My fingers hurt. Specifically, the fingers on my left hand, and especially my pointer finger, which my guitar teacher calls “the general.” Guitar, of course, is the reason my fingers hurt. I’m in the process of building up calluses so that when I form chords the guitar strings won’t slice painfully into my soft, fleshy fingertips, the way they do now.
Learning to play the guitar is hard. At first I gave all sorts of excuses: I have tiny, child-sized hands, I have poor circulation in my fingers, my guitar is a piece of crap. All of these things are true, but it doesn’t really matter. After all, I know of 10 year old kids, and folks with missing fingers, who can play the guitar, so it’s time to quit my whining and get to practicing.
Right now I’m learning how to switch from one chord to another. My guitar teacher says it doesn’t matter if it sounds bad. The point is just to plow through, strumming away and switching as quickly as possible from one chord to another, even if I can’t form the chord quite right and the guitar sounds like a sick, squealing cat.
“It’s counter-intuitive,” he said at my lesson yesterday. “We’ve always been taught to learn how to do one thing completely and correctly before we start on the next step. Why would we throw the cake in the oven before we finish mixing the batter? Why would we cook the pizza before putting on the cheese and toppings, right?”
“Right,” I say. He’s told me the cake and pizza analogies about five times now, and I’ve only had three lessons.
“But that’s what we do in guitar. We start strumming and switching chords before we’ve perfected the chords themselves. It’s counter-intuitive, but it’s not like we’re making a mess. We don’t have to clean anything up. We’re not going to break anything. All we’re going to do is make some really horrible noise. But, we’re training our hands so that one day, when we do have the chords down pat, everything will fall into place.”
“Got it,” I told him.
So last night I practiced the guitar and made some really horrible noises. Some of which were my own groans of pain and frustration. “My fingers won’t go where I’m telling them to!” I complained.
“I thought you were going to learn some songs at your lesson today,” my boyfriend said.
“No,” I told him. But I hoped I would soon. The whole reason I’m taking guitar lessons is learn how to make music.
I guess my guitar teacher is right that most of the time we’re taught to perfect one technique before moving on to the next. My mom didn’t take me on the highway during my first driving lesson. We practiced driving around the park at fifteen-miles-an-hour first. And when I taught math, I tried to make sure kids were fully comfortable solving an equation in one variable, for example, before teaching them systems of equations.
Is the same true for writing?
When I was taking classes towards my MFA (Master of Fine Arts in Fiction Writing), we were strongly discouraged from work-shopping novels, especially during our first year. “Perfect the craft of writing short stories first,” we were told.
Before starting the program, I had written a novel that I thought needed help. In fact, that was the reason why I had decided to get an MFA in the first place: to get better at writing novels.
Instead, I got better at writing short stories. By the time I was in my last year, and could have work-shopped a novel, I didn’t. I had a novel I was working on, but the going was excruciatingly slow. I wasn’t sure what I was doing, and I had little confidence in my ability to write a novel. I kept going back to the first chapter, revising it over and over, wanting it to be perfect before moving on to chapter two. I felt like I was out of practice from writing anything longer than twenty pages.
All-in-all, I don’t regret my MFA program. I met some incredible people who have been instrumental in my life as a writer, and I’ve had some amazing experiences. Without my MFA program, I wouldn’t be a contributor to Burlesque Press or have taught at the San Miguel Writers Conference in Mexico. But one thing I am disappointed about is this: never, in any of my classes, did we discuss techniques novel writing. Never did we examine novels to see how they were structured – to figure out what worked and what didn’t, and how we could apply this to our own writing. Never were we encouraged to try writing anything other than short stories. The one thing I wanted: to get better at writing novels, was the one thing I didn’t learn.
And why not? What would have been the harm in working on novels before we’d perfected our writing skills? It’s not like we’d have broken anything or made a mess to clean up. Sure, we might have written some horrible stuff, but who cares? At least we would have been practicing, training ourselves to write in the the longer structure of a novel, so that one day, when we had perfected our craft, all the pieces would fall beautifully into place.
Instead, I’m nearly four years out from my MFA program, and I feel like I’m having to teach myself how to write a novel. And I’m doing it the hard way – by writing one bad one after another. I’m hoping eventually the pieces will fall into place. Just like they will with my guitar-playing.
It’s like the message I read on my my tea bag the other day: A bird sings, not because it has the answer, but because it has a song. After all, if you wait for perfection before moving on to the next step, you’ll end up staying in the same place forever: silent, with un-callused fingers, and with nothing but short stories to show for yourself.
A post from The Incompetent Writer — what I wish some of my MFA classes had been like
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