Advice for Aspiring Writers Part III: Hurdy-Gurdy (The Good Stuff)

My dude.

The first time I heard a hurdy-gurdy player I was in a basement restaurant in Stockholm, Sweden, that my husband Michael had found and insisted we try. It was Viking “themed” and I, in my infinite skepticism, was expecting the whole affair to be both historically inaccurate and generally embarrassing. This is the culture of my foremothers, after all, and I really didn’t want a Disney-fied version of the Nordic experience. But I humored Michael, because I love him.

It was none of those things. It was insanely fun, the food was incredible, and the experience not to be missed.

The hurdy-gurdy player was the honey-butter on the nut bread of our evening. The fellow was sitting right beside me, one knee up, chin raised, cranking the heck out of what looked like a deranged music box. And the sounds coming from it were, well, you can hear for yourself. It’s haunting, loud, and makes you absolutely pay attention. But it’s also incredibly old, especially for an instrument of such complexity. Like most instruments, history indicates it’s probably from the Middle East and goes back as far as the 9th century.

Hurdy-gurdy men, as they were called, were traveling minstrels, or bards. They were storytellers. They were a little deranged, too, and loud and made people pay attention. Because this was their livelihood. A hurdy-gurdy can be heard from quite a distance, and the instrument was both easily portable and rather sturdy (a sturdy hurdy-gurdy — which is better than a dirty hurdy-gurdy).

This is all to say, that in my digging through the Luttrell Psalter as I’ve done for this whole post series, I came upon a page with a hurdy-gurdy player (or possibly a kind of organ, but still same idea) and I just knew he had to be the mascot of this final post. Because bards and minstrels have a bit of romance to them, a bit of humor, a bit of flair. And they are the precursors to the novelists of the day. Before literacy, hurdy-gurdy folk were how stories moved from person to person. We have these curious people to thank for the bulk of what we know now is because of their efforts. They play complicated instruments and make it look easy, but really, there are tons of moving parts… and most people have no idea how it actually works.

This proud griffin says you are a storyteller. Do not contradict him. He will cut you with his majestic claws.

VERSE 1: You’re a storyteller.

No, really. You are. Most people are. We can’t really help it. Human beings, for all our unique evolutionary qualities, have very short attention spans, and we want to be entertained, damnit! Don’t tell me about how you got in your car and drove to work. Tell me how you barely made it to the car, spilled coffee all over yourself, rocked out to “Bohemian Rhapsody” until you cried, and pulled into the parking lot just three minutes before your first conference call (may or may not be true).

And if you’re a storyteller, chances are that you love good stories. At least, good to you. There is no accounting for taste, and I’m baffled often by both bestsellers and movie blockbusters… but that’s not the point. Those are still stories. Even if I don’t like them. Of all the very tired old writing advice out there, one I truly believe in is writing the stories you want to hear. This is especially important for marginalized groups. Stories have a habit of becoming less diverse and less queer over time to serve all sorts of purposes. People still are shocked to find out that there were people of color in King Arthur stories, for instance, but it’s true! Because stories are so very powerful, people are drawn to owning them, to warping them, to changing them.

So get out there and tell that story that only you can tell. The cells in your body could have been attached to a carbuncle on the back of a space comet. But they’re not. They’re you. And this particular arrangement of atoms says that’s pretty freaking incredible.

This dude is also consulting the footnotes. Highly recommended.

VERSE 2: You live in a world filled with more stories and information than ever before.

The difference is staggering, really, for this old Xennial (I was born in 1981, so I don’t belong anywhere). Ages ago, when I was about twelve or thirteen, I decided to rewrite the entirety of Young Guns I and II and write myself into the story. I mean, well, her name wasn’t Natania, but you get the drift. Well, there was no functional internet at home, and we had an encyclopedia — pretty amazing, considering — but all I had on the subject, besides the movies, was about a three-inch-long writeup in said volume.

I had to go, my friends, to the local public library. In this case, the glorious Forbes Library in Northampton, MA. It’s not only a magnificent place for books, but it’s also a beautiful building. And in that building, I delved deep into the card catalog. I found microfiche. I looked at old articles. And I… found like three more three-inch-long paragraphs about Billy the Kid and a picture I hadn’t seen before.

Now, well, I’ve already squealed about the fact that so many illuminated manuscripts are online (even 20 years ago during my college days, high-resolution photographs of a whole book were pretty much nonexistent). But there are just so many resources, so much inspiration. From Mary Shelley’s handwritten manuscript of Frankenstein to catalogs of African Folktales, to the just insanely beautiful art that’s on every corner of the web (Pinterest is a never-ending point of joy for me). Never before have we had such access to inspiration.

Don’t know where to start? Wikipedia is great as a starting place. Why? Because of the footnotes. In the footnotes and citations, you’ll find a whole new world. Primary sources, folks. Truth is stranger than fiction, or at very least, a great place to begin. Even if people don’t believe you that it actually happened.

These … satyrs? … are having a smashing good time.

VERSE 3: Writing can be an ecstatic, joyous experience.

I’m sorry if I’ve focused a bit on the not-so-fun bits of the writing process. But all things in proper measures, you know? If you want to be a writer, and you want to make it last, you’ve got to manage both a critical and an optimistic approach (remember all that chatter about dialectics?).

