Heather O'Neill: How to be a writer

There was a boy named Eddie in my sixth grade class. He saw the movie Amadeus and decided that he wanted to be a conductor when he grew up. He stood on a chair in his kitchen with the radio turned up full blast to the classical music station. He wore a tuxedo jacket his mom had picked up at a second hand store for a Halloween costume. He wore mittens to keep his fingers warm and nimble. He did push-ups to make his arms stronger. He grew his hair long and stuck it up over his head so that it would flop around passionately when he was conducting.

In music class that year our teacher handed out plastic recorders. We brought them home and put them in big pots of boiling water to get rid of the nasty germs from the kids who had used them the year before. Then we began the painful process of learning to play them.

We were all supposed to learn "Ode to Joy" for the spring concert. We sounded like we were moving our chairs around without lifting them. We sounded like middle aged men stuck in traffic jams, expressing all their worldly frustrations with car horns.

My dad chased me out of the apartment when I was practicing one evening. I started to play on the sidewalk outside our building. He opened the window and yelled, "Farther!" So I went down to the train tracks, lugging my duo tang of sheet music and a kitchen chair. I sat by the tracks and practiced "Ode to Joy" while commuters looked at me from the train windows. A cat cringed and hurried away from me.

A boy in my class named Michael came to school the next day wearing a sling around his arm. He said his mother had forced him to practice his recorder in the cellar and he'd fallen down the stairs.

Eddie, on the other hand, didn't even practice. He said that the recorder was beneath him. Beethoven never played the recorder. Eddie walked around the schoolyard waving wildly for the imaginary trumpets to play louder. He failed music class.

People ask me strange questions about the writing process. They want to know if I write with a pen, did I go to the right schools, do I get inspired. None of these things are of any importance.

You don't have to go to Paris and throw flowers on Rimbaud's grave to be a writer. You don't have to struggle with depression. You don't have to get drunk and stand on your balcony and yell out that you are the Lizard King. You don't have to be able to debate the merits of Cormac McCarthy at a bar. You don't have to be friends with writers. You don't even have to like foreign films. Don't get me wrong, these things are all loads of fun but they just don't have anything to do with the actual writing process.

You have to write and write and write. And you will write horrible stuff for a long time. It will give your family members migraines. It might drive your father to have another gin and tonic and your friends to slink away from you. It won't seem anything remotely like what Ernest Hemingway and Tolstoy were doing. In fact, your mother's grocery lists will have more tension and drama than your stories. But eventually, if you work hard enough, you might begin to write better. And someday, perhaps, it will sound like "Ode to Joy."

Because without all this practice, you are just a little boy on a kitchen chair, thinking that genius is skin deep.

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