Writing on instinct


I was always a bit of a music head. My tastes have shifted over the years but I still have the same passion for listening, the same appreciation for clever or emotive songs well executed. I love virtuoso instrumental work almost as much as I love lyrical complexity and wit, and I always wanted to be able to reproduce those sounds with the kind of casual abandon my idols always seemed to manage. So I took lessons in piano and guitar as a kid, formed a band as a teenager, and to this day love to noodle around on my Les Paul. But I learned long ago that I was never going to be a musician.

Sometimes I read about someone like Paul McCartney whose musical gift seems innate, the kind of talent who can get to grips with almost any instrument in no time and for whom melodies just materialize. But I also know that technical mastery takes time and work for even the most gifted musician, even more so for those of us whose talent is fairly minimal. I have a lot of knowledge about music and a deep appreciation for it, but I’ve gradually gotten used to the idea that I’ll never be a serious practitioner.

Some of it is about labor. I have a lazy streak and for years I misrecognized all those improvised guitar solos as raw, unhoned talent. I figured I could just wander around the fretboard and produce the same soaring radiance without actually studying, without endless hours of practice to the detriment of everything else. But the Renaissance had a wonderful word for what we see rock stars do. It’s called sprezzatura: the feigned naturalness and ease which conceals what is actually carefully studied and prepared. The individual notes of this particular solo might be improvised, but that improvisation has grown out of years of work, and more often than not, even its details have been carefully rehearsed, however spontaneous they might look. Because we value the spontaneous. We respect it. It feels real, like it comes fully fledged from soul. Spontaneous is cool.

I never got there, because I never did the work. I never achieved the level of technical mastery that would allow me to simply make stuff up. Even if I could hear the sound in my head, my fingers couldn’t execute without hours of rehearsal, and I just didn’t try hard enough to make that happen.

My medium is language.

The blessing and curse of writing is that anyone can do it, or rather anyone who speaks the language seems to be able to do it. But writing is like singing or acting, an art form where the craft (unlike guitar playing, say) disappears in the performance so that people forget that it took work to get there. It’s more sprezzatura, then, but in this case it reinforces the fiction that anyone who has the raw materials (in this case, language) can pull it off effortlessly.

They can’t, of course. We know that or we wouldn’t be on a site like this. But we all want shortcuts. We want to pound out the book in a few weeks, dazzle our friends and nail down a mega contract with a major press (preferably with screen rights in the mix) when we ought to be practicing the literary equivalent of chord progressions and blues scales. We’re so enamored with the seemingly spontaneous out-pouring of talent that we allow ourselves to forget that work has to be done, dues have to be paid.

No news there. But here’s the thing. As with any kind of technical mastery, you get to a point where it really does become natural: second nature, almost, even instinctive. Not everyone will like what I write (that’s a different issue) but I can now crank out a couple of thousand words in a sitting, and be confident that—with a little polishing—the quality will be far superior to what I used to write, superior even (and here’s a confession) to the stuff I used to send out to agents and publishers, certain I was about to be ‘discovered.’ I can do it now. The Nobel committee aren’t calling me day and night, but I feel good about what I write and can focus on the big idea stuff, confident that I can work the sentence-level execution satisfactorily. That’s not a boast any more than it would be for a man who apprenticed as a carpenter for ten years to say he could make a nice chest of drawers. These are skills and they can be mastered. As with most things, talent might make you shine but success comes largely from work, much of it tedious, time consuming, unglamorous, and marked by little failures.

I’m not sure when it started to come together for me or why, but I suspect it was mainly just time: time spent reading and writing. At bottom, that’s what it’s all about and it’s what I offer as the best and simplest advice to any writer, self-evident though it surely is.:

Read and write. A lot.

I have never taken a writing class of any kind, though I have taught some and know their potential value. But for years (actually decades: plural) I’ve worked with language, sometimes through conscious study, sometimes through trial and error, by speaking and writing, and by voracious reading of everything I could get hold of, consuming whole, dwelling on single phrases, mining them for implication and resonance: paying my dues. Now it’s what I do and who I am. Language is my instrument. I have learned painfully slowly but, while I still have a lot to learn, the sounds in my head come out of my fingers as they never did on the guitar.


22 comments to Writing on instinct

  • Ryl

    Nicely done. I completely get the music analogy.

