Back in the Woodshed: Practice and Seclusion in Words and Music
June 25, 2018 § 10 Comments
By Peter Amos
I’m not a writer. At least I’ve never thought of myself that way. I put letters into peculiar order, shuffle them, share them with – anyone – but “writer” is the sort of word that belongs in a one-sentence bio and never feels right to say aloud.
Calling oneself “a writer” implies a certain creative force and authority that it probably shouldn’t. It suggests a vulnerability or artistic sensibility, vaguely defined and rarely claimed. I would be uncomfortable with the label for precisely those reasons, if not for one more fundamental.
I’m a musician. I know the same insecurities. I was deep into a music major before I even begrudgingly accepted when people called me a “musician.” I still recoil slightly at the implication.
“Oh! You’re a musician?”
“You play the guitar?”
“So you’re into jazz?”
And my answer never varies.
“On a good day.”
But I write, now, more than I play. I blog more than I busk. I read more than I listen. I write for my tiny hometown paper more than I play in tiny New York bars.
Even “on a good day” I ground the music out. Pried it loose and yanked the gears into motion. It lived in my conscious, critical mind. It was often contrived and rarely immersive. Difficult music came slowly. I sat on stages, suddenly anxious of the shape of my finger nails, the buzz of the electric lights, precisely where the guitar tugged at my black slacks.
But I could practice.
I learned Bach in reverse and played etudes, picking rudiments, and endless arpeggios in permutation. Some skill with a wrench made up for poor design.
A great deal about writing feels familiar, but more feels different. When I write, words spill from a pen I barely control. Two hours go by and two thousand words appear, arrayed haphazardly on the paper. Coarse, tangled, and of little use to anyone. But when I sit down and the pen doesn’t scribble of its own accord, I don’t know how to make it start. What is a writer’s etude or an author’s metronome? What is a verbal arpeggio or interval or harmony?
The first place I encountered a writer discussing practice was in Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook. Writers often discuss process or philosophy or work habits, but rarely practice. The dissolution of things into component parts. The isolation of the small and perfectable within the grand and artistic. I always heard that young Miles Davis did such work in solitude, relegated with his trumpet to the shed out back. True or not, jazz musicians refer to the seclusion of practice as “The Woodshed.”
Oliver compelled me to seclusion in the window of the coffee shop down the block from work. Demanded I stare at the bike chained to the No Parking sign and jot down jagged assemblages of uninterrupted alliteration. Implored me to squint at the FedEx truck on the corner and describe it (clumsily) in iambic tetrameter. Pushed me to scratch a diary onto the page and end as many words as possible in mutes.
Even after a decade, the guitar was complex and daunting, something to be mastered. Under musty tube lights in the music building I relished the challenge of my tendons and muscles, the struggle for command of my faculties. Each motion a piston or spring. Each dissonance a disruption of mechanics.
Words were something to be tamed. They stampeded downhill; charged ahead but, once on the page, became inert. When they flowed I lost control and when they wouldn’t come, I didn’t know where to look.
Now I sift the city for meter, describe the towers on Vernon Boulevard in rhyme, chain verbs together on the morning M-train. This minutia may not be as helpful as in conservatory practice rooms, but I’m rediscovering The Woodshed. I forgot it during years of screwdriver and clipboard music; lost track of it in a tangled thicket of overgrown sentences.
It’s good to be back.
Peter Amos is a native of rural Virginia. The son of an English teacher and a librarian, he studied music in college and moved to New York City where he works, performs, explores, and writes about it.