Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

How I learned not to play the ukulele

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Stephin Merritt

A few years ago, I bought a ukulele. I’m still not entirely sure why. For a long time, I’d wanted to pick up a musical instrument, and after briefly toying with the idea of the musical saw, I settled on what seemed like a reasonable option, probably inspired in equal parts by Stephin Merritt and Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. I also may have been swayed by the fact that my apartment at the time was only a few blocks from the Old Town School of Folk Music. Later, when my wife and I moved to Oak Park, I was delighted to find myself just up the street from a music store that offered ukulele lessons, which seemed like nothing less than a sign from the universe. Before long, though, I’d set my ukulele aside, after little more than a few halfhearted attempts at tuning. A few months later, the music store in my neighborhood closed. And the ukulele is still gathering dust in my closet, along with more than a few other discarded attempts to turn myself into a more interesting person.

I don’t think I’m alone here. Like most people, I’ve always been envious of anyone who can display a mastery, or even a basic proficiency, in a small, ingenious skill, especially because my own supply of parlor tricks is laughably small. I can’t juggle, or do magic, or solve a Rubik’s Cube, even though I’ve had friends who can do all of the above, and more. Every few months, I’ll be bitten by some unexpected bug, inspired by how temptingly simple it seems: all it takes is practice and the right book of ten easy lessons. On a somewhat higher level, for instance, I’ve recently become interested in the idea of learning how to code, since I’ve long been struck by the parallels between what I do as a writer and what good programmers do for a living. As a result, I’ve been poking around various sites for advice on whether to start with Java or Python, and which books on the subject, if any, are worth reading in their own right. But I have the uncomfortable feeling that this, too, will end up in the same dustbin of attractive but unfulfilled notions.

Israel Kamakawiwo'ole

And it isn’t too hard to figure out the reason: I’m just too busy writing. Every year or so, it seems, I hit a point in my own work where I start to feel a little confident. Maybe I’ve made a sale or two, or written a draft of a novel that I can actually bear to read  again, and it occurs to me that I’ve got this writing thing figured out, at least within my own considerable limitations. That’s usually when I start dreaming about taking up eskrima or learning how to draw from life. Inevitably, though, there always comes a moment when I realize how little I really know. Usually, it’s when I hit a plot problem that I can’t solve to my satisfaction, no matter how many times I take a crack at it, or when my latest draft comes back with three pages of notes that are annoying but undeniably on the mark. Whenever that happens, I have no choice but to drop whatever fascinating hobby I have in mind, put the ukulele in the closet again, and get back to work. And this has happened often enough that I’m skeptical that I’ll ever learn any of the wonderful skills that populate my daydreams.

But I’m ultimately okay with this. When I was growing up, I wanted to be able to do pretty much everything, but I’ve since realized that it’s hard enough to do just one important thing well. Writing is challenge enough for a lifetime, and although I’ve mostly given up on my adolescent dreams of becoming a true polymath, writing, at the very least, has turned me into a generalist. I may not be able to do anything else, but I continue to grow as a writer in incremental ways, and I’ve developed a few useful tricks. Sooner or later, of course, the tricks I know turn out to be not enough, which forces me to learn a few more, and this doesn’t leave much time for anything else. Still, I take consolation in the fact that I get to play this great game, and that the amount of mental energy I’d expend elsewhere might be better put to use on what I care about the most. I still dream of picking up that ukulele again, in a kind of idealized retirement that will probably never come. But I have to get a lot of writing done first.

Written by nevalalee

April 15, 2013 at 8:45 am

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