Keep calm and carry on practising
I hated scales growing up. They were dull. I couldn’t see why I was supposed to be spending hours going up and down the piano keys for no apparently worthwhile output. I just wanted to play. Trouble was, I also wanted to pass exams so I could take a GCSE in music. This meant more constant hammering of scales, sight reading and a series of exam pieces that left me musically cold. I took the GCSE and then promptly gave up. As a consequence, I now have the peculiar distinction of being able to call myself a Grade 6 Level (if that even still exists) pianist who can’t play a single piece of decent music, no classical, no blues, no jazz. Alright, I can start Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. I gave up just as all this dull technical effort was about to pay off because I thought the practice bored me.
I was not blessed with an abundance of patience. This makes writing a novel quite tricky. I want it done. Now. And yet, I realise that if I am to make any go of this, I must practise. As much as possible. This is even trickier if you spend an awful lot of time trying to avoid the very thing you love because when you do practise, it rarely come out the way you see it in your head.
This avoidance/frustration is not unusual among writers. Indeed, number ten of Zadie Smith’s rules for writers states: Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.
It’s a common theme in her interviews. I can’t find the original one, but I keep a notebook of author quotes and in it I have attributed the following to Smith: ‘To me writing every day is the management of self-disgust.’ And in an interview with the Evening Standard, she says ‘It’s total self-disgust every time. I don’t keep any copies of my books in the house — they go to my mum’s flat. I don’t like them around.'
She’s not the only one. In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, The Book Thief author Markus Zusak talks about how much he procrastinates, before offering the following advice: 'Don't be afraid to fail. I fail every day. I failed thousands of times writing The Book Thief, and that book now means everything to me…Failure has been my best friend as a writer. It tests you, to see if you have what it takes to see it through.'
A lot of my friends know how much I love The Book Thief. I bang on about it enough (as an aside I notice the reviews of the film aren’t great and although I’ve not seen it, my suspicion is that this is because film simply cannot replicate the beauty of Zusak’s language). To read Zusak’s comments was a revelation. Someone whose writing I admired very much found the process difficult. Contrary to my skewed vision of the world, this book did not spill, fully-formed and beautiful, onto the page.
The only possible answer, then, is that he practised. And practised. And practised some more.
I hadn’t thought about how much I hated scales until I read a friend’s blog this week. In it, Alex imagines a version of himself who did not give up piano as a young boy and talks about giving things up after, ‘an initial burst of excitement’ that quickly led to ‘a fearful obstacle involving other people and quitting.’ It’s a complex, honest post that I cannot do justice here, so if you fancy a read...
Like Alex, I tried a lot of different things when I was growing up, besides piano – Brownies (once), Guides (a term), ballet (God knows) modern dance (erm…). I used to do painting by numbers, those scraper-foil pictures where you scratch off the black stuff to create a silver picture of a rabbit, I made small Beatrix Potter plaster casts and painted them, I built a lot of Lego, I made jewellery, kept sticker books, made scrap books, wrote my own reports on Andrew and Fergie’s wedding day, recorded my own radio show, coloured in intricate spiral shapes in colouring books, I sewed and I wrote poems. I gave up all of them.
I’ve always thought this made me a bit of a quitter, unable to stick to any one thing for any length of time either through boredom or frustration. This thought has grown over time so that now I’m terrified I won’t finish the novel. Then, just the other day, another writer friend pointed out that all I was doing was trying different things, learning what I liked and didn’t like doing. And more importantly, that this is a perfectly normal thing for a child to do. He also pointed out that I have in fact never stopped writing; that for some weird reason I have managed to ignore the twenty years’ worth of news and features I’ve produced.
And so here, finally, is my point, Alex’s piano-playing alter ego and my friend’s polite earful got me wondering what other creative Lisas are out there? What if I do, in fact, enjoy the practice after all, it's just I may not have been passionate about all those things all the time - after all it's taken me the best part of a day to write this blog, trying to get it right, moving words, paragraphs, rewriting great swathes of it. Practising.
What other imaginative things might I love doing if I stop considering myself as a ‘quitter’ who hates practising and turn myself into a ‘tryer’ who gives things a bash, not necessarily to be good at them, mind. Just for the pleasure of the thing. Can I go back to that childish ability to pick something up, try it on for size and move on if it doesn’t fit without feeling guilty?
I’ve been thinking for a while that I want to take up piano again. I was worried it might distract from the writing, might give me an excuse to avoid it altogether, but apparently it might have the exact opposite effect. Writing in the July-August 2012 edition of Publishing Talk, Tom Evans discussed the main reasons that stop writers writing (I’ve used all of them) before suggesting ways to beat these demons. As well as recommending meditation – something I’ve been trying to take up meaningfully for the past nine months and am still determined will eventually become a routine – Evans says: 'another fabulous enabler is to learn another artistic craft. Learn that musical instrument or go to an art class for example. This switches on new neurology in your brain and literally makes you ‘think differently.'
I’m still trying to figure out the piano plan – we don’t really have space for the real thing, so I may have to go electronic.
In the meantime, I’m keeping myself open to ideas. I came across a book called How to Make Books during a trip to the Tate Britain shop (I love a museum shop). I bought it on a whim – it was about books and paper and making one out of the other and what’s not to love when you’re papery book nerd? After a few tests of the most basic method – practice you see! – using some scrap paper, I went to an art shop to buy a nice sheet.
I experienced a sensation I’ve not felt since I was a kid – the feeling of boundless opportunity without the weight of any expectation. The excitement of trying to create something for the sheer bloody hell of it. I came out with paper, a book of retro fonts and decorative tape. I had to stop myself from buying the colouring book filled with intricate patterns.
I made my first book this week – it took me a couple of evenings. It’s was just a little Valentine’s thing for my husband. It’s silly and involves a lot of cat stickers (oh, I’ve also spent a fortune on stickers) but I loved making it, thinking about it, working out what went where, what kind of paper to use, what cat sticker most looks like our naughty kitten.
I’m now thinking about signing up to a proper book binding course and randomly considering a sculpture course (based on the same Tate trip in which I stood dribbling in front of their Henry Moores and Barbara Hepworths).
If I do it, this will be a total leap of faith. The last ‘sculpture’ I made was in the second year of secondary school and was the wonkiest pottery house you ever saw in your life. Mum insisted on displaying it on a windowsill (albeit near the curtain) for years. It was still there when I left home, despite frequent suggestions from me that she should just chuck the awful thing away. I was ashamed of that house for a long time. Now, I realise I was just practising. Where might that house have led to if I’d practised a bit more?
In the end, we’re all multiple versions of ourselves. We have options. My little sister has taught me that, having decided, in her mid-thirties, to change professional course completely. It turns out she is a fine reflexologist. She took her own leap of faith, left a career in conservation to spend a year training and practising. She has magic hands. But they’re only as magic as her commitment and she goes on regular training courses to strengthen her skills.
So, in 2014, I am going to go looking for those other versions of me – new versions as well as versions I put to one side as I was growing up – to see who else I might be and what else I might love if I try and accept the gap between expectation and reality and carry on practising regardless. I may even go and buy that colouring book.
Piano photo ©: istockphoto.com
Book photo ©: Lisa Davison