Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The art of noodling

with 4 comments

Israel Kamakawiwo'ole

A few weeks ago, I broke a longstanding promise: I picked up the ukulele again. Earlier this year, I wrote a long post on how I learned not to play the ukulele, or, more generally, why my attempts at developing interesting hobbies have tended to fall apart. Writing consumes so much of my life that there isn’t room for much more, aside from family, friends, and books, but recently, I found myself taking an unaccustomed break. I had two or three projects winding their way through various stages that were out of my hands, so I was doing little more than playing the waiting game. Under most circumstances, I’d have filled the gap with an interim writing project, like a short story, but the break happened to coincide with a period when my daughter, now crawling like a champ, was demanding more of my time: I’d open a book or start writing up some notes only to jump up seconds later to stop her from chewing an extension cord. What I really needed was something to occupy my time while leaving me free to drop it at a moment’s notice, and the ukulele, which had been lying in my office closet for years, seemed like a pretty good candidate. So I dusted it off and set out, armed with an instruction book and a bunch of online tutorials, to see how much I could teach myself in a little over two weeks.

It helped that my ambitions were modest. At the most, I wanted to learn how to noodle around with it well enough to amuse myself and, ideally, my daughter. Over the last year, I’ve found myself with a lot of odd corners of time, too short to do anything meaningful but too long to spend just refreshing my web browser, and learning an instrument felt like a good way to fill up those orphaned minutes. (I may also have been inspired by Lin Yu-Tang’s description of the life of half and half: “[A man] who plays the piano, but only well enough for his most intimate friends to hear, and chiefly to please himself.”) And the nice thing about aiming only to noodle is that you’re pleased by even the most incremental signs of progress. C, G, F, and A minor, held together with some common chord progressions and a good strumming pattern, are enough to occupy a beginner for hours, and in the meantime, you’re developing muscle memory, a sense of rhythm, and those crucial calluses on your first three fingers. I’m nowhere near the point where I’d have any business playing for anyone but my closest friends, but two weeks into the process, I’ve picked up enough that I can see myself noodling away for a long time, acquiring new tricks as needed, and fumbling toward something like basic competence.

Stephin Merritt

And because I’m the kind of person who turns everything into a metaphor for something else, I’ve been thinking a lot about what this means for learning any kind of art. I haven’t tried to teach myself a new creative skill in ages, and it reminds me of how much I take for granted: I’ve been a decent writer for as long as I can remember, and although I shudder a little when I look back at my past efforts—which include the earliest posts on this blog—it’s been a long time since I had to worry about the fundamentals. This isn’t to say that I’m not often dissatisfied with my work, but when I fall short, as I often do, it’s usually because of flawed execution at a higher level, or because the underlying premise itself is wanting. Within a broad range between those extremes, I move comfortably, as I have for a long time. Learning to play an instrument, even one as accessible as the ukulele, takes me back to a time when even the simplest building blocks refuse to come together, and it’s hard to do something as simple as switching from A minor to an E minor chord. You know the sounds you want to make, but your fingers refuse to cooperate, and when you look at the chasm the separates you from the masters of the craft, it feels as if you’ll never get even halfway to what you want to become.

Which is where the noodling comes in. Noodling alone won’t make you an artist, and there inevitably comes a time when you need to focus on aspects of craft that aren’t as fun in themselves—the rules, the development of discipline, the practicing of chords and scales. But when I look back at my own writing life, I’m struck by how much time was spent on the literary equivalent of noodling: bits of stories, fragments of ideas, fanfic, conceits pursued for a page or two before being abandoned. If I had left it at that, I’d never have become the writer I wanted to be, but it was an essential part of learning to live with, and love, the instrument itself. So much of writing instruction, and I include this blog in that category, is rightly obsessed with process and craft, but the rules only have a chance to take hold once you’ve had a taste of what the result will be. It helps to scale your expectations accordingly, and the ability to noodle around with your materials, whether they’re words, chords, or pigments, is as good a place to start as any. Some of us never get beyond that, and that’s fine; noodling offers plenty of pleasures of its own. But it’s reassuring to know that once our fingers have started to remember things for themselves, and we’ve had a hint of the joys to come, that there’s a world of craft still waiting for us, somewhere over the rainbow.

Written by nevalalee

December 2, 2013 at 9:22 am

Posted in Writing

Tagged with ,

4 Responses

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  1. Lovely reflective piece…


    December 2, 2013 at 9:55 am

  2. Thanks—glad you liked it!


    December 2, 2013 at 9:43 pm

  3. Just what I needed to read at a particularly frustrating time in life. Thank you.


    May 9, 2015 at 11:01 am

  4. Glad you enjoyed it! I don’t have much time for the ukulele these days—my two-year-old always grabs it out of my hands—but it makes me happy every time I pick it up.


    May 12, 2015 at 3:37 pm

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