When did everything change?

Before I get on to today’s spontaneous writing thing, I want to address something that I was reminded of today and that I get asked about at least once or twice a week. Rough drafts.

A lot of writers will tell you a strategy that works for them. For most, it’s “write everything you think, get it on the page, come back and fix it later”. That is certainly a valid strategy and one that works for a lot of people. It doesn’t work for me at all and I think we need to be very clear on the difference between what works for us and what works for everyone — there is no winning formula for writing effectively. Yes, everyone needs to edit. Perfection isn’t going to happen instantly every time. No, not everyone needs to produce a messy version and then spend time cleaning it up. If you’re the kind of person who likes to just flow with the language and you can deal with wading through it later to turn it into real, proficient wordplay, fantastic. If you’re like me, a person who thinks for awhile, writes and sentence and doesn’t move on from that sentence until you’re happy enough with it you’d send it to your agent for publication, that’s also ok. I teach both methods in classes and try to make it very clear that neither is the right way of doing things, just whatever works for you. My way is definitely more time-efficient but it doesn’t necessarily produce better work and it absolutely doesn’t work for everyone. I encourage people to try it simply because if it works for you, it will save you a huge amount of time going back over things and having to get bogged down in vast numbers of edits. If it doesn’t work for you, though, there are varying degrees to which you can write an imperfect version and fix it later — I certainly wouldn’t suggest starting from the place of accepting that it will be a complete disaster just to get it on the page. That might be where you end up and there’s nothing wrong with it. But it’s probably the slowest possible process for writing anything longer than an essay and I’d avoid it if anything else works for you, simply in the interest of using your time wisely.

That being said, let’s move on to today’s topic. When did everything change. There have been a number of sweeping changes in my life and I am pretty sure I have written extensively about having lost the person I saw as my dearest partner and greatest teacher more than a decade ago. There have been other huge changes, though. I’m going to talk about one today that very few people who haven’t known me twenty years have anything more than the slightest notion of having happened. Almost everyone who knows me knows that I’m a classical musician and that I write choral music — hell, if you browse my website, you’ll find plenty of sample recordings and sheet music to download if you happen to be a choral conductor.

When I was in school, I knew that I wanted to be a teacher. I was pretty sure I wanted to teach college students but I was open to the idea of teaching at a high school if that would get me a classroom and autonomy. That wasn’t going to happen so I was set on a gradual progression toward tenure. Gradual not being my style, I pushed as hard as I could to start and finish that process as quickly as possible and met with some strikingly harsh resistance — procedure in education, as you may have discovered and as I have often bemoaned, is far more important than either intelligence or results.

But here’s the thing. Then (and now) the teaching was far more important than the subject matter. There are some people who are so passionately interested in what they are studying that they are compelled to share it with others. I have heard many people speak about this eloquently. If you haven’t encountered anyone simply overflowing with the need to teach the amazing knowledge they possess about their specialty, I would suggest you listen to some interviews or talks with/by Neil deGrasse Tyson (yes, the astrophysicist who hosted the new Cosmos series on NatGeo/Fox). I have great empathy with this position and I am also distinctly amazed by astrophysics and several other science disciplines. It’s why I feel so strongly about science communication. I never felt that about English literature or writing. To be perfectly honest, I never felt that about anything when I was in school. Some of that comes from the fact that I spent most of my educational career endlessly fighting with bureaucratic nonsense and pathetically unintelligent curriculum. But I just wanted to teach and the path to get there meant I would have to specialize in something and become an expert. So I would.

Then I found something that wasn’t so much a passionate interest as an emotional love. Music. And I don’t mean I turned on the radio one day (since we were still stuck in the radio and cassette age at the time and both are so low-quality I can’t say I had much time for listening to such things) and discovered that music existed. My parents were both musicians, along with a good portion of my extended family. And I don’t mean they sang from time to time in the shower. They were both professional musicians — my father directed a school choir, played organ and directed other groups and is an award-winning performer, in addition to being a math teacher and my mother was a performer and music teacher in schools and privately. So I grew up with music from the time that I was barely larger than a soccer ball. It was lovely.

