Spring 1989, Volume 6.1
On Rewriting and Practicing the Piano
Phyllis Barber (MFA in writing, Vermont College), founder and codirector of the Writers at Work Conference held in Park City, Utah, has been published in Kenyon Review, Chariton Review, Crosscurrents, Fiction International, and North American Review. She received first prizes in the 1988 Utah State Literary Competition for her novel, And the Desert Shall Blossom, and a short story, "Justice."
Once while I was wandering through my life, I had a need to say something. I'm not sure where this something came from, but opinions and observations grew on the interior walls of my mind like lichen, growing into some kind of personal vision that wanted out.
My first attempt at expressing this vision in something other than conversation was through music, namely the piano. I went through beginner's hoops-the scales, arpeggios, the basics. I persisted, practicing day after day, eventually able to speak somewhat for Beethoven, Scriabin, and myself through the notes on the musical staff.
Over the years I developed a method to hone a piece to a fine edge. First, I plowed through new music like I was Robert Schumann's "Happy Farmer" in spring sod, missing some sharps and flats, many of the dynamic markings, and most of the fancy rubato flourishes. This gave me a rough idea of possibilities beyond the notes on the page. Then I went back to the beginning and worked four measures at a time, sometimes playing ten or fifteen repeats until I felt the music belonged to my fingers. I worked with these small components and fit the pieces together until the music spoke its form and sensibility to me.
After trying music as a vehicle for expressing my vision, I decided I wanted a medium that would last longer than the vibration of a string. I wanted to use words that would stay on paper and not fade away like sound. The best part of this mid-life change of careers was the realization that I already knew about the writing process through my practice habits at the piano. My years of learning didn't have to go to waste. Writing and rewriting were similar to practicing the piano.
Take a short story, for instance. A first draft can be "plowed through" in much the same way as a first sightreading of a musical piece. This is the opportunity to take chances, to set aside the fear of writing roughly or badly. As I use my word processor, I close my eyes and let the language flow out of me like a ribbon, not stopping and cutting it into pieces, not editing, erasing, or judging the merit of the initial sketch. In other words, I keep moving through any hesitation and doubt until some sort of closure seems imminent.
"Fiction, like sculpture or painting," says John Gardner in On Becoming a Novelist, "begins with a rough sketch.... It makes no difference how clumsy the sketch is-sketches are not supposed to be polished and elegant.... Fiction does not spring into the world full grown, like Athena. It is the process of writing and rewriting that makes a fiction original and profound."
During the writing of a first draft, I've learned to trust the stored language inside myself, the one I've used for years to listen, speak, argue, or explain. This reserve of information can be compared to the synaptic or nerve memory in my fingers as I learned to play the piano. Because I've practiced my chromatic scales for years, my hands automatically know how to approach this type of passage in a Chopin nocturne without my brain having to process it again. There is an element of trust in relying upon the memory/habit acquired through a thousand practice sessions, this pool of knowing about fingering, technique, and the execution of a chromatic scale, even if the composer has written a variation.
As I write in any genre, I have not only a pool, but a virtual sea of language to access-language I've exchanged with others since words first formed on my tongue. Accessing this sea best begins for me with a sentence or an image which pries the lid open to the abundant possibility of language. The sentence could be an overheard fragment of conversation or some bit of wisdom from a child; the image could be a pink organdy dress, a billboard like the one featuring Doctor Eckleburg in The Great Gatsby, a vase of day-old flowers. Conversely, if writers begin with an idea or a lesson to teach, they've already started the process of eliminating and narrowing their scope. If I choose to write on the topic of "Why I Love My Mother," my thinking is narrowed to list-making perhaps. Whereas-in-the-dark stars my mother if I start with an image of the glow pasted on my bedroom ceiling when I was a child, I have the large end of the telescope through which to peer. My mother can be richer than a list of reasons. The language can lead me to new discovery of the word mother: "My mother. She seemed to be there every night, telling me to sleep tight and rubbing her hand over my curls. I didn't dread the door closing or the darkness because of the stars she'd stuck on my ceiling. Orion, Cassiopeia, the Big Dipper. Big, glowing, fluorescent. Shining at me like big eyes with fine promises."
