Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Writing a Five Fingered Exercise

When I was  a small child, just starting school, my favorite moment in each day was the one, after we’d finished our tea, when my father went into the front room. He’d say to me, ‘don’t pull the curtains and don’t switch on the light.’ Then he’d sit at his piano in the last of the evening light and play; Chopin waltzes, Mendelsshon’s Songs without Words, Beethoven’s concertos and pieces from the shows. I would dance around the room for hours, my skirts twirling, my arms doing what I thought might be pointy ballerina movements. 
Then the big day came, when Daddy said he would begin to teach me the piano. I was so excited; as far as I could see it would be no time at all before I would be playing like him. Why, I did so already, racing my hands over the keys and swaying my body like a professional pianist. So it came as a bit of a blow when I realized even five-finger exercises were baffling and onerous. It took me a long time to play my first Song without Words; two decades to be exact.
Writing a novel is a bit like learning the piano; a lot harder than you might think. Bill, who’s just completed the Open College of the Arts Advanced Creative Writing Module with me, wrote to say...When I started the journey, my initial objective was to write a novel. I, like many people, didn’t understand how difficult this task was. I originally thought that having a good idea and a vivid imagination was all that a person needed. The rest was just a matter of course and would happen naturally and with the minimum of effort. I now appreciate how just what a difficult task it is to write a novel. Anyone who completes a novel, let alone has it published, has my total admiration.
Spot on, Bill. Writing a novel is like inventing an entire new life...many people’s lives, actually. If you’re into fantasy, you’ll be inventing new worlds, as well. How could that possibly be easy? Certainly, having a mentor who can support you in those first stages when it all seems a complete mess - when even the five-finger exercises of writing feel onerous - can help enormously. Bill wrote; When you are placed with a tutor there is initially, a certain amount of natural apprehension. You’re faced with another lengthy and unknown learning process. My initial feeling was that the way ahead seemed insurmountable. I’d spent a few months standing still and had reached a non-constructive plateau without any end in sight. It felt I was drowning in a sea of uncertainty. You reassured me that I was not alone with this problem and that most novice or indeed many professional writers suffered this at one time or another during their writing career. The way through this dilemma and off the plateau was to keep on writing. 
Naturally a writing student should expect a little more than simple words of encouragement; a tutor, unlike a mentor, also offers practical, technical and creative advice that will move the student’s work properly forward. They should be able to see through the confusion in a way the poor old writer can’t - they’ll be too busy looking at the wood, while the tutor will be viewing the trees and hopefully recommending a better planting and growing order for the the entire forest. 
But it’s important for the tutor to stay enthused and energetic, as it’s likely that the writer will sag and droop, especially around the middle of the novel. 
Your enthusiasm for creative writing is infectious...Bill said in his letter...and I can honestly say it rubs off and has bolstered my failing spirits. Creative writing is not the easiest thing in the world to study but having an excellent tutor has made it a bit easier. Many thanks for your time, advice and patience over the last year or so.
Aw, nice of you to say so, Bill. I’m just so proud of the way this student’s writing developed over the module, which is far more to do with the concentration and energy he gave the project; it’s the writer who needs the time and patience to be honest. Without that it’s unlikely they’ll get further than playing chopsticks. 
Bill (and I) make this process sound so arduous, so hard to achieve, that novice writers reading this may wonder if they’re not put off trying, just a little. Bill says, The journey, I feel, has been an exceptionally hard but enjoyable one. I’ve tried to put into practice everything that you have suggested and I feel that my writing has not just moved forward but taken a considerable leap. Completing this last assignment and ultimately the course has been a great achievement for me.
Bill hasn’t quite finished his book yet, but now he’s got the confidence to write by himself. My final advice to him was to stop redrafting and get on with the writing. Working through a writing course always results in a lot of redrafting. It’s the quickest way up the learning curve. But once the foundations and basic skills are laid, I suggest that people tackling a long project just get on with it...one word, then the next, then the next until the next two words you write are ‘the end’. Only then can you redraft with any clear understanding of what the book looks like and says.
Thanks, Bill, for letting me quote parts of your letter in this post, and good luck in your forward endeavours...may your words always sound like songs.


  1. Hi nina, thanks for this! I can really relate to your post; having just started learning to play piano (well, keyboard; my ability is far from deserving of a grand piano just yet), and have also just redrafted my fourth assignment submission for Writing Skills/Start Writing into oblivion! I think part of my obsession with redrafting is down to continually wanting to include elements of newly discovered influence in my writing. I'll read a novel by Orwell and suddenly 'have to' include some political message in whatever I happen to be working on, or read a Raymond Carver story and set about chopping my work up like a crazed butcher of paragraphs. It's the same way with how I'm learning to play keyboard; I've barely learnt five chords and I'm already trying to plod through a Chopin Nocturne. My eagerness always gets the better of me when learning something new.

  2. They say that, regardless of natural talent, to be a top sports performer (music too) you have to practice for at least 10,00 hours - and that's just the start.

    I think writing can be like that too - it takes practice and lots of it. But that does not mean it isn't fun; just as training for a marathon or a long cycle ride can be fun too, and have value in itself.

    Oh, and I love redrafting! Too much probably.

  3. I'm your new OCA student, Nina, and a new subscriber to your blog. Many thanks for such an interesting article.

  4. Now that's all fascinating and it makes me think of a few things that are floating around.

    I've played guitar for 35 years and dabbled on the piano for just as long, so I think I can add something extra. After that many years my fingers now know where to go, even if I haven't played for weeks. It's an unusual word, but they have 'Technology' now. Nowadays that usually pertains to science and not the arts, but the etymology is "Craft Knowledge". The Greeks didn't see the difference and I'm with them on that.

    So my fingers have craft knowledge on the guitar and as we practice our writing we all attain the same idea of craft knowledge of the act of writing.

    The story also makes me think of the idleness of writing... the art of doing nothing. Just as I pick up the guitar and widdle (and that's the technical term) playing chords and lines idly, hoping eventually something new comes out, so it is the same with our writing. Just keep at it and don't think too much and it'll happen, the craft knowledge, the practice will give you something. My blog explores this a bit more.

    Finally, I read some of Edward de Bono's ideas a few years back, he has a marvellous notion about conclusion. The exact quote I can't remember, but it's something like "In every endeavour there comes a time when you have to say it is finished". Knowing when that moment is a challenge but again with a little craft knowledge and the sage advice from our tutors, we'll get there.

    And I have finished... now