Talent and a buck-fifty will get you a cup of coffee.

This is going to be one of those weird rambling posts but bear with me.

We recently got a keyboard. The piano-like kind, not the typing one. My partner has decided that he wants to try and revive his piano playing, and after tinkering around on it, I decided that I want to try and teach myself to play a little bit.

First, about him. My partner apparently achieved some ridiculously high level of musical proficiency through formal lessons when he was young, but he’s about the least musical person I’ve met. He sings completely wrong notes and can’t hear it. He has no rhythm. He doesn’t even listen to music.

The thing is, though, he passed the same music tests as people with an ear and a talent for music.

Now, about me. I did a big six weeks of piano when I was ten, and a couple of years of Viola in junior high. Nothing since. I don’t have much of an ear; I’ve been able to pick out a melody or two, but while I can hear when something is wrong, I can’t figure out how to make it right. I like to sing, though I am not good at it. I want to figure out how to play a couple of songs, but I have no interest in formal training or practice.

One thing I’ve found is that it’s so much easier to learn piano now than it used to be. It’s easy to find music for things you like in varying degrees of complexity. There are thousands of videos that can show you how something is played, apps teach you songs Guitar Hero-style. With some diligence, I can learn to play something that sounds like a song, without even really (re)learning how to read music.

What the fuck does all this have to do with writing?

First, look at him. Without talent, it’s possible to learn to play well through nothing but work. The same goes for writing. If you are sitting there wondering if you are imaginative enough, talented enough, creative enough, to really make it as a writer, stop right there. You can be good just by learning your craft and working on it.

You may not be a literary genius, but you know, literary genius isn’t clear until someone first gets through all the working of learning to be good. So put aside whether or not you are enough, and get to work.

Next, look at me. With a little bit of work, these days it’s not too hard for me to fake having some musical ability, even though anyone who knows anything about music could quickly see that I don’t really know shit. That’s also true of writing. These days, anyone can fill a bunch of pages with words and self-publish and be an author. But that doesn’t mean that they know their shit.

I’m not knocking self-publishing because there’s still a place for it, much like there’s still a place for people like me who want to learn to play a song or two without actually being any kind of a musician.

If you’re a writer watching people who don’t know what they are doing, and watching other people heap praise and kudos on them, don’t despair over the state of the world. It’s easier to learn to play a song. It’s easier to put a book out.

But to write well is still a matter of putting the work into it.

(Unlike I did with this blog post.)


Stick a Fork in it.

For the past few years, I’ve been working on a novel, which has also formed the basis of my MFA thesis. I sent in the final draft. Now I’m going to throw it away because it sucks.

This is the part where well-meaning people ask if I’m sure I’m not being too hard on myself, and after all that work surely I can salvage something and maybe I just need a break? reassure, reassure, reassure.

Let me address this.

I’m probably being a little hard on myself, since no writer has good perspective on anything they’ve just written. But I’m not being too hard myself. Parts of it are good. Parts, I like. Parts could be substantially improved with contemplative time and some effort. But major parts are just not working.

Could it be salvaged into a workable novel? Technically yes. If I were doing a manuscript evaluation of my own novel, I’d point out these parts and encourage the writer to dig deep and work it out, just as my own thesis advisor did for me. But when I actually sit down and try to write and revise these bits, I find myself fighting with the characters. I’m pushing them in directions they don’t want to go. Then we end up in a big fight with the end result being them kind of vaguely pretending to do what they need to do and me being to tired to say anything but “Fine, be that way, I don’t care anymore.”

This is the fundamental problem. I don’t care anymore.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that as much as I study form and rules and structure, everything good that I write comes deep from my intuition. In this novel, I started with a situation that wasn’t going anywhere, and imposed a direction on it, one which sounded really good in theory and then spent five drafts trying to make it work in practice.

I can see now I should have just started with the idea that wasn’t going anywhere and explored it. The parts that work best were the parts that I had no clue about when I started writing them.

Do I just need time? I don’t think so. After I realized that this wasn’t working, I pulled out an old short story, tinkered with it, got some feedback from my writing group and tinkered some more. That’s how I remembered what it’s like to work on something you love. Every time I come back to that story, I remember that I love it. Putting that story out into the world, with my name on it, feels pretty good.

I’m retiring the novel because I don’t love it. The relationship is over, and we’re not going to marriage counselling. There’s a tendency to think of giving up on a project as having been defeated by them, but frankly, I think I’m going to enjoy not beating my head against the wall anymore.

In the meantime, I’ve learned from a lot from this project, about how to write a novel, and also who I am as a writer.

I have some vague niggles of ideas about how I could still do something with this, but not enough of a burning niggle to try.

In any case, I’m done. I’m glad. I spent a lot of the time writing this wishing I was writing something else, and putting this away frees me up to do that.