And banging and banging and banging
When you first encountered a musical instrument as a kid, what did you do?
You banged it, you blew it, you strummed it, you pounded its keys, you felt it, you took zealous delight in it as if it was a new friend, a strange creature who asked you to play.
Play. It’s a pretty good way to experience the world.
Turns out that almost all of those kids who have so much fun with musical instruments (most of us) quit their lessons after just a year or two.
Perhaps that’s because learning music became a lesson. Being in a band meant sitting upright in an assigned row and memorizing notes. Music became a matter of right or wrong, not an exploration and expression of self.
I know this was my experience. Somehow the people who taught me music tended to forget that playing is not only an important way to learn music (or learn anything), it’s the best way.
The same goes for writing, of course. Writing is often taught through the prism of a perfectionist grammar, academic rules of right or wrong, rather than through the joy of storytelling or the need and desire for expression.
I was recently at a dinner where a high-school English teacher was talking about the challenges of teaching her students how to make a bibliography using MLA style. I wondered why any student needs to learn this before they’re 20. I asked why not form writing lessons around expressive writing, writing that held purpose and meaning for them. And maybe even joy and fun.
I’ve been thinking about this because of an insightful op-ed by Sammy Miller in The New York Times, We’re Teaching Music to Kids All Wrong.
Instead of focusing band practice on preparing for the all-important holiday concert, Miller says, “We need to let kids be terrible. In fact, we should encourage it. They’ll be plenty terrible on their own—at first. But too often kids associate music in school with a difficult undertaking they can’t hope to master, which leads them to give up. Music does not have to be, and in fact, shouldn’t be, about the pursuit of perfection.”
Miller recounts how Miles Davis couldn’t hit the high notes his hero Dizzy Gillespie did, so he found a “new mellow, cool way to speak the language of jazz.” Billie Holiday’s range was just over one octave—very limited for a professional singer—but she creatively used her “limitations” to sing definitive versions of so many American classics.
“Tell students these stories and watch them get excited to fail,” Miller writes.
Excited to fail.
That’s a part of play, right? Or even if you’re not excited to fail, you accept your “failure,” you work with it.
This is on my mind because next month is National Novel Writing Month. It’s an opportunity not only to join a novel-writing boot camp—showing up to write 1,677 words a day for a month—but an opportunity to join a novel-writing playground.
I urge people to join in to make creativity a priority for just one month each year. But it’s more than that: It’s an opportunity to bang on the drums of your story, to trumpet it, to get lost in the weird sounds it can make, to follow its hum, to revel in its harmonies and relish its disharmonies.
If you think it’s too much for you to write that much each day, think of it like this: Just sing for a month.
Sing. And play.
Because this is how I write
“I write pieces, and move them around. And the fun of it is watching the truthful parts slide together.”
~ Elizabeth Strout
Because I’m teaching “The Art of Brevity” online
I’m actually going to talk about more than five things I’ve learned about the art of brevity. I’ll probably cover 10 or 20 or 30 things. Because I love talking about how the aesthetic of brevity opens up a different view of life. Join me.
Because it’s time to get ready for NaNoWriMo
You’ve got nothing to lose and a novel to gain.
Because a quote
“To become a WRITER I had to learn to INTERRUPT, to speak up, to speak a little louder, and then LOUDER, and then to just speak in my own voice which is NOT LOUD AT ALL.”
― Deborah Levy, Things I Don't Want to Know
Because another quote
“Yes, there had been many times I called my daughters back to zip up their coats. All the same, I knew they would rather be cold and free.”
― Deborah Levy, Things I Don't Want to Know
Yes, I’m going through a period of adoration and fascination with Deborah Levy. I can read these two quotes as Zen koans. They need to be endlessly interpreted, especially the first one.
Because I’d love you to read one of my books
I write this newsletter for many reasons, but mainly just for the joy of being read and having conversations with readers. This newsletter is free, and I want it to always be free, so the best way to support my work is to buy my books or hire me to speak.