Tuesday, September 16, 2008


Sharon Wildwind

To the make of a Piper
goes seven years of his own learning
and seven generations before.
At the end of these seven years,
one born to it will stand at the start of
~Neil Munro, Gaelic writer (1863 to 1930)

Learning to play the bagpipes was noisier than learning to be a writer. The feedback was instantaneous. My mistakes were obvious, not only to me, but to the neighborhood dogs. Some of the mistakes—for one, discovering that tuning the bagpipes in a ceramic-tile shower stall was not a good idea—were downright painful.

The joy was that getting it right was immediately obvious, too. For those of us fond of bagpipe music, nothing can compare to standing in close proximity to a set of well-tuned drones and a well-balanced chanter. For those not so fond of bagpipes, I recommend a cool, gray morning, and about seven miles of mist-covered hills between you and the piper.

The problem with “the make of a Writer” is that the feedback is not instantaneous. The gap between finish first book and hold first published book in your hand may be years. By the time you get to book five or ten, you may neither remember what was in that first book, nor exactly why you wrote it.

Back seven years ago, when I decided to seriously devote my time to becoming a published writer, I said to myself, “Someone out there has to know what mysteries are all about. There must be a way to find those people.”

Well, there was, and today a good bit of my waking hours are filled with other mystery writers, Internet lists, blogs, web sites, mystery journals, and with the activities of writing, marketing, and thinking about mysteries. I’ve gladly crossed over into that state of insanity where, when I see a couple of police officers handcuffing a person in a mall, I have this brief, insane thought of, “I wonder if they would mind if I trailed along and took notes?”

The problem I’ve been puzzling on for some time is what comes next? If my first question was who knows about mysteries, my second is how do I move up into the journeyman stage of my writing career? If now, like a piper, I stand at the beginning of knowledge, where do I go from here?

If you’re familiar with the medieval apprentice/master arrangement, the middle step between apprentice (the beginner) and master (the person in control) was called the journeyman. The term had two meanings. First, from the French word journeĆ©, meaning a day. A journeyman was allowed to charge for each day’s work that they did. As an aside, wouldn’t that be a great arrangements for writers: to be paid for each day we spend on writing. The mind boggles.

The second meaning of the journeyman was that he could move away from his master’s household; he was allowed to travel to study under different masters. So, if a carpenter heard of a wonderful cabinet-maker in a village on the other side of the hill, he could go there and study cabinet-making for several months. Then, perhaps on to someone who framed houses, or built barns, or did whatever kind of carpentry interested him.

He was, however, required to periodically return to his master, both to show him what he’d learned, and to have the master correct any bad habits he might have picked up that were leading him away from the one, true path. (All masters believed, of course, that only they knew the one, true path.)

I probably have this incorrect, but who knows. My theory is that they are secret cabals of my fellow writers out there who have learned the one, true path. Or, at least, they have learned to cope with the vagaries of writing in some advanced way. They are past the basics. They know how to sustain a writing career through its murky adolescence, which is where I think my writing is now.

But I also have an idea that getting into such a group requires an invitation. They have to recognize that you are ready. Maybe you get an engraved invitation in the mail. Or maybe at a mystery convention someone sidles up to you, looks around furtively, and whispers in your ear, “Ten-thirty tonight. Suite 2015. Bring Black-and-Green dark chocolate. Tell no one.”

So, just in case, I keep a bar of B & G dark chocolate in my refrigerator. As they say in Hollywood, I’m waiting for the call.


Sandra Parshall said...

I get that feeling all the time -- that the great ones must have mastered all the techniques and tricks, that they no longer suffer self-doubt and pure terror when they sit before a blank screen. Then I'll read that Sue Grafton feels, after she finishes each book, that she will never be able to write another, that she can't remember how to do it. Many other highly successful writers say the same sort of thing. So the ones I don't trust are the ones who claim it's easy -- that their characters take over and they simply transcribe the words. Yeah, right. If the author puts little effort into the writing, the book will probably read as if... well, as if the writer didn't put much effort into it.

Anonymous said...

Well said, Sandra.

Julia Buckley said...

I do think writing is a very mysterious thing, though. I'll often discard manuscripts that I think are just horrendous, but I'll later pick them up again and A)think they're very good and B)not remember ever composing the words in the manuscript--it's almost like reading someone else's work.

But I love your parallels, Sharon. And wouldn't it be nice to be a journeyman writer who just went from house to house of famous mystery writers? Do you think meals would be included? :)

Auntie Knickers said...

The part about writing was good, but the bagpiping really got my attention! One has just moved in to my neighborhood and it is so nice to hear the faint sound of the pipes coming through my window.

Anonymous said...

Julia, if I could go from house to house of famous writers, I'd be willing to COOK the meals.

Antie, congratulations on having your own piper. Hope he/she always plays at just the right time for you.