Year of the Flood Archive

40before40, Writing Blog

Practicing

When I was 12 or 13 my parents bought me a keyboard. It was a small Casio, but large enough to learn how to play properly. I’d had music lessons at the secondary school and was going through a phase of wanting to try lots of new things.

One night a week a tutor would come round and teach me how to play. He felt like an old man, although he was probably only in his forties or fifties. I cannot remember his face, because I was afraid to look him in the eye. The tutor assumed I was right-handed and, shy and self-conscious as I was, I didn’t correct him. So he taught me to play right-handed, and so being left-handed I of course struggled. He never quite guessed there was something wrong, and so I began to cancel his visits. Not, unfortunately, until he turned up, meaning my parents had to pay for the tutorial anyway.

I can still see myself at the top of the stairs, looking down as my mum struggles to understand why I am refusing the tutor to come in. Why she has been forced to pay for him again; why I am unable to tell her in advance, put her in this position. The tutor loiters outside the roughly painted red door. I still cannot see his face. This happened a couple of times, until they took the hint, and the lessons stopped completely. Not long after, the Casio got slid under the bed. I don’t know what happened to it afterwards.

I began, and gave up, a lot of things this way. An initial burst of excitement, a fearful obstacle involving other people, and quitting. One of the reasons why writing stuck was that it didn’t (seem to) need any external involvement. And when there was someone who took an interest, it was generally positive (after setting me a detention-exercise of 500 words on “Why I shouldn’t be facetious in class”, my French teacher Mr Battson asked if I’d written anything else? I had, a first (fantasy) novel).

Those music lessons became, after just the first couple, too painful to continue. For me it was out of fear of saying what it is I wanted, who I was. At the time, I was struggling with being a teenager, for sure, but also dealing with learning how to be with my unpredictable, alcoholic father and my harsh step-mother. When we visited their house on Saturdays, my sister and I absorbed the feeling that we couldn’t ask for anything. We were terrified to communicate our thirst, if thirsty. Hunger, if hungry. We had to wait until asked.

And the piano tutor never asked me if i was right- or left-handed, and so I said nothing, and I gave up the lessons before I even began.

But writing stuck. There was no need to ask permission. I already knew how to write. I could do joined-up writing before most of my class (Red Class, Mrs Cloak, Heaver’s Farm, 1980). When I was 10 or so I asked my mum for a typewriter, and I began to teach myself how to type. She helped, being a secretary. I wrote most nights, in fact probably nearly every night between the ages of 10 and 14, or roughly when I got my first computer, and discovered football manager games.

I wonder who he was, that pianist? I wonder what his dreams were — if he had practiced piano through his youth, had dreams of artistry, if he still played, if he was, or had been, famous? If he was a teacher at a school or making his own freelance tutoring career. If he played classical or jazz. What he thought of me, that young boy who barely said a word, who didn’t really have the fingers to play a keyboard. And I wonder what looks passed between him and my mother at the bottom of the stairs, standing at the door, her explaining to him that I wasn’t well, or wasn’t able to see him that night. And if he went away with his money satisfied, or if he felt he was being cast away, judged, somehow.

The thoughts come back to me this evening as I finish Glenn Kurtz’s memoir Practicing, the story of his childhood and youth playing and practicing the Spanish guitar, before giving up the “artist’s dream” in his early twenties, working soullessly in publishing, before studying for a PhD in comparative literature, and not even listening to music for 10 years. He went to one of America’s top conservatories, and then on to Vienna, before losing all faith in the story of his artistic ideal. When the reality of the limits to his talent and of his immature vision (and perhaps poor choices) led him to realise that perhaps he was never going to achieve the ideal he had of the life he wanted as a touring classical guitarist.

It’s a very good book. I picked it up over the weekend in a bookshop in Falmouth, mooching with friends. It reminds me, again, of the lesson learnt later in life by Marion Milner in her work On Not Being Able to Paint, that those who find artistic fulfillment are those able to bridge the gap between inner imagination and external reality–what forms you find in the world for the experiences you want to record, create, how satisfied you can be with those forms. It is what Ira Glass talks about in the now famous video-meme of his, Taste.

Near the end of the book Kurtz describes the realisation that the gap, for him, is too wide. He and his friend Marcus have been invited to play their new form of improvised, rebellious classical-pop-jazz at a bar in Vienna, as they both struggle to find their way beyond education into the world of performance. They’ve just been ripped off by the bar-owner, who promised them $100 but pays $10 because the customers didn’t drink enough. But it’s not this that bothers Kurtz:

Something much deeper was wrong with the life I was leading. I had an idea of what I wanted, an image of great music, exalted experience, inspired performances. This ideal glowed so vividly in me that I needed only close my eyes to live in it. But when I opened my eyes, I saw a barroom full of scruffy people getting drunk and a squat, deceitful impresario calculating his take. In this equation Marcus and I were incidental, mere entertainment. And even if the audience loved us, the scene was too small, too finite, too ordinary to feel like success. I enjoyed the music we were playing, and I knew we had just begun to perform. But the dissonance between this and my ideal was eviscerating; it wasn’t at all the life that I had imagined.

