Everything I Needed to Know About Writing,
I Learned from my Cello
A Guest Article Written by Margarita Gakis
I love analogies. If you teach me a thing or tell me something, I’m already searching through my brain like a giant Rolodex trying to find a logical match for it - something I can relate it to. My most often used analogy is that writing is like learning to play an instrument. I started taking cello lessons about two and half years ago and like most new things, I took to it with vigor and passion - practicing every day! Reading books! More practicing! Researching online about cellos and bows! Since I like to match up things I do, learn and see, I started thinking about how I was learning the cello: my sessions with my teacher, my reading of books about
it, my sometimes disastrous practice sessions, my occasional stumbling into glory by hitting a row of notes previously missed. I realized - writing and learning to play an instrument are incredibly and intimately similar.
The first time I tried to play a song on my cello it sounded like a chorus of dying swans - honking, hulking swans with no pitch or tune. For a beginner, it wasn’t bad! But listening to it with my adult ears, it was sad and a little embarrassing. In a way, this reminds me of my first, earliest stories, written as a child and seen through adult eyes. Bad character development. Plot holes. Deus ex Machina. Stilted dialogue. Overwrought emotions. What if I had stopped writing then? What if I had seen my work through adult eyes, the same way I hear my cello playing through adult ears and just… given up? Luckily, I can be a persistent terrier when I want and I didn’t give up. I loved telling stories and loved the finished product of a complete, comprehensive piece of work that I created. So, I kept at it. Writing more stories, longer works, shorter pieces. I tried new techniques - maybe a new point of view or a different tone, working on smaller scenes and snapshots instead of bigger works. Each of these stories can be seen as practice. I’m practicing my craft. I think the key thing is, I’m always hoping and trying to get better - and how do I do that? I keep writing. One of the quotes I’ve read that sticks with me the most was something like, “Nobody gets to the Philharmonic Orchestra by thinking about playing the violin.” That quote turned itself around in my brain for several days while I practiced my cello. I’m certainly not expecting to ever make it as a professional musician, but I do realize that to get better, I have to practice. I then made the connection with writing again. Nobody gets better at writing by thinking about writing. You have to do it. Thinkers think. Writers write. If I want to get better at writing, I’ve got to keep doing it. Working my way through a difficult scene or a patchy area is the same as going over and over a hard phrase of music or a complicate set of fingering for some notes. That’s not to say that I sit there and write lines of the same words over and over again! But rather, the act of sitting down and working is its own reward. Over the years, I’ve amassed a large volume of work and when I sit down and review it, I can see my growth. Sometimes in earlier works I can see hints of the writer I will become, much like sometimes with my cello I manage to stumble through a difficult passage expertly the first time. It’s very exciting when this happens! It’s like a glimpse into the future of what I’m aiming for. Mostly, however, what I see and what I’m proud of is the hard work and dedication my writing shows. It shows I stick with it. I keep trying. I may not always get it right, but I show up and do the work. It’s an important distinction to make that you generally don’t sit down to write a final draft when you first start. I don’t sit down in front of a new sheet of music and expect to play it proficiently, certainly not at my beginner level! Nor should I sit down to write and expect the words to come out of my fingers and brain perfectly. They will need to be fine tuned and worked over - edited several times.
The key is that they are out on the page to work with because I did the initial step - I wrote. Say it with me, “Writers write!”
Of course, the ‘thinking’ piece is important too! I find I write best when I think out what I’m going to do before hand - settling the plot and the sequence before I put fingers to keyboard. In a sense, I do the same thing with my cello - thinking about what I will practice before I sit down with my cello. Then, just as when I practice my cello, when I write I try to stay focused on the task at hand. I don’t think about the grocery shopping. Or the laundry. Or that report that I’m trying to compile at work. Or Tumblr, Facebook, LiveJournal, iTunes… I focus on what I’m doing. I’m writing. At the same time, I can’t get too focused on the mechanics or I lose the narrative. With the cello, I can’t always focus on tune or pitch. Sometimes I have to focus on the fluidity of the music, or the movement of my bow. Tune and pitch will come as I work on the other items. It’s the same with writing. I tell the story I want to tell. Later on, I can go through my work and polish it - editing for grammar, word choice and further narrative clarity. Just like when I play, I learn the notes first and then work on fine tuning later.
Just like my instrument practice, my writing practice needs to be regular. Long stretches or breaks of too long and I’m losing my ‘touch.’ I took three weeks off playing the cello and when I went back, my string crossings were sloppy. My tuning was a little off. I couldn’t remember that note in the second bar is a b-flat [ALWAYS B-FLAT, why do I keep forgetting?!]. It’s the same with writing. Write regularly and you keep the skills you gain. Take long, indeterminate breaks and you start to get sloppy. Poor word choices, bad metaphors, awkward and stilted dialogue. Also, I find when working on a larger work, regular and consistent writing keeps the flow of the narrative moving along well. I don’t have to wonder, “Now, where did I leave those characters last time. Has Jade realized she may have feelings for Paris yet? Did I get that far?” When I write often, daily if I can manage it, I keep the narrative tighter in my head and don’t have to keep going back and reviewing what I’ve already written to keep the story straight.
