By Catherine Hedge
Learning to write is a lot like learning to play a musical instrument.
I’m trying to learn the violin. “Trying” is the best word…for both me and my instructor. I had visions of playing “Meditation” by Massenet in a few years, but it looks now like it will probably be something like, “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.” Have you ever heard the Electric Tonalities that start out Forbidden Planet? That’s what my long bows sound like. It’s agonizing.
Fortunately, I have a dear friend, an accomplished violinist and teacher, who has incredible patience. She won’t let me skip a lesson because I don’t feel I’ve practiced enough. Instead my teacher offers a “Check up” just to make sure I’m not learning any bad habits. Each time she comes over, it seems as if she’s repairing an error I thought I had banished months ago. She has a special gift, though…a genuine excitement that someone so badly (True that) wants to take up the instrument she loves. Week after week, she reminds me to compose myself, to not completely stress out because I make mistakes. What I could play moderately okay hours earlier is now a cacophonous mess. Primarily because I am as tight as the E string!
Violin looks simple, but I was told the more simple the instrument is, the more difficult the role of the musician. I’m used to the piano where a “C” is always a “C” and stomping down your foot makes the notes sustain. I’m stomping my foot a lot, but it’s not making any difference!
Instead of collapsing in an exasperated sigh and a growl of “Let’s try that again, Shall we?” my teacher knows how to convince a beginner to keep going. First, she pays attention to my initial attempt and catches one element (of many) that is destroying my sound. She corrects just that and my next try is much better. My teacher compliments me on the area of improvement. My heart leaps with hope and I think, Maybe I can do this, after all!
Since I’m not devastated, I have the energy to listen to her honest critique. Once I had a teacher who only said positive comments. I knew that no matter what I did or did not do, (like practice), she would never be visibly upset with me. I don’t think my playing changed one whit that entire year. I had a different one, Miss Hatcher, who’d hit my hands with a ruler and shout, “Count! Count! Count!”…but that’s another story.
Next, my teacher gives very specific instruction, including modeling, of the techniques I need to practice. She doesn’t just tell and run, but watches me, coaches me, so that when I practice alone, I won’t pick up still another bad habit. Before she leaves, she always reminds me of something I’ve done right, that I am making progress, and that eventually my skills will come together. Just with a new, more achievable target! (Ie: Bonnie, not Thais!)
This whole process mimics what I’ve seen with beginning writers and a great writing coach, like Leonard Bishop. Whether the writers are middle school students, college professors, or octogenarians, each person brave enough to read his or her writing in front of others, believes the piece has merit. It also carries with it a substantial portion of the writer’s spirit. It’s not “Just a piece of writing”, but the time, effort, and dreams of that individual. If you have a coach who only tells you, “It’s marvelous! A Best Seller for sure! You MUST keep writing,” you will never improve. If the coach tells you, “This is terrible. You have no talent,” you may never write again. But…if you have beginner’s luck, you will hear three things:
- What you did well (Even if it is just, “Congratulations on finishing a scene!)
- Of all the possible errors which could be listed (but aren’t), what are the one or two most important areas of difficulty holding back your writing? Why are they problematic in general? What techniques can you use to overcome those deficits?
- The Challenge….Because I believe you have the ability and the will to write well… “Here is something you might try next time and here is how to do it.”
Most importantly, that coach shares passionately the belief that when we write, it is important. That no one else can say what you want to say in the unique way you can say it. One of my favorite memories of Leonard Bishop is when he told my middle school students: “You are very special. You have voluntarily decided to come here, to step away from the many distracters in your life and take time to write. And when you take the time to write down your thoughts, your emotions, your experiences, and others read them… you touch people’s lives. And that is really very special. (Long pause…) Now, let’s get to work!!”