Stairway to Writing: Or What I Learned From My Brother About Guitar and Writing
Is writing every day the best thing to do?
When I studied English Literature at Trent University I told my Irish Drama professor that I wrote in a journal.
“I want to be a writer,” I said. “So I’m writing a lot. Every day.”
He had a gorgeous Irish accent and a brash tell-it-like-it-is approach.
He replied, “Jess-i-ca, my dear. It doesn’t much matter if it’s all bad writing.”
Every time we put a word on the page, whether it’s genius or garbage, our brain to page connections are exercised. The act of writing is happening. It’s like muscle memory, training the mind to connect to the pen or keyboard, practicing the movement of transposing something from inside to outside, developing expertise in changing the abstract into the concrete.
When I write every day, my writing is better. I’m more connected to the work. My learning goals evolve more rapidly. The work’s voice is stronger. After a long break from writing (a couple of months or more), I find it helpful to write a lot, to write often to recharge the connections.
During a big project, I write every day to ride the momentum, the upward spiral of energy swirling the work into being. Daily writing keeps the words and story focused, alive. Any time I’ve taken a break from a project, it’s died. The energy had moved onto something else.
In Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear Elizabeth Gilbert writes “Ideas of every kind are constantly galloping toward us, constantly pass through us, constantly trying to get our attention.” She also explains how when we don’t give the ideas attention, they move on.
The place to improve the writing is during the revision process. The first step is just getting it on the page, giving ideas a place to grow.
How is writing practice like guitar practice? What I learned from my brother!
My brother Colin learned how to play guitar when he was in high school. Every time I walked by his room, he lounged on his bed with his acoustic guitar, playing the same songs over and over—“Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin and “More Than Words” by Extreme. At first it was hard to distinguish between the songs. It took regular practice for the chords to become music I could recognize. Colin played the same songs for hours a day. By the time he graduated from high school he could play a number of songs skillfully, effortlessly.
After a summer trip with my mom to Nashville, Tennessee, I decided to learn how to play guitar. The idea of being a singer-song writer appealed to me. I love to sing. I love to write. I just needed to learn about how to play guitar.
The day after we get home from Nashville I go to the local music store and buy an acoustic guitar, tuner, picks, and a case. I’m ready to learn.
At home, I sit on the couch with the guitar, placing my fingers to make a G-chord and gently strumming. A couple of times a week I sit and strum a G-chord for fifteen minutes.
Ten years pass. Now I can’t remember how to even play a G-chord.
When my brother learned to play guitar he practiced for hours. Colin had specific goals and looked for support from guitar experts. To develop mastery he needed to practice daily, to get to a place of automaticity, a place where his hands could automatically play the songs with limited thinking or focus.
Over twenty years have passed since high school…
We sit on the porch at the cottage in a circle. Feet tap. Heads bob. The family singsong slips out the open windows, across the silent bay. After fifteen minutes of practice, Colin plays “More than Words” and “Stairway to Heaven” on his guitar with the skill he had as a teenager. To play new songs he will need to return to regular practice again.
This connects to writing practice too. Sometimes we show up to the page and write for writing’s sake. Yet, the guitar shows me that focus and intention can make a big difference in both productivity and the final product.
So this morning I reflect on why I write. What are my goals? How can setting an intention support my process for better focus and more impact?
I’m going to start with reading this interview with Natalie Goldberg about the writing life.