bird by bird

I’m writing a thing, so my sister, by the authority vested in her as a New York Times bestselling author, is giving me books about writing. It’s very helpful and mostly pretty entertaining.

There’s a trend in all these books written by people who run writing workshops and teach writing classes. The things their students need to hear over and over, they say, is that writers toss multitudes in the garbage, that they face more rejection than publication, that it’s important not to expect validation from your success as a writer but rather to enjoy the process of creation as its own reward.

And I think, “well… duh.”

I’ve been blogging about conducting for five years and it never occurred to me to let readers know that the work is mostly about sitting in a room alone and trying to read the mind of a composer through the lines and dots on a page. That it involves sitting at a keyboard for hours, listening to imaginary music in your head, trying to to discern what matters and how to present it to the ensemble and an audience. And that people who want to be conductors will not be able to earn a living as conductors.

It never occurred to me to say this because every musician I know takes it for granted, having learned it from the very beginning of their training. I mean, maybe you’re a savant or prodigy or whatever, and you play by ear or you learn very quickly, and you’re just awesome from day one. But that’s not very likely. It’s way more likely that you sort of like music, want to be a person who can sing or play, so you take some lessons. And the job of a teacher is to tell you how to get better, which requires them to tell you what you need to improve. Which suggests that they will be letting you know what you are bad at. So, being bad in front of people is part of the process.

I sang in studio class my very first week of college twenty years ago: “Widmung” by Brahms. I sang in studio class a hundred times in my undergrad career, more repertoire than I can recall, but you bet your ass I remember what I sang that first time. I had been learning it in my high school voice lessons, and I was nervous and exhilarated to sing it in front of my new college colleagues. And what happened? I sang for three minutes, then got polite applause and ten minutes of criticism and instruction. I gave them my teenager best, then my teacher told me to make changes in front of all her other students, some of them genuine grown adults. I tried her brand new suggestions, right there in front of everyone. I should have just worn a shirt that says “I suck and this is really hard for me.” It was humiliating and thrilling and informative and good for me.

And when you go pro, in addition to criticism, rejection becomes daily bread.

Professional musicians audition for (I’m just gonna make up a number that feels right; I don’t have any research to support this statistic) ten gigs for every one they get. We watch people with half our talent and training get gigs because they know someone, or for no discernible reason. We get gigs we don’t deserve and beat ourselves up to try to be and feel good enough.

Anyway, I think it’s amusing that all these writers about writing spend so much time telling aspiring writers that they need to be realistic about the daily grind and unlikelihood of creating art for a living, about the quantity of rejection that is going to be part of their experience as artists. Who knew that writers wouldn’t pick that up in the process of learning to write?

It’s built into long-term training of professional musicians. We’ve been desensitized through repeated exposure. But I suspect if a writer spent just one year in music school, that would probably be enough to get a feel for the kind of public criticism and rejection described by William Zinsser et al.

That said, I especially liked that Anne Lamott begins and ends Bird by Bird with direct comparisons between writing and making music. The daily grind of work she compares to practicing scales, a thing we all know musical training begins with. She ends by comparing the experience of writing to singing on a boat during a terrible storm: “you can’t stop the storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people together on that ship.”

The thing I love about this is that her perspective on music-making is that of an amateur. She implies that making music is just a thing that you do privately, for your own enjoyment. Or that people do together for fun, to feel uplifted.

Being a professional musician involves a lot of drudgery, just like all those writers about writing describe. And it’s easy to forget about the pleasure. But it is among the most pleasurable things any of us can do.

I learned to sing — and conduct, for that matter — by getting criticized and rejected over and over, and trying again every time. I expect this process would teach me to write better than just trying to absorb the advice of other writers, which is pretty much what their books say. I’m sure I’ll get some of that, too. Even so, I’m really enjoying being reminded to enjoy the artistic process, to be grateful for the grind.

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