Chip MacGregor

September 28, 2010

Developing the Craft & Art of Writing – a guest blog


When I was growing up, my parents decided to sign me up for piano lessons. They hired my second grade schoolteacher to also be my piano teacher—I think I was her only piano student. She probably didn’t charge much and I really didn’t require much work; flashcards for reading music and making sure I was banging the right notes with the right fingers.

Two years later my second grade teacher moved away and so my parents found me a professional piano teacher who had dozens of students. She lived about thirty minutes away but she came highly recommended. She slotted me right into her typical rhythm and I followed the same path of hundreds before me—first the primer, then the secondary, then the suzuki, then the duets. I was learning but I wasn’t being offered anything just for me. It was education by curriculum.

I met a couple of kids during these years who could play piano just because they sat down and listened to music and played what they heard. I never could get those kids—I’ve not been blessed with that ability to just sit down and pick out the notes I hear. I don’t think there are too many people who can do that.

By the time I was old enough to realize what I wanted my parents found me a new teacher who lived just a few minutes from our house. Her house was small but she had managed to cram two baby pianos into the living room to sit side-by-side—those were the pianos we rarely got to touch. The lesson room was around the corner where she had her upright piano. Her name was Kathy, and she was the perfect piano teacher. If I wanted to learn something for church or school, I could bring it in and she would help me with it. But she also brought me a rich assortment of pieces both classical and contemporary to learn and was always finding new pieces at the music store for us to discover together. She wasn’t as worried with the notes I played as how I played them—did I sound like I cared? Like the music was within me? She taught me theory and made me go through a theory testing program offered by the university in town. She was worth every penny my parents paid because I learned not just how to play the piano with skill, but how to play it with art.

After high school I went to a conservatory of music for piano performance, and I guess because of that I was qualified to teach piano—a local family hired me to come and teach their three kids piano. Their youngest was four years old and could barely sit at the piano still enough to play it. I had an hour and a half to teach them each a half-hour lesson. Invariably, the oldest girl would get more time because she had more skill and I could work with her more on her pieces. The middle child just wanted to play Star Wars theme songs by ear, and like I said, the youngest was lucky to stay seated on the bench for five minutes at a time. The mom was not happy, though, when the youngest wouldn’t get her half-hour of lesson—makes me wonder in retrospect if I was also babysitter.

Nonetheless, teaching piano didn’t really work for me. I could play piano—heck, I was at a conservatory of music because I could play—but I was not the best teacher. Most of what I knew and remembered was from my piano teacher who taught me the art of piano playing. The basics had been drilled into me as a kid but I didn’t ever learn how to teach them. My wife is a professional educator so I see what it takes to be a good piano teacher, and that’s not my thing. My piano playing is so second nature to me that I can’t parse it out to teach it to other people. The best practicers are not necessarily the best teachers, nor are teachers always the best practicers.

In the end, I’m not a piano player by professional. All of that work and effort wasn’t so that I could sell a million records playing Bach or Beethoven or Chopin. I’ve used that foundation to learn many new instruments, to compose a little music on the side, and to play various styles of music at church and school. But the richness music has brought to my life is priceless—I can pick up most common instruments and play most songs in almost any context and have a clue what I’m doing. I have music I’ve composed that I look back on with fondness. My goal wasn’t professional performance, but I trained for that anyway.

Most of you reading this blog are writers. In what ways does your writing story parallel my musical journey? Both writers and musicians are artists—needing training, practice, and instruction. My story might not be all that different were I a painter or a dancer or a sculptor.

Maybe you find yourself needing more than just a critique group of your peers to reach the next level of your writing. You might already have an agent, or already have a publisher, but you aren’t finding the place where you are being challenged to reach greater heights as a writer—you aren’t being pushed artistically. Or you might still be searching for an agent or a publisher and wondering why you haven’t gotten signed yet.

The advantage to hiring your own editor who can coach you in your writing journey is that your editor doesn’t have to worry about the requirements of a publishing house or the word count of your manuscript according to certain guidelines—in fact your editor doesn’t have to be tied to a certain manuscript at all. He or she is free to focus on you as a writer and your growth in the craft and art of writing.

I am one of those editors; I do much of my private client work through the oldest full-service editorial firm in the country, The Editorial Department, founded in 1980 by Renni Browne, one of the most experienced editors working in publishing today and co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. If you are interested in developing yourself as a writer with professional, experienced help, you will find everything from pricing to staff bios on our website. We have an introductory critique service for only $35—so you can try before you buy, so to speak. Though we are confident you’ll find TED to be helpful, professional, and worth every penny.

If you’re just coming off of the ACFW conference, TED is offering a special giveaway of our $175 proposal and sample chapter evaluation—and we’re also rolling out a new entry-level service for a special price just for ACFW members. Stop by the website for details.

Andy Meisenheimer grew up reading Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, Michael Crichton, Ray Bradbury, and Chaim Potok. After working for six years at an imprint of HarperCollins, he is now a freelance editor, editing and coaching writers through The Editorial Department, as well as serving as a Fiction Editor at Red Fez Publications, an online literary journal. He also dabbles in writing and music-making in his free time. He lives with his wife, kid, and two dogs, near Grand Rapids, Michigan.


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  • Jim Rubart says:

    A quick commercial word: I hired Andy to consult on my novel BOOK OF DAYS. He was outstanding.
    (I received no compensation for saying this, unless you count getting to drive his Ferrari for a month.)

  • Great post. I am also sharing this link on twitter and facebook.

  • Carrie says:

    Hi Andy, this sounds like a great opportunity for ACFW members just back from conference. I will share the link on facebook and twitter.
    Thanks very much!

  • Lisa Scherer says:

    Wonderful post. A wealth of great info! Thanks!

  • yarnbuck says:

    Thanks, Andy. I hear you loud and clear. I coached a lot of high school football players over the years who had less than a 1% chance of playing at the next level. Excellence is its own reward. I think I’ll check out the website . . .

  • Ane Mulligan says:

    Terrific post, Andy. It also reminds me of how a writer must learn the guidelines of good writing before they can develop that to their own art in writing.

  • Leah Morgan says:

    Grand Rapids? As in 49501? That zipcode remains imprinted in my head thanks to a childhood lived out under the influence of radio’s Uncle Charlie. And that show brings to mind my own youthful endeavors. I’d been singing publicly since I was two and was crushed when Uncle Charlie’s special guest triggered this comment from my brother, “She can sing better than you and she’s blind!”
    I hadn’t been impressed, her Michigan accent colored every note, but I did accept the shame. She struggled to sing even though she couldn’t see and here I was with two good eyes ….singing.
    My idiotic brother.

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