How Claiming My Passion Transformed My Writing Career

Returning to the Piano Mitigates a Writer’s Fear of Submitting

Profiles_in_Piano_Judy_Polstra
Profiles in a Piano, an acrylic painting by Contributing Artist Judy Polstra.
Whenever I present my workshop, “Claiming Your Passion,” I cringe when I get to the part about my filing cabinet drawer stuffed full of personal essays, essays that I could not work up the courage to submit. This is the point of my story at which my husband and I needed a second income; my giddy decision four years before to leave my career in telecom marketing now looked impulsive. At that moment, I felt as though in my desire to become a writer, I had failed.

Since I’m sharing my story, you have the privilege of sensing at the beginning of this post that my tale has a happy ending, specifically that I faced my fear of allowing editors to evaluate my work. I’m the heroine of this story about summoning the courage to submit, but only once I’m seated at the piano. Reclaiming my passion for the piano in my early forties helped me to move forward as a writer.

Participating in your passions helps to center you and access your deepest self.

I define a passion as an activity that you do naturally and with great interest, quite simply an activity that you love. As long as your passion fits that definition, it can be absolutely any activity, from acting to zip-lining. Your passions are distinct from your talents, education, acquired job skills, and profession, although sometimes they overlap. The key is that participating in your passions helps to center you and access your deepest self. As readers of this magazine, many of you have already identified your passion for the piano. I hope my story helps you deepen your relationship with the piano as a means of engaging with other parts of your life.

Back to my story: faced with a need to make money, I dove back into telecom marketing, a surefire source of income, securing a job as a marketing director at a cell phone start-up. Yet I often felt impatient in meetings, and I drummed my index and middle fingers on the conference table, as though playing a trill. That was the extent of my piano playing. I hadn’t touched the piano in 25 years, not since the summer of my 16th birthday. During my adolescence, I often felt bliss when practicing, and the year I turned 16, I performed a Rachmaninoff prelude in recital. Yet that summer of my 16th birthday, my parents’ marital problems and financial pressures forced me to quit. My memories of losing the piano haunted me.

At the cell phone company, two years slipped by while I played silent trills on the conference table. Then my husband enrolled with our five-year-old in father-son piano lessons, an action that for me became the trigger point of transformation. Once the Yamaha upright we had purchased for my husband and son to practice arrived at our home, I enrolled in adult piano lessons at our local university.

Every night, after my children fell asleep, I practiced for at least an hour. On the bench, I experienced the old feelings of my adolescence, sometimes a wild joy, other times a certain naturalness and ease, almost always a feeling of belonging. My teacher assigned me Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude. The opening melody was ruminative, almost rapt, while underneath the melody, in the keyboard’s tenor section, an A-flat pulsed, consistent and unerring: the sound of raindrops pinging.

While my ego concentrated on the rigor of learning the notes, my inner voice spoke.

While my ego concentrated on the rigor of learning the notes to the “Raindrop” Prelude, my inner voice spoke, pointing out the mismatch between my dream to be a writer and my work at the cell phone company. One night my inner self worked around to the sore point of those printed, completed essays waiting patiently in my filing cabinet. Surely I should send out a few for publication? Hands shaking at my computer, I submitted some of them to different magazines, unwinding the first few threads from my tightly spooled fear.

I received my first acceptance nine months later, during the morning at work, where I had arrived at 6:00 a.m. to write before the business day hit full throttle. Fit Pregnancy would publish a piece about how swimming helped me cope with my first pregnancy. I jumped up from my desk and paced the office, overcome with excitement.