An image can start a flow of associative memory when it is let out to play and swirl around on paper in shapes called words. I never underestimate the value of adventure in a first draft. I never know what playfulness might serve the work or where it might lead me, so I suspend judgment when sketching a story. Not so oddly, my personal vision seems to surface regardless of the image I choose. No need to worry about getting lost at this juncture. It is out of the chaos that I discover my motif-the theme or subject of my composition, whether it be musical or literary.
Now I have a first draft in front of me-my clay, my musical notes to shape. Because there is a subconscious necessity for order, the pyrotechnics and wild impulses of the first draft now need to be harnessed, the shaping process begun. Art is a process of adapting things in the natural world for the uses of human life. As with the black quarter and white half notes on the five-lined staff, I find the shape of the music or the direction of the writing from the material itself. I examine the words I've put on paper and try to find urges or impulses in the story.
Some of the questions I ask myself at the piano: What does the composer want here? A smooth, graceful legato line? Sharp staccatos of impatience? The phrase played this way? Or that? How can it best speak and/or sing? How can I interpret the intentions of the composer and still give the music its life via me, the performer?
I turn to the first draft of my written manuscript with similar questions. What is this draft trying to say? What are its strong leanings? What portions seem to scintillate or flash at me with a neon intensity? When I find these sections, I mine them. "This passage is an important moment. Make the most of this." For example, I once wrote a nonfiction article about a policeman frisking me as I bent over what he thought was a stolen car. That's all I said in the first draft. A lost opportunity. I went back to the section to explore further. What did his hands feel like as they travelled up and down my sides, invading my space, my privacy? Was I trembling, laughing, sweating on that cold day?
Have I transformed the one-dimensional, innocuous noteheads or alphabet letters on the printed page into vivid music or story? Have I given my musical motives, i.e., my principal characters a rich life? Are my characters as fully drawn on paper as they are in my head? I know who they are but can other readers walk into my imaginary world and find enough to sustain their interest? Have I made a room real enough? Are there enough details scattered on tables and clutched in hands to help readers know where they are and who they're face to face with? Is there enough texture in my characters, rooms, or the setting to lift them into the third dimension? Have I used the five senses-taste, touch, smell, sight, and sound-to resurrect a lifeless scene?
After asking these questions, I doctor the first draft accordingly and traverse the manuscript a second time, crossing out words, inserting new ones, cutting and pasting, putting the pieces together in a new way. Then I set it aside for a day or so before proceeding with the nit-picking, technical scrutiny of my work. This technical draft may seem more appropriate for nonfiction, too mechanical for the aesthetics of fiction, but good writing is good writing. Line by line. Paragraph by paragraph. Just as classical pianists reassess the markings on the score-the sforzandos, the accelerandos, the adagios-to make sure no intention of the composer is misunderstood, the writer should make a nuts-and-bolts pass through a manuscript reviewing the essentials of the wordsmith's trade: the commas, the spelling, the harmonious arrangement of parts, the logic.
Begin with assessment of transitions. The aim of a pianist is to practice a phrase, a scale, or an arpeggio with its awkward fingerings until the listener cannot detect a break between any of the notes. A difficult task to master, that of the illusion of effortlessness. Transfer this concept to the written page. Does each sentence lead into the next? Is anything out of place? Could a sentence be more effective at the beginning of a paragraph or in the middle? Are gaps between paragraphs too wide?
Now we look at particular words and sentences which can be compared to musical notes and phrases. How much must I rehearse a particular phrase until it can be rendered with absolute, clarity?
Have I searched my words diligently enough to extract my purest intention?
"Getting down one's exact meaning," says Gardner, "helps one to discover what one means." Abstract is seldom as effective as concrete detail. Words like beautiful, pretty, wonderful, sky, earth, heaven, nice, sexy are overused to the point that most of us don't know exactly what they mean anymore. Sexy? How sexy? To whom? For example, "The beautiful woman" is less accessible to the reader than "the woman with the shoulders that pull my hands away from my sides like magnets. I want to grab her." Metaphorical, but not vague.
