Try, Try, Try, Repeat: Lessons for a writer, from my ukulele

It just so happens that I have some (limited) talent with musical instruments–the mediocre kind of talent that means I can pick up almost any one of them and play Jingle Bells within five minutes of fiddling around (except for percussion instruments, silly). My Instruments Practiced list includes violin, piano, cello, upright bass, bass guitar, saxophone, clarinet, bassoon, acoustic guitar, and my latest conquest, the soprano ukulele. 

This is me with my ukulele. Really.

Music has never been my passion like writing is–it’s more like my therapy. I took a break from novel rewrites the other day, feeling like I’d re-written one scene a bazillion times, and decided to practice a few Radiohead songs I’d been picking up lately (I’d found the tablature on-line a few weeks  ago).

I had a moment like this:

Did I just play Exit Music for a Film, when I struggled with Three Blind Mice not one year ago?

I did!

Back when I first got my ukulele, “real” songs had seemed so out of reach it almost wasn’t worth it to keep practicing. My fingers weren’t used to the small neck of the instrument, and they didn’t bend the way the chords asked me to bend them. But has that ever really stopped me?

This is probably more accurate. I do practice on my porch, and I am a dirty hippie.

I remember a few years ago when I first got my Casio keyboard, living on my own in a little one bedroom across the street from the zoo. I would hammer out scales and make up meandering melodies and feel generally like I wasn’t learning, wasn’t getting any better, because I wasn’t being challenged. Too cheap to pay for lessons, I picked a song that I knew had a killer piano part–Ben Fold’s Brick–printed out the sheet music, and told myself I would learn it.

I staggered along learning the left hand first, then the right. I’d play through, one-handed, over and over again, then with both hands, fitting their separate notes and rhythms together like the broken pieces of a shattered plate. I would play a measure or two, mess up, go back a few measures, repeat (repeat, repeat, repeat…), until eventually the notes I was trying to play came out the way they were supposed to–the way they were meant to be played.

I had a little epiphany while I was sitting on my porch, feeling all proud of how far I’d come with my ukulele skillz: when you’re writing a novel, sometimes it’s a lot like learning to play a song. You take it slow, you go over the parts you have trouble with again and again, writing, rewriting, and rearranging until all the pieces finally fit. You know you’ve gotten it right when the story flows, just like a song, harmonious and dynamic and alive.

Too bad I can’t find the tabs for my novel online.

I don't know what's happening here. I just wanted to share this.

 
What are some challenges you’ve faced and are proud to say you’ve conquered?
 
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