A More Important Question

When I was twenty-two, I began hearing a melody in my head. The more I heard it, the clearer it became, until finally I thought it might be a good idea to write it down somehow. I already knew how to read music from years of playing the flute, but I knew absolutely nothing about music theory—I knew nothing about half-steps or whole-steps or chords or why it would matter what key a song was written in. So I bought a keyboard, hoping somehow the song would move from my head to my fingers to keys. This did not happen. Trying to find my song on that keyboard was like trying to learn to write by randomly striking letters on a typewriter. I am a very stubborn student. I will waste hours of my time figuring out how to do something myself rather that allow someone else show me. But not being able to write my song was such a profoundly frustrating and unsatisfying experience that I did something I had never done before and have not done since: I bought a How To book.

It was a slim volume, a kind of Music Theory for Dummies before there was such a thing. But it was enough. After an hour or so I’d gotten the gist of it and was at the keyboard finding my song. That first day was rather magical. All at once I was literate, and the order of the black keys and the white keys transformed almost before my eyes from something opaque and meaningless to an elegantly simple system to write anything I should wish.

Given this experience, you might think I’d be a bigger proponent of How To books. I am not. I quietly and stubbornly maintain that with a little more time I could have figured it out myself. No matter. How to write a song has never been nearly as interesting a question to me as which song I want to write. No such book exists that can answer that question. Only silence can answer that question—that empty space that asks everyone equally: What will your life be next?


Write Within Yourself: An Author's Companion. "A book to keep nearby whenever your writer's spirit needs feeding." Deb Caletti.

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