Tag Archives: Marcia Butler

The Wood Shed

Author: Marcia Butler

I sit on my sofa, computer nestled on my lap. I check out social media and two email accounts. Nothing earthshattering. A pigeon perches by my window for a few seconds, then flutters off, its body too big for the shallow sill. Cumulus clouds have appeared in the distance and I wonder if it will rain later. I peek at the weather report, then slide my mouse over to the New York Times Breaking News and get caught up in some headline or other.

Finally, I close all applications and maximize the page I’m supposed to be working on – only to confirm that, yes, the words I’d left there ten minutes ago are still awful, surely inadequate for whatever story I’m trying to write. I look at my watch: 2:15. I delete an entire paragraph and ponder new words that might actually pass for acceptable. I’ll stay put for three more hours and it will, no doubt, feel awful. But I’m used to that. I think about the years before I was a writer, when, as a professional oboist, I’d learned exactly what living day after day with “awful” was like.

There is nothing like the specter of a performance to send musicians to the wood shed. The legendary jazz saxophonist, Charlie Parker, coined the phrase “shedding” (which is double speak for practicing) when he’d retreated to the wood shed at the back of his house after being humiliated for messing up on a gig. The story goes that someone threw a cymbal at him when he missed a chord change. He was just 16 years old, already addicted to heroin, and remained in that shed for about a year and practiced his way to becoming a jazz visionary and one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century.

Shame, as in Parker’s case, can accomplish a lot. It might be the low flame on which a musician sits in order to come terms with failure. That’s just one way to buckle down: getting burned. But for most musicians, as I was in New York City’s highly competitive classical music scene, the pull toward the practice room is more like an imperative. Because great art music demands close inspection, and the necessity to be fully prepared to within an inch of your life. Every. Single. Day.

Sitting in a practice room for hours is not fun and rarely feels rewarding. Yet musicians see this daily discipline and rigor as simply a given – a life sentence of sorts. And they expect things to sound pretty bad for a good long while. Grinding through that rub to get to the smooth edges brings them closer to the beauty of music. This is hard to do and bruises the ego frequently; and one wonders on occasion, when will the good stuff show up? But waiting for the muse to strike is a fantasy musicians have no time for because a performance always looms. “Blocks” are a lie we tell ourselves, and inspiration is just perspiration in disguise. Musicians enter their wood shed every day.

When I began to write my memoir, The Skin Above My Knee, I’d never taken pen in hand, not even in a journal. I had a good command of the English language, a gripping tale to tell, and an unconscious urge to tackle another art form. But the most important thing I understood was where I was headed: to the wood shed. I slammed the metaphorical door shut; the lock snapped with a bang. I was trapped and driven by my own volition and story. I sat in the chair for hours every day with my computer on my lap and wrote lots of awful words, then threw out those darlings. I failed massively and managed to progress incrementally – just like a musician.

Making music beautifully and writing exceptional sentences are the same: it’s a marathon, not a sprint. And as any serious runner will tell you, there is considerable pain involved in a 26-mile run. But the exquisite bliss experienced beyond the finish line is indescribable. And so worth it.

So, I sit on my sofa, computer nestled on my lap. I write my words. I throw them out. I try again. I keep at it. And I stay put. I am in the wood shed.

 

Marcia Butler Bio:

Marcia Butler is the debut author of the nationally acclaimed memoir, The Skin Above My Knee. She was a professional oboist for twenty-five years until her retirement in 2008. During her musical career, she performed as a principal oboist and soloist on the most renowned of New York and international stages, with many high-profile musicians and orchestras – including pianist Andre Watts, and composer and pianist Keith Jarrett. Marcia was a 2015 recipient of a Writer-in-Residence through Aspen Words and the Catto Shaw Foundation. Her work has been published in Literary Hub, PANK Magazine, Psychology Today Magazine, The Aspen Institute, BioStories and others. She has written a novel which is currently out for sale to publishers. Marcia lives in New York City.

The Craft of Memoir – Write Like a Novelist

NAMW August Member Teleseminar–Marcia Butler

August 18, 2017

11 AM PDT   12 PM MDT  1 PM CDT  2 PM EDT

One of the greatest compliments I received when my memoir was published was hearing from reviewers and readers alike that my book “read like a novel.”  Most memoirs have a gripping tale to tell, which is vital not only from a publisher’s standpoint, but also for the expectation of the devoted reader of this form. Yet, skillful and nuanced storytelling must be a goal not only of the novelist but of memoirists as well.

After all, there is only one difference between fiction and memoir. In the case of a novel the plot is made up. But the memoirist knows the story and all the characters. We know how the protagonist will succeed and fail; who lives and who dies. The memoirist is in full command of thoughts, feelings, memories, the beginning and the ending. Novelists make their decisions throughout the writing process, tossing out characters and plot threads that don’t serve the narrative.

But memoirists know the stakes from the very beginning and it is our job to tell our story with compassion, craft and intelligence. We must keep the reader turning the pages, eager to see what happens next by pacing the action, by writing believable dialogue and by creating chapters that satisfy as a whole. Just like a great novel.

In my teleseminar, I’ll show you how to tell your life story with the skill and nuance of a novelist.

  • Build your world view
  • The process of selecting scenes for inclusion – must we tell everything?
  • How to make a distant yet important memory come to life
  • Short lens and long lens as a way to create depth and space in a scene
  • Writing from anger and grief – keep this in check and remain be a believable character/writer
  • Craft dials apply to memoir too – use the senses
  • Some characters do not warrant page space – choose carefully
  • Know what your story (plot) is – life is big but a book can contain only so much
  • How to get your character “across the room” – tools to elide gaps in time or compress time

 

Marcia Butler Short Bio:

Marcia Butler is the debut author of the nationally acclaimed memoir, The Skin Above My Knee. She was a professional oboist for twenty-five years until her retirement in 2008. During her musical career, she performed as a principal oboist and soloist on the most renowned of New York and international stages, with many high-profile musicians and orchestras – including pianist Andre Watts, and composer and pianist Keith Jarrett. Marcia was a 2015 recipient of a Writer-in-Residence through Aspen Words and the Catto Shaw Foundation. Her work has been published in Literary Hub, PANK Magazine, Psychology Today Magazine, The Aspen Institute, BioStories and others. She has written a novel which is currently out for sale to publishers. Marcia lives in New York City.

 

Testimonials

Myers makes a compelling case for the power of words as a form of healing and growth.

James W. Pennebaker, Ph.D. professor of psychology, The University of Texas at Austin and author, Opening Up and Writing To Heal

...the NAMW memoir classes with Linda Joy Myers are wonderful

Kathy Pooler