Your instrument …

At the same time as I’m working on my second novel, I’m also learning to play the guitar. I started about a year ago and progress is slow, largely because I’m teaching myself in a very haphazard fashion.

It struck me the other day that one of the reasons it’s hard to learn an instrument (at least a stringed instrument) is because there are several things you have to learn at the same time.

First, you have to train your body to complete manoeuvres it has no intention of completing of its own accord: fingers need to stretch to reach a span of notes on a fretboard; arms need to bend over the guitar body and under the frets, leaving you with aching shoulders; your back needs to be held upright even as you’re sitting on the edge of a chair.

Secondly, you have to do different things with your hands at the same time – fret chords with the left, pluck or strum strings with the right.

Thirdly, you may have to learn to read music – or at least the tablature that guitarists mostly read.

Fourth, there’s pain! Your fingers have to build calluses, and this can take months. Until they’re hard, your finger tips are grooved with painful lines, meaning you can only play for minutes at a time before having to shake your hand and utter a few choice words.

Fifth, if you play an electric guitar (which I don’t), you have to build a body of knowledge about electronics and amplification.

Why am I listing all these? Well, using one of those far-fetched analogies of which preachers are fond, it suddenly seemed to me that learning to play the guitar is a little like writing a book …

First, you have to train your mind to complete manoevres it has no intention of completing of its own accord: for example, you probably have to be more organised than might be usual for you – for instance, keeping track of the colour of characters’ eyes, or the timeline of events in your book, or the past history of your heroine. You also have to have the discipline to write, sitting at that table for hours every day, developing carpal tunnel syndrome, short-sight and (if you’re unfortunate) haemarrhoids.

Secondly, you have to do different things with the right and left parts of your brain – the creative and the structured. You have to follow a plan, an outline, a rough mental sketch – whatever system you’ve found suits you – but at the same time be open to the unexpected flash of intuition that takes you along a completely different path. Many writers seem to have nailed one but have trouble with the other!

Thirdly, you may have to learn grammar and spelling. Don’t be fooled that these will be fixed by an editor. Your work won’t even reach an editor if these two systems of notation aren’t reasonably well mastered.

Fourth, there’s pain! Mental anguish as you begin to believe you can’t do it, the words won’t come, the characters aren’t really alive, the plot is dull … why did you bother starting in the first place? You just have to build the mental calluses, the tough-mindedness that says, Write it, then Re-write it. You can’t do the second without the first, so just get it down on paper.

Fifth, if you use a computer (which I do!), you have to build a body of knowledge about word processing, filing, back-ups, formatting and printing.

Maybe these elements just happen to be part of the act of creation. Maybe for anything good to be formed out of thin air, you need to have developed mental and physical toughness, creativity and organisation. Maybe to use your instrument to the best of its abilities, you have to suffer pain, too. What a comforting thought!

Author of Altered Life

Explore posts in the same categories: Commentary, The Writing Life

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