Every writer has a carburetor, unique to herself, that measures out a mist of fuel for the volume of flowing air in the cylinder of her imagination. A plug provides the spark, the fuel ignites, and off she goes.
The spark is an idea; the fuel is effort; the air is grace. She needs them all, and all in balance. If the cylinder contains too much fuel, it won’t ignite. She sits in an old car on a winter morning and twists the key while she pumps the pedal: the engine makes a cranking wheeze, not the whoosh of ignition. She pumps the pedal again, adding still more fuel, to no avail. She has flooded the cylinder. She has tried too hard.
For three years, I sat at my desk, about six mornings a week, and nothing happened. A strenuous nothing. With great force, I looked at the wall. Or I wrote a few paragraphs, revised, typed, extended, retyped, over a number of months, then threw it all away. Advice from Kafka hung from a thumbtack in the bulletin board over my desk: Wait.
Vehemently, I waited.
I was trying to write a second novel. The first had taken ten years, but I had spent most of that time writing my way into mistakes and cutting my way back out of them. Experience should have counted for something. Next to Kafka on the bulletin board hung instructions from Nina Simone to her band during a recording session: “Y’all pushing … Just relax, relax. You’re pushing it. It’ll go up by itself.”
I had no story, no setting, only the intuition of a spirit (notionally, a character) who seemed to enter the room when I listened to certain pieces of music, one especially, a piano transcription of a piece that Bach had written for solo violin. I listened to it one or two thousand times. It made me conscious of thought happening, in my own mind, of which I somehow was not the thinker. The more I listened, the truer the music seemed, and the closer I felt to the moment I was waiting for, when the spirit would tell me what had happened in his life.
Because nothing about the novel as a form limits the extent to which its content is invented, the writer can take it anywhere, but she has no facts against which to test the truth of where she’s gone. None of the laws of nature necessarily obtains. As a novel proceeds, each sentence elaborates the criteria of rightness for the next. But at the outset, the fictional earth is without form and void, and the novelist is badly in need of something firm to build on, something irreducibly true yet verifiable only by her feelings. I began to hope that what the music was making me feel was true in this way.
I studied the score. I could read a little music but had never played an instrument seriously. If I could only get close enough to the score, I knew I could read a novel in it. (Magical thinking is only a psychosis if it doesn’t work.) But my ability to read the score was limited; I had no experience of turning written music into sound.
After years of waiting and nothing to show for it, I came to the kind of conclusion a desperate poker player makes when he’s so deep in debt that the only way he can see of getting out is to borrow more money and gamble with it—in order to write the novel, I would have to learn to play piano.
I bought a piano. I started lessons.
I learned to play a single note. I learned what to call the finger that played the note. I learned to play a second note. Two notes made a sequence, which made music, and I was off.
To a greater degree than anything I had ever tried to do, each small step came with its own thrill. I couldn’t play the B-flat major scale; then I learned the fingering for it, and a few minutes later I could. With practice, I played it smoother and faster. What Robert Musil says of Clarisse in The Man without Qualities was true of me: “It was not impossible that she was completely unmusical, but she had ten sinewy fingers and resolution.” I had no reasonable hope of ever playing the complex piece that bewitched me, but a man can dream. And anyway the pursuit of unreasonable hopes is what fiction is for.
In the mornings, I wrote the way I’d written earlier: first draft longhand, then on a manual typewriter. Midday, I walked to my job, which to a pleasantly mindless degree involved stapling thick manuscripts with a machine that had a handle as long as my forearm. At night, I practiced piano.
My progress was electrifying, if only to me. But it served only me. I lived alone. I needed to write this book. What else was there? In the mornings, the novel began at last to take a shaggy shape. I had forgotten how to take pleasure in writing, or in much else, and the piano was a daily exercise in pursuing with my hands the pleasure my ear desired. The spirit (now a person, with a home and parents) sat by my desk and talked to me. When he didn’t, I went to the piano and practiced a piece by Erik Satie that seemed to draw the spirit toward it like a wolf to meat. A few words came to me, without my asking for them, and I ran back to the desk.
