Tamsin Silver, writing for the Magical Words blog, asked recently whether too many books on writing, too many classes and too many rules can interfere with one’s creative instinct. Clearly that’s a danger, a trap to avoid. Her post also got me thinking how Rachmaninoff might have gone about composing his third piano concerto and whether that sheds any light on Silver’s question.
Writers who seek to improve their skills are naturally drawn to books, classes, workshops, critique groups, etc. While all of the above can be beneficial, it’s also possible to drown in the deluge of available resources, many of which promise to reveal the secrets of a successful writing career––i.e., one that pays the bills and the occasional vacation. By drowning I mean being unable to move forward because of conflicting advice or a fear one is not doing it the way a teacher, author or critic recommended. Following a rule rather than one’s instinct can lead to dead-ends and writer’s block.
Ignoring rules can also be a trap. Readers can lose confidence in a writer if they are caught up short by breaks in format, sentence structure, and/or spelling. Those kinds of things can work in poetry, but need to be justified when inserted in prose.
That brings me to Rachmaninoff. I was fortunate to hear his third piano concerto performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra on August 17 at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center under the baton of Yannick Nezot-Seguin with Lukas Vondracek at the piano. The concerto begins with a simple enchanting melody which Rachmaninoff builds off of in a long first movement. I imagine that melody was the first thing that came to his mind. It might have been while doing something unrelated to composing, but he wrote it down and came back to it when charged with composing a piano concerto for his first tour to the U.S. in 1909.
That’s often how story ideas come to me. I get an imagine of a scene where something unusual is taking place. A man on an operating table was the initial image for The Expendable Man, my 2011 thriller. A family dinner disrupted by an unwelcome announcement was the impetus for House Divided, another thriller released in 2015.
Did Rachmaninoff see the entire concerto when he decided to build on that melody? I suspect not. It probably took hours and hours of playing around with ideas before he was satisfied, just as it took me hours and hours to build on the initial ideas I had for each of my novels.
During the course of composing, I wonder how often Rachmaninoff stopped to consider the advice of his teachers or criticisms levied by those reviewing his previous works. I can’t imagine he gave any of that a moment’s consideration. Once he chose to begin, I am confident he trusted his ability to create a piece worthy of bringing to the new world.
Writers might learn from this great composer. Once you have set forth on a project, don’t look back. Don’t worry about what will happen once you’ve finished. Concentrate on finishing. Use all of the talent, experience and inspiration that brought that story idea to mind to write the best story you can write. Later on you can switch gears, read another writing book, attend another conference and vet your story with your critique group or partners. Think of Rachmaninoff and compose your story.