I began playing the clarinet when I was in fourth grade, maybe ten years old. My older sister played the flute in our elementary school band, and while I would have preferred to take up the drums, it was decided that I would have to stick to woodwinds if I wanted to follow in her footsteps.
Unlike most other things I tried when I was but a flighty youth—Girl Scouts, swimming, basketball, ceramics—I stuck with the clarinet. And I got good at it. Not child-prodigy, Mozart-playing-for-Viennese-royalty good, but capable enough.
I played throughout elementary school, and then middle school. I took private lessons. I actually practiced. I was in the marching band all four years of high school. I made it all the way up to second chair (for those of you none-band-nerds, understand that this is a big deal in our world), snagged a spot in the all-county orchestra, played in the pit for our senior musical, Guys and Dolls. Luck be a ladyyy, toniiiight!
Did I say I was good? I was good.
Then I started college and joined the campus band. As it turns out, high school good was just college okay. My motivation to practice dried up, and so did any talent I may have had. I packed up my clarinet in my parents’ home and said it was temporary. That was more than five years ago.
Since then I have picked up my clarinet just one time. I brought it back to Chicago with me after going home for winter break. The reeds were old and several keys were broken, but even if the old girl had been in tip-top shape, there was no disguising how bad I sounded. Discouraged, I put my clarinet away again and haven’t tried to play since. What had I been expecting after so many years? Why was I surprised that my limited talent had atrophied?
Writing’s no different. Like musical abilities, or a foreign language, or even riding a bike (that expression is stupid and, worse, it’s wildly incorrect!), putting some read-worthy words to paper is a skill you can gain, you can develop, and you can lose. I know this because it happened to me.
Journalism school just took it out of me. All I could swoon about in my application was my love of writing, the poem I’d written (and tried to get published) about my dog in the second grade, how my life dream was to tell stories! I think it may have been true, once, and the fat journals I have full of all of my 10-to-18-year-old feeeelings are something of a testament. But actually going to school for writing? I was drained.
As I noted in the previous post, I haven’t written much since I graduated in June. Not for work, not for myself, and I’m woefully out of practice. Every time I try, my words feel as creaky as those lower-register keys on my clarinet. The thought of actually having to do it is as a career—on a DEADLINE!—scares me more than I’m okay with. How did I get so bad? And will I ever be good again?
Unlike the clarinet, though, I keep at it. Half an hour one day, 45 minutes the next, and I’ll get to speed. The muscle memory is returning. I should be writing complex sentences again in no time.
Is my desktop a graveyard of bold ideas and half-finished stories? Of course. Did this 600-word piece take me three days to complete? Maybe. But I’m not going to set writing aside and swear I’ll come back to it. Aside from the clarinet, it may be the only thing I’ve ever been good at.