The music of writing

When my mother-in-law died several years ago, it was decided we would be the proud recipients of her piano. Recognizing the futility of protest — none of us played, it’s not exactly inexpensive to move a piano halfway across the country, never mind that I had no space for the darn thing — I accepted the gift graciously. Some things you do in the name of family peace. And then later claim it as wisdom.

For a while both kids messed around with it, banging on the keys and trying to drown each other out with simultaneously awful versions of chopsticks. My son quickly lost interest. But my daughter, then in 5th grade, began to spend more and more time picking out simple tunes, trying to make real music. So we signed her up for piano lessons.

I decided before she even started that I was never going to tell her she had to practice. If she wanted to do it, fine. If not, end of story.

She had an amazing teacher, a man who had once been a concert pianist with a major symphony and who simply expected the best without demanding it. And it turned out she had a true gift for playing the piano [see above re: wisdom]. Not to mention a determination to get it right that was truly awe-inspiring. There were times I practically begged her to STOP ALREADY because she’d played the same section of notes over and over and over again for an hour and a half and showed no signs of relenting.

Yet she kept at it. She loved it. And she got to the point where she could play an entire song without making a mistake. Yes, it was a simple song, but still. A triumph that sounded a lot like, um, The Star Spangled Banner. And then came the classics. Longer songs with more complicated sections requiring more repetition and even more endless hours of the same notes played over and over and over . . .

You have no idea how much you can grow to despise a song until you’ve heard the individual notes of it played badly and repeatedly for hours on end. This went on for years. YEARS, I tell you. But it made her happy.

When she was learning Variations on the Kanon by Pachalbel, she had George Winston’s sheet music of the piece and she’d take my CD “December” and put it in the CD player so she could play along with him. It was painful. All these years later, I still know Every Single Note of that song. And then came the day she played it all the way through, without stopping, matching him note for gorgeous note. It was so beautiful, so emotionally evocative, I almost wept. Okay fine, damnit, I stood in the next room and cried like a baby.

More songs followed, including Debussy’s Reverie and Clair de Lune. (The linked video of Clair de Lune has fascinating graphics.) And yes, I know Every Single Note of those songs as well. She now plays them beautifully. But this was accomplished only by her putting in hours upon endless hours of hard work and tedious repetition and hitting all the wrong notes on the way to getting them right. Each new song was like starting all over again. She’d take the first dozen notes or so and play those until they shimmered with perfection. Then she’d move on to the next section. And she kept on in that fashion until she had mastered the entire piece.

The point of all this rambling is that somewhere along the way, I realized learning to write is very similar endeavour. You start by determining whether you have a basic aptitude and liking for it. Then, if you’re lucky, you take lessons from a master. You learn to perform simple short pieces. Then you tackle the more complicated stuff, practicing the same few sections over and over and over until everyone around you wants to scream, “Just play a song, already!” But you’re not content performing a simple tune. So you wait, biding your time, continuing to practice each stanza repeatedly, paying attention to the nuances of every note and listening intently to how they all fit together to form a whole. Because you know you are creating a masterpiece.

And you know that once you’re ready, once you can hit each note clearly so it resonates with confidence and passion, people will stand in their kitchen, holding a forgotten spoon dripping spaghetti sauce onto the floor, tears of joy streaming down their face at the sheer beauty of your music.

So I’m practicing. Frustrated and despising my efforts yet enduring the tedium because I recognize its necessity. Writing and writing and re-writing . . . until repetition becomes proficiency and perhaps turns into artistry and I can hit Every Single Note. Clearly and with passion.

Be patient. Mastery takes time. One day soon, you will listen to my song and weep.

With any luck, they won’t be tears of bitter disappointment.


Filed under creativity, deep thoughts, writing

21 responses to “The music of writing

  1. WapakGram

    Thank you for reminding me of the beauty of a song well done. And the pride you have knowing how long you worked at it. Mastery does take time.

    This is one of the most wonderfully written pieces I have ever read.

    Thank you.


  2. Thank you, Wapak. Your sentiments are much appreciated.

    My daughter doesn’t read my blog (I’m rather proud of the fact that she thinks I’m weird, over here talking to my imaginary friends) but I sent her the link to this post. She said it made her cry. She also thought it was very funny.

    I thought that was wonderful.


