Claire King


A Lesson in Creativity.

Posted on: February 23rd, 2012 by Claire - 29 Comments

I’ve just taken up piano for the second time.

I started playing not as a child, but in my early twenties. I lived in a rented apartment in Kiev that came with its own piano. I took lessons from a melodramatic and usually heart-broken Ukrainian musician who became a great friend. As my fingers crashed on the keys, so my Russian and her English crashed together to make some kind of vodka-fuelled conversation. We enjoyed making the music. Natasha let me take shortcuts, gave me free rein to experiment, as you might with a child learning to speak. We laughed a lot. It was fun, it was rewarding. After a few months I could play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata from start to finish, from memory. There are 6 year-olds in the world who could play it better, but for me it felt like an achievement.

So now, 15 years later, I finally have my own piano and I can play again. I thought I would like to add a bit of Bach to my repertoire, some Satie, maybe even Philip Glass. I found a new piano teacher, a highly organised German lady. No more tipsy, strung out evenings teetering between music and friendship. Now I have strict 30-minute lessons, squeezed into days already full-to-bursting.

I showed my new piano teacher what I could play.

“You’re using the wrong fingers,” she said. “It’s no good.”

I looked at my fingers. My wrong fingers. I wasn’t sure what she meant.

“You have to use the right fingers in the right places. Otherwise, when you move on to other pieces of music, they are going to get all tangled up. And what are you doing to the pedal?”

It turns out that although I could play the piano, I couldn’t actually play the piano. So I’ve been re-learning where to put my fingers, where to put my feet…and why.

At first it broke everything. There was no music, just disjointed staccato jabbing at keys with weak little fingers and overenthusiastic thumbs. I thought I had made a big mistake. I’m not a piano player after all. What would I tell my mum, who had saved up to buy me that piano for my 40th birthday?

Of course I couldn’t. So I carried on. The neighbours made comments. They thought it was my 4 year old (pictured above) playing…Still, I carried on. My new teacher is very encouraging and hardly ever laughs.

And now after a couple of months it’s starting to come back together again. Better than that, it feels more fluid than before. More comfortable.

Why am I telling you this?

I was speaking to someone recently who told me she used to win prizes in short story competitions. And because she was encouraged by her success, she wanted to write a novel. And she took a writing course, which she thought would help. On the writing course she started to learn techniques.

She discovered that she needed something called an ‘inciting incident’, that her story should have an arc, that her book should be divided into fifths and at each part something specific should happen. She copied down lists of things never to do, and more lists of things to always remember. She found it all overwhelming. She panicked, convinced that she wasn’t clever enough to write fiction after all. She stopped writing altogether.

There is a joyful expression of language, or music, or art that we have instinctively as children. Until at some stage someone tells us that we are not necessarily doing it ‘right’.

Some people take it in their stride, are lucky to find helpful coaches who explain how a little theory can help in the long run. Some people are less lucky. They are hit over the head with rule books and shame until they give up. Sometimes, as adults, we really know how to train the joy out of people.

What advice would you give to the woman who stopped writing? I told her to forget the rules for now. To write some stories that pleased her. To play with her words and find her delight again. I don’t know if that’s the right advice, but it made her smile.

29 Responses

  1. Kate Brown says:

    If you lose your sense of pleasure in any craft, I think it’s hard to keep going. I’m impressed by your attitude to your German piano teacher. I think I would have had more trouble adapting to learning it right 😉

    • claire says:

      She told me that if a month or so invested now would save me days in the future, because learning pieces the way I did before took a long time and had no benefit for the next piece I chose.
      I’m always happy for someone to find me some spare hours in the week. And I think the neighbours will be happy when my fingers are finally fixed!

  2. I took piano lessons as a child – did exams and all – but persuaded my mother to stop them when I was 11. I’ve always intended taking it up again, but more on my own terms.

    I also have an art background, when I did all the formal training of life drawing, and learning techniques and perspective.

    I used to wonder why I had to bother to learn the proper way to do things – the rules – when artists like Jackson Pollack or pianists like Philip Glass didn’t seem to pay them much attention.

    But now that I’m older (and wiser?), I can see that you need to learn the rules in order to know how (and when) to break them, and to break them with confidence. Plus maybe by learning the proper fingering for a piano keyboard, it’ll improve your skills on a computer one. I’ve found a close correlation between the two.

