Writing Lesson from my Guitar

This blog post is deeply personal and the bit about writing doesn’t come until the end. But if you stick with me, I think you’ll be glad you did. My guitar taught me about writing and life.

It starts with me interrupting my sister’s speech, thanking her wedding guests. To be fair, I’m almost certain she’s done and wants to tell people to start dancing. I can’t let that happen yet. “That’s not all!” I call out. She blinks, mild surprise caught in her eyes, and then she notices the guitar in my hand.

Getting the guitar to California was easier than anticipated. We got on the plane early enough to claim an overhead bin. And contrary to the bossypants, music-hating gate attendant, it fit with room to spare. I’d spent more time worrying about traveling with my guitar than was necessary. But I think it’s human nature to worry— to imagine my lovely guitar (which is the perfect size for my small hands) in tatters after abuse by airline.

Keeping the guitar hidden during the wedding reception proved a little more challenging. We’d rented a house close to the reception, so my husband and host daughter snuck it past the cake and upstairs. Occasionally, I would excuse myself and tune the strings. Air travel had not been kind to intonation. The first time I thought it was safe to take it downstairs, I managed an impressive backward, gravity-defying pirouette. I’d spotted Alison and James in my direct path, posing for photos. I’d almost plowed right into them, guitar and all.

Dad with Alison, California beach

Ever since she picked Monterey for her wedding, we thought of Dad. His family has so much history there. When he died, we went through the motions at the funeral. Two years later, at the sprinkling over Monterey Bay, we were able to say goodbye. The spiritual connection to this patch of earth and sea has followed us across two decades. The weekend of the wedding, everyone was talking about him. Certain things were so quintessentially him, and California is near the top of that list.

So is the song. It has represented Dad in our hearts and minds since sixth grade. It made him forget his surroundings the moment it floated into his head. He couldn’t hold back, despite his truly awful voice (don’t look at me like that! He knew he wasn’t a singer). Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa, men have named you… We didn’t usually let him get any further. It seemed to only happen when we were out in public. It became a family joke, which grew when Mom threw him a Mona-Lisa-themed surprise birthday party, two years before his death.

Mona Lisa
The night we arrived at our house, she was waiting for me, on the couch, as if to say, “He told me what you’re going to do. And he can’t wait.”

When you throw in the fact that he also played classical guitar, I knew I had the chance to bring him back from the dead. The night we arrived at our house, she was waiting for me, on the couch, as if to say, “He told me what you’re going to do. And he can’t wait.” I’m not always a believer in signs, but I saw something divine in the upholstery.

I thought it would be a sweet tribute, something fun for the guests. A trinket they could take home in their memory, instead of their wallets. But now that I’m ready to play, I see I have underestimated how right it is. I can barely introduce the song. I want to tell everyone the whole story, so they’re in on it. I can’t. I just say, “I really liked part of the ceremony that included tributes to those we’ve lost.” And then I trail off quietly to add, “Here’s another.”

Photo by Thomas Marchese

Performance jitters are nothing new to me. In fact, I originally told my guitar teacher not to waste his energy even asking. I’m a behind-the-scenes personality. But not today. With both hands trembling, I play the intro. My mother’s laugh of recognition floats up and hangs over my head while I move into the rest of the song.

I’ve spent hours on musical phrasing, but I find I can only concentrate on keeping both hands in the right place. Somehow the dynamics come on their own, without my permission. This is a welcome surprise.

First phrase after the intro—good. And then the shift that I suddenly started to get wrong yesterday—it’s not wrong now. Good. And the first tricky fingering—got it. Second set of tricky fingerings—woohoo!! This is going well. Okay, I’m almost done and I’ve gotten almost each note. Four missed notes, but now I’m back on track. Hey I handled that pretty well. And now I’m finishing and now just like that, I’m done. I made it. And now I’m done and I can stand up.

The speed with which James demands my guitar tells me that I need to hug my sister NOW. This must mean I’ve had the desired effect. And I have. But not just on her. I turn around and an intensity radiates from my husband’s face. His eyes are red and he looks as though it’s taken all of his concentration to hold his phone up to record a video. I don’t know when my mom went from laughter to tears, but it’s happened.

Photo by Thomas Marchese Photography

What terrifies me is how easy it would have been to not do this. To say, “I can’t afford to replace my guitar if it gets broken,” or “It’s a good idea, but I don’t have time,” or, “It’s not an ideal song for classical guitar,” or “What if I play badly?” Or, “If Alison wanted me to play guitar at her wedding, she’d ask.”

These excuses melted away, because I knew that to play this song would revive my father, invite him to stand right behind us and see Alison with her new husband. Music is powerful, but I don’t typically compare it necromancy. So when I couldn’t find an arrangement, I hired my college teacher to create one.

I know my family. I know what memories bubble to the surface most often and I recognized that very few things could stop me from turning this into an experience for everyone.

There’s a writing lesson here, hiding behind the life lesson. I think it’s to know your audience. Not in the usual, clinical, obvious-marketing-advice way. Know them as people, with passions, fears, secret desires and lost loved ones. Know what makes them laugh and cry (or both). Really understand what drives them, even if you can only touch that need on the surface. Invade their space in a good way. Draw out as much meaning as you can and don’t let your human brain interfere with excuses. Make something amazing and step outside the normal writing process to do it, if necessary. Dream big.


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