Verbs. Action. Is there animation in my music? Have I given the tempo markings enough spirito? How is the composition's life experienced through me? In my manuscript, have I chosen effective verbs that move the action forward and foster aliveness in the writing? Verbs are the bringers of life. I must choose them with care. Continued use of passive verbs can suck the vitality from a narrative. For example, in a paragraph or a scene, once I've said, "John had been lonely at that time," I don't need to repeat the past perfect "had been" again. The past has been established. Continued repetition dulls the prose.
Other factors to analyze are consistency of tense, voice, mood, and tone.
Several tenses can be used in a story, but a major stance is necessary from which to flash either backward or forward in time. A protagonist can speak from the past, present, or future, but the author usually chooses one main reference point. (There are always exceptions and experiments, but this is a good rule of thumb.)
Voice is one of the strongest unifying factors in music and story. What is the overriding refrain of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony? What does the listener still hear after the music has stopped? In a story, what is the voice that most wants to be heard? A soft-spoken woman who's afraid of the sound of her own voice? An old-time storyteller who begins, "Once upon a time"? An unreliable narrator who says one thing and means another? A man who is afraid of bridges, yet lives on one of a series of interconnected islands? What voice steers and informs the story?
Mood, tone., atmosphere. Is it light, dark, humorous, casual, fanciful, formal? Is it consistent? Has it been mixed? I can create any world I can visualize-an English garden where primroses talk to themselves, a city street where an itinerant gives away the money he collects, even ragtime's Scott Joplin collaborating with Claude Debussy-but once I've created that world, I need to stay within its boundaries and be on guard for departures from the original impulse of my story.
"To what end are all the elements headed?" is a good question to ask when contemplating your work from a greater distance. To accomplish unity, each element needs to contribute to the ultimate shape. A Joplin rag loses its identity if the performer plays it like a Debussy prelude. It is no longer Scott Joplin's vision. Unity of purpose needs to be maintained.
As a performer, I master one composition at a time, not the entire repertoire of a composer. This principle follows in my written work, i.e., deciding "which corner of which house I want to write about" and forgetting the mysteries of the rest of the world for the time being. I ask myself what a manuscript is about and even summarize it in one sentence if I need further clarification. I then scan the work and discard irrelevancies and offshoots which don't complement my purpose.
Closely related to the concept of unity is structure. How is a manuscript put together? What is the skeletal framework of this house of words? When memorizing a piece of music, I need to unearth the overall pattern of the musical composition before I can walk from room to room, A flat to the key of E flat with a stopover in C sharp minor, and not get lost. Awareness of this pattern is essential to my understanding of the score. But one caution against too much prestructure in writing. Outlines beforehand can be helpful in nonfiction and in a book-length work, but they can be a hindrance to creative writing, especially short stories. just as moralizing in a story can inhibit the range and latitude of linguistic possibility, preconceived outlines may limit the scope and imagination by closing doors before the house is built. Imagine a half-framed house with locked doors. A writer need not feel uncomfortable if the structure remains obscure for several drafts, but it needs to become clear at some point. An understanding of the architecture is necessary to complete one's vision.
My writing process, whether it be the study of other writers' ideas or forged on the keyboards of pianos, typewriters, and word processors, is my way of accessing the Muse, not the right way to write. Creativity is a highly individualized and personal process, and there are no rules etched permanently in the sky over our heads. Everyone who can think has some sort of original vision, but the challenge is to capture the larger picture in words-no mean accomplishment. Often the writing process cheapens or falsifies the vision, the one that seemed "so amazing when I thought it!"
I revise until I can believe the words in front of me. Are they true to my experience, my knowledge or lack of knowledge, my integrity about the subject? "Thinking clearly is a conscious act that the writer must force upon himself," says William Zinsser in On Writing Well, "just as if he were embarking on any other project that requires logic."
After several drafts have been written and all questions asked, I feebly remember that I can try too hard for perfection and never finish anything. Therefore, I must revise my work carefully, but not so painstakingly as to discourage its release into the outside world. I mustn't smother the blitheful, creative aspect of myself that requires a delicate balance between work and play to speak most eloquently. I will be patient as I fill in my sketch one sentence at a time, as I play a musical phrase a hundred times, until both give their secret to me. Conscientious. Diligent. Not forgetting to laugh at myself sometimes. I'll scrape away the excess and the false until I see the vision happening outside of me.