Most of that music was classical in nature, although my dad was a fan of jazz and my mother had a fondness for Abba and the Beatles (as do I on all three counts to this day). But I love classical music. I loved it then and I always have — likely always will. I have some reservations about particular styles but that’s not the point and it’s a far larger topic for another day (why couldn’t any British composers between the end of the Baroque period and the middle of the twentieth century write anything that wasn’t both mindless and loud, for example?). But I never saw it as a career for myself until a bit later. Mostly because I wasn’t a performer. I didn’t want to be on stage. Sure, I took cello and piano lessons and became perfectly proficient and I sang in every pre-professional choral group I could get my notes on but that was something for the time outside the teaching world that I wanted to be a part of.

Then I discovered academic music. It was quite a strange development for me how it happened, actually — the irony was that my uncle is a professor of music but that was in a place so far away, his visits weren’t really about exploring my future career as much as they were about family togetherness. I don’t think we had a conversation about the nature of academic music until longer after I entered music school.

But that’s what happened. I couldn’t wait to enter university (which I did very early, another long story) but again the subject matter didn’t much do much for me. I was thinking math like my father for most of that time and I have to admit that probably would have been a wise choice in many ways. Not that music wasn’t but how music school went for me wasn’t a pleasant time.

That’s when everything changed. I had a very close friend in school whose father was a professor of music at the local university. I had known him for years but I never realized that he was a world-class musician and teacher until, well, until I started thinking about what I wanted to do to engage more with the academic community in general. So I asked him if I could join his university choir (what in some colleges would be called an undergraduate chorus). It was a huge group — eighty people, perhaps. Almost all undergraduate students, most of whom were music undergrads looking to get ensemble credit, which they were required to have as part of their degree and choir was a pretty good way to get it. Many of them didn’t really want to be there at first but I think the vast majority began to like it after a few weeks. I was probably the youngest person in the choir but I’m not sure how obvious that was. Perhaps very. Hard to tell. But I sang there (actually, sang with that choir pretty constantly for years) and that gave me an opportunity that I hadn’t anticipated. Spending time at the university, in particular at the music school. I made friends with students and spent ages talking to them about what they were studying and such. I changed my unfortunate and misdirected notion that studying music was about relaxing and playing. I’m not sure where I got that from but it was decidedly wrong. To this day, I’m absolutely certain that going to music school is the most demanding choice an undergraduate student can make at university.

So I was hooked. I went to my friend’s father and begged him to help me prepare for my audition to become a music student and, after some serious questions about whether I understood what I was making a commitment to, he graciously agreed to coach me through the process. It took some definite hard work but I put in the time and effort and not only got in but was awarded a huge scholarship to study music there.

I went from vaguely knowing that there was nothing I wanted to be and nothing I wanted to do in my life other than teach in a higher education institution. I knew I would spend my life as an academic. To knowing without a doubt that my future lay in academic music, that someday I’d be Dr Sato, Professor of Music. Didn’t quite work out that way, as you and I both know now, as I had very little choice but to give up that pathway before doctoral qualifications came my way and switch to creative writing — a pathway that I’m more than happy with the result of, by the way. I love writing, as you can tell from the lengthy, daily posts that I have here and my list of published books in the last year alone. I am still far more passionate about teaching students how to write than I am about doing my own, though.

So in some ways, that’s when everything changed. And in other ways, it was a continuation of my life’s only real dream (which I wrote about in another post recently). Different still, it was a short detour of some years from the eventual pathway that would actually lead me to academic life in the English world. But that’s my thought for today. I’d tell you not to give up on your dreams but realistically it’s more about looking for the change that will give you not what you want but what you can’t live without. Teaching is what I can’t live without. So I grabbed at it with both hands when a chance came along to teach something I love. I did it more than once, actually. So should you. When someone tells you not to give up, try to ignore them. We often need to give up and try something else. I had to more than once. And I survived, as will you.