brni (brni) wrote,

Play What You Can't

I was a senior in high school when my parents agreed to get me an electric bass for Christmas. I had been playing music since 4th grade - baritone horn, trombone, and tuba. Nothing with strings. I told my music teacher, so she told me to come down to the music room for lessons.

So there I was, with an instrument unlike anything I'd ever played. Mrs. Drew looks at me. She points at the neck of the bass.

"That's your E string," she says. "And that's the A string, and that's D and that's G. Each fret is a half-step."

I plunk at the strings. "Okay."

She puts some sheet music in front of me. Effie Suite for Tuba and Piano. "Here. Play this," she says. And then she goes into her office and shuts the door.

That was my first and only bass lesson. Got to stage band and the guitarist immediately had me playing Smoke on the Water. Makes sense. It's most likely the first rock song that generations of bass players learned. Once he got tired of jamming to those four notes, he showed me the various riffs of Rush's La Villa Strangiato (impossible bass playing starts up around 1:45), one of Rush's more intricate and difficult songs, in a vast repertoire of intricate and difficult songs. There was no way I could play it. I played it anyway. And maybe it sounded like Geddy Lee having a seizure, but I got through it, and each time through was a little better.

Playing what you can play is important when you're doing it live, or recording it, or whatever. But if all you ever do is play what you can play, all you ever do is play what you can play.

I couldn't play jazz, so I played jazz. I couldn't play funk, so I joined a funk band. I couldn't play reggae, so I... um... so I decided that I couldn't live my life stoned enough to play reggae. There's always an exception to every rule, right?

Same's true with writing. If you write in your comfort zone, your writing will be crisp and clean and sensible. Your characters will behave and do as they are told. Your plots won't fling themselves off of cliffs or get bogged down in sewer muck. Each iteration will be smoother and easier, more polished, more perfect.

And you'll never write anything that you can't already write.

But if you want to write what you can't, there's only one way. Do it. Don't be afraid for it to be crap. It will be. Don't be afraid to fail. You will. A lot. And in doing so, you'll learn.

Write the characters that aren't like you. That aren't like your friends. That fuck with your head with their gender, their race, their ideologies. Learn them inside and out. How they work in the world, and what the world looks like to them. Play with your plotting. Your narrative. Your word choices. Afraid of what people will think of how you depict a sex scene? Write porn erotica. Afraid that people will think you're boring if there aren't explosions on every page? Write a story where people sit around drinking tea and discussing the revolution.

Step into the muck and claw your way out. Find what you're most afraid of, and write it. Write what you can't, until you can.

Dive off that cliff, and fly.
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