I recognise this disillusion; in a way I praise Kurtz for beginning to perform, and for the self-awareness of realising the gap between the inner ideal and the external reality. But I feel for the the young man he was, who had dedicated so much of his youth to playing the guitar, with obvious talent (he won a number of competitions, was accepted into the leading conservatory, acted with such passion as to go against his parents’ wishes for a more stable life), and am saddened that such a realisation came to him too soon (or too late).

Our stories are not the same. Only last week I was talking to my best friend here, K, discussing my PhD. I am glad it is over — glad that I have the freedom to take on new projects. And also that the PhD was not a very creative experience, although a very useful one. What I regret is not the PhD, but that I was not a better writer before I began it. I did not, as Kurtz had, dedicate my youth and young adulthood to writing. I sort of put it off, too afraid, like that shy and self-conscious boy at the Casio piano, to speak out for what I wanted. To take my writing, and myself, seriously enough. I skirted around writing, keeping it as hobby; rather, holding it afar as an ideal, one that I would never have to test, as Kurtz did, even though it broke him.

Although as Kurtz says, “My first time through, I practiced badly, chasing an ideal that ruined music for me, turning what I had loved the most into torture. Now I’m pursuing not an ideal but the reality of my own experience. I began to practice again because I felt I could do it better this time.”

Being broken, heartbroken, and having, most importantly, the ideal–the fantasy–broken, is what allows those of us driven by the inner imagination to actually become writers, musicians, artists. Does everyone have to go through this process? Yes, according to Milner, and to Jung, but also just to common sense. We need to see the reality of our ideas in the world. To do so, we have to let it become something other than the inner fantasy. It will never be as good. We have to be okay with that.

The novel I have written for my PhD is my fall from grace, as the storyteller Geoff Mead might put it. It is not as good as I hoped for. It is not the ideal I held in my head for so long. And yet, I tested it. I finished it, put it out in the world, and held it up for measure. My life has not changed. The rejections from agents have landed on the doormat. In my heart, I know it is flawed and is not what I hoped to write.

But I understand my own experience more now than before. As Kurtz says of his music, it is fear of being nothing without the thing we love and hope for most (our ideals of ‘music’, ‘writing’, ‘partnership’, ‘art’, ‘running’) that leads us to timidity; not being brave enough to let it all go, to experience “in” the loved form itself all that we fear losing:

Being seen seems dangerous, and we hide ourselves; we protect what is most valuable and offer up only what we aren’t afraid to lose. I’d thought I knew what the music should mean. So I held on to the notes instead of releasing them, trying to control them after they’d sounded, to shape how the audience heard me. As a consequence, however, instead of performing, instead of creating something living, what I held was stillborn.

This is a good description of my novel. I describe it as deadened. I have produced something lacking in life by trying to control it, rather than letting it go. Or as Kurtz puts it: “It takes courage to play new music; it takes courage to be a musician at all. But it takes more, so much more, to remain a musician, to let yourself be shaped by music however it speaks to you.”

It takes courage, that is, to let go of the plans, the projects, the ideals, the control. “We’re always planning, protecting, wishing and wanting, as if we could spend our whole lives practicing… The horizon collapses, and now your career is a day-to-day question, even if you’re not ready to answer it. Instead of practicing your art or probing your imagination, you rack your brains for some ambitious plan to put the question off.”

I still do this. Yesterday morning, rather than write, I wasted my writing time on wondering what genre I should write in, if I am wasting my time writing fiction if I am better at poetry (as my friend K suggested) or if I have more success at non-fiction and academic work (as my urgency to contribute to the flourishing of nonhuman others suggests I should).

And yet where is my courage? Where is my courage now the novel is tested and found to be wanting, to remain a writer? To let myself be shaped by writing however it speaks to me.

When I was 23, when Kurtz gave up music, I didn’t have the courage to even test whether I could give it up or not. But I have it. Now, I have it.

There is so much more in Kurtz’s book, so many more riches. His “quitting” music and then coming back to it 10 years later has allowed him to learn that “I wasn’t practicing to learn to play the guitar, but playing the guitar to learn about practicing.”

Because practicing is the story we tell ourselves about what it is we most love doing. Whether that is music, writing, or running, or any other passion. It is our story of how we practice, what we practice, that makes sense of our lives, as much as our story of how we love others. If we practice well, if we practice in the moment, and make of our experience all we can, here, now, today, honestly, without either fearing or giving up completely on the fantasy, the inner imagination, then we will have lived well.

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And so what did I practice this week in my 40×40 utopia of writer’s habits? I finished Atwood’s Year of the Flood (not great, glad it’s done with) and Kurtz’s Practicing, and am near the end of Donna Haraway’s When Species Meet. I learnt how to cook potatoes and rice Pakistani style, from my friend’s mother–it was like being on a very homely expert cookery show, and I was constantly panicked that her sari was going to catch fire on the gas hob, but clearly decades of cooking experience meant that didn’t happen.

I watched Night Shift, a short documentary about privilege and inequality, about the labour of bodies. I had a really great conversation with old friends, and new. I submitted 3 poems to Butcher’s Dog magazine, listened to Qualia’s Everything Is Going To Be Fine, committed an hour to pilates, as well as toured Cornwall for my god-daughter’s first birthday. And I wrote for 12 hours.