Monday, October 6, 2014

Guest Blogger Nancy M. Williams on How Claiming Her Passion Transformed Her Writing Career

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 excitement.

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 perfectionism.

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

Today my blog has expanded into an online magazine called Grand Piano Passion.

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.

The Piano "Cure" ? 

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 hand.   

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.  

Note from Lisa:  For a terrific article about Nancy, check out the Urban Gardner column in the Wall Street Journal; and be sure to visit Nancy's website and Grand Piano PassionTM.. You can also follow her on Twitter.


Susan said...

What a wonderful post. Congratulations on your return to the piano, and your writing and blogging success!
I returned to piano as an adult as well. It gave me a few years of enjoyment, but I realized that was not where my talents lie - and I began to write.

Nancy said...

Susan, I'm so glad to hear that you enjoyed the article. And it's great that the piano helped you to find writing, although in a completely different way. I hope you enjoy much success in your writing! Nancy Williams