What Playing Piano Taught Me About Writing-by Carly Rosalie Vandergriendt

The movers cost about as much as the piano. When they pulled up in front of our house on a muggy day last August, I understood why. Cars darted around the delivery truck as two men coaxed the swaddled instrument down a ramp and onto a dolly. They worked swiftly. Soon, the piano was being ushered up the walkway to our home. I stepped out of the way.

“Who plays?” asked the first mover, in a thick eastern European accent. “You or him?” He nodded at my partner, who was standing on our front porch with a mystified look on his face.

“Both of us,” I said. It was both true and untrue. My partner, a musician, could play the piano. You wouldn’t find him fleshing out a riff on one, though, as he often did on guitar. As for me, I’d played as a child and into my late teens. But the only keys I’d graced as of late were the ones on my MacBook.

The movers hoisted the piano up our front steps. I hovered while they deliberated removing our front door. My partner hurried away to procure the necessary tools. Then the men decided they wouldn’t remove the door. When my partner reappeared, the piano was crossing the threshold.

“You play Bach?” the first mover called to me as he disappeared inside the house.

“Ten years ago I did,” I said. Piano still felt like a first love, cast off with the arrival of adulthood. During my time at university, the digital piano I’d optimistically bought and shuffled from one apartment to another had all but gathered dust. Eventually, I had resigned myself to reality and sold it off.

Now, I was keenly aware of the privilege of owning a piano, especially in the city, where space, soundproofing, and noise-tolerant neighbours are limited. My partner and I had just moved into an apartment that felt like a real homeanother privilege. Fortuitously, that home also happened to be on the ground floor.

With the piano stationed in our living room, the movers left as quickly as they’d arrived. I stared at the instrument with both awe and unease. It had been my partner’s idea: something for both of us. Privately, I had reservations. Where would I find the time? Could I even still play? Would this piano, like its abandoned digital cousin, become a symbol of the person I wanted to be, instead of the person I actually was?

“Would this piano, like its abandoned digital cousin, become a symbol of the person I wanted to be, instead of the person I actually was?”

I spend a lot of time thinking about the person I want to be. I may call myself a writer, but without a published book, I don’t always feel like one. I may have a string of small-time successes, but those publications are also reminders of the frustrating slowness of the writing process. Patience is a virtue when it takes years to go from an idea to a polished manuscript to a published story.

“I spend a lot of time thinking about the person I want to be. I may call myself a writer, but without a published book, I don’t always feel like one.”

The piano arrived during a transition period. The move meant more financial responsibility, and as a freelancer, I quelled my anxiety by taking on a full-time contract in addition to my regular workload. Suddenly, I was juggling clients and rising at an unspeakable hour, hoping to squeeze in some writing. Most of the time, I was barely managing my inbox. I thought constantly about my stalled manuscript, and envisioned its completion date slipping farther and farther into the future.

Playing music, I soon remembered, was exhilarating. My fingers settled back into the waltzes and études I hadn’t played in years. I had never been a technically oriented player; now, the mistakes I made mattered little, if at all. There was nothing to prove and no one to prove it to. The joy of playing was enough.

As busy as I was, piano felt like a reprieve instead of an obligation. Sometimes, just seeing the piano—the fact that it took up a quarter of our living room made it hard to miss—was enough to make me stop whatever I was doing, sit down, and play. Why, I wondered, couldn’t writing be that easy?

“Sometimes, just seeing the piano… was enough to make me stop whatever I was doing, sit down, and play. Why, I wondered, couldn’t writing be that easy?”

As summer turned into fall and fall into winter, I kept juggling work commitments. Yet, I knew it wouldn’t be like this forever. A few months of industriousness meant I was in a position to be more selective in the months to come.

Meanwhile, I’d learned a new song on the piano. I hadn’t told myself I would learn anything; I’d simply made a habit of sitting down on the bench. My new musical practice served as a reminder that it is the act itself, not the end result, that counts. As the year wound down, I kept thinking about my manuscript but I stopped agonizing over when it might be finished. All I can do is keep writing when I can. That is enough.


CRV_HeadshotCarly Rosalie Vandergriendt is a Montreal-based writer and translator whose work has appeared in Prairie Fire, Matrix, The Malahat Review, The Fiddlehead, RoomPRISM International,and elsewhere. Her story “Resurfacing” was recently shortlisted for the Carter V. Cooper Short Fiction Prize. Carly is a recent graduate of the University of British Columbia’s Optional-Residency Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program, and is currently working on a short story collection titled Playing the Man. Visit her at carlyrosalie.com or follow her @carlyrosalie.

Photo credits: Simon-Pierre Lacasse

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