I, Amateur

How writing a horrendous song reminded me of the joy of writing fiction 

There’s a scene in one of the Indiana Jones movies that captures the feeling of an ordinary day in the life of a novelist as well as anything I know. Indy stands on the edge of a bottomless pit. He knows he has to leap — the Holy Grail lies on the other side — but he also knows that it’s impossible. After an admirably few deep breaths, he put his hand over his heart, stares stoically ahead, and takes a step. Just at the moment when he expects to plummet to his death, wonder of wonders, a stone bridge materializes. He is, for the time being, safe.

Novel-writing is among the few earthly endeavors I know of that does not get any less terrifying no matter how many times you do it. You feel as much of an amateur starting book number ten as you did starting book number one. The possibility of failing — of being revealed, not just to others but to yourself, as a fraud, a fake, a hopeless beginner — remains ever-fresh. Yes, yes, the bridge materialized over the last few pits, but what if this time it doesn’t? What if this, finally, is the pit down which you plummet, leaving Sean Connery gasping on his deathbed?

It may be my tendency to romanticize other peoples’ jobs, but I don’t imagine that lawyers or doctors or security guards worry about this sort of thing. A novelist, having never really been hired by anyone, having never been granted a license or issued a uniform, lives in a constant game of let’s-pretend. You’re a writer only in the sense that you’re a Democrat, or a Catholic; however strong your conviction, creeping doubts always remain a live possibility. Occasionally I look for reassurance over at my few novels on the shelf, but often the only feeling I can muster toward them is bewilderment. How did those happen? They must have been the product of some early luck, long since evaporated, or maybe they were generated — like my limbs or my liver — by forces that bear my name but have nothing really to do with me. I turn back to the blinking cursor, as uncertain as ever.

Which brings me to my recent, and restorative, dip into actual, inarguable amateurism.

A couple of months ago, I wrote a song. I’d never written a piece of music before, and it had never occurred to me that I might. But I’d been taking piano lessons for about a year — learning the basics of jazz improvisation, mostly — when it occurred to me that I’d like to give songwriting a try. This was not because I felt I had anything in particular to say, or because I expected the product to be any good: it was, rather, something like a toddler sitting down at a table covered in butcher-paper. The crayons are here, I’m here, why not?

“Well,” my teacher said, when I told him that I’d like to try writing something, “do you have a little scrap of melody in your head? A line?”

I didn’t, I confessed.

So over the next few days, while I walked the dog and brushed my teeth and rode the subway, I awaited the arrival of a scrap. It was unclear by what conceivable mechanism a bit of melody might be deposited into my head, but I was determined to witness its arrival. A question that had always seemed to me inane when asked about writing — Where do you get your ideas? — had suddenly taken on vital interest. Yes, where, exactly? A warehouse in Maspeth? A storefront open only from 1-3 in the afternoon? Just tell me the address and I’ll be there.

I decided, on the third or fourth day of this, to grab something from my storage shed of unused writing-bits. What I ended up grabbing was this: I once decided that if I were ever to write a book about food (which I won’t, having nothing to say about food) I would call it I Could Eat. For the next day or two I sang variations of the phrase to myself, seeing if I could make it adhere to any remotely appealing melody.

I brought my teacher my scrap — a seven second file on my iPod, sung into an inadequate microphone on a windy subway platform. It seemed entirely possible to me that he would burst out laughing, apologize for having gotten my hopes up, and point me to the door.

Instead he closed his eyes and did the thing with his jaw that indicates a moment of musical cogitation, then went to the piano. For the next hour, and then for the next few weeks, we set about cobbling together a vehicle to surround my fragment. We settled on a simple chord progression. I wrote verses (about food, naturally). I wrote a bridge that remains, no matter how much I work on it, a fiasco.

In fact the entire song is something of a débâcle. I wanted it to sound like Elliott Smith, sad and simple and catchy, and it ended up, after many hours of work, sounding like something that Garrison Keillor might produce after a brain injury. Which is why it’s puzzling even to me that I feel such joy when I think of the thing.

While I was writing my song, I wasn’t worrying about whether I was a songwriter, or whether what I was doing was any good, or whether songwriting, as an art-form, had seen its best days come and go. My mind was too busy with a series of logistical puzzles: How could this part be made to fit with that one? What would happen if I took this chord and flipped it on its head? Could this line be made better? Amateurism, for once, seemed not a specter to be feared but a gift to be treasured. And it’s a gift I intend to smuggle back with me into the realm of fiction-writing.

“A writer,” Donald Barthelme said, “is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do.”

This line, which had always struck me as terrifying, a Beckettian howl of wind across a wasted landscape, looked now, in the wake of my attempt at songwriting, like a curious kind of reassurance, even an inspiration. The fear, the self-doubt, the befuddlement: Yes, exactly! You’re on the right track! In novel-writing, no less than in songwriting, the freedom from strictures need not merely be a problem: it can also be the point. A license that was never truly granted can, after all, never truly be revoked.

Seen this way, how lucky I am, really, to spend each day participating in the never-ending apprenticeship that is writing. How silly to imagine that an endeavor as mysterious as creation — whether of a song or a novel — could, or should, ever be approached routinely. We see the pit, we nod hello to it — and we take a step.

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