May 15, 2015
So… you’ve picked up the harp again after setting it aside the past two and half years to focus on completing your novel, struggling with that recalcitrant black hole of a blind spot. You’ve been meaning to return to the harp for months, but it took your daughter’s music teacher inviting you to play for her second grade music class to persuade you away from your single-minded focus on writing.
It wasn’t until you set fingers to strings that you realized just how much you’ve missed making music. Knotted frustrations melted away, and your heart sang. You didn’t remember ever feeling as competent with the instrument as you do now. The struggle with writing has put things into perspective. Everyone loves the harp, and it’s not hard to find willing listeners. Not at all like wheedling someone into reading a story. You wonder sometimes whether you should bother with writing. It’s hard to get it to do what you want; yet without even thinking, even with the absence, the music flows from your fingertips, effortless.
Nowadays, at least.
You remember the day almost thirteen years ago when you played at the Abbey Pub, a renowned Chicago venue for Irish traditional music. You hadn’t been playing quite a year at that point, and it was only six months after your dad had died at the age of 51. You decided to play the one piece from your repertoire he’d liked best.
You’d never been to the Abbey and thought “fundraiser” meant you’d be playing background music in an out-of-the-way corner while people ate and drank and paid you no mind. Imagine your shock at being told you’d be playing up on a stage, through a big sound system, with white-hot lights trained upon you.
As if the talk and laughter of hundreds weren’t already loud enough, the place rollicked to bodhrán, fiddle, guitar, banjo, and pipes. But when your harp went up onstage, a reverent hush settled over the house. In that moment, the Abbey became a cathedral and you the priestess expected to reveal a great mystery in that mystical silence.
The harp metamorphosed into a piece of alien technology in the glow of the foot lamps, and the strident monitor separated sound from the instrument, delivering it from ten feet in front of you like a disembodied spirit — its split-second delay rattled you to the marrow. This is can’t be happening, you thought with a surge of primal terror. The one grace of those searing lights was that they rendered the crowd behind them a dark, indistinct blur.
Eight notes, a measure and a half in, and your mind went blank. You immediately went back to the beginning and tried again…and again and again, hoping for the spark of memory to kindle and carry you through to the end. Maybe if it hadn’t been that particular piece, you would have abandoned the attempt and tried something else, but for the sake of your father’s memory, you kept trying until your teacher intervened, whispering from the foot of the stage that you weren’t required to play that tune, you could play something else or exit the stage entirely.
You elected for the former, fumbling through the very first tune you ever learned with cold sweat dripping from your shaking fingers. It wasn’t pretty, and you forgot the last measure, but you made it through.
After that, you took every opportunity you could to play in front of a crowd, slowly working through your performance anxiety, learning how to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. Three and a half years later you entered an Irish music competition. Even though you were so nervous you didn’t think you’d be able to play a single correct note, you took home a third place medal that day. But more importantly, you practiced Dad’s favorite tune until you could play it in your sleep. When you sit down at the harp, it’s always the first thing you play, the now-unshakable bedrock of your repertoire.
So no, you weren’t always this competent on the harp. That skill benefited from long practice and a change of focus, and no doubt your writing will undergo a similar gelling as you relax your grip over time. You are becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable on the writing front, and someday you will wield the pen with as much skill as you do the harp strings. Remember that as you enjoy performing your dad’s favorite piece for the kids next Friday – the day after what would have been his 65th birthday.
All my best,
K. Murphy Wilbanks is a recovering court reporter, sometime harpist, and a lifelong lover of words and storytelling, possessing no qualifications for writing save the terminally stubborn desire to articulate her overactive imagination. She lives in the Chicago suburbs with her husband, seven-year-old daughter, two cats, and two harps
— all of whom suffer terrible neglect as she obsessively works on finishing her first novel, after dabbling with it for over a decade.