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.