Sometimes I practiced four hours a day. I loved above all the Hanon drills, nineteenth-century exercises designed to strengthen the fingers. My teacher warned me not to strain. I kept on playing faster. I became a fiend for speed. My wrists started to hurt a bit, but I took the pain for what my football coaches in junior high school had told us pain really was: “weakness leaving the body.”
I thought the piano was showing me a new way to write. In fact, it was about to show me the consequences of the old way.
The pain in my wrists was the beginning of tendinosis. Twenty-five years of typing on the typewriter and computer keyboards, plus all that stapling—then playing the piano too long and too hard with too much twisting and too fast had caused the tendons in my wrists to fray, permanently.
By the time I made it to the hand doctor a few months later, he ordered me to drop the piano right away. He didn’t know for how long. He sent me to a physical therapist. She put one wrist in a brace. She said it would be better if I did not write either.
I sat at my desk before the wall, in front of a laptop, ready to type with my nose if necessary, but the spirit was nowhere to be heard. Even after months of physical therapy, which made the pain subside, all the piano teachers I consulted told me the injuries to my wrists meant they couldn’t help me. I really shouldn’t play if I wanted to use my hands for anything else.
“It is the sad tendency of domesticity—as of piety—to contract,” writes Marilynne Robinson, “and of grace to decay into rigor.”
I had made the same mistake for which the piano had seemed the solution. The same old mistake I had probably been making forever. Something had been given to me for free (that’s all grace is) and I had insisted on paying for it, with work. No theology is required to see the mistake here. Manners will do. When a friend makes you dinner at his house, you don’t tip him. What is an Englishman’s proudest boast? asks a character in Ulysses. Not that the sun never sets on his empire, but “I paid my way. I never borrowed a shilling in my life.” Pride comes not from the extent of our territory but from a belief that the territory is completely ours. No art with any life in it can be made by insisting like this on self-sufficiency. To write with only your own power is to make a dead letter if you make anything at all.
So what to do with your effort? An older writer I admire, when asked the polite question what he did for a living, used to snap, “Nothing.” Yet he worked constantly for more than fifty years on story after story, nearly all set in the town, painstakingly described, where he still lives. It must have helped him somehow to claim his effort didn’t count. Recently, upon coming home from his daily walk, strong as ever in his legs but so deep in dementia that he no longer knows his wife’s name, he told her, “There’s an extraordinary town out there—somebody really should write a book about it.”
The body carries us along in spite of ourselves. In a way, it even thinks.
I found a new piano teacher—a woman nearly eighty, small, patient, emphatic. I sat at the Steinway her parents had bought her as a child. She was the practitioner of a method of coordinated motion at odds with most traditional piano teaching. She told me strengthening and stretching were needless and often led to injury. Pushing, pressing—ever—were vulgar. Even relaxation was a red herring. The goal was not to relax, she said, but to be free.
Effort was necessary—but the barest effort, in movement shaped by practice. Effort so slight it did not aggravate previous injuries. Subtle, almost invisible movements at the elbows and the hips brought the fingers where they needed to go without challenging the finer joints within the wrists and hands. She gave me an education in thinking with my body, the whole body in concert with itself and with gravity. If one demonstration can stand for the method I learned from her over the subsequent years, it came when she held up my hand during our first lesson and instructed me in the paradoxical work of allowing my arm to go completely limp while she held it in the air, then dropped it. I practiced this at home for a week before at another lesson she dropped my hand on the keyboard. I had exerted no effort, but my body had played the instrument.
The weight of my arm was enough.
In time it all came back. Differently. I could play again—better, freely. The dam on the book broke. It took another ten years all told, but that was all right. Discipline had yielded to habit. The mind steps back and listens to what the body is doing.
“What is the most beautiful word in English?” my teacher asked. I forget what I guessed, but it was wrong. She said, “The most beautiful word in English is let.”
Salvatore Scibona’s most recent novel is The Volunteer. His first novel, The End, was a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the Young Lions Fiction Award. His work has won a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, an O. Henry Award, and a Whiting Award; and The New Yorker named him one of its “20 under 40” fiction writers. He directs the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library.