Beginner

Once upon a time I must have made New Year’s resolutions. Who hasn’t? I doubt I kept many of them. Who does? It’s a cliché how much exercise equipment winds up in the classifieds by the first of February.

I did make one resolution as an adult. I think it was for New Year 2002. I must have had 300 second- or third-draft manuscript pages of The Mud of the Place by that point, but I’d never successfully completed anything longer than 40 pages and I was sure I was going to choke before I finished this one. My resolution? I will work on it every day until it’s done.

And I did. Some days I was so terrified that the thing had turned to crap when I wasn’t looking that I wouldn’t open the Word file till five minutes to midnight. Whereupon I would realize to my astonishment that my ms. wasn’t the crap I’d been thinking all day that it had to be. Thus reassured, I’d then tinker, revise, or write for at least half an hour before I went to to bed.

A couple of decades before that, in my D.C. days, a friend confided that on New Year’s Day she made a list of all the things she’d done for the first time in the preceding year.

I loved this. I grew up with a perfectionist father who was forever ridiculing my mother for getting her facts wrong and supporting insupportable positions. I learned early on that it wasn’t safe to make mistakes. I learned to get my facts straight and make coherent arguments. I’m still pretty good at it.

Trouble is, it’s hard to learn anything new if you don’t dare make mistakes. The list of projects I dropped or never started for fear of looking stupid is very, very long. See why I loved my friend’s idea? Ever since it’s been my way of giving myself credit for overriding the voice in my head that’s sure I’ll get ridiculed, ostracized, or trashed for looking like a klutz.

So here’s one thing I started in 2016: learning to play the guitar. As a teenager I was insanely jealous of my friends who could play the guitar. I had fantasies of going to bed and waking up a guitar virtuoso without ever having to be a beginner. It didn’t happen.

Guitar takes a break.

Guitar takes a break.

This is actually my second attempt. Ten years ago, with huge trepidation, I took a free intro guitar course offered by a local musician. You’re right to be suspicious of my excuses for not keeping up with it, but in that first attempt I did acquire a guitar, the Rise Up Singing book (which has the lyrics and chords to at least half the songs I ever knew in my life, and plenty more besides),  and enough competence to accompany myself on a few songs.

This fall I heard that a free intro course was being offered at the West Tisbury library. I signed up. My fledgling skills had long since faded, along with the hard-won calluses on my left fingertips. At the first class in November I couldn’t remember the fingering for a single chord.

Four classes in, I’m still at it, practicing every day. All the while my endlessly creative mind is inventing excuses for giving up.

My fingers are too short

My guitar’s neck is too wide.

My fingers can’t do that.

Half the people in the class aren’t really beginners.

The other half have more talent than I do.

I’ll never catch up.

I can’t change chords fast enough.

I will never be good enough to play in public.

At some point “My fingers won’t do that” progressed to “I can’t change chords fast enough.” Gotcha, girl; you’re making progress in spite of yourself. You’ve still got problems, but the problems are more advanced than they used to be.

Travvy and me at a Pam Dennison clinic in 2011.

Travvy and me at a Pam Dennison clinic in 2011.

This is a wonder. My short fingers can actually reach farther than they used to, all because I’ve been practicing.

When I was training Travvy all those years ago, we’d repeat a lesson over and over and over and I’d be sure we were getting nowhere, then all of a sudden he’d get it. He’d know something as if he’d always known it.

Seems like my fingers work the same way.

Part of the challenge is that I keep comparing my guitar playing to my writing and editing, which I’ve been doing for almost 40 years (editing) and more than 40 years (writing). I know writing and editing so well that I don’t know how I know it, and I don’t remember how I learned it.

I will never be that good at playing the guitar, or at doing anything else for that matter. But really it doesn’t matter. Starting from scratch is a good thing because it’s a good thing to fumble and feel like an idiot and realize that you’re getting better.

 

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About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has two blogs going on WordPress. "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories" is about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard. "Write Through It" is about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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10 Responses to Beginner

  1. Kudos to you for taking up the guitar and for the perseverance. As with so many things, anything worth doing takes time and practice.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I was never good at guitar, and always seemed to be losing guitar teachers to misadventure… then I finally gave it up after one too many moves resulted in a cracked guitar and a twisted neck (the guitar’s, not mine). Yet I remember the pleasure it gave me just to sit quietly in a room and pluck away… In fact, I don’t think I’ve been as relaxed as that since I gave up my art work… Still, you don’t have to be Hendrix to find guitar happiness. Unless, of course, you take up finger-picking…

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  3. I applaud you for trying and trying again with the guitar. In an interesting way I’m currently reading Bruce Springsteen’s fantastic memoir on music, writing and life in general. He didn’t take guitar lessons but played by ear, listening to countless artists and trying to recreate the sounds he liked. Then he worked at creating his own sounds. He didn’t succeed overnight but he kept trying. He was still pretty decent after a short time in comparison to others. So I still think that music and other forms of art are a mix of talent and work. When I say talent I should say something inside us that tugs so strongly that we cannot resist its call. For him that was music and the guitar was his vehicle. For you it’s more likely writing and the pen. Happy New Year to you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The musicians I know who are really good mostly started young, which has to make a difference, but I think the age itself is only part of it. When you’re young, like a teenager, you have the time and inclination to work at something for hours. That has to be at least partly responsible for where my writing facility comes from. I’m putting Springsteen’s book on my to-read list. 🙂 All that exploring and experimenting he did as a young guy is hard to find time for the older you get — unless you’ve fallen in with like-minded companions.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy the book, especially if like me you like his music. Some parts are more interesting than others. I love wHat he has to say about the longing to belong, the art and the purpose to create art. It is well written, lively and moving. Agree with you with the dedication that comes with age and time. Most great artists in any field ruined other lives to succeed 🙂
        Including Springsteen!
        Still love him!

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  4. Barb Winters says:

    Hats off to you Susanna! I can’t carry a tune or play an instrument but I love music. A music teacher told me in junior high that I received the lowest score in the school on a music aptitude test so never even tried to get beyond chopsticks on the piano. Happy New Year to you and Travvy!
    Barb

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    • I gave up singing for about 20 years because Goody Two-Shoes in the junior choir told me I was always off-key. No one else ever told me this, my freshman-year music teacher urged me to try out for glee club and the small chorus, but I was sure that Goody Two-Shoes was right and I couldn’t sing. I still regret the opportunities I missed because I believed the bitch, but I’ve had music in my life for the last 30 years so it’s turned out OK. Your music teacher sounds like my Goody Two-Shoes!

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  5. Eileen Maley says:

    Besides, this is the best way to avoid or avert dementia, so they say. Wonderful uplifting piece and good fresh idea to start a new year. Have a happy one.

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  6. Jennie says:

    Susanna, this is wonderful! I love your friend’s list of the new accomplishments- so much better than goals or resolutions (which I hate), that always seem to be self defeating. I’m signing up for her list. Way to go with the guitar. Do you know how many people would envy you? Yes, they would. And, writing never feels done to a writer. So, letting go a little… I know, that’s a wall to climb. I loved the post. Many thanks. Happy New Year to you!

    Like

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