Thursday, February 18, 2016

No More Bad Self Label

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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  1. Hi Elizabeth, it's been a while since I've commented. The "I'm so bad" label I understand. Would fall into a rut/block and think the same. But then I'll continue writing, take online classes, reading books about writing, plot, structure, etc.

  2. That's the spirit, Lidy! Thanks for stopping in.

  3. Very insightful. I never quite thought of it that way. I've spent years wondering if I was kidding myself while I kept working away and reading books on plot, characters, scenes, and the like. Attending conferences, classes, and the like and meeting others who have felt the same way was eye-opening. As you say, there's a difference between bad and novice. I started seeing myself as the novice that I was, not a bad writer. I read an early book by a writer highly admired now. It was nowhere near as good as her current ones, and that was certainly educational as well. Even the great ones didn't start out that way.
    Thanks as usual for a thought provoking blog.

  4. That's fascinating, BJ. I like to see how writers develop over their careers too. This struck me first when I read THE PICKWICK PAPERS years after reading BLEAK HOUSE (Dickens). The earlier book was weaker, less funny, less sure.

  5. It is a fundamental fact that we learn and continue to learn. Art, music, writing and even chores. Watch a woman wash the evening dishes and then watch her children. There is learned skill. Then ask the dad.
    I am going through a yard work phase where I am cutting and trimming cactus. It is a painful learning curve and those thorns are sharp! I have learned that there are techniques and tools and that old fundamental thing, practice. Then comes patience and persistence.
    It is a lot like writing. The final result is something that is stronger and healthier and hopefully beautiful.

  6. Gosh, Chris, you said it! Thank you so much for sharing these insights. If one brings full consciousness to everything one does, even the smallest tasks, one is living as well as can be done.


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