Monthly Archives: September 2014

Words and Music

Like most writers, I often struggle to find the right words — words that will say exactly what I mean, exactly what I feel, exactly what I see.  I want words that aren’t ordinary.  But lacking extraordinary words, I work to arrange my regular words in a way that will cause you, my reader, to pause for a moment.

I’ve often thought music could say what my words fail to express. From personal experience I know music can transform the ordinary into something beyond words. If I were a composer, I believe my soul could find expression. But, alas, I’m not a composer, though listening to music sometimes helps me dig deeper and write more lyrically.

Years ago I met a long-haired guitar player, perhaps fifteen years old.  He sat on his living room floor with his back against the wall, quietly strumming, while the rest of us chatted about our shared concerns. I discreetly watched him as he chose his chords thoughtfully and explored the sounds.

Later, when it was just the two of us, I said, “Tell me about your music.” This was our first moment of meeting and I was searching for conversation.

“My music is about my stuff,” he said after a long pause. “I play about my pain — and about my good times, too.” Then he caressed his guitar and they created more music.

I watched and listened for a long time. Perhaps these chords told his relationship with his uncle who was dying in the next room.

“Does it ever happen that the music isn’t enough,” I asked, “that you don’t know enough notes to play what you feel?”

“Yeah,” he said.

“What do you do then — when you don’t have the notes?” I asked.

“I write poetry,” he said. “Words make up for what my music lacks.”

Perhaps it’s the same for all of us.  Our medium of expression, whether it be music, words, paint, photography, or thread, is never sufficient for our vision.

But we push on, striving to express what only we know.

Until next Tuesday…



The last thing you learned

What do you do when the words won’t come? When your brain is void of ideas? When your creative muse has left town? When you’d like to leave town rather than face the empty page?

As a remedy, one blogger suggests writing about the last thing you learned. A brilliant idea, I think. I wish I had thought of it myself. But I can claim the idea for my own use.

What was the last thing you learned? Take a moment and think about it. Hopefully you won’t have to go back very far, maybe only to yesterday.

Here are my learnings of the last few days:

  • In music theory class, I learned some rules about writing four-part harmony.  I have never written music so I am dabbling in brand new territory.
  • I told a friend about a list I made — of the things I know how to do and my areas of expertise. The list was part of an exercise to create my blogging platform. “There are about thirty things on the list,” I said. She replied, “It’s easy to assume everyone is the same as you — but we’re not. I don’t have a list of thirty things I can do.” We didn’t debate the topic, or explore what would be on her list, but I learned from her that many people would not have a list like mine. I need to pay attention to my assumptions.
  • I’ve learned I don’t recover as quickly as I used to from the good things in my life. Why am I tired after relaxing at the beach for five days? I am not ready to accept this part of aging.

Writing about any one of these learnings opens a world of feelings and situations and relationships and details. For example:

  • Theory class:  What possessed me to register for this course? What’s it like being old enough to be the other students’ grandmother? How had I forgotten the challenge of college texts? And the funky, new-fangled chairs beg to be written about. Assignments, grades, the professor, musical language — so many things to explore.
  • Assumptions: How do I answer my friend’s challenge?  In what ways do I assume everyone is like me, rather than seeing their uniqueness? How do my relationships focus on me, rather than on the other?  Historically I’ve assumed my women friends are my height — which they aren’t — but what other assumptions do I make?
  • Aging: Why is recovery even an issue?  Why do I have to allow for recovery time in my life? Why can’t I go the speed I’ve always gone?  How do I compare to others my age?  How do I help my body recover from too much activity? Am I aging like my parents or have I chosen a different path?

You get the picture.  Once you start, the ideas and words will come.

And you?  What have you learned today?  Yesterday?

Pay attention.  You may be surprised.

Make a learnings list to prime your writing pump.

Until next Tuesday…

Who ya gonna ask?

Years ago, I needed to buy a house. During our marriage my husband and I had bought several houses. But now, I needed to do it by myself. I quickly realized I barely knew anything about buying houses. I was terrified of making a mistake. In my mind I couldn’t count on realtors and bankers to keep me from financial catastrophe. During sleepless nights I wracked my brain, trying to figure out someone I knew and trusted who could help me.

Darryl, a long-time friend in the construction business, rose to the top of my list. I put my pride and self-sufficiency aside, gathered my courage, and made the phone call. “I don’t know how to buy a house,” I said to him. “Would you be willing to help me?” The admission that I couldn’t do everything myself buckled my knees. But I did it.

Darryl was glad to help. In fact, he was delighted I asked. Over the next few months we had many conversations. Not once, did he make me feel stupid.  Not once did he dismiss my incessant questions. Because I was moving to another city, we never looked at houses together, but he guided me through the process. He was the voice of experience, sharing his wisdom with a newbie.

That’s how it is with mentoring.  Someone who’s walked this way before gladly offers guidance when you ask.

Earlier in my life, I nearly abandoned several projects rather than ask for help. Because I’ve always been fiercely independent, I stubbornly believed I could figure everything out on my own.


Have you ever tried to teach yourself to knit or crochet or make pie crust or play a musical instrument?  It’s not that these tasks can’t be self taught but books and instructions can’t tell you everything. The wisdom of hands-on experience makes all the difference.

