Of Words and Notes

I mentioned a lack of self-discipline in my last post, and that it is one of the things that keeps me from being the writer I want to be. Continuing with that theme, this post is about practice.

“Practice makes perfect.”
Q: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? A: Practice.”
“Practice what you preach.”

Adages about practice abound, and it just makes sense to practice what I want to be good at, but I have a mental block about practicing writing. For some reason, I feel like I have to produce something when I write, and that creates pressure, pressure that shouldn’t be there during practice. Pressure is common in performing, or in producing a finished product, but it shouldn’t be a part of practicing. Journal writing and blogging are forms of writing practice, I suppose, and I should probably count them as such, but when I sit down to practice writing fiction or poetry, I feel compelled to produce something of quality, rather than just writing in a stream of consciousness or even basic expository style.

There is no shame in writing throwaway fiction from a daily prompt. Sometimes ideas might flow and the practice might lead to something bigger; other times, I might wind up with a loosely connected bunch of words that serve no other purpose. Why don’t I think that’s okay?

I play guitar, as well, and when I practice, I usually do so off-the-cuff, improvising, launching notes into the air to fade and disappear, with no record they ever existed. Unless I’m specifically practicing for a gig, I don’t feel the need to have a product at the end of my practice. I just play to get better and enjoy it, and there’s not nearly as much inertia for me to overcome before I start playing. It’s much harder for me to get the wheels rolling when I sit down to write.

But why? Functionally, there’s not much difference between throwing notes into the air and throwing words onto the page, so why do I have such a block against practicing writing, or more accurately, why do I feel the need to produce something of value when I write, but not when I’m practicing guitar?

I think I’ve turned fiction writing into my own personal bugbear, and with my recent story publication in Edward Bryant’s Sphere of Influence, I’m forced to challenge that bugbear. I want to capitalize on the momentum of this sale, and at first I was enthusiastic, even starting a new story from scratch for a different Mad Cow Press anthology. But after only a couple of days of writing, my momentum faded, and I stopped writing the story when I hit the brick wall mentioned in the last post. I know, I know, I should continue on with the rest of the story and figure out how to deal with the brick wall later. If I were in the rhythm of writing every day (or often, at least), I think I could do that.

Hence these blog posts. I didn’t make any new year’s resolutions this year, but I did set some goals. I want to write something at least five days a week. I also want to write 1,000 words of fiction on my WIPs each week. If I combine those goals, I could write 200 words a day and meet that goal easily, but I’m not going to lock myself into just doing productive writing. Some of those five days should be simple practice, probably from a writing prompt. An extended goal is to write one short story per month in 2018. At 1,000 words a week, that’s a reasonable goal, I think.

Heck, this blog post is about 630 words already. 200 words of fiction five days a week shouldn’t be impossible.

Tune

Tune
(For Phil Sudo)

Earthly tones, with pitch
Ascending, stairsteps to
Divinity.  Silver strings,
Gossamer wings, carry us
Beyond this world to ride
Ethereal melodies.

Expectations fall away,
Allowing soul to soar
Drifting upward in a
Gyre, each cycle higher than
Before.  Tune up!  And
Elevate your consciousness.

— Stace Johnson, 2006

EC was here

As of last night, I can die happy. The last major musical act on my list of lifetime concert goals has been scratched off: I saw Eric Clapton in concert.

Being a guitar player, especially one who likes the blues, it’s nearly impossible not to like Clapton. Sure, he gets negative press from purists because he uses too many effects, or because he’s too “pop,” but I think that even his naysayers have to acknowledge that he’s been a musical presence and influence on rock ‘n roll for nearly forty years.

Yes, forty years. For longer than I’ve been alive, this man has been a driving force in music. I’ve been playing guitar as a hobbyist for over 20 years now, and EC has always been an influence on me.

In my opinion, one of the areas for which Clapton doesn’t get enough credit is his vocals. The man has a very wide stylistic range, and can jump from growling the Delta Blues to singing bouncing reggae to twanging country songs with no apparent shift in mindset. His shift in voice is just another performance technique that he has honed over the years, like his guitar stylings.

Thanks, EC, for playing Denver this time around, and for bring such fine musicians as Billy Preston and Doyle Bramhall II along for the ride.

