Sunday, August 24, 2008

A Little Encouragement from Deborah Raney

A few days ago, a woman in my online writer's group sparked a lively discussion when she confessed that she felt a bit discouraged because of all the technical details involved in writing. I felt her pain as she said she just wanted to write, and now she was getting bogged down in all the "stuff" she was supposed to learn. I myself frequently complain on this very blog (okay, sometimes I even whine) that I've lost the joy I used to feel in writing because of all the rules I have to follow.

Author Deborah Raney responded with such a brilliant analogy that I asked her if I could reproduce it here, and she graciously agreed. I know it encouraged me, mainly because in Deb's view, the loss of joy is a temporary but necessary step. The passion and the fun will come again! Here's Deb:

I've thought of this analogy so often: when you first discover a piano as a child, you bang on the keys, ruffle the keyboard and make all sorts of cool (and totally un-concertworthy) sounds. Later, you start picking out melodies on the keyboard and maybe even adding a few chords and harmonies. It's a blast and your friends are impressed because you're pretty stinkin' good.

Then your parents decide you're the next Vladimir Horowitz and they sign you up for lessons. Overnight every ounce of joy is sucked right out of playing the piano. Because now you have to learn the NAMES of the notes, and you can only play what's written on the staff. Worse, you can't even play the notes when you choose to play them. Oh, no! You have to count, give every note the correct beat. Even worse you have to PRACTICE! No more playing just for fun, no more playing just to express yourself or show off to your friends, or experiment and see what sounds cool.

But lo and behold, one day, after lots and lots of miserable hours of practice, you actually get a piece right, and it sounds pretty good. You play it at a recital and people clap and ask you to play it again. Cool! So you go home and work a little harder and learn a more difficult piece. Pretty soon you start forgetting about the names of the notes because you know them as instinctively as you know your colors. Before long you can pick up a sheet of music and with a couple of run-throughs, you can play a song that sounds pretty close to the way you heard it on the radio. And all your friends ooh and aah when you play at parties because wow, you're good! And suddenly you don't mind practicing so much because now you know all the names of the notes and you know how to count time, and you know what all those funny symbols on the staff mean--shoot, you know what a staff IS. Practice has become fun, and playing has become an expression of yourself again, and even therapy sometimes.

Then one day, you're playing along, following the notes and the time exactly as written in the music, and almost without thinking you add a trill in this measure and an extra beat in that one...OMG! You're breaking the rules (your music teacher--and your mother--would KILL you) but it actually doesn't sound bad. In fact, by george, it works! You play with those trills and tweak the syncopation and suddenly the song has turned into your own unique, amazing composition, and now YOU get to make (and break) the rules.

But you never would have gotten to this point if not for those hours of learning the notes and the rhythm, playing them exactly as written. There will always be more difficult sheet music to challenge you, and you will continue to improve the more you play, but you've reached that wonderful place where you know enough that playing the piano has become more fun than you ever thought possible, and the songs you compose are better than you ever dreamed. And you hate to admit it, but your mother and your piano teacher were right, and you'd never be where you are without those stupid piano lessons and those torturous practice sessions.

DEBORAH RANEY is at work on her eighteenth novel. Her books have won the RITA Award, the HOLT Medallion, National Readers' Choice Award and Silver Angel from Excellence in Media. Deborah's first novel, A Vow to Cherish, inspired the World Wide Pictures film of the same title. Her newest books are the Clayburn Novels from Howard Books/Simon & Schuster, including Remember to Forget, a 2008 Christy Award finalist. Deb serves on the advisory board of American Christian Fiction Writers. She and her husband, Ken Raney, have four children and enjoy small-town life in Kansas.