  • As a former Music Ed major in college, I can relate to what you are saying. I was a good muscician. I won awards. I won contests. I travelled across the Atlantic and played for the Queen of England. I was good. But I wasn’t great. I worked with musicians who lived and breathed their music. They could play their instrument as well as they spoke English (sometimes even better than they spoke). Me? Not so much. Notice that I said former Music Ed major. *grin*

    As an aspiring writer, I have come to realize that writing a novel is hard. When I started, I thought that writing a novel was just like telling a story. Just write what you see in your mind. It’s not that easy. As I near completion of my first full length novel, I have developed a deep appreciation for any person who can write a novel. A deeper appreciation for those that do it well.

    I am at a point in my novel where I am going to be stretching my writing chops. It is a point in my novel that my MC is going to have a “Long Dark Tea-time of the Soul” moment (to borrow from Duoglas Adams). Looking at the challenge, I question to myself “Can I do this?” “Do I have the chops?”

    As I stand at that point, I look back on my music performance days. I am at that moment of the performance where the First Chair has given the warm up, the instrument is tuned, and the conductor is on stage with his hands raised. I wonder to myself, “What is my first note giong to sound like?”

    I guess I will just have to write and see. Flat or not, the story must be written.

  • I agree. This is an apprenticeship. Thanks for the reminder, AJ.

  • >>>It’s called sprezzatura: the feigned naturalness and ease which conceals what is actually carefully studied and prepared.

    AJ, this said something special to me. I think it will be in a novel soon… (cold tingles!)

    On another note — You said that and it sounded so … lovely, lyrical. Reading your posts is like dancing to poetry. My own writing is discordant by comparison, like the difference between the deft work of a scalpel, and the digging of a spade. I admit I’m jealous, just a teeny teensy bit. Thanks for this! It makes me want to write.

  • Ryl,
    glad you liked it.

    you must have been a pretty good musician, man. When I said I wasn’t that good, I mean–at least by comparison to you–I sucked. Good luck with the novel and the tea time. Anybody reading Douglas Adams beyond Hitchhiker (not that there’s anything wrong with Hitchhiker) is already doing something right!

    and, of course, we’re all still apprentices whatever kind of success we have. The trick is to keep learning.

    what have I done to deserve such sweetness?! Thanks 🙂 Gotta say, sprezzatura is one of my favorite arcane words: it’s so genuinely useful, one of those really precise meanings we don’t have in our own language. People are always saying things like “Oh the French have a word for that…” and it turns out to mean something dead ordinary like ‘door’ but this is worth the pretension.

  • Okay, first things first: You and Stuart and I need to get together with our guitars and play. I don’t have an electric (yet) but I have the Martin I’ve owned for 28 years, and you and Stuart will deign to turn down your Les Paul and Fender, I should be able to make myself heard.

    Second, this is a wonderful post. Like Faith, I love the way you write. And your message is similar to that of a post I put up at http://www.sfnovelists.com last week. Read. Write. You don’t just start writing books any more than someone just starts performing open heart surgery. It takes work, training, study. Thanks for this.

  • Beatriz

    David suggests, “Okay, first things first: You and Stuart and I need to get together with our guitars and play.”

    Con Carolinas.

    Con Carolinas.

    Con Carolinas!

    We can even provide squee-ing minions!

  • Okay, first things first: You and Stuart and I need to get together with our guitars and play.

    I used to play but these days I stick to the dancing. And if you play something I know and I’ve had a shot or two of rum, I might even sing. 😀

  • Misty — dance…
    I’ll lift a glass whlie you all wax creative…

  • Great post AJ, I love the music analogy and the years it takes to master a craft. To simply read and write may be the best advice ever. And if you guys ever need a bass player/vocalist I’d be happy to oblige, been playing a long, long time. 😉

  • D,
    I promise to play quietly. Maybe I’ll play air guitar instead. I’m awesome at that.

    bands don’t have minions. They have groupies. Why do you think I started a band?

    dance away, Misty.

    raise lots of glasses. My guitar (esp. my air guitar) will improve exponentially.

    the only problem with your joining our little jam session is that you’re probably far too good. For me at least. I can’t speak for the others.

  • First off, you did a great job with this post. I’ve often told new writers the 6 rules of writing are read, read, read, write, write, write. There’s just no way around it. It’s like running your scales over and over.

    More importantly, we’ve got to have a guitar talk at ConCarolinas. And if you all want to bring your acoustics, I’ll bring mine. I’ll bring the Telecaster, too, if you want but that and a Les Paul . . . I’m guessing the hotel would ask us to leave on volume concerns alone (never mind our lack of ability!) 😉

  • Thanks Stuart, I’ll bring a lighter (to hold up while you play Freebird, not to set fire to your guitar). I’m also awesome on the lighter.

