I Can Do That, or “How is a Writer Like a Guitar Player?”

As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m a beginning guitar player. But there’s an aspect of this musical adventure that I haven’t mentioned before, and I do think this simple fact needs to be acknowledged—as a guitar player, I suck. A reader might be forgiven at this point for observing the obvious—“You’re a beginner. Of course you suck.” Sorry, no, it goes far beyond lack of practice and experience. While I’ve always loved music, I discovered early on that I have little natural aptitude for making it. If there’s a musical gene, it does not run in my family and I for sure don’t have it. Yet here I am taking up guitar and massacring “Smoke on the Water” like any beginning fourteen year old (and yes, they still do). Only, of course, I’m a looong way from fourteen, when such things might be considered part of the normal course of events. There’s nothing normal or natural about what I’m doing. So why am I doing it?

Because I’m a writer.

Did we just step off the bus to Surreal City, where the answer to “Why are you doing that?” is of course “Because the giraffe is purple”? Nope, not even close, though it is a fun place to visit now and again. No, the connection is there, so bear with me a minute and I’ll make it. Here’s the thing—I didn’t take up the guitar in my teen years because it never occurred to me. I’d taken piano lessons when I was about eight, and the less said about that the better. It was a waste of my mother’s money and the piano teacher and I agreed on this self-evident fact early on. I was more or less resigned at that point to just listening to other people making music and enjoy, because it wasn’t something I was ever going to do.

Cut to a few years down the road. Despite the fact that I had no interest in being a writer (I was going to be a Marine Biologist), I started writing in high school. Just little things, bits of nonsense. A few things that were kind of like stories, but not quite. I didn’t get serious until I was in college and read the wrong books (for the record: LOTR, and Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy). My main interest was the short story and I sold one story about five years later, but despite that one bit of luck, I didn’t really start selling until I had been writing steadily for about eighteen years. Let me repeat that—eighteen years.

I think you may see where this is going now.

So if there’s a writing gene, I’m pretty sure I don’t have that, either. Some writing instructors as well as guitar instructors insist that there is no such thing as a “natural” talent for either, but seriously, there’s a reason some people are covering Buddy Guy or Sonny Landreth at age seven or getting their first book deals at age fifteen. More power to them. The rest of us get what we want with hard work and persistence, but that persistence doesn’t come from stubbornness alone. Something has to trigger it in the first place, a deep down understanding, justified at the time or not, that what we want is possible. That we can do this.

I wasn’t a guitar player at fourteen, not because I had no natural aptitude for it, but because I wasn’t a writer at fourteen, because becoming a writer taught me something that I didn’t know when I was fourteen. So I’m a slow learner. I own that. But eventually all it took was one evening watching a very good player on YouTube covering a GNR tune, and realizing “That’s not magic. It’s practice and developing the skills. I can do that.” And, as a good friend of mine was wont to say, “Well, duh.” Like I said, slow learner. But a learner, and that’s the main thing.

That’s all it really takes, other than time and persistence. Same with writing, same with music or almost any other skill you want to acquire. Time and persistence, coupled with the Holy Mantra, repeated as often as necessary until you believe it.

“I can do that.”

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12 thoughts on “I Can Do That, or “How is a Writer Like a Guitar Player?”

  1. Kudos to you for sticking with the guitar while being a writer! I know I could play an instrument with time and persistence, as you say, but I have so much trouble sticking with it. Earlier this summer I was practicing piano almost two hours a day, and sure that this time I’d keep at it… but then I started writing again, and I forgot all about the music. It seems like I can’t do two things at once!

  2. Ha, we have another thing in common… I, too, was studying marine biology in college… and started taking English classes because they were a refreshing change from the heavy LAB schedule (lots of chemistry!)… And ended up with a double degree. 😉 Guess I ended up taking more than a few English classes.

    And “because I’m a writer”… My husband would happily share how many scrapes and predicaments we’ve gotten into for things I wanted to try out “because I’m a writer”… Even the kids have started commenting about things: “Well, THAT’ll be in the blog.”

  3. The ability to hear and discriminate among what one hears, a sense of rhythm, plus accurate, unfailing aural memory, and a sense of time are essential for playing guitar — or any musical instrument well. For guitar, like piano, a good hand-eye coordination is also essential, plus a long reach of hand. That’s one reason why el V would never make the first rank of guitarists in form of music — his hands, though long-fingered, are not wide. Look at a video some time of, say, Chuck Berry’s hands. Also, his coordination isn’t the best either, though far better than most.

    What being a writer and being a musician have in common when it comes to success is the willingness and capacity for endless practice. Which you said.

    Signed, she who has listened to the same classical Spanish guitar scales practiced to warm-up for the night’s practice nearly every night of a very long relationship — and whose’s spouse’s relationship with his primary guitar, gotten in Spain when he was 16, with the help of Segovía, is even longer.

    Love, C.

  4. O, and by the way, as RP knows, 🙂 el V’s also a professional writer, and a very good one, just as he’s a very good professional musician, which isn’t the same thing as being a great guitarist.

    Love, C.

  5. Yeah, that creative gene sure does have its way with us! I’ve written a few stories and I’ve plunked out a few weird songs on the guitar and piano. But I’m having fun, and so, i assume, are you!

  6. Yeah, that creative gene sure does have its way with us! I’ve written a few stories as well as a weird song or to on guitar and piano, and the creative process is a neverending thrill ride. I’m having fun, and so, i take it, are you!

  7. I remember reading in an interview with James Michener that he flinched when people said someone was a born writer. He pointed out that no one is a born writer–but that what you must be born with is a passion to do something you love no matter the obstacles. Writing, guitar, or whatever. 🙂

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