My writings of twenty years ago — my very best at the time — never had the benefit of a mentor, someone who knew more about writing than I did. Five years of working with Charlie, who understands writing and language way better than I do, has taught me how to research techniques I struggle with and how to tell story.

Though I started piano early in my life and have had multiple teachers over the years, it is The Prof, who’s teaching me the finest details of Beethoven and Chopin and Brahms. He helps me see and hear things I never noticed before. Left to my own devices, I would be satisfied with mediocrity.

And there’s my friend who is a master knitter. I know how to knit, have known for years, but when I’m with her, my creativity opens up and together we explore new ideas and projects. I can’t knit fast enough to accomplish all the ideas I have because of her.

Working with a mentor is about becoming more than you have been.  The mentor is like a catalyst — the spark that makes things happen. Mentors can help you find direction, guide your feet on a new path, encourage you in the tough times, and celebrate your progress.

You still have to do the work.  But you will work better and smarter when you avail yourself of another’s wisdom.

Until next Tuesday…

Are you finished yet?

I’m often asked, “Is your book finished yet?”

If you’re a writer, you know how long it takes to get the words right.  But when is enough enough?  When have you done the last edit?  When is it ready to submit for publication?

Besides Charlie, my writing partner, I also work with Marcia Trahan, who provides professional editing and critiquing services. In her last review of my manuscript she wrote, “When do you know you’re finished reworking prose? When you’ve gone line by line and done the very best you can to make your language sing.”

Both Marcia and Charlie offer constructive criticism and guidance for my memoir writing, but I still have to do the work.  I have to rewrite the sentences.  I have to reorder the paragraphs.  I have to change flat writing into more lyrical prose.

I’ve just finished an edit of my 350-page manuscript.  Actually, I’ve finished it once a year for the past four years.  That’s the way it is.  I’m an expert on the process: I do my best, I get a  professional  opinion of my work, I go back to the drawing board and write it better, then repeat. Here’s the good news: what was my best becomes even better in the next cycle.

In the week before my deadline with Marcia, I read all 98,250 words aloud.  I was looking for awkward sentences, overused words, typos, omissions, and random manuscript lurkers.  During my reading I made a list of words that seemed to appear too often. The “find” feature in Word indicated I used the word just 247 times in 350 pages! That’s a bit much, don’t you think? I brewed myself a mug of coffee, then put my butt back in my chair and reworked a slew of sentences. Just was often unnecessary; other times I replaced it with a better word.

Editing is necessary and tedious.  But we’re not done until every sentence in examined, formatting is checked, grammar rules are reviewed, and unnecessary content deleted.

All of this — to tell a story only I can tell.

I’m nearly finished.

Until next Tuesday…






The Practice of Ten

A few weeks ago I heard my piano professor play in recital.  I listened.  I watched.  And I marveled (for at least the 100th time in my life) at how a performer plays without mistakes.  “How does he do that?” was my first question.

My second question was “Why can’t I do that?”

I’ll never play the difficult music he plays. That’s not the point.  But why can’t I play my music with no mistakes?

As I drove home that evening I pondered perfect vs. mistake-ridden playing.  It was then that I realized I expect to make mistakes when I play for someone else — because as a young piano student, I always made public mistakes.

I have believed, for all these decades, that making mistakes is my norm. Others can play perfectly but It’s impossible for me.

Then I wondered, “What would happen if I changed my mindset, from believing my lot is to make mistakes, to believing I can play correctly?”

At every practice session for the next week, I worked on changing my mindset — just to see what would happen. I focused on the hard places. Slowly, note by note, I practiced until my fingers felt solid on the keys. In my head I changed my words from “this passage is too difficult” to “you can play right notes.”

At my next lesson, I played the best I’ve ever played for The Prof. I didn’t play perfectly, but I played with the fewest mistakes ever.

The Prof and I discussed his no-mistake methods.  He said that much of piano playing is mental.  Yes, practice is required to gain skills, but your mind must be engaged and focused on the task.  Mindless repetition won’t accomplish perfect playing. We’ve all heard “practice makes perfect.” The Prof says, “Perfect practice makes perfect.”

He suggested using what I’ll call the ten penny method for improving performance.  The goal is to play the passage, however large or small, ten times consecutively with no mistakes.  One perfect play = one penny in the dish, until all ten pennies are in the dish. Any mistakes along the way and all the pennies are out of the dish and the process starts again.

This “practice of ten” applies to writing as well. I’m a linear thinker and writer; writing lyrically does not come naturally to me.  I have to practice being lyrical. Here are a few suggestions I use to open my mind and engage the other side of my brain:

  • Practice writing metaphors.  Describe ten ways an old man or a child moves across the room.
  • Practice writing verbs. Find ten interesting verbs to tell how the rain moves from the clouds to the earth.
  • Practice writing adjectives.  Find ten ways to describe the color red, or green, or blue.
  • Practice choosing nouns and verbs.  Write ten creative sentences with no adjectives or adverbs at all.

Practice the pieces and parts of those things that seem just beyond your reach. Try changing your mindset to “Yes, I  can do this.” Then craft a way to be successful. Slow down, be patient with the process, and learn well.

When you put the measures and phrases together, they make music. When you put your well-crafted lyrical sentences together, they become story.

Henry Ford was right when he said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t — you’re right.”

Show up and do your work — habits and mindsets can be changed.  Claim new thoughts about what’s possible for you.

Until next Tuesday…