Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Lessening of the Horrible

My daughter is learning the oboe. She's just begun, and even though I played throughout middle school and high school, I'd forgotten how horribly awful those learning curves sound. Squeaks and squawks and barely-there, full-of-air notes that are always out of tune. I don't think she expected that either. After all, when she learned piano, the problem was getting the fingers in the right places, but even if you didn't, the notes themselves were still pretty. It bothers her, this screeching that comes from her instrument which she can't seem to control.

Strangely, though, it doesn't bother me. It's the sounds of learning, and every time she plays, I hear her getting better. Less squeaks, less air, more music. I don't hear the horrible; I hear the lessening of the horrible.

She is too much like me, though. She wants to be good at something right away, and if she isn't, she wants to move on to something she IS good at. She doesn't have to be perfect right away, but she needs to see that she's good, that there is immediate hope of being good. I have to keep reminding her that there are some things in life worth working at, even if she isn't good at it right away.

As I was listening to her practice this weekend, I realized how true this is of me, too. This semester I took time off working full-time on my novel and shifted most of my attention to writing short stories. It wasn't an easy decision. I talked a long time about it with my advisor, with my past advisors, with friends and fellow students. I agonized over it. Maybe more than I should have. Because I knew, I'm not particularly good at short stories. I think if you could put sound to my words, they would sound like those early squawks of the oboe.

I've been reading a lot of short stories lately: books by Benjamin Percy, Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson, Andrea Barrett. I love many of those stories, but I don't always get them. They move around too much, aren't always very linear, don't always seem to have fully developed plots, or any plot at all. They sometimes start in one place and end somewhere entirely different and I don't know how they got there, and how the end relates to the beginning. They are sometimes slices in time in which nothing happens. I love them - the words, the rhythms, the characters. I can sense a brilliance about them. But I don't get them. I can't dissect them and figure out what makes them good the way I can about a novel. I just know they are brilliant. And I know, if I wrote something like that, it wouldn't be.

Working on something I'm not good at is hard. Not just in the sense of writing and rewriting, but emotionally. Who wants to spend hours and hours during the day doing something they're failing at? Not my daughter. And not me.

So I have to remind myself every day of what I try to impress into her: some things are worth working on. Some things are worth enduring long bouts of awful to get to the fantastically good. Sometimes the work is not just about becoming better at your art, but becoming a better person. And with hard work and lots of practice, the horrid parts lessen, and the beauty increases.


  1. I was so like that as a kid. I tried all kinds of different things, clarinet, highland dancing, swimming. Nothing ever stuck because I wasn't good at it right away.

    Although there is people out there that are naturally gifted at writing, I don't think I'm one of them. Writing is something that I need to work hard at. I know I'm still sounding a little squeaky, but hopefully it becomes less and less.

    BTW: I'm totally with you on the short story. I've never really understood them.

  2. I have this tendency, also. Frustrating, at times.

  3. SO true.
    I have to remind myself often that it's okay to be SLOWLY getting better.
    At least I'm moving forward.

  4. Excellent post!!!

    I love the sound of kids practicing music. For awhile in my house I had a piano, guitars, violin, and drum kit. Also the borrowed tuba and cello. It was crazy noisy and wonderful. So I know what you mean- I love the squeaky notes! They don't stay squeaky!!

    I'm not really naturally good at anything. I have to work. My husband and son pick things up quickly which really frustrates my daughter and me! I tell myself that if I have to work at everything, it can only reinforce any skills I learn. That's what I tell myself.

    And I still say, looking back on things I wrote and realizing I've improved since then is a buzz. Whatever I write from now on will be less bad, right?

  5. Oooh, good stuff! I am so similar in the regard that if I'm not at least decently good at something then I'm ready to move on.

    And maybe...just maybe you don't "get them" (the sort stories, that is) because there's really nothing to "get." It just is what it is. Kind of like some of the modern art I saw on my Paris adventure this summer. (Uh...no offense to any modern artists out there!)

    And it's funny how you said the squawks don't bother you. They never bothered me with my fellow flutist, nor my at-one-time aspiring trumpet player. :o) The sound of learning--I like that!