I quit piano lessons at age 15, after
my teacher firmly recommended it to my parents. I went on to my real passion – riding
horses. So it may seem odd that, when a member of my former writing group
needed input on a long essay about her love of the piano, I'd tackle it. But I
loved offering Nancy M. Williams feedback on that piece, as she'd done for me so
many times on essays I was working on at the time.
Nancy has a stunningly long and
impressive list of accomplishments, including a Harvard MBA, and normally I'd
list some of them here, especially the writing-related highlights. But in this
case, many of them unfold right in her guest post.
Please welcome Nancy M. Williams.
When I present my workshop,
"Claiming Your Passion," I often cringe when I mention once having a
filing cabinet drawer stuffed full of personal essays that I could not work up
the courage to submit. This is the point of my story at which my husband and I
needed a second income and my giddy decision four years before to leave my
career in telecom marketing, looked impulsive. I knew the twenty or so essays
gathering dust would not make a meaningful contribution to the mortgage, and realized
I should have been submitting my work all along. At that moment, I felt as though
in my desire to become a writer, I had failed.
Perhaps you already sense that my
tale has a happy ending, that I faced my fear of allowing editors to evaluate
my work. I did summon the courage to submit, but only after I reclaimed my seat at the piano. Reclaiming my passion for the
piano in my early forties helped me to move forward as a writer.
I define a passion as an activity
that you do naturally and with great interest, quite simply an activity that
you love. As long as your passion fits that definition, it can be absolutely
any activity, from acting to zip-lining. Your passions are distinct from your
talents, education, acquired job skills, and profession, although sometimes
they overlap. The key is that participating in your passions helps to center
you and access your deepest self.
Many of you have already identified
your deepest passion as writing. For others – including myself – our passions
lie in several places, and it's only by granting both full reign that we can
move ahead. I hope my story helps you deepen your relationship with your
creative writing life and perhaps also pursue any neglected passions that could
fuel your writing.
Back to Work, Back to the Piano
Back to my story: faced with a need
to make money, I dove back into my former career of telecom marketing, securing
a job as a marketing director at a cell-phone start-up. Yet I often felt
impatient in meetings, and noticed I drummed my index and middle fingers on the
conference table, as though playing a trill on the piano keyboard.
I hadn’t touched the piano in 25 years,
not since the summer of my sixteenth birthday. As a child and teenager, I often
felt bliss when practicing, and at 16 performed a Rachmaninoff prelude in recital. Yet
that summer my parents’ marital problems and financial pressures forced me to
quit the piano. Over the next 25 years, memories
of losing the piano haunted me.
At the cell phone company, two
years slipped by while I played silent trills on the conference table. Then my
husband enrolled with our five-year-old in father-son piano lessons. That action
was a trigger point of transformation for me. Once the Yamaha upright we had
purchased for their practice arrived at our home, I enrolled in adult piano
lessons at our local university.
Every night, after my children fell
asleep, I practiced for at least an hour, rekindling the old feelings of my
adolescence on the bench: sometimes a wild joy, other times a certain
naturalness and ease, almost always a feeling of belonging. My teacher assigned
me Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude. The opening melody was ruminative, almost rapt,
while underneath the melody, in the keyboard’s tenor section, an A-flat pulsed,
consistent and unerring: the sound of raindrops pinging.
With my ego concentrated on the
rigor of learning the notes to the “Raindrop”, I could hear my inner voice speaking,
and it was pointing out the mismatch between my dream to be a writer and my day
job. One night while I was on the piano
bench, my inner self worked around to the sore point of those completed essays
waiting patiently in my filing cabinet. Surely I should send out a few for
publication? Six months into my piano lessons, my hands shaking, I submitted first
one essay, and then another, to different magazines, unwinding the first few threads
from my tightly spooled fear.
I received my first acceptance nine
months later, the email arriving during the morning at work, where I had
arrived at six a.m., to write before the business day hit full throttle. Fit Pregnancy would publish a piece
about how swimming helped me cope with the anxiety I experienced during my first
pregnancy. I jumped up from my desk and paced the office, overcome with
From the Piano, to Writing, to Submitting
The act of submitting, and the
affirmation from the acceptance, encouraged me to write new material. Subject
matter was a given: with the piano as my nightly companion, to write about
anything else, save my husband and children, seemed pointless. After six drafts
and three rounds of input from my writing group (three other women including Lisa),
I finished an essay, "Deserting the Piano," which I felt that
perhaps, maybe, I really should submit. My writing group advised me to send the
manuscript to 10 literary journals at a time, as long as they permitted
simultaneous submissions, and not to consider stopping until I had at least 50
rejections. This advice served as a permission of sorts, and as further
encouragement, I created an Excel spreadsheet to track my progress. By this time, my husband’s business had
flourished, allowing me to quit my cell-phone company job.