Self-Editing, Awareness and Analytical Thinking
If you want to get better at an instrument, you can’t just ‘sit down and play.’ You have to listen to good playing. Listen to bad playing. Think about why you liked something and why you didn’t like something else. Compare your playing to others. I feel the same is true for writing. In the case of writers, we have to read. A lot. I read in and out of my preferred genres and I try to keep notes on what I liked and what I didn’t. There have been times I’ve read a book in which I couldn’t stand the main characters but I simply had to know what happened next. So, I went back and analyzed why that was. How were these marginal characters keeping me invested? A lot of it had to do with the pace of the story. It was so fast, I could forgive the characters. I’ve read other books in which the writing was gorgeous and yet, I had to stop half way through because I just didn’t care. Again, I go back and think carefully about why I’m not engaged. Is the language too cumbersome for me? Do I just ‘not like it’? Do I not identify with any of the characters? Of course, I quite often just read for enjoyment too! I don’t just read profound or literary works and I feel no shame about the books I choose to read. I read horror, romance, urban fantasy, some non-fiction. On vacation, I only want ‘easy reads.’ But that doesn’t mean that I can’t stop and think about why I find those books ‘easy’ or ‘comfortable.’ There’s a certain sense of familiarity about some of the genres I read and by recognizing that, I’m better able to plot and/or structure my own works - whether that means I set out to follow a ‘formula’ or I set out to completely buck the norm and try something different. The key here, I believe, is knowing what the norm is.
Yes, it is the spice of life. When I play my cello, I have some contemporary pieces, some classical pieces and some studies. Each of the pieces I work on helps me in a different way - style, tone, fingering, dexterity. Multiple pieces also keeps me from getting bored or frustrated. If one isn’t working for me that day, I move to the next. I try to do the same with my writing. I generally have three projects always on on the go - usually two short ones and one long one. The longer piece tends to be novel length [min 80,000 words]. These works take planning, focus and consistency. I’ve got to keep my world building straight, my characterizations solid and my plot arcs smooth. Then I have my smaller pieces - usually a couple of short stories or some snippets of things that may end up being longer pieces someday, but not right now. I’m a bit more free to play around here. Shiny new ideas! Trying out new POVs! Playing around with different tones and nuances. Somedays I simply don’t want to work with certain storylines or characters, so it’s nice to have a choice. It’s also a good motivational tool when I don’t feel like writing at all. I tell myself, surely you can find something in these three works that you’d like to work on. If I can’t, I have to wonder if I’m being deliberately stubborn just trying to get out of writing that day.
Now, if you’re like me, you’ve started thinking about the connections between music and writing and you’re probably wondering, “Yeah, but what about those people who are just GOOD at it automatically?” Ah yes, the prodigies. To be sure, there are prodigies in every walk of life. Some people are naturally gifted. There are some writers whose first kick at the can is stunning and they’ll tell you they’ve never written a thing before, or that they just sort of toyed around with writing and it worked out. Prodigies are rare, but they sure do muck up how I feel about my hard work! I discussed this with my cello teacher the other day. I regularly discuss the similarities between writing and our lessons with her and I wanted to know her thoughts on prodigies. She has taught some over the years - students who were able to pick up the instrument and had a gift. I was surprised by what she told me. I expected her to agree with my thoughts - there are some prodigies out there in every field and the rest of us must simply come to terms with the fact that we will never be them. But, what she told me instead was this - Yes, prodigies exist, but what she has seen is that while initially they are able to reach higher states of achievement and performance very quickly, their accelerated progress tapers off. She said that for example, say you have a prodigy and someone like me - an average person learning the cello. I can reach an intermediate level in three years; the prodigy can reach an intermediate level in three months. However, once we’re both at that level, the prodigy’s speed of advancement starts to slow down, while mine remains the same. All is not lost! I could be as good as a prodigy if I dedicated myself and put the time into the music! This was profound to me. I had somewhat ‘given up’ on ever being considered a ‘master’ at writing. I thought I was okay at ‘being good’ perhaps even ‘being pretty darn good’ but that was where I was going to peak. I was resigned to this, consoling myself by noting that some of the most renowned authors/writers in popular fiction weren’t actually that good, so I was in respectable company. But now! Now I feel as though the sky is the limit again! As long as I keep working, keep refining my product and stick with it, I could be great! Which leads me to...
Another key element with writing, I believe, is persistence. Sticking to it. I think we all have a kind of Elysian Fields in our mind with respect to writing - a place where the words flow free under a cloudless sky and everything is chapter after chapter of wonderful prose, thoughtful insights and compelling character development. What writers generally get instead is hours staring at a computer screen [or a blank notebook], wanting to bash our heads into our desk and wail, ‘WRITING IS HARD!! WHAT IS THIS PLOT? WHO ARE THESE CHARACTERS???’ Let’s be frank - if it was easy, everyone would do it. It’s not easy. Take heart! If you are sitting at a keyboard and thinking that it may be easier to get blood from a stone than to finish your current Work in Progress - you are not alone! What will separate writers from would-be-writers is persistence.
If I play the cello too much in a week, I get sore spots on my fingers from the strings. My bow hand gets this weird cramp. I keep making the same mistake over and over and instead of fixing it, I think I’m actually making it more likely to keep happening. Time for a break! There’s no shame in taking scheduled time off, as long as it’s not too often nor for too long. I slate certain days to be writing free - usually because I’ve got other regular commitments. These ‘WriteFree’ days give my brain time to rest and recharge and also help me on other days when I feel like it’s too hard to keep going. I remind myself that I have some Write-Free days coming up and I’ll get my break then. As a final note [oh! The puns!] I leave you with this: At 90 years old, a famous cellist Pablo Cassals, still practiced for four or five hours every day. When asked why he still worked so hard, he said, "Because I think I am making some progress."
May you also always be making progress.