13 September 2007

Putting in the time

Tonight, I had several things I could be doing: writing, marking late Novel 2 assignments, marking Editing assignments, correcting student writing from Editing, workshopping Novel 2 chapters, reading and making selections from a Poetrix folder, rewriting my last section from the group novel, doing submissions (which I'm atrociously bad at making time to do, but seeing as I had a poem accepted today, I might feel inspired for a couple of days -- so must grab this time while I can), writing material for my online unit, writing material for my website, and catching up with blogs and emails. Instead, I found myself doing homework -- and while I have been at a training course for three days with work, this was homework for my piano teacher.

I've always wanted to play piano. When I was small, friends of ours had a piano, and I always thought it the most lovely of instruments. Our friend, Neville (really Mum and Dad's friend), still lived at home, and the piano was his mother's, and she would let me play with it. As a teenager, I learnt how to play a simple tune that involved rolling my knuckles back and forward along the black keys, and if people asked if I could play I would jokingly say yes and then perform this. It usually left them flabbergasted, though at the time I don't think I realised this wasn't necessarily a good thing.

Throughout my childhood, teen years and early adulthood, the piano remained this exotic, almost mystical instrument -- one we couldn't afford to own. I dreamed of playing, but knew it was futile to ask for lessons. When my friend Julie had guitar lessons, I secretly envied her parents' investing in her musical education. But we had no piano to practise on in any case.

My husband had an electronic keyboard -- and while his father is a great proponent of the electronic keyboard over the piano, I loathe it for its inferior sound. When we had kids, we sent our oldest off to have lessons. My husband raced off and bought a piano for her to practise on, unaware that halfway through her first lesson Princess Sleepyhead's teacher would halt her and tell her that was it, and to have a good life. Fortunately, two years later we found her another teacher, one who was wonderfully patient. In the meantime, I started to teach myself to play, and although I was enthusiastic, I was trying to write so spare time went into writing, not practising.

Years later, frustrated at children who were obviously musical, but unwilling to practise, I took up lessons too, which first of all meant unlearning all the bad habits I'd taught myself (but, on the other hand, left me with a strong propensity for sight reading). Soon, I was playing far more difficult songs than the children were -- but I might add with far less fluency than they were capable of -- something two years later I still struggle with, because I'm so busy thinking about where my fingers should be going next.

At first, wanting to inspire the children, and perhaps frustrated by my burn-out after Clarion, I practised often. Maybe playing offered me the creative outlet that writing had refused me; maybe it salved the creative frustration I was feeling. Others might call it the perfect procrastination tool. I don't know. I never saw it as this. But I know as my writing drive has grown strong again, I'm practising less and less. It's not that I don't want to practise, or that I'm lazy (and I quite like the challenge of scales, which I see more as pattern recognition), just that I don't have time.

To be a concert pianist (not that I'm aspiring towards this) we all know you have to spend hours and hours practising. I'd settle for something far less ambitious: just to play songs I like, fluently and without mistakes. Most writers, though, are aiming for concert pianist level with their writing -- that is that they want to be published, want people to pay to read their work, want the acknowledgment of their peers. Yet many writers aren't prepared to do those long hours of practise. I can see this is what I've been doing in the rewrites of my book: spending the time, learning and honing the craft. I don't mind this -- I've enjoyed putting in the long hours. I'm serious about my writing in a way that I'm not serious about my piano. I have done and continue to do the long hours -- and I derive a lot of enjoyment from these hours. I cannot see why other writers do not -- but I see this in my students all the time. Perhaps it is laziness, perhaps fear, perhaps it's just not the obsession for them that it is for me. To achieve exalted level status, you have to be prepared to work. Bum on seat. All of that. All those hoary old chestnuts: it's 10% inspiration and...

We know how it goes. We know how easily it can go wrong. We know sometimes it can go right. What we need to decide is how much we're willing to put in to make the dream happen. I don't know if I'll ever achieve even the level of proficiency I want in piano -- because I'm not driven enough. That's okay. That's my choice. But I do know with writing, I'm going to continue to give it all I've got.


heatherf said...

Glad the piano playing is going well, even if it is not as good as the writing. I will expect a demonstration next time I drop by.

Lisa66 said...

Tracey, this is so true. I was just talking to Briar about the whole 'perfection in writing' issue. I was saying to her that in everything else we do in life we give ourselves time to to learn and we expect to make mistakes. But with our writing we aim for perfection and are discouraged when we don't achieve that right away (if ever!). I want to be successful. I want to earn money from my writing, but I know it may take many years of work before I can achieve this. That's okay. The thing is, I can't imagine NOT writing, so even if I never achieve the success I desire I will be working towards it for as long as my fingers can tap a keyboard.

Snail said...

Not related to this post but may be of interest. SBS is airing an interview with Philip Pullman today (Sat 15) at 2.30 pm. I think it must be an ep of 'The South Bank Show' because Melvyn Bragg is the interviewer.

Tracey said...

Heather, I'm happy to give you a demo, but don't expect too much. I'm currently working on Gershwin, but my songs are very stilted, and whenever I've played (after my kids) for my mother, she tells me to get off! I'm certainly nowhere near your fluency.

Lisa, yes, I think that drive to write is a really important factor. I must say I aspire towards perfection, but am grateful that I'll never reach it, because if I did then there would be nothing left to learn, and what would be the point of keeping on going? I love the fact that there's always more to learn, that I'll always be able to do it better, even if it is at times frustrating that I can't do it better now! But I am at last happy with the way I can write now. In my early days, I'd look at something I'd had published and inwardly cringe that it wasn't better.

Ah, Snail, would've been good but I've missed it. Probably had too much to do anyway, but could've thrown a tape in at least! Thanks for letting me know.