Zen Guitar

Zen Guitar

By:  Philip Toshio Sudo

Type:  Extended inspirational metaphor

Setting:  The Zen Guitar Dojo

Description:

Using Zen teachings interspersed with quotes and examples from famous musicians, Phil Sudo guides us on a tour through the Zen Guitar Dojo.  The dojo is a virtual practice studio; one can enter the studio anywhere, at any time, because it is more a state of mind than a physical reality.  Focus and dedication are the keys to this dojo; a beginner’s mind and openness to the teaching allow growth to occur.

Sudo divides the book into five main parts, each indicating different levels of progression in Zen Guitar.  When a new student enters the dojo, no matter his level of playing ability, he must embrace the beginner’s mind and put on the white belt, and these basics are covered in the first section of the book.

As the student moves through the dojo, his white belt becomes soiled from practice and begins to turn black; practice is the focus of the second section of the book.  When a player has practiced enough to become proficient, his belt may be completely black, and with that comes the responsibility of using what he has learned wisely.  That responsibility is the subject of the third section of the book.  Of course, just because a student has attained the black belt level, that doesn’t mean he is finished.  As in any dojo, a black belt only indicates that the student’s true learning has begun.

As he studies, his belt may begin to fray, and strands of the original white belt will begin to show through.  He will have learned much, and now is confronted with the question of where the music comes from.  Is he playing it, or is it playing him?  The correct answer is mu, the classic transcendent point of Zen philosophy.  The music is neither playing nor being played by the student, and the student will only understand his relationship to it when he drops the need for duality.  This is the subject of the fourth section.

Finally, when the student has played and practiced enough that his belt is once again white, he realizes that it was white all along, and that the way he got to the level he is now is by keeping the beginner’s mind forefront, and by wearing the same white belt.  The final section is a recap of all that the student has learned, and it is all white belt material.

Comments:

I purchased this book in May of 2001.  I had seen it on the rack at my local magazine store and thought it looked fascinating, and finally I bought it, knowing nothing about the author or, really, what the book was about.  It sat inside my nightstand for a year before I took it out again and started reading.  I read it in small chunks, wanting to chew on each piece slowly, rather than blazing through the book and missing the points.  It was a very easy read; Sudo’s style is crisp, simple, and clean, and he makes even the difficult Zen concepts come across clearly.  I learned valuable information from many sections of the book that deal directly with stumbling points in my playing:  “Mistakes,” “Stages and Plateaus,” “Self-Doubt,” and “Overthinking” are all sections with which I connected directly.  They are all in the “white belt to black belt” section, so I guess I know where I am on the path of Zen Guitar.  I look forward to the day when I find I am connecting better with the sections in the later part of the book.

Some interesting things have happened to my playing since I started reading this book.  I’ve taken more risks, for one thing.  I have also worked on learning a lot of new songs, most of them heavier than I am used to playing.  I tried out for a band that is ready to start gigging, and I played and sang onstage at a local jam without feeling overly self-conscious.  I’m not sure how much of that can be attributed to the book, but I am sure that the book helped me develop the mindset that I needed to be open to these opportunities.

There is another coincidence: a very said one.  When I finished the book, I went to the Zen Guitar website listed in the back of the book.  I wanted to see if there was anything new that Sudo had added to the dojo that would complement this review, and I wanted to let him know that I had enjoyed the book and was going to write the review.  When I arrived at the website, the first thing I noticed was a date range:  Philip Toshio Sudo, October 20th, 1959 – June 9th, 2002.

Evidently Phil had been battling cancer since about the time that I bought the book.  He kept a journal online, and as I read through it, I thought of the same steps that my brother took as he fought cancer.  Phil lived a couple of years longer than my brother did, and from all accounts on the website, he lived live with a joy and presence that comes from viewing the world from within Zen.

I checked my Creativity Journal for June 9th, and I’m happy to say that I was in a Zen Guitar frame of mind that day, working out a song list for my basement band and studying the fret board.  The next day, I noted that I had “read some more Zen Guitar.”  I’m sure Phil would be happy to know that.

Recommendations:

Though Zen Guitar is primarily aimed at guitarists, the ideas are universal.  Anyone, whether s/he plays an instrument or not, should be able to find something of worth in these pages if s/he is open enough to look.  At one point in the book, when Sudo is talking about recovering from mistakes, he says, “When things falls apart, make art.  Carry this spirit though to every area of your life.”  I think most of the principles in this book can be extended to all areas of life.  Basically, it’s all about maintaining a beginner’s mind: being open to learning new things, appreciating what we have yet to learn, and using the time we have left wisely, as Phil did.

Thank you, Phil Sudo, for allowing me into your dojo.