwriters. “I hope he’ll have read the book and will sort of interview me. I haven’t done readings before, but, having done thousands of shows, when I think of readings I think of the pitfall of just cracking open the book and reading and taking an hour of everyone’s time. So I’d like to find ways of breaking that up a bit by having some conversation, some joking, some reading, and a couple of songs.”
And if those songs seem intriguing, Jaina is sticking around to present the first fully staged version of his one-man musical The Hole in the Coffin as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. Without getting too deeply into the details, it’s an autobiographical story that involves New Orleans, a gun, a revenge plot, and, of course, a coffin—further evidence that Jaina can think inside the box as well as out.
Nick Jaina reads at the Paper Hound bookstore next Thursday (January 22). The Hole in the Coffin plays Performance Works next Saturday (January 24) as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival’s Club PuSh series.