When I received a call from the
editor of The Chattahoochee Review, who
informed me I had won the journal’s 2009 Lamar York Nonfiction Prize, I
screamed out loud. Suavity was clearly missing in my response! I also placed in the Missouri Review’s audio competition with my personal essay cum
piano recording called "Reverie Reclaimed."
I had first learned and performed
the Reverie in recital when I was 13. High notes chimed the melody, while
accompanying arpeggios swirled in the bass.
Now, three decades and some later, after relearning and writing about
this mellifluous music, I wanted to share it with others.
From Writing Success to Piano Performance
I auditioned for a Manhattan piano
society, a group of committed amateur pianists who performed in public concerts.
For my first performance, when I played the Reverie, my hands and legs shook, I
repeated the opening section once too many times, and I tripped over some wrong
notes. Yet afterwards, I was warmed by members of the audience who approached
me with shining eyes; one elderly woman gripped my arm. “That was beautiful,”
she said. I realized that perhaps my piano teacher’s feedback that I was
musical was true.
The performances I had given had
been marred with imperfection, yet I had participated in the concert (the
equivalent, I realized, of submitting and sometimes being published and
sometimes being rejected in the writing world). When I practiced at my piano in
the months that followed, my inner voice spoke again: I now had a respectable list of publication credits, but I took too long to write each essay. I wondered if
I was doing that by design. After all, the less work I produced, the fewer
pieces I would have to submit, minimizing the number of rejections I would
receive. My ego was still in control, protecting itself with a shield of
I needed another outlet for my
writing, one that would push me to produce.
Heeding the Blogging Call
In the summer of 2011, I launched a
weekly blog, focused on engaging with the piano as an adult. Part of me was
terrified. I had spent a year on my two award-winning essays; what would happen to the quality of my writing
when I was forced to publish every week?
To my surprise, I felt energized interviewing
adults who took piano lessons, penning personal essays with practice tips, and
reviewing novels, memoirs, and nonfiction books that involved the piano.
Although I tried to write and schedule blog posts a month ahead, many a Sunday
night, with only hours before my self-imposed 5 a.m. Monday publication time, I
was still at the computer, finishing my article for the week. Often I was forced to publish a piece I
considered less than perfect. In an irony I had not foreseen, sometimes the
essays I had written most quickly garnered the most readership and engagement.
I realized how essential it was for
me as a writer, really as a human being, to engage with others and to receive
feedback about my work. As a result of
the blog, I received several paid writing assignments, including an unsolicited
commission from the beauty website Aesop, a profile for a Bach-themed issue.
This pattern continued, each
milestone in my pursuit of my passion for the piano helping me to overcome my
fear of submitting, pulling me back to my passion for writing. Seated at the piano bench, engaged in my
passion for the music, I could hear that wise, inner part of myself urging me
on, building my courage in both arenas.
Eventually, I took a master class on
performance, culminating in a recital at Carnegie Hall. The following year, I
took my story about how reclaiming my passion for the piano had turbocharged my
writing life, and developed a workshop, “Claiming Your Passion,” which I now present
at various speaking engagements.
Am I completely cured of my fear of
submitting? I’m afraid not. My condition is no longer acute, yet it’s still
present, low-grade and chronic, threatening to grow into paralysis if I let
it. Yet I have my passion for the piano
to protect me. The piano, which I imagine in some ways as a separate person, a
guardian angel that divines my deepest desires, will be there to take me by the
During my workshop, the chill I
experience describing that file drawer of essays gathering dust dissolves into exuberance
as my presentation draws to a close. When I declare to my audience that Every
Person Has a Passion™, whether sailing, reading, stamp-collecting, watching
movies, volunteering at an animal shelter – I emphasize that this passion can
play a transformative role in the rest of their lives. For me, my piano passion
reignited my writing life.
Not all writers are afflicted with
the fear of submitting (although it’s certainly common), but all writers face challenges.
Getting in touch with your other passion, and taking the time to pursue it,
even if only for 20 minutes a day, may center you, helping your writing career
bloom in satisfying and sometimes unexpected ways.