Writing a five fingered exercise

When I was a small child, just starting school, my favorite moment in each day was the one, after we’d finished our tea, when my father went into the front room. He’d say to me, ‘don’t pull the curtains and don’t switch on the light.’ Then he’d sit at his piano in the last of the evening light and play; Chopin waltzes, Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words, Beethoven’s concertos and pieces from the shows. I would dance around the room for hours, my skirts twirling, my arms doing what I thought might be pointy ballerina movements.

Then the big day came, when Daddy said he would begin to teach me the piano. I was so excited; as far as I could see it would be no time at all before I would be playing like him. Why, I did so already, racing my hands over the keys and swaying my body like a professional pianist. So it came as a bit of a blow when I realized even five-finger exercises were baffling and onerous. It took me a long time to play my first Song without Words; two decades to be exact.

Writing a novel is a bit like learning the piano; a lot harder than you might think. Bill, who’s just completed the OCA Advanced Creative Writing Module with me, wrote to say…‘When I started the journey, my initial objective was to write a novel. I, like many people, didn’t understand how difficult this task was. I originally thought that having a good idea and a vivid imagination was all that a person needed. The rest was just a matter of course and would happen naturally and with the minimum of effort. I now appreciate how just what a difficult task it is to write a novel. Anyone who completes a novel, let alone has it published, has my total admiration.’

Spot on, Bill. Writing a novel is like inventing an entire new life…many people’s lives, actually. If you’re into fantasy, you’ll be inventing new worlds, as well. How could that possibly be easy? Certainly, having a mentor who can support you in those first stages when it all seems a complete mess – when even the five-finger exercises of writing feel onerous – can help enormously. Bill wrote; ‘When you are placed with a tutor there is initially, a certain amount of natural apprehension. You’re faced with another lengthy and unknown learning process. My initial feeling was that the way ahead seemed insurmountable. I’d spent a few months standing still and had reached a non-constructive plateau without any end in sight. It felt I was drowning in a sea of uncertainty. You reassured me that I was not alone with this problem and that most novice or indeed many professional writers suffered this at one time or another during their writing career. The way through this dilemma and off the plateau was to keep on writing.’

Naturally a writing student should expect a little more than simple words of encouragement; a tutor, unlike a mentor, also offers practical, technical and creative advice that will move the student’s work properly forward. They should be able to see through the confusion in a way the poor old writer can’t – they’ll be too busy looking at the wood, while the tutor will be viewing the trees and hopefully recommending a better planting and growing order for the the entire forest. But it’s important for the tutor to stay enthused and energetic, as it’s likely that the writer will sag and droop, especially around the middle of the novel.‘Your enthusiasm for creative writing is infectious…’Bill said in his letter…‘and I can honestly say it rubs off and has bolstered my failing spirits. Creative writing is not the easiest thing in the world to study but having an excellent tutor has made it a bit easier. Many thanks for your time, advice and patience over the last year or so. Aw, nice of you to say so, Bill. I’m just so proud of the way this student’s writing developed over the module, which is far more to do with the concentration and energy he gave the project; it’s the writer who needs the time and patience to be honest. Without that it’s unlikely they’ll get further than playing chopsticks.

Bill (and I) make this process sound so arduous, so hard to achieve, that novice writers reading this may wonder if they’re not put off trying, just a little. Bill says, ‘The journey, I feel, has been an exceptionally hard but enjoyable one. I’ve tried to put into practice everything that you have suggested and I feel that my writing has not just moved forward but taken a considerable leap. Completing this last assignment and ultimately the course has been a great achievement for me.’

Bill hasn’t quite finished his book yet, but now he’s got the confidence to write by himself. My final advice to him was to stop redrafting and get on with the writing. Working through a writing course always results in a lot of redrafting. It’s the quickest way up the learning curve. But once the foundations and basic skills are laid, I suggest that people tackling a long project just get on with it…one word, then the next, then the next until the next two words you write are ‘the end’. Only then can you redraft with any clear understanding of what the book looks like and says.

Thanks, Bill, for letting me quote parts of your letter in this post, and good luck in your forward endeavours…may your words always sound like songs.

Read more of Nina’s blog posts on Kitchen Table Writers.

5 Comments

  1. Paul Vincent 29 March 2011 at 2:31 pm

    I can certainly relate to this post, since I’m both learning how to play keyboard (slowly) and on my umpteenth redraft of my fourth assignment of Writing Skills/Starting to Write. My art tutor at school used to tell me I had to learn to decide when something was finished and then leave it alone; I would quite often fiddle a painting to death. I’ve found it’s the same with writing, you need to know when something’s finished and just leave it alone, at least for a while. “Just get on with it…” yes, good advice!

    Reply
  2. folio 29 March 2011 at 3:03 pm

    A wonderful and inspiring post for anyone in the arts — thanks Nina and Bill. I can relate to everything Bill said — just can’t put it into words, I’m a painter.

    Reply
  3. folio 29 March 2011 at 5:06 pm

    … and maybe should have said, I’ve been doing Painting 3 Advanced so have an idea where you’re coming from.

    Reply
  4. EunicaMalvina 29 March 2011 at 9:39 pm

    So true! You just have to keep on going – and going – and eventually you will find yourself somewhere, either roughly where you thought you were headed, or maybe somewhere else, but it will be different from where you started, and that’s a great feeling.

    Reply
  5. Paul Vincent 30 March 2011 at 8:48 am

    Yes, it is a good feeling to end up somewhere completely different from where you started, although like I said in my first comment, my biggest obstacle is knowing when to stop. My latest assignment began with no real direction, it simply dramatised the death of a friend’s pet dog and had no real ‘End Game’ set out. I ‘finished’ the assignment in question well before Christmas. However, since reading some essays on the subject of tragedy, I’ve become obsessed by the reworking of the language I used in order to develop a feeling of pity and terror in the reader as the story develops. So I end up arresting my progress through the course through my little obsessions, mainly because what I’m trying to do is, frankly, beyond me at this moment in time. After reading Nina’s post I’ve resolved to get my assignment in by the end of the week.

    Thanks Nina!

    Reply

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