Like Singing in the Car

I went to a business meetup earlier today and had a bit of a drive to get home. Today was the quintessentially perfect California day: unusually clear, cloudless unreal-cerulean skies, temperature right around 68 degrees, and no traffic to speak of on 101, though there certainly should have been.

And I was already in a good mood before that.

So I opened the sun roof and put on the satellite radio to my favorite channel. Brace yourself for my shameful secret. Here it is.

My favorite station is the Broadway channel.

Show tunes. Yes.

I’ll give you a minute to a.) stop laughing and b.) stop shaking your head and c.) stop pitying me.

’Kay. Ready?

Most of the songs, I know them. I can name that tune in, oh, six or seven notes, usually. I also know the stories behind the songs, and who played the lead in the stage version, and why she got screwed out of the part when they made the movie, and who or what was the inspiration for the whole production in the first place. (Gypsy? Funny Girl? I’m looking at you. Real people. Fascinating characters.)

Now the ironical part of loving the Broadway channel is that I. Don’t. Sing.

Not a note. I don’t even hum. I can’t even render something easy like “Happy Birthday” (though I did dress up as Marilyn Monroe for Halloween once, complete with white halter dress and blonde wig). At the ballpark, I won’t even attempt “The Star Spangled Banner”. I just move my lips soundlessly while y’all do it justice.

I like to tell myself I don’t sing because I had so many ear infections when I was a kid that the delicate pieces-parts of my ear were tragically damaged and as a result I’m devastatingly tone-deaf, but the truth (what could the truth hurt now that you know my shameful secret?) is that I have absolutely no musical talent. It can’t even be measured using negative numbers.

So today, in the car, in between charming theater tidbits by the Amazing Seth Rudetsky, they played one of the ones I know by heart, “Roxie”, from the musical Chicago. It was the original voiced by Gwen Verdon, the one with Roxie’s long monologue up front… and when Gwen began to sing the first line, that first, vulnerable love-me-please wavering note…

So. Did. I.

I mean, this never happens. I don’t just burst into song; I’d sooner burst into flames. But there I was, singing out, Louise, horribly, appallingly, embarrassingly badly… but it was fun, and most perfect of all, absolutely no one could hear me but me.

Surely this has nothing to do with editing, I hear you muttering to yourself.

Oh yes it does too.

The act of writing is exactly like me singing in the car. You’re in your space, by yourself, fingers on the keyboard and staring at the monitor and no one can see what’s up on that screen, except for you. Nobody knows how many infinitives you split. Nobody is there to point accusing fingers at your dangling modifiers; nobody cares that your dialogue, comparatively speaking, makes Paris Hilton look like Cicero.

When I hold writing workshops, my first bit of advice is this: Give yourself permission to write crap. Let it be as bad as it needs to be to get your ideas out, or better yet, don’t judge yourself at all as you write that first version.

You’ll have plenty of time to criticize later, right? You have as many tries as you want or need to rewrite, revise, reshape, and yes, remove whatever doesn’t work, and get that manuscript to the place you think it needs to be.

But the work can’t be edited until it’s written. You’ve got to get it down on paper. So forget perfection. There’s no one’s watching; it’s just like singing in the car.

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2 Responses to Like Singing in the Car

  1. Annie says:

    Great advice! This is what Anne Lamott calls the”shitty first draft.”

  2. Kitty says:

    Can’t sing? Not true. You just haven’t learned how to sing. As I tell the kids, “can’t” is the forbidden four-letter word. Now you’ve given me a challenge: get you to sing in the shower when people are home.