    • claire says:

      Thanks Averill, I think you’re right. I do like experimenting and finding my own way, and yes, I like breaking the rules. But of course you first have to know what the rules are 🙂

  3. Mike says:

    I have never been trained for anything I have ever done, in all honesty. It has been quite a large dose of self-teaching and a selfish self-belief, and they have given me freedom to do it. If I had stopped to re-train I do not think I would have the creative innocence/stupidity/freedom.. I do miss out on elements of formal education, but not much

  4. MrsT says:

    I’d tell your friend to write what’s in her heart and refer back to the ‘rules’ when she gets stuck?!
    I’m very new to writing and I am ‘learning’ lots of rules but I’m also playing around… The most important thing is to have a go..
    And good luck with your piano playing…

    • claire says:

      Thank you! Yes, having a go and playing around – very important to enjoying something. Funnily enough Beatrix (above) is also learning piano, and her ‘homework’ from the teacher is 5 minutes practising, plus “as much time playing around as she wants”.

  5. Susan says:

    I’ve had similar experiences re-learning incorrect fingering and hand positions on the piano. To my mind, it’s all fine, as the results will come out sounding clearer and better.

    Sounds as if your friend was bombarded by a neverending series of rules before an idea was in place. You cannot start legislating something until you have it first. As I work through draft 2 I see many faults and problems but I also find inventive ways of fixing them.

    There is one rule: make the reader care about the characters. Helps if you care about them yourself! In my experience though I am not yet a successful novelist.

  6. claire says:

    I’ve been going through various different edits recently, and I’ve very much enjoyed the ‘fixing’ of things in my writing – slight inconsistencies in voice, repetitions I hadn’t noticed, grammar tics…Being fixed up after the fact feels fine. But I think if I’d tried to write ‘perfectly’ from the first page it would have got pretty tiring quite quickly.
    I like that your one rule is about the reader experience, which ultimately is what counts.

  7. Sarah Salway says:

    I think you can get the same experience with reading when you start to ‘learn’ to write. What was once a joy – sinking into the novel’s world – becomes another lesson instead. How did the writer achieve this emotion? etc etc etc.

    With learning anything new, the challenge is to bear the chaos for longer than feels comfortable. Our impulse (my impulse!) is to put it into some kind of order, even an imperfect one!

    • claire says:

      Oh how right you are Sarah, about how reading can be transformed into lessons. And what a joy in those times to find a book that can shake us out of it and transport us anyway! That kind of magic gives me the inspiration to keep going.

  8. Oh enjoy enjoy the piano! I used to play, until I had to take exams, and couldn’t do the sight reading bits, felt a fool and stopped. Twit. And now I’m going to blather on to your friend, so forgive me if I hijack the comments thread for a moment.

    And oh do I send her a huge hug. This is so SO sad, especially this:
    “She copied down lists of things never to do, and more lists of things to always remember.”

    NO! These ‘teachers’ . I’ve met them. They are the ones who told me the world did not need my embryo novel. That I could not call a character ‘Passchendaele’. Did I even know what Passchendaele was/is? That I could not write a novel about a Welsh mine incident, as Wales had moved on, that was in the past, and anyway, it was a cliche, been done to death…. and beyond that – if I had the temerity to write it, the establishment would ensure it had bad reviews.
    That was my tutor. On our first meeting. I left. And I am convinced that was a one-off, the chemistry didn’t work, failed badly, for whatever reason. Because the course is a good one.

    But. This is for your friend.

    Know summat? For all my shock and horror, and for all the anxiety, I continued to write it, on my own. Oh, it was not easy, believe me. The joy had not exactly gone, but been tempered. At times, it was like wading through glue, or, in the words of the winner of the Waterstones staff unpublished novel award (sorry, havent got the title to hand) – it was like vomiting up a grand piano.

    If you have something you want to write – write it. You can, and somewhere, you know you can – look at those competitions where your work bobbed up to the top. You do NOT NEED a course – just as I didn’t.

    But I was actually shown how high the hurdle is – and although it was a horrible experience, hearing all that negativity – it made me determined to do this novel as well as I could.

    At some point, the ‘fun’ seems to dissipate, when things get serious. But we can use those moments – they give us another tool, sharp as hell. Stop writing? Jeez – what impossible power that gives to these teachers.

    Do it.


    • claire says:

      Thanks Vanessa! I really am loving the piano. It fascinates me, and I so enjoy playing even though I’m frankly not very good. But a little bit every day, there’s no hurry. Thanks for your thoughtful response to my friend, I’m sure she’ll be very encouraged by your story. And bravo to you for having it in you to do what you did despite the discouragement!

  9. Jo Carroll says:

    Thoughts for the woman who stopped writing – just play! Scribble anything – notice what words do when you aren’t looking. Sit in cafes with her notebook and write what she hears, and sees, and smells. Stories may or may not come, but she will find joy.

    And I, too, relearned the piano as an adult. And love it – though I’ll never be a maestro. Joy is enough.

