Perfect Shame

At 43 I discovered that I could fulfill what was literally a lifelong dream – to compose music. My computer, I discovered one evening, came equipped with software that would allow me to write music as complex as my imagination desired without the commensurate skill on the piano or guitar. What came at first was very simple and very short: one melody line and one bass line. Within less than two years, however, I was able to compose a short “symphonette” with twelve instruments and five melodies playing simultaneously. I am still surprised at how quickly my music writing skills evolved without classes or books or much knowledge of music theory. I would be happy to attribute this to musical genius, but I believe it has far more to do with how I went about teaching myself.

1. I gave myself small assignments. My only goal for that first piece I wrote was that it sounded like music. It did, and so I was successful. With each new piece I expanded gradually what I asked of myself – adding an instrument here and there, and experimenting periodically with new time signatures and new chords. If I had tried to write a symphony immediately I would have been overwhelmed and would have given up.

2. I wrote every day. I stole 20 minutes in the mornings and evenings to compose my little melodies. This was the easiest part. I felt lucky, you see. Writing the music was my gift to myself.

3. I listened to music as a composer. My only teachers were Beethoven and Paul McCartney and Mozart. I’d always loved music, but now I paid attention to how these composers achieved their effects.

4. I never criticized or compared my music. This was perhaps the most miraculous choice of all. Like many writers I am prone to some harsh self-criticism, but never once did I turn my cruel critic’s eye on my music. The only question I ever asked of what I had composed was: Does this please me? If the answer was yes, it stayed; if the answer was no, it went.

It is difficult to write about my own work in this way and not sound as if I am bragging, and I accept that I may not have succeeded in this. But my relationship to the music I wrote remains unique in my creative life. I still do not wonder if it is “any good.” The question is weirdly irrelevant. I wrote what I wanted to hear and now it exists and that is the end of it. In this way, composing music taught me more about writing than much of the writing I was doing at that time because it showed me definitively that most of what we call constructive criticism is nothing more than the false belief that perfection exists and that anything short of it is shameful.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

More Author Articles

Follow wdbk on Twitter