  3. Lord, I hope the beautiful notes stage is coming … and in the meantime what a gift it is to see these wonderful kids find their thing as well.


  4. This is a really beautiful blog. Thank you. I’ve been fairly discouraged this week. This had reminded me that that there will be a beautiful masterpiece eventually when I’ve put in the time and effort. Thanks!


  5. Simply beautiful! 🙂 Thank you for sharing. There’s nothing like a well-played tune or a thoughfully crafted book.


  6. Thank you for this!
    Just when i was ready to say: “I’ll never get this writing thing right!” you blog comes along to remind me that nothing good happens without a lot of hard work.
    Your daughter leaning the piano pieces is a great analogy for what we do. You recharged my batteries for another re-write…


  7. Just be thankful she didn’t take up the bagpipes 🙂


  8. Some people play simply for the joy of it. Others prefere an audience. Me, I can go either way, but if I don’t like the music, I move on to a tune I’m a bit more partial to. Just like writing.

    Nice post.


  9. Merry, there were times bagpipes might have been a nice change.

    Thanks, everyone, for the kind words. I’m really glad the post served as encouragement for some of you.

    It seems writers are under so much (well-intentioned) pressure to “hurry up” and finish the darn book, both before we’re published and certainly afterward, with deadlines looming. I see so many writers make the mistake of submitting a piece before they’ve put in enough practice time. And then they get discouraged by rejections. Almost did it myself, until someone pointed out how much more work I had to do. 😉


  10. When I found lumpy chunks of bad writing in my work, I used to get so discouraged and impatient with myself. I’ve been at it so long, shouldn’t I know it by now? Now I realize it’s a lifelong process just trying to learn to play one perfect song–and even that won’t be QUITE perfect.


  11. Patry, so often what makes a thing beautiful are its imperfections. I love your writing, lumpy chunks and all.

    But yes, I agree. It’s a lifelong process. SO damn glad you’ll be around to enjoy the frustration with the rest of us.


  12. rssasrb

    What a beautiful post, KDJ. Thank you. This will help when I get discouraged and wonder if it is really helping to do yet another rewrite.


  13. McB

    writers are under so much (well-intentioned) pressure to “hurry up” and finish the darn book

    Gosh, really? Can’t think who would do that, she says as she whistles innocently and looks off at nothing in particular.


  14. orangehands

    I like this analogy, though I’m hoping its not accurate as I’ve stopped playing piano and – oh yeah- am tone deaf. But I did have a small light-bulb go off. Like the piano with that one section of notes I’d master and continuously play (until my mother would scream), sometimes I get completely hooked on a line or paragraph and will use it relentlessly in everything until it finds its place. (I don’t kill my darlings, I pimp them out.)


  15. *snort* McB, darlin’, you’re one of the worst. And I love you for it. I’m just amazed you all haven’t given up on me. I owe you so much…

    RSS, your voice is magic and your stories are compelling. You are SO close. Don’t you even think about getting discouraged now.

    OH, I’ve never known you to be tone deaf when it comes to words. And I do the same thing re getting hooked. If I get a thought in my head and don’t write it down, it cycles there endlessly until I give it voice. Or until I, um, pimp it out. 8)


  16. jasonamyers

    This is going to sound weird, but I actually enjoy listening to my daughter practice on her piano, even though she’s not quite that good at it yet.
    It’s very soothing to me while I am writing, or reading, or whatever. Maybe I’m just a glutton for punishment.


  17. Nah, you’re just a good dad. Even though I give her grief about it here, I really miss hearing my daughter practice. It was like listening to a piece of her soul. Probably why she’d never let me sit in the same room while she was playing. A pretense along the same lines of, “If I close my eyes, you can’t see me.” Kids.


  18. orangehands

    LOL. Thanks.


  19. Well what can I say? As I stood in my kitchen with chocolate dripping off my fingers I cried. What a beautiful analogy. It makes me want to go back and work harder to finish my manuscript and write some more short stories. To practice my piece until it is perfect. Beautiful. Thank you.


  20. Penny! You let chocolate hit the floor? Tsk. Um… got any left you might want to share?

    You know, I’ve read your work and you are such a talented writer, with years and years of experience behind you. It’s humbling to think you’d find value in anything I might have to say about writing. Thank you. Keep writing; the world needs your stories.


  21. Beautiful piece. Loved it!