    • claire says:

      Yes! Joy can be enough. And we have to remember it and nurture it in ourselves, whether we choose to learn things classically or follow our own paths.

  10. Like your friend, my writing was usually well received and then I did a degree in Creative Writing and they told me I was doing it all wrong.

    There was a lot to take on board but I persevered because these people do know what they’re talking about. They’re only trying to make you write better.

    And once I’d started putting a proper structure to my work, I realised before I hadn’t really been writing stories at all. I’d just been writing, and it sounded okay, but it wasn’t a proper novel that anyone would publish.

    So it was better for me, to be humbled, and be taught my craft properly. And I think in the long run it’s easier to write when you know the right methods, instead of just going on gut instinct and optimism. You can approach things more professionally.

  11. Sherri says:

    I do sympathise with your writing friend. We can all learn, we can all improve, but it does sometimes feel that what was once fun, what was once good, what we were proud of, couldn’t have been real because there are too many people telling us that we don’t know enough, we’re doing it ‘wrong’, it isn’t good enough, any success must have just been a fluke.
    And the damage starts when we start telling ourselves the same things.
    I’m not saying that we shouldn’t listen to others, but we have to listen to ourselves too. Go back to the joy and the things that makes our writing ours and ours alone.
    When the voice on your left shoulder is telling you ‘not good enough’ tell him to shut up and listen to the one on the right who is saying ‘do what you like, this is your joy.’ And just write it.
    There will be work to do later, of course, and there will probably be lessons and techniques that will help and improve and polish. But if they are not helping, if they are stalling you, then leave them alone.
    We won’t all succeed in creating something that other people think is ‘good enough’. But at least it won’t be because they stopped us/we stopped ourselves from trying.

    (Can you tell I’m talking to myself here? Now I just have to listen!)

    • claire says:

      I love your comment/self-chivvying!

      I really do appreciate it when I get helpful advice and feedback from people. But sometimes the weight of ‘inadequate’ can overpower our energy to create. We need to find a balance, perhaps?

      Go, Sherri, go!

  12. Charlie says:

    I’d tell her to start writing again and to find a writers’ group or messageboard. Feedback from fellow writers is the most useful tool I can think of for someone in her situation.

    After joining the WordCloud, I learned not just from the comments I received on my own work, but also by observing how others received and then acted on feedback. At first, I often didn’t understand the comments, but eventually was able to spot the problems myself. As a result, my writing improved.

    As for your piano lessons, having just survived the poetry section of the Open University Creative Writing course, I can at last, begrudgingly, see why it is a vital part of the course. I didn’t much enjoy it and found writing the assignment torturous, but I know that I have never written such good poems before. And that is all down the variously pointless, boring or difficult exercises on line, metre, rhythm, rhyme and voice.

    Now I’m redrafting one of my stories and already I am much more aware of how to use language to achieve the effect I want. All thanks to learning and practicing the basics of poetry, and the intense focus on every single word and full stop in a poem.

    So I’d say learn the basics, then trust yourself and practice. Over time you will reclaim the joy of writing (or playing piano).

    • claire says:

      Congratulations on surviving the OU poetry module! I can imagine if something is not naturally your interest or forté it must be a battle!
      Last year I spent a week on a writing retreat, the closest thing I had done to getting input into my writing processes – until the editing from my publisher this year. What was a revelation for me was that there were some things that really opened me up, and others that shut me down altogether. And that’s OK. We can take what is helpful and put aside things that block us.

  13. I’ve given up on those endless lists of rules. All they do is incur fear in the writer. (If using adverbs is wrong, why are they in the dictionary?) Generic advice is invariably useless: if someone with a discerning eye takes the time to read your work and critique it on its merits, rather than through the filter of some hand-me-down criteria, you might learn something.

  14. Wendy says:

    I don’t usually give writing advice because so far I haven’t been hugely successful at it myself.

    I seem to have an alternative view on the problem though so seems worth mentioning.

    The friend stopped writing altogether? I don’t think that really matters that much. He or she found writing the first time (and did well) or writing found them. They will meet again.

    Learn something else for a while is my advice, another creative activity will clear the mind of the negativity but fill it with the inspiration that, to me, is more important than the rule book.
    Music, art, photography or even knitting?

    How about a timed spell of NOT allowing themself to write anything? Let ideas bubble.

    This worked for me anyway, if only that it got me writing (more than ever) and enjoying it (more than that).

    Wish I could play the piano. One day will get around to it.

  15. I knew someone who played the piano in high school. During school talent shows, he would sit at a piano on stage and play complicated pieces. His technique was perfect. Fingers placed properly, feet knowing what to do. What was missing was “soul” I guess one could call it.

    I suppose the same can be applied to writing.

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