Writing Stories & Playing Drums

On Thursday night, I finished the first draft of a short story, and just as 20 years ago when I started writing fiction, I feel a thrill. I printed out a copy, wrote the date on it, and slipped it in my “Short Fiction” file folder that is 3-inches thick with drafts and revisions, pieces in varied stages of development.

Yesterday, I discussed publishing and rejection with my Creative Writing students, which led to me reminisce about when I was in my early 20s, trying to write stories as best I could. It reminded me that when I was first writing, many of my writing challenges were different than now even though some challenges remain, the biggest of which is the blank page. But as I said earlier, there’s a thrill each time I finish a first draft. I did it! I wrote a story! I don’t have blank pages anymore! 

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About 14 minutes into his one-hour drum lesson on YouTube, Gavin Harrison, my favorite professional drummer, discusses his CPU theory. He says that if a drummer is using all of his or her capacity (CPU at 100%), he or she can’t really listen to what he or she is playing, much less listen to the rest of the band. Furthermore, he says that the best drummers only use a small part of their CPU when playing so that they can listen to everything else, play in time, and “make the time interesting.” He says that when he was six, learning a paradiddle took up all of CPU, but many decades later, he doesn’t have to think about it.

As a piano player who has played in various ensembles, if I’m playing at 100% of my ability, I can barely listen to myself, much less listen to what the others in the band are doing. For instance, one year for Christmas Eve service, our church band learned Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s version of Carol of the Bells. 184 beats per minute in ¾ time. It took me weeks to learn all eight pages. I started my metronome at 80 or 90 bpms. I couldn’t even play along with the recording for a while—it was too fast. I was eventually able to play the entirety of the piece with the recording. And it took multiple run-throughs with the entire band before I could play my part and listen to everyone and to play in time.

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When I began writing fiction at 22, it was a challenge enough to figure out how to format dialogue, much less avoid overblown dialogue tags. Also, I was just trying to make things happen in the story. I was trying to make characters who were reasonably consistent. There was no way I was prepared to try anything “experimental.” I was trying to make even one-dimensional characters, to try to write a story that had a beginning, a middle, and an ending. Even in revision, taking the time to pour over the comments from my classmates and from the professor, I could only tackle so much.

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Gavin Harrison says that the good news is that you upgrade your CPU the more you practice, and the things that you played years ago that took up all of your CPU take up less now. I see a parallel in the maturation of writers.

I no longer think about dialogue formatting, no longer think about avoiding forced dialogue tags. I don’t have to stress about creating a beginning, a middle, and ending, and I don’t have to stress about creating three-dimensional characters. Certainly, I still have to work at my fiction; I go through many drafts, but I don’t have to use all of my CPU to avoid bland adjectives and adverbs.

Of course, playing an instrument live with an ensemble of any kind is not the same as writing a draft (or even a revision) of a short story by yourself, but I do find the illustration helpful when I’m dealing with a current challenge in a short story. I think back to my challenges from earlier eras, and I remember that I have grown as a writer, that I can do so many more things intuitively. Yes! I’ve progressed as a writer! I’m getting better!

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