Zestful Blog Post #147
When my mother turned 50, she decided to learn to play the piano. I, age about 16 and a serious musician, was surprised, because Mom had never evinced any musical talent or ability, ever. But I was happy that she wanted to learn. She bought a piano (only a spinet, but at least it was new) and hired a teacher, who set her to work on the rudiments of reading music and playing simple tunes.
I was able to help her a little between lessons, and I enjoyed plinking around on the instrument myself. God, isn’t the sound of a piano lovely? Mom’s progress was slow, but so what? One day, however, she dropped her hands into her lap and said, “Oh, I’m so bad!”
I said, “No, no, you’re just starting to learn.”
She shook her head. “I don’t expect to be the next Van Cliburn. All I want is to be able to come home from seeing a musical, and just sit down at the piano and play all the songs from it!” She pantomimed playing lush chords with her left hand and fast melodies with her right. My blood ran cold as I understood how clueless she was as to how much experience and skill such a seemingly casual feat would require.
Mom constantly felt discouraged, and I saw that it was because of her unrealistic expectations. “I’m so bad,” she would say all the time. I couldn’t get her to understand the difference between being a novice at something and being bad at something. We knew a bad piano player. “Look at the Jordans’ daughter,” I’d say. “She’s a bad piano player. Why? Because she’s been taking lessons and playing for twelve years and she still sounds like crap. No feeling, no heart.”
That didn’t cut any ice with Mom. Eventually she quit and gave the piano away. “I was just so bad.”
This story relates, of course, to any art. A novice must learn the craft, gain the skills, study up, and practice. Progress, generally, is uneven: often slow, but occasionally you make a breakthrough and something that was hard is now easy. Patience, laddies and lassies, patience and persistence. Novices must not think in terms of bad or good. Learning and gaining facility is all that matters.
A bad writer is a person who has developed a mediocre level of facility (at most) and who is satisfied by that, and who does not seek to improve beyond it. A good writer is a person who has achieved a respectable level of facility (at least) and who continues to strive to get better, and whose work indeed shows development and improvement over the course of his or her career. The striving to get better part makes a good writer exactly like a novice. It’s a Zen thing, really: If we bring beginner’s mind—that is, open, eager, receptive, committed—to everything we do—
Well, let’s just try it and see what happens.
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