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Finger Exercises

When my grandfather died in 1954, his only son, my father, used his inheritance to buy a baby grand piano. This piano then became the elephant in our living room, taking up about a third of the room’s space and doing nothing but sit there in the corner on its unshapely legs.

My father, utterly unlike his practical, industrious, Scottish-immigrant father, was something of a dreamer. I’m guessing he dreamed his kids would somehow, miraculously, learn how to play that piano all on our own. He certainly didn’t have the money to pay for any piano lessons. The best we four children could ever manage to bang out on the baby grand’s keys was Chopsticks.

But since then I’ve often thought that if I had, in fact, learned to play the piano, it would be vitally important to practice every day – not to entertain anyone with my stumbling scales but just to keep my fingers nimble.

These daily finger exercises would be the equivalent of the daily writing exercises committed writers must practice, what Julia Cameron, author of the mega-best-selling book, The Artist’s Way, refers to as “Morning Pages.” (For more on this, see the recent profile of Julia Cameron by Penelope Green in The New York Times, published February 2.)

A friend from Taos, I just learned, has decided to close her successful business and pursue her dream of writing one or more books. She recently asked for my advice, because we were colleagues at UNM-Taos, where I taught English and Creative Writing for ten years. This, in part, is the simple advice I would offer:

READ and WRITE.

Every day.

First: Read (and reread) good books. And not in a hurry. Chew on them. Feast on them. Study them. Study the authors’ word choices, sentence structure, plot architecture, scenic descriptions, vivid characterizations, what is stated and what is implied, and so on. Learn from them. We all can learn from the masters.

In my teaching experience, the students who had the most trouble following this part of my advice were mainly older men, recently retired from successful careers, who appeared to have stopped reading literature the minute they graduated from college. In their hubris they believed writing a book of their own at this stage of their lives would come easy, off the top of their gray-haired heads. Not so.

Second: Write every day, at, ideally, the same time every day, such as early morning, as Julia Cameron recommends, when our minds are less cluttered and distracted. Write about anything, or everything – what you did yesterday, what you plan to do today, conversations you’ve had or overheard, how you’re feeling, what you’re thinking, the books you’re reading, the state of the world from your point of view (!) – and let it rip, freestyle, without self-criticism. This is like finger exercises on the piano, not for anyone else’s enjoyment or enlightenment (at all); rather, for your own thinking/writing fitness regimen.

Then, when you’re ready to write your book, the thoughts and words will more likely flow from a deeper and more meaningful place.

Which is not to say it will be easy.