Sifting Through: Writing a Way Into and Through Stalled Pieces
It is common wisdom that it takes time to make life experiences into literature. Rarely can a masterful piece of writing emerge wholly formed, as a Phoenix from the ashes, immediately after an event. Reflection, space, perspective– these are not immediately forthcoming but necessary for crafting a piece with meaning and resonance for the reader. What if you’ve wanted to write about one particular experience for years and yet consistently run up against either dull drafts that go nowhere or a case of writer’s block every few months when making an attempt?
How long must we wait? A week? A month? A year? Ten? For over a decade, I have wanted to write about the summer we took apart and burned my grandmother’s piano.
Grandma had passed from cancer months before, and my extended family was cleaning out and preparing to sell her house. Uncles had replaced the carpeting, Dad and several family members had taped up trim and repainted walls, aunties and cousins and Mom and I had cleaned out cupboards, packed up bags of garbage, swept and scrubbed to a shine. Grandma had begun streamlining her belongings a few years before she’d turned seventy, but one of the few items that weren’t divided amongst my mom’s brothers and sisters and that couldn’t find a home was the piano. Family members either already had pianos or had no storage for one– and no one in my family, besides my great-grandmother who’d had lessons and taught my Mom scales and nursery rhyme tunes, even played the piano. The walls echoed at each footfall and not much remained beyond contacting the realtor and deciding what to do with the piano.
The old upright sat in the TV room and hadn’t been tuned in twenty-five years, if ever. Grandma had painted it various shades to match her walls over the years, like lemon yellow high-gloss and medium mint green (think Shrek crossed with Slimer from Ghost busters, and you’ve got it). Several of the keys stuck from heat expansion or were missing the white or ebony veneer so that the wood underneath was exposed, a bit like a first-grader’s endearing smile. It wasn’t in good shape, but it had sentimental value. Still, you can’t keep a 600 pound piano for sentimentality’s sake.
Clearly, we couldn’t sell the piano– but, we reasoned, maybe we could interest someone in it for their children or grandchildren to play on. Certainly, plenty of grandchildren had thoroughly enjoyed jumping up and down on the pedals, crammed side-by-side on the bench, happily thumping away and drowning out reruns of The Carol Burnett Show and M*A*S*H. It could still be useful, even if it did need work to make it so. We checked with neighbors and coworkers, hoping, and a friend-of-a-friend even dropped by after work to assess the music-maker and yet– no go.
It had to go before would-be buyers started to arrive the next week.
An uncle took the plunge with an ax, prying open the thoracic cavity to expose the inner workings– the wooden mallets assembled into a delicate ribcage. We exhaled, we began disassembling. In memory it became endless trips with armfuls of keys and mallets and shards of wood that we carried into the backyard, piling them into a fire by the tool shed and the white peony bushes. The whole process, even at the time, felt dreamlike and molasses-slow, it felt slightly uncomfortable, it felt vaguely like a transgression without, even now, a clear reason why.
Perhaps the main problem is that while the event itself was jarring, I have no context or reference in which to compare or to frame it. What did it signify that I held arms of keys without music, that I watched the soundless flames of the inner mallets as they became smoke? These were not pages of books we burned as in Fahrenheit 451, which would have left me agonized, but worn pieces of an instrument we’d tried in vain to salvage. How is that connected to Grandma’s death, or events at that time or since? Even metaphorically, there remains a mystique that refutes connecting the dots.
Almost every writer I know has a persistent topic or two that is their personal Mt. Everest. For some, it’s trying to write about the death of a parent or a child or spouse. For others, it’s trying to interpret a child’s birth or a child’s passage into adulthood or a car accident or a marriage gone wrong or a close friend’s cancer or any number of life’s lingering obstacles and failures.
Frequently I’ve heard fellow writers say that it’s much easier to start writing without a key theme or event in mind, letting the ideas arise naturally, rather than the inverse– beginning with wanting to write about something so badly that we strain for connections and meaning until the process grinds to a stilted halt. But should we abandon important literary work just because the writing itself is blocked or not progressing as we’d like? I don’t think so.
One of the reasons we write is to explain the odd complexities of life to ourselves. As Joan Didion maintains, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” These recurrent images that tug at our sleeves should not be ignored indefinitely. Guaranteed, I will try to write more poems or scenes featuring Grandma’s piano (indeed, I just have). For these topics that continue to discomfit, it is as Somerset Maugham once said, “we do not write because we want to; we write because we have to.”
What steps can we take to re-instill life into derailed pieces?
- Find a way in– through contrast or comparison. Part of the difficulty I have had in drafting poems about the piano burning is: what to compare it to? A musical metaphor? Although I own racks of cds, a few tapes and records, and a stocked iPod, I know little about music composition beyond basics. I’ve also tried comparing the piano to events that happened that summer– but truthfully, beyond dealing emotionally and physically with Grandma’s death and cleaning out her house, nothing else of import was going on that July. In other pieces that I’ve floundered on, comparing or contrasting the main image with another image or time period delivered a deeper resonance and revitalized the work. On another draft of the piano piece, I might consider comparing the piano event to a more recent occurrence or even the passing of someone else. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of letting enough other events occur that there are more options for comparison.
- Don’t get bogged down by details or “the way it really happened.” While certain key details or images of an event are necessary to paint the picture, nonetheless it is very easy if you start with a true-to-life tale to begin over-explaining and cluttering up meaning with extraneous information. In other drafts of piano poems, I’ve created difficulty for myself and for my readers by cluttering too many characters or too many time periods all in the same poem (from childhood and that summer and a year after, for instance) . Pacing and, of course, editing became dilemmas and stalling points for the poems. Of necessity, literature shines a spotlight on key events, or dialogue, or characters, and yet it can never fully recreate the essence of the experience itself. Time has passed. We have changed. Our memories are faulty, forgetting or mixing up details and time periods. When writing, we must whittle and combine and even cut to make meaning. You can never relate every single detail. In fact, in most “based on real life” pieces, it’s often useful to use only a half, or even a third, of the initial real-life details, to give wiggle room for meaning to arise.
- The great 5-minute free-write. For both my creative writing students as well as the high school students I work with, I have suggested the 5-minute free-write as a way to move past the point of stuck. As writers, we know that deadlines– although abhorred– can be a writer’s best friend. An imposed time limit encourages the mind to avoid fussing. Five minutes is remarkably short and low-stress; one just doesn’t have time in those precious minutes to think through each logical possibility of what should go into the text. Instead, the logical mind goes out the door and in its place at the helm arrives the mystery of the subconscious. From a paragraph or stanza, if even one new line or image appears, that is often enough to steer the piece in a new and better direction. Of course, you can keep writing beyond the initial five minutes when on a roll– but the time limit often works wonders to dampen the internal editor and to get the pen or computer keys moving again.
Whether it takes a year or twenty, five attempts or a hundred, we owe it to ourselves and to our work to return to those few ideas that linger; they are our greatest chance for growth and change, as writers and as people.
—refers to the word piano in Felicia Mitchell’s poem My Turn Out of the Box