Thursday, September 6, 2012

Playing the 88's...26 letters at a time

One summer, after moving to a new town, with no friends and home alone, both parents worked, I spent eight hours a day learning how to play the piano on my own. One Sunday morning, while my parents were still in bed, I started to quietly play Ebb Tide; I didn’t want to wake them up.

My mother shouted from their room, “Turn up the radio, I love that, it’s beautiful.” When they learned I was playing the piano they both stood in the dining room doorway, mouths agape; they had no idea I could play as well as I did. My mother cried, she always cried when she listened to beautiful music. Yes, I admit, it was beautiful.
“Play something else,” my father said. I couldn’t, that’s not quite true, there were lots of songs I could play but none as perfect as Ebb Tide. My point is that it took me 40 hours a week all summer long to play one song really well, and a lot of songs, okay.

Twenty-five years ago I took an adult-ed writing course. It was taught by op-ed editor Greg Stone, he now teaches journalism at the University of Connecticut.  The emphasis of the class was on essay writing/op-ed but I remember reading a fiction piece to the group and how well it was received; I drank the support like it was a Heineken on hot day. Some months after taking the class I sent Greg an article. It was about the importance of getting involved, not being a Silent Accomplice to an unjust act. After he suggested a rewrite, it was published. With a few off-tune fits and starts I had, without realizing it, learned to play Mozart by-ear. My writing wasn’t that of a great composer but it made the playlist. After I had figured out what it was they wanted almost everything I sent out on spec made it into the papers and magazines.

I don’t have a fancy-schmancy BA or MFA. I’m a self-taught, play by ear writer who sometimes hits the mark and sometimes clunks off-tune on the eighty-eights. I’m not recommending that my way is the right way, or that formal writing education is a waste of time and money, no I’m not recommending that at all, because this art, this craft, is all about education, self-taught, formal or otherwise; although I’m not sure what ‘otherwise’ might be, pure talent maybe, like self-taught, plays-by-ear Sir Paul McCartney.
Yes, I call what I do writing by ear. Like sounding out chop-sticks on the piano if it sounds right, it’s a song. The choice of the tune is what makes the difference; Three Blind Mice vs. Beethoven’s Ninth determines what you write, one finger or both hands determines how well you write.

Essays are a writer’s one-sided conversation with the reader. It isn’t until the conversation ends that the reader’s chorus of thoughts sounds. An essayist’s subject matter…the tune they decide to play, composer Wagner, (the equivalent of an essay about the death of a child) or Lennon, (world peace), or Joel (write just the way you are), one can tailor one’s ability to any given subject. Writing about what makes you feel good, creates a decent essay, what makes you mad, gets attention, writing about that which makes you feel uncomfortable, makes it great.

Play it like you hear it, perform it until it sounds right to you. You’re a writer. Trust your ear.


Hannah said...

Great piece. I think of myself living a self-taught life - I taught myself how to cook, how to write, how to speak Spanish, taught myself how to teach. I tell people "What I lack in skill I make up for in enthusiasm." I taught myself how to trust my ear, my eyes, my nose, my tongue, and my instincts.

Your piece was encouraging - the analogy was perfect and it reminded me why I do what I do.

Wry Wryter said...

Hannah, thanks for stopping by. I read some of your 'self-taught' writing. My God girl you are amazing.
Where you are, regarding your mother, is where I am quite often and my mom passed away over 5 years ago but it sometimes seems like 5 months, weeks or even days; so new.
When you quit your job you said you wanted to call your mom...I still do that. So instead of calling I talk to her; it makes me feel better sort-of.