  • (raises hand)
    Hubby has an Ovation and a 30 yr old Ibenez…the one on the cover of Rolling Stone a few back as a collectors piece.
    I think the Ovation is tuned, though he gave up playing for golf and then for whitewater kayaking. Maybe I can convince him to bring it. He used to be one of those sprezzatura players.

  • All we have are Djembe drums…well, a djembe, a doumbek, and my bougarabou is on the way. Oh, and I can sing. Never could get the hang of guitar, but I’ve been practicing singing for as long as I could sing along to music. 😉

    Gonna be doing some freestyle playing in the hills of WV next weekend. Hopefully my uncle will bring the guitar and Dad’ll join in on harmonica.

  • Daniel,
    great. Bring your Djembe, doumbek and bougararabou, and I’ll bring my Ptang, Oink and Hippy-hippy-shakelamonica.


  • Deb S

    You had me at sprezzatura.

  • Daniel, definitely bring the doumbek! I can dance to that!

  • Deb S,
    I’m confident that the sentence in your comment has never been written before. Ever. Congrats.

  • Groupies are a nice luxury, but roadies are essential.

  • @Misty: We’re still learning, but if we can ever make a con we’ll bring ’em! 🙂 Sounds like the makings of a MW band. 😉

    As for the rest of the post, I completely agree. I’m considered a bit of, well, a Jack-of-Most-Trades. I can dabble in woodworking and produce a decent piece. Nothing as stellar as what my Dad can make, but still nice. Most artistic things I seem to have a knack with when I try it. I’m decent with drawing, though I haven’t really focused on trying to become better. I’m an excellent cook and have been told I should open my own restaurant or become a chef. I can do some simple repairs just by looking at them and figuring out what would solve the problem and then doing it. Generally, I’m a “figure it out” or “workaround” kinda guy. (An Adam Savage sorta guy, if you watch Mythbusters.)

    However, I never could get the hang of instruments…at all. The best I could hope for on a keyboard was that one piece from The Final Countdown by Europe. You know the part. I never really had the patience for most instruments, though the hand percussion drums seem to be working out fine. I think it’s because I have a natural rhythm. I’ve tried keyboards, guitar, I tried a full drum set just in a store (too many choices!). I’ve got an old Alvarez acoustic that my uncle gave me to try to learn on, but I just didn’t have the patience for it. Now I let my daughter strum it. She seems to be highly interested in music, instruments and singing. Then again, she’s only nearly four.

    By comparison, my brother can pick up nearly any instrument and play it. He learns quickly. Guitar, bass, keyboard, he can play them all. He even tabs out music with a program on his computer. It always boggled my mind how he could just seem to pick it up and do it. It still took some practice though. I was there while he was learning bass, but he picked it far quicker than I even had the patience for.

    However, when it comes to writing, he says he wishes he could write like me. Thing is, that’s one of the few things I’ve ever had the patience to practice…and I’ve been practicing it for I guess close to 24 years now. Reading, writng, re-writing, honing, sharpening skills, and just generally getting better and better over the years. I’ve said before that I still have some of the things I wrote back in high school and it’s terrible. I get it out from time to time just to see how far I’ve come. And people read what I’ve written now and the same words always come out, “Man, I wish I could do that.”

    And now it just seems to be second nature. The words just flow (though I learned recently that I need to brush up on my comma usage…). I still need to go back and revise, but I don’t have to do near as much work. Looking back, I’m glad I never sent anything off because it wasn’t any good. In this case my pessimism was a good thing. 😉

    So yeah, even though my writing’s pretty good now, I practiced a pretty long time to get here. Just like anything else, it takes work and diligence.

    Quote: I’ll bring my Ptang, Oink and Hippy-hippy-shakelamonica.

    Heh! Yeah, the names of the drums do sound like something I just made up, but they’re from African and Middle Eastern origin.

    And if you wanna look the drums up:
    Bougarabou: http://www.x8drums.com/Bougarabous-Cherry-p/bg-cherry.htm
    Doumbek: http://www.x8drums.com/Freestyle-Pretuned-Doumbek-p/sfdk.htm
    Djembe: http://www.x8drums.com/African-Djembe-Celtic-Labyrinth-p/dj60lab.htm

  • Hi Daniel,
    yes, there’s no doubt people are wired differently and have different natural abilities, but I agree that those gifts need nurturing through whatever form of study suits them. best of luck with the drums.