The act of submitting also had the effect of encouraging me to write new material. With the piano as my nightly companion, to write about anything else, save my husband and children, seemed pointless. After six major drafts and three rounds of input from my writing group, all adding up to a year’s worth of work, I finished my essay, “Deserting the Piano,” which I felt that perhaps, uh, maybe, I really should submit. My writing group advised me to send the manuscript to 10 literary journals at a time, as long as they permitted simultaneous submissions, and not to consider stopping until I had at least 50 rejections. This advice served as a permission of sorts, and as further encouragement, I created an Excel spreadsheet to track my progress, with the idea that I would keep my ego busy. When I received a call from the editor of The Chattahoochee Review, who informed me I had won the journal’s Lamar York Nonfiction Prize, I screamed out loud.

I auditioned for a piano society, a group of committed amateur pianists who performed in public concerts. For my first performance, when I played Debussy’s Reverie and a Chopin Nocturne, my hands and legs shook, I repeated the opening section once too many times, and I tripped over some wrong notes. Yet afterwards, members of the audience came up to me with shining eyes. An elderly woman gripped my arm. “That was beautiful,” she said. I realized that perhaps my piano teacher’s feedback that I was musical was true.

The performances I had given had been marred with imperfection, yet I had participated in the concert (the equivalent of submitting and being published in the writing world) and created pleasure for my audience. When I practiced at my piano in the months that followed, my inner voice spoke again: I now had a respectable stable of publications, but I took too long to write each essay. The less work I produced, the fewer pieces I would have to submit, minimizing the number of rejections I would receive. My ego was still in control, protecting itself with a shield of perfectionism.

Often I was forced to publish a piece I considered less than perfect.

In the summer of 2011, I launched GRAND PIANO PASSION™. Part of me was terrified. I had spent a year on my award-winning essays, so what would happen to the quality of my writing when I was forced to publish every week?

I discovered, much to my surprise, that I felt energized interviewing adults who took piano lessons, penning personal essays with practice tips, and reviewing books that touched upon the topic of the piano. Although I tried to finish my articles a month ahead of time, many a Sunday night, with only hours before my 5:00 a.m. Monday publication time, I was still at the computer, finishing my article for the week. Often I was forced to publish a piece I considered less than perfect. In an irony I had not foreseen, sometimes the essays I had written most quickly garnered the most likes from my readers. I realized how essential it was for me as a writer, really as a human being, to engage with others and to receive feedback about my work. As a result of the blog, I received several paid assignments, including my first unsolicited commission from the beauty website Aesop, a profile for a Bach issue for their online magazine.

This pattern in my writing life continued, each milestone in my pursuit of my passion for the piano helping me to overcome my fear of submitting. Seated at the piano bench, engaged in my passion for the music, I could hear that wise, inner part of myself that helped me to access the courage to submit my work. In 2012, I took a master class on performance, culminating in a recital at Carnegie Hall. The following year, I took my story about how reclaiming my passion for the piano had turbocharged my writing life and developed a workshop, “Claiming Your Passion,” securing four speaking engagements.

Am I completely cured of my fear of submitting? I’m afraid not. My condition is no longer acute, yet it’s still present, low-grade and chronic, waiting to grow into paralysis if I let it. Yet I have my passion for the piano to protect me. The piano, which I imagine in some ways as a separate person, a guardian angel that divines my deepest desires, will be there to take me by the hand.

During my workshop, on “Claiming Your Passion,” the chill I experience describing that file drawer of essays gathering dust dissolves to a feeling of exuberance as my presentation draws to a close. I declare to my audience that Every Person Has a Passion™, quite simply an activity that they love. Getting in touch with your passion for the piano, and taking the time to practice, even if only for 20 minutes a day, centers you, helping your life bloom in satisfying and sometimes unexpected ways.

A version of this article appeared on the blog Lisa Romeo Writes in October 2014.
Contributing Artist Judy Polstra is a self-taught visual artist who has been drawing and painting for as long as she could hold a pencil. Her stylized grand pianos are a way for her to express in color the emotions she feels when playing, practicing, or listening to music. Learn more at judypolstra.com and follow her on Instagram @jpolstra.
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Copyright © 2017 Nancy M. Williams. All Rights Reserved.

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