Doing It Right

July 25, 2010

My husband and I had one of those magical moments the other night. Our son Jason came to dinner alone — his wife and children weren’t home – so we got to have him all to ourselves.

Jason is a jazz bass guitar afficianado.  When he does anything, he does it 100%, so he’s learned how to play the guitar, researched the history of guitar making, listened to recordings of jazz greats, attended performances, interviewed many of the most accomplished bass guitarists in the U.S., made friends with many, collected guitars, learned about the woods guitars are made from, met and interviewed the finest makers of handmade jazz guitars in the U.S. (with whom he’s now in partnership), gotten involved with an organization that brings jazz performers to kids (Jazz House Kids).  He’s currently learning how to make a guitar by hand and studying with a famous jazz guitarist.  He works long days, but still practices daily, awakening way before his family to give himself the gift of playing music, and he’s begun to compose.

He says he got his inspiration from my father who used to tell him, if you’re going to do something, do it right.

That night, my husband and I listened with pride and pleasure as Jason described his latest breakthrough — he’s been struggling with improvisation, the heart and soul of jazz.  I wondered where he learned how to learn.

When I reflected upon Jason’s ongoing journey into the world of jazz bass guitars, their construction and performance, I  realized what he’s done and is doing provides us writers with a fantastic model.  For what he’s done is provided himself with a self-created, self-directed apprenticeship, independent of schooling in the traditional sense.

So, here’s what we can do to give ourselves that apprenticeship.

1. Practice our craft daily.

2. Research the history of life writing: learn about our literary antecedents so we’re not working in a vacuum, so we can see how our work connects to history.

3. Seek out and read the finest memoirs being written today or the finest examples of whatever genre we’re writing and read them, and continue to read them as we work.  (I’ve heard of students saying, I don’t want to read, I just want to write, but I believe in what Henry Miller said, that every act of writing begins with reading.)

4. Attend literary readings if you can (writers are everywhere these days).  If you can’t, check out You Tube and NPR or other radio or TV archived interviews with writers. (I recently watched Peter Carey’s speech about writing that he gave in Sydney, Australia — it’s easy, now, to see writers, to hear their voices.). Make it a habit to learn just one thing from each encounter.

5. When we can, talk to writers — ask them intelligent questions about their process.  Stay in touch with them if they invite us to, keep our communications short and respectful of their time, but don’t ask them if we can send on our work — if they ask, fine, but we shouldn’t presime upon their generosity.  (May Sarton’s journals provide a horrifying portrait of a writer whose writing time was sucked away by well-intentioned readers.)

6. Learn how books are made–learn about publishing and self-publishing.  Learn about how long it takes to write a book, see it published, so we don’t have false expectations about, say, finding an agent in one or two tries.

7.  Find the best teachers we can, and listen to them; we don’t know what they do.  (My grad school mentor told me that very few of his students followed his advice.  “Why are they wasting their money and their and my time?”. If a student didn’t listen to him, he wrote them off, and spent his time with those who did – I was one of them. And so he helped me revise over 700 pages of work, word by word.  He also said that he wished he could be like the Zen teacher who could take a bamboo pole and whack his students across the back to wake them up.)

8.  And, finally, give back.  Pass on what you know.  Do good work in the world.

It’s wonderful when your son becomes your teacher.


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