Forget You're Writing

I had a flute teacher who once told me that she took a helpful lesson from a French horn player. He told her to remember she was singing when she played, not talking. I knew from an early age I wanted to be a writer of stories, and yet it was the poetry I read in high school that I found most instructive. I distinctly remember putting down a collection of T. S. Eliot and thinking, “Oh, you can do it that way.”

Garth Stein studied theater as a young man. He told me recently he thinks all writers should study acting at some point to help develop the muscle of becoming their characters.

Just as the bookstores are broken into their genre boxes, so too the arts are divided into separate schools. This is not such a terrible thing, of course. Artist are naturally seeking mastery in their given field, and soon enough this mastery is attained through attention to the unique details of their craft.

But in truth, the arts are about expression, not about craft. The craft is merely the tools to permit the expression. An artist’s first job, always, is to locate that which desires to be expressed. I began writing music in earnest a little over a year ago, and this fresh discipline provided a new perspective on the entirety of my creative life, of which writing had too long been the sole vehicle. The push and pull of tempo, the plot-like direction of melody, the interplay of instruments, all these reminded me of novel writing but without those fussy little buggers: words.

I love words, but there are days I hate them as well. They invite that dreaded art killer—interpretation. Without words, music requires its listeners merely to feel. What a relief. But I’m a word guy in the end, and so I try to see the words as notes, and the novel as a symphony. I can’t think a novel, after all, I can only hear it. Or I should say, I’ve tried thinking a novel, and the results were miserable, a flat world of chess pieces standing in dried out scenery. I always do my best writing when I forget that I am writing. And what a surprise, this was the very advice my wife received from her singing coach:

“Forget that you’re singing!” she’d bellow. “You’re listening to yourself.  Just let it through.”

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