23 Aug

Notice a couple of new links on the right.  Thought you’d enjoy them.

Piano Lessons, by Noah Adams

I just finished re-reading a good memoir, Piano Lessons by Noah Adams, the host of NPR’s “All things Considered.” When I read it five or so years ago, I liked it, but thought its appeal was limited to music lovers.   I’ve changed my mind now.  This book is really about any person who has been an “adult beginner” at anything.  I think of me and my harp,  and me and my Spanish lessons.

Why is it so hard as an adult to learn something new?  I think it’s because we worry so much about being perfect right from the start.  Kids know better.

Piano Lessons covers one year, the year Adams decides to buy a piano and learn to play. He’s obsessed with the challenge, but avoids taking lessons.  Later, he invests in a home study course.  Late in the year, he attends  a wonderful retreat in Vermont, in which he learns to play better, but mostly learns the courage to perform in front of others.  (Getting rid of that need for perfection?)

It would take more than a week in Vermont for me to start speaking Spanish to a live person, or to play my harp with anyone else in the room.  But Adams overcomes all kinds of shyness and reservations, and gives himself (and the reader) a very satisfying ending.  His voice is so “normal,” you forget he’s a celebrity and is used to broadcasting to millions of strangers every day. He sounds like the guy next door.

My friend Bill read this book in June, loved it, dusted off the keys, and plans to sign up for that workshop in Vermont.  He’s starting to write again, too, a great story about growing up in Texas.  Bill is renewing old loves – piano and writing.  It’s never too late to act on our passions.

As we breathe new life into our lives, let’s talk a bit about writing craft.


Fiction writers want to know how to make their characters come to life, how to make them walk off the page, how to make the reader identify with them.  Here are the highlights from a workshop I’ve presented.

Remember Old Mother Hubbard?  The one with the hungry dog?  Of course, you do.

We recall how she looked in our book of nursery rhymes – gray hair, wearing the long skirt and the apron.  So 20th Century.  Let’s toss that apron.   OUR Mother Hubbard will be a modern woman.  We don’t know her yet.  Let’s start with how she looks.


We must ask questions about her age, height, weight, posture, hair color, face, voice, and on and on until we can SEE her.  Perhaps this hip lady rides her bike to the farmers market wearing jeans  and a sequined sweatshirt, singing Beetles songs in a low alto.  Her huge purple tote bag  holds her little dog (the hungry one) as well as her current knitting project (caps for newborns) and a big bunch of sunflowers.   Can you see her?


Where does she live?  LA?  Pacific Northwest?  Dream up her house, her furniture, what’s in her refrigerator, what’s in the trash can.  I see her living In Philomath, in a house that she inherited from her dad, with fruit trees out in back and a big porch in front.  Her refrigerator and her trash can are empty.  Oh yeah, – the cupboards, too.

What’s going on? Has she been robbed?  Was there a fire?  In my mind, she’s been giving things away, and it’s gotten out of control.  Because her former husband (the one she threw out) was a pinch-penny, she’s been too generous.  Her kitchen  (and her bank balance) have gone from bountiful to bare.  How does she feel about this?  I think she’s oblivious right now, but that will change as soon as her dog asks for a bone.  Or, maybe something else will happen?


She has kept a few favorite things.  What are they?


What about that former husband?  Any children?  Have they abandoned her?  Time to do some serious daydreaming.  If you’re like me, you daydream on paper.  We’ll start writing about her.


Let HER explain things to you.  Give her a journal to write in, if she won’t talk.  Place her in sticky situation and listen and watch how she reacts.  Listen to the unique way she speaks.


Ask penetrating questions:

What does she fear more than anything?
What keeps her up at night?
What is her plan for five years from now?
What is her dream?
What is her biggest regret?

Take time for these very important questions.  Accumulate many pages of notes.  They will provide the clues to your character, and also for the entire story.


At this point each writer in my workshop has imagined a unique Nora Hubbard.  No wait!  For some, she’s turned into a Monique, a Frankie, maybe even a Barbie!

Developing a character should take days – days of daydreaming, clustering, free-writing,   Please do that work for your own characters, major and minor ones.

Once your main character is up and alive, we can bring a complication into her life – something significant that will get her story rolling.  Plot will be the subject of a later post.


Now that we have a character who interests us, we can describe her (telling) and we can put her into action (showing).  Both methods will work fine for us.

Here’s an exercise adapted from a good book on writing, “What If?” by Bernays and Painter.

TELLING:  My character (name) is the sort of person who . . .

SHOWING: Put the character into a scene of action, so we can see and hear and deduce what she is like.

My example from memoir:  My mother was the sort of person who loved to control a roomful of people.  I remember one Sunday morning when she called us to the living room.  There, heaped on card tables were her treasures – trays, butter dishes, candy dishes, glittering with  sterling silver, silver plate, silver look-alike finishes.  Her gray hair stiffly waved, wearing her dark blue skirt and a no nonsense top, she pointed each of us into a chair.  “I am not going to live forever,” she said, with a slight tremble in her voice.

Can you see her?  Lucky me.  My mother provides great material.

Please let me know how this works for you.



  1. Ann Marie Etheridge August 24, 2012 at 2:35 am #

    So much helpful information here! In my memoir my mother is rather nondescript…partially because she was, but also because I have had a rough time capturing her character. So your post regarding FIND THE INNER PERSON opened up a world for me. Muchas gracias, mi favorita.

    • annewarrensmith August 25, 2012 at 1:01 pm #

      I’m delighted that works for you. Thanks for letting me know.

  2. Linda Audrain August 25, 2012 at 3:48 pm #

    This is marvelous – thank you for sharing. I’m sorry to admit that I’m doing very little writing these day, but hope I’m in a temporary lull.

    • annewarrensmith August 25, 2012 at 7:44 pm #

      I think we need writing lulls to get filled up again. It’s a good time to Try walking, reading good books, listening to music, looking at good art. The writing will come back, trust me. Your story is that important.

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