*Check out my poem on a postcard at Hoot!*
A few Wednesdays ago I grabbed the old, crappy guitar my boyfriend found in his grandma’s basement and headed out of the house. I didn’t have a case for it, so I walked down the street carrying the guitar like some sort of modern-day minstrel and getting stared at by people who were probably expecting me to begin strumming and break into song at any moment. The joke was on them, though – I had no idea how to play the thing.
I found my guitar teacher’s studio, which is literally on Lake Union, accessed by a floating dock, and surrounded by house boats and places that sell yachts.
“Let’s see this thing,” David said, taking the guitar from my hands. He had long, curly hair and was dressed like a twenty-something dude in a garage band – sloppy shorts, a band t-shirt, a pair of Chuck Taylors – but his middle-aged gut gave him away. David strummed the guitar experimentally. “I’m gonna be honest with you,” he said. “This guitar is terrible.”
“Yeah… But it was free,” I said.
Then my lesson officially began. I admitted that I knew absolutely nothing about the guitar. David showed me how to hold the pick and which fingers to use on which strings. At the end of the lesson, he gave me a few exercises to practice.
And, I’m proud to say, I practiced every day. I did my “alternate picking” and “the exercise,” which is literally just playing every single note on the guitar one at a time. I memorized the C Major scale and played it over and over again.
“Do you think you might learn some songs at your next lesson?” Paul asked me hopefully, although I must say he was very patient about listening to me practice.
By the time the next Wednesday rolled around, I was excited to show my guitar teacher what I had accomplished. “I can do it without looking at my right hand,” I bragged as I played the C Major scale.
“That’s great,” he said. “You’re ahead of the curve.”
I smiled, pleased with myself for making so much progress.
The other day I was working with Sergiy, the Ukrainian man who I’ve been tutoring in English for over a year now. When we first started, Sergiy was nervous and awkward, his speech halted and thickly accented. He would pause after every few words to use the Russian-to-English translator on his i-phone, and he was often frustrated when he couldn’t figure out how to express himself.
But now, after working with me every day for the past fourteen months, he speaks easily, without effort, and although he makes little mistakes here and there, he knows a lot of vocabulary and is confident in his English.
We were reading a section in his ESL book called “Moving Beyond the Plateau.” It explained that when you begin to learn a language, you learn quickly and it’s easy to see your progress, but as you reach the upper intermediate level, your progress naturally slows, and it’s easy to get discouraged or lose motivation.
“I’m still motivated to improve my English,” Sergiy said. “I just have to keep to do it.”
“Keep doing it,” I corrected him. “And you’re right. You are very motivated.” In fact, Sergiy is one of the most motivated people I know.
* * *
Sometimes I think I’m stuck on a plateau in my writing. When I first started out, it was easy to feel like I was making progress: the first time I won a writing contest, had a story published, finished a novel. Now I’ve had lots of small pieces published, I’ve written four novels. I’ve been lounging at the upper immediate level for a long time.
Sometimes I worry that this is as far as I’m going to get. The next steps would be to find an agent, publish a novel, go on a book tour, win an award. But it’s hard to get out my climbing gear and start hauling myself up the rest of the mountain.
* * *
I’m still at the beginning stages of learning the guitar. Now I can play the E major and minor chords and the A major and minor chords. I’m still working on D and F major. “Good,” my guitar teacher said, when I first played the E major chord and it sounded like crap. I’m making a lot of progress because I have so far to go.
It’s not so easy with writing. I’m not a beginner any more. It’s time for me to really push myself out of my comfort zone and move beyond the plateau. I am motivated to do it. Being a writer is something I’ve wanted to do ever since I was a little girl, and I want to have some success and publish something I’m proud of. Like Sergiy says, I have to keep to do it.
Last night, while I was alternately practicing my chords and nursing my poor, throbbing fingers (playing guitar hurts!), I wondered how far I would be in a year, if I kept practicing guitar a little every day. Look at how far Sergiy’s come with his English. If you do something every day, you can’t help but get better.
And I write almost every day. So where might my writing be in a year? One thing if for certain – if you keep trying, keep practicing, you will make progress. It may not be as noticeable as it was in the beginning, but I guess even baby steps can get you up the mountain, to the place where you want to be.