On Writing

Now and then I get a little depressed about the beautiful black Takamine Jasmine that’s sitting in my closet. It’s been sitting in there for a while, and it’s been coming out at longer and longer intervals, especially since Rob and I moved in together and school began to take up more and more of my time. It’s at least partly that a good guitar is kind of going to waste, though I can’t bear to part with it–it was a gift from my mother and it has a lot of sentimental value aside from its value as an instrument. But I also get depressed about the fact that I never did anything with those lessons I took, I never practiced like I should have, I never really learned to play at all. And at one point I really wanted to.

Then the other night I picked up Stephen King’s On Writing, just to have something to look over in bed while I waited to get sleepy, and I happened across this passage:

When my son Owen was seven or so, he fell in love with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, particularly with Clarence Clemons, the band’s burly sax player. Owen decided he wanted to learn to play like Clarence.  onwritingMy wife and I were amused and delighted by this ambition. We were also hopeful, as any parent would be, that our kid would turn out to be talented, perhaps even some sort of prodigy. We got Owen a tenor saxophone for Christmas and lessons with Gordon Bowie, one of the local music men. Then we crossed our fingers and hoped for the best.

Seven months later I suggested to my wife that it was time to discontinue the sax lessons, if Owen concurred. Owen did, and with palpable relief–he hadn’t wanted to say it himself, especially not after asking for the sax in the first place, but seven months had been long enough for him to realize that, while he might love Clarence Clemons’ big sound, the saxophone was simply not for him–God had not given him that particular talent.

I knew, not because Owen stopped practicing, but because he was practicing only during the periods Mr. Bowie had set for him: Half an hour after school four days a week, plus an hour on the weekends. Owen mastered the scales and the notes–nothing wrong with his memory, his lungs, or his hand-eye coordination–but we never heard him taking off, blissing himself out. As soon as his practice time was over, it was back into the case with the horn, and there it stayed until the next lesson or practice-time. What this suggested to me was that when it comes to the sax and my son, there was never going to be any real play-time; it was all going to be rehearsal. That’s no good. If there’s no joy in it, it’s just no good. It’s best to go on to some other area, where the deposits of talent may be richer and the fun quotient higher.

My God, I thought, that’s me. That’s the thing: with me and the guitar, there was rarely any joy to carry me through the wilderness of Sucking At It, the thing that everyone has to go through when learning to do something new. I got through that with writing, and I got through that with academics, because I love those things. I love them regardless of how good I am at them. In fact, it might be fair to say that I need to do them; in the downtime between college and graduate school I found myself reading academic texts and writing papers when I didn’t have to, and for a long time I was writing things that no one was reading at all, writing simply because not writing felt too wrong.

I don’t feel that with the guitar, so it may simply be that while I love music and I love to sing, playing an instrument isn’t something that my brain is set up to do. Not like it’s set up to do other things. So I shouldn’t waste my time feeling bad about it. For now I’m keeping the guitar, because as I said, it’s important to me for a whole host of other reasons. And also, things change. I may wake up some morning and discover that that urge, that need and that love, they’re there. And I hate giving up on things for good. That, too, is not really in my nature.

But I feel better. Thanks, Steve.

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