8 Life Lessons from Music & Writing... and a Bittern

This is an American Bittern, a secretive bird related to herons. The way it sways is a defensive behavior, in this case he's responding to being spotted by my dad and I. With its beak stretched skyward, the vertical stripes on its neck and chest help it hide in the tall grasses. The swaying makes its camouflage more effective, mimicking the way the reeds move in the wind. This bittern either wasn't completely sold on the danger we presented, or thought stretching its neck would be more dangerous than holding still. At the end of this post, I have a photo of another bittern we saw in a more typical defensive pose.

I am thankful that I have had the opportunity to be involved in so many extracurriculars in my life. From dance to pottery to softball, they all taught me something. But of the myriad things I've tried, writing and music have had the greatest impact. Surprisingly, the elements for success in music and writing are very similar - and helpful in real life, too!

1. No one else can do it for you

You play the instrument, you put your own words down on the page. Others can have an impact on what you're doing, but in the end it's all you. You get all the glory when things go well, but you also can't blame other people for trouble. For good or ill, we alone are responsible for our stories, our performances, and our lives.

2. Enjoy your muse, but don't trust her

Give yourself permission to go with it when you feel inspired. It can be tons of fun, a fulfilling, thrilling feeling. Besides, sometimes real creativity requires you to let go and try something just for the heck of it. But remember that having fun doesn't always have the best results - after all, we all love belting out a song at the top of our lungs, but it usually isn't something other people want to listen to!

3. The basics matter

Scales, arpeggios, grammar, vocabulary. If you don't have the basics, you don't have a foundation. Everything you try to build will just end up a mess. And you can't stop practicing scales just because you've already learned them. Even when your muscles know the movements so well you don't even have to think, you still have to practice them. These things are the heart of your craft, neglect them and your efforts will be inefficient and generally futile.

4. The first time is never the best time

Sight-reading can be fun, so can your first story or first draft. There is always a first time, you should go for it with gusto. My band teacher always said, "If you're going to make a mistake, make it worth it." But it's not the best you can do. Don't settle.

5. Practice, practice, practice!

Write the words, play the music. Recognize and then focus on the things you don't have down, over and over, even if it means driving your house-mates or critique group mad with the repetition. Try new approaches, new embouchures, new fingerings. Use the tuner, the metronome, and feedback from your beta readers to help figure out what to fix. Work hard - you get out of it what you put in. All the talent in the world can't make up for laziness.

6. Listen to other people

The conductor makes sure the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Your private teacher encourages you and makes sure you keep growing. Your trusted readers make sure you are communicating what you hoped to communicate. From your performance at work to relationships to your grand masterpiece, there is literally nothing in life that doesn't benefit from wise counsel. The human mind is finite, and nobody can do it all themselves. Find other people to help you!

7. Recognize mistakes, but don't dwell on them.

Only pay enough attention to your mistakes to learn from them. Otherwise, you paralyze yourself, and you can't grow when you're paralyzed. In writing, there's always another draft and a new book. In music, there's another piece of music and another performance. In life, time charges ahead.

8. The audience matters

You play to be heard, you write to be read. If neither of these things happen, you have not achieved your goal. Strive to give your audience something valuable, and they will give you their attention (note: valuable things don't have to be what they ask for or what they've gotten before). If you want others to care about you, you have to care about them.

American bittern, in alarm stance

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