November 21, 2022 § 12 Comments
By Kresha Richman Warnock
In Mary Oliver’s “Music Lessons,” the piano teacher exchanges places with the student. As her fingers hit the keys, “Sound became music, and music a white / scarp for the listener to climb / alone.”
My own piano teacher is a young woman less than half my age. She is gifted and trained and apologizes for correcting me, which I try to tell her is what she’s paid for. On the days when I miss note after note, I would be happy if she would sit at the piano and play for me. Her favorite is Tchaikovsky.
I asked my husband for piano lessons for Christmas and here it is the next fall, and I’m still with it. I will never bless a saloon, a church sanctuary, and certainly not a concert hall with my plunking, but I am moved to watch music coming out of my fingers as I go through the daily rituals of practicing scales and melodies. It turns out that when you start piano as an adult, you get to skip “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and plunge into lyrical music. I have almost mastered a lovely arrangement of “Danny Boy.”
My brain is not as flexible as it once was. It’s not the timing or even the right notes that I struggle with; I’m musical enough to hear how the songs should sound. It’s the physical, muscle memory—which finger should be on which key for each note. I don’t have a schema for that, and it is taking time and practice to build the brain synapses so I can consistently get the music right.
Just as notes swirl out of the piano keys to make melody, words flow from computer keys to make story. When I took my first creative writing class a couple of years ago, I did it out of curiosity. Reading a million books and writing my share of grants, lectures and newsletter articles didn’t completely prepare me to be the wordsmith I thought I might want to be, to tell stories in a way that was moving and compelling, though it did give my brain a framework of how to set meaning on paper. How do you take a love of words, of great writing, of story, of seeing inside other peoples’ lives, and turn it into your own meaningful personal essay?
In the middle of the pandemic, I logged into my first Zoom writing session—Creative Nonfiction 101. There we were, enlarged heads and necks, reading interesting essays by the famous, following prompts, sharing our work with other novices, gaining wisdom from a teacher who was a real writer!
The first essay I composed for that class was about my daughter’s struggle with a chronic illness. The draft told a story, even contained some wit…and was sloppy and confusing. I pretentiously titled it with a quote from a famous essay, opened a Submittable account and sent it out for publication. Several rejections later, it’s been retitled, rewritten and reviewed by astute writer friends. I’ve tried to make each word, each sentence tingle. I’ve even replaced double spaces after periods with singles to demonstrate I’m not still in the manual typewriter clique. Maybe no one will publish the essay, but at least now when it’s rejected, I can tell myself it just hasn’t found the right literary home. I’ve put the work in, and certainly practice makes better, if not perfect.
Each time I sit at the keyboard, I notice how it relates to my experience of playing the piano. I do ten or fifteen minutes of scales daily, and I develop a little more muscle and brain memory. Right now, I play scraps, holy scraps, but scraps of beautiful music. Who knows how far my piano playing will go?
The writing is harder to evaluate. It is often not clear what is the best word or how the damn thing all fits together. I hear the words of the great teachers: Just get your butt in the chair. Write for ten minutes without taking your pen off the page. Bird by bird. Avoid adverbs. Show don’t tell. Make sure to reflect. Read! I gobble up their advice. I take classes from amazing teachers. I share with and learn from writing friends.
And I do the work. I “practice” my writing each day. It is thrilling to be a student again, of both piano and writing, and I am amazed to see the muscles strengthening, sinews lengthening, and neuropathways developing. Although I promise not to perform publicly on the piano, I do want to share my words. I have some accumulated wisdom and poetry in me. Maybe someday that’s the white scarp I can create for someone else.
Kresha Richman Warnock lives with her husband, Jim, in the Pacific Northwest, where she has spent her days since the pandemic taking writing classes and writing her memoir. Her essays have been published in Eat, Darling, Eat, Devil’s Party Press, and Jewish Women of Words, and in the anthologies American Writers Review 2022 and Pure Slush.