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As I’ve noted on my blog, I recently bought a Fender Stratocaster electric guitar, and I’m learning–slowly–to play. Over the years, I’ve tried a number of kinds of art: writing (obviously), photography, painting, drawing, playing piano and organ, garden design, making prints, stage directing, and even a half-assed attempt at sculpting. Though I’ve enjoyed all of these, writing and photography were the only two that I thought I showed any aptitude for. And, though I love photography and think I’ve grown in the field, selling a print now and then, and even having a couple of shows, I am and always have been a writer. (One day, when I was six, I sat down and wrote a short story. Something about living under the sea. Wish I still had it, but it’s vanished over the years. To me, the funny part was that I took it to my mom and demanded she type it up. I think she was a little taken aback, but she did type it for me. Unlike many artists, I had parents who always supported my efforts. I hit a fallow period between six and eight, and then I distinctly remember thinking, writing that was kind of fun: let’s try it again. So I wrote another short story, and another, and, pretty much, never stopped.)

When I bought the guitar–which I call “Red” because it is a shockingly pure candyapple red–the store provided a free lesson. The instructor was showing me how each fret represented a half-step, which clicked for me as it corresponded to a piano’s keys (and I can read music). I noted the similarity to the instructor, and he said, “Yeah. It’s like having six pianos.” (Which is really not true, because it takes two hands to make a chord on the guitar and one for a keyboard. You also can’t individually bend or vibrate a piano’s strings, but I digress.)

What has struck me are the seemingly infinite options for making sound the electric guitar offers, which I’m just starting to grasp as I’ve learned how chords are formed, how scales apply to solos, the many ways strings can be thumped, rubbed, stretched, and mauled, and the many voicings that emerge from which pickup you’ve selected (three on the Strat with two settings combining pickups), the pickup tone controls, the amp settings, and, in my outfit, with a nifty little foot-operated box called a Digitech RP50, the mind-blowing array of available voicings–from clear, ringing notes with a touch of reverb to create the feeling of playing in a large hall to absolutely demented, psychedelic overdrive, flangers, phase-shifters, noise gates, delays, and various amplifier modulators. You can make it sing, cry, scream, and simulate jet aircraft. It’s absolutely marvelous. I’ll be deaf in no time.

One evening, after playing some teeth-rattling distortion, I just kind of reeled, overwhelmed by athe choices the guitar offered, and I suddenly thought of a favorite quote from Miles Davis, which has actually informed my writing as much as my understanding of music: it’s not just the notes you play, Miles said, it’s also the notes you don’t play.

Which seems obvious, but it lies at the heart of making art, for we’re offered so many techniques, colors, effects, traditions, schools of thought, theories, pacings, and structures, that, once you get past the puppy love period where you want to do everything right now, you understand how holding back is just as important as holding forth. It’s not just a matter of making the right choices: it’s a matter of knowing when to stop, when to step back. Of knowing when, essentially, it’s right.

And, if you’re dedicated enough to be honest with yourself, doing an art–any art–really well is so terribly, terribly difficult that you’d lock up if you thought about it directly. Someone once asked Walter Cronkite if he ever thought about the millions watching his newscasts, and he said no, he thought of it as speaking one-to-one with a single person because, if he really thought about all the people out there, he’d be too terrified to do his job.

I don’t know how much aptitude I have with the guitar. I feel like I’m learning, and once in awhile, I make sounds that please me, and that’s all I’m really in it for. That and developing sufficient skills to play a song or two with friends. It’s refreshing to do an art that’s not a profession. But playing the guitar is devilishly hard to get right, and the more I seem to grasp, the more complicated it becomes. The relationship between difficulty and reward reminds me of an evening at a fiction writing workshop nearly 30 years ago when I’d presented a short story, which, frankly, was terrible–an utter cliche from beginning to end (and not even an interesting cliche). Out came the knives, and, when it was over, my self-esteem had been thoroughly diced. The woman running the workshop said, hey, how about we take a break, and everyone trooped off into the kitchen while I sat immobile, staring at the carpet. A minute or so later, the workshop leader came back and handed me a glass of wine.

“Christ,” I said. “Does it ever get any easier?”

She gently patted me on the shoulder and said, “You better hope not.”


The Long Fade

The other day, I heard myself ask another theatre practitioner, “So how many dimmer packs do you guys have?” And it kind of struck me what an utterly obscure question that is to the majority of people. “Uh, you mean a dimmer switch?” Kind of. I’m not even a lighting guy. I’ve hung a few lamps, moved some barn doors around, but the whole of black cables and gel combinations remains some weird alchemy to me.

But I do love the lights. When I go to someone else’s show, after I’ve finished checking out the program, I sometimes find myself looking at the grid and counting instruments, trying to figure what’s focused where. And I think that’s because I’m hooked on the fade. It’s just so damn beautiful when it’s done right. The way the color drains and carries your emotion from one place to another. And a perfect crossfade? It’ll sometimes take me right out of a play because I’ll be thinking: my God. Go back and do that again.

It’s curious because it relates to where you are when you write a play. Are you inside the characters, looking out, or are you among the audience, looking in? That shifts around for me. But when I write fade in the stage directions, I am most definitely in the audience, and I can feel those lights moving me.

A number of years ago, I saw a one-man show that had, at the end, the longest, most achingly beautiful fade I had ever seen. I mean, staging a fade that long was sheer nerve, somewhere between utter arrogance and genius. Here’s why: the piece was about a character with all these different opposing facets to his personality, and, as the light so slowly drained, the effect tired the viewer’s eye so it seemed that the actor’s face itself was shifting, rearranging itself, over and over. Forever changing without resolution, which was the point of the piece. What else so reflects the human condition but unstoppable change? Yet the act itself, essentially just slowly turning off a light, was so simple.

That image is still in my mind’s eye. It’s still changing. And so am I.