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.”