But the fact of the matter is that when things are going well, and often when you least expect it, the writing process itself will just bowl you over. Here is something you can (mostly) control (if your characters don’t have minds of their own which). Here’s a world where you can call the shots, where you can rewrite the rules. I have ever been boggled by fiction writers, and especially genre fiction writers, who only seem to be interested in telling the same stories over and over again. I mean, sometimes that can make for interesting things… but why not bend the rules? Maybe I’m just a chaos monster (it’s been said) but I don’t like rules. If there are elves or FTL ships in your stories, why keep the same social and political shackles in your cultures as you do in real life?

That was a detour. But I guess what I’m talking about is control. And art. And those are two things that are a big part of writing. You can control where you write, when you write, how you write… you can select fountain pens or dictate or press into cuneiform. But sometimes, you sit there, and you write something, and it’s like the tectonic plates of your own soul shift. You’ve dislodged a memory or an experience, or just created a completely new strain in this song of life.

It’s only happened to me a handful of times, but I have cried during editing or writing. The most recent came at the very end of the Frost & Filigree series. I was tidying up a romantic arc and, well, somehow I ended up with a happy ending (we don’t likes them, precious). And it hit me like a punch to the gut. This character deserved this happiness. It wasn’t perfect, but it was hers. And it was right. And it was beautiful.

How could you say no to the puppy goat man in a cape?

VERSE 4: Someone out there needs you.

We tend to cluster, we writers, in little dribbles. Little circles. And we are very much connected. So it’s easy to get caught in the echo-chamber of our own lives.

But there are other people who like to read who aren’t, you know, also writers? They’re called… readers. And they make up the vast majority of people who buy books. And readers don’t know that you’ve been through hell and back this week just to get 500 words down on paper, only to throw them into the fire and scream for two hours. They are hungry for stories, and there’s a big chance that writing isn’t something they can even do. And they don’t want to! They want stories. They want YOUR stories.

I recently had the experience of reading a book that I recognized as Seriously Not For Me but Clearly For Someone Else. And I was really, truly happy. Because I knew people who could use the book, and I was glad I could direct them toward it. Stories matter because they help us form our own ideas of who we are as people, which is by no means finished when we’re adults. We’re still evolving and we need to be reminded of what we’re capable. There’s a reason so many women my age burst into uncontrollable sobs seeing General Leia Organa on the screen. As relatively recent as Stars Wars is in the grand scheme of human storytelling, she was still an outlier in a story that was largely written and marketed with boys in mind. We all desperately needed not just Leia’s story as a young, beautiful, brave woman, but as an older, experienced, brilliant general, too.

There is a story inside of you that someone out there, someone you will never have met but somehow exists in the same plane of reality as you, needs it desperately. It could very well change their lives.

A happy, talented cow bee rooster? (Seriously. What the hell is this?”

VERSE 5: It’s not really about talent.

Many of us are brought up with this idea that there are talented people and then there are people who aren’t talented. And it’s true, to some extent, that some humans are simply naturally good at things while others have to work very hard to get there.

Writing, however, I don’t believe is really a talent. Scientifically, our brains have only been reading for a very short amount of time. And statistically, most of us were illiterate until the last century or so. Raising a son with severe dysgraphia has taught me a great deal about how the brain processes writing. I can write very fast and fancy, and my brain has no issues making the very complex combinations required. But my son can’t. Oh, he can read faster than anyone I know. But writing it down? Not so much. His brain just doesn’t coordinate the same way. So we’re teaching him. And he’s learning.

The structure of language, even the rhythm of it, can be taught. Should be taught. And then we break the rules (like I just did in those last few sentences). Reading is the best teacher.

I think storytelling is probably a talent in some people — like being a natural actor — but it’s also nurtured considerably through culture and society. Most of us just have stories inside of us and need to find a way to share them; otherwise, it’s a kind of madness.

This is all to say that you can and will get better with practice. The best writers are always striving to incorporate new skills into their repertoires, to stretch their muscles in new directions. And as long as you keep writing, you’re learning. Even if you don’t know it’s happening. How we write and how we live are inextricably connected.

My birdseed brings all the gargantuan raptors to the yard and I’m like…

Chorus: It’s hard work, but you’ve got this.

Persistence and passion pay off. Maybe not in the way you expect. Maybe not exactly as planned. There’s a whole lot in this world that I really don’t comprehend. The vastness of the universe and the sheer unlikelihood of my own existence are enough to keep me awake many nights.

But I do know that art matters. For all my skepticism and snark and sarcasm, deep down I know that when I’m out there in the woods listening to an audiobook and the world melts away and I’m in a completely different universe, feeling for characters that are just figments in another writer’s imagination… that’s magic. Or I read an essay that pierces me to my soul, or makes me remember a childhood food, or connect with another human being… that’s magic, too.

Stories changed my life. The teachers who opened my world to stories did, too. Without stories, I’d never have known how to cope with the difficulties of my childhood. I’d have never searched for Billy the Kid in the library, or searched for Merry and Pippin with Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas; I’d never have visited mitochondria with Meg and Charles Wallace and Calvin; I’d never have seen through the eyes of a 14th-century monk who had a thing for hurdy-gurdy players.

So, hey. You’ve got this. Keep going. Forgive yourself for when you don’t keep going, but don’t forget to move on when it’s time. Define your path, whatever it is. Support your writer friends. Don’t be a jerk.

Read more books. Live more life. Write more words.

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