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A chapter from The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening and Other Pleasures of thr Writer’s Craft (University of Georgia Press in 2003)



Writing Daily, Writing in Tune

by Kim Stafford


There was once a physicist who also played the violin. One morning he took his fiddle to the lab, wrapped it green with felt, clamped it gently in a vise, and trained the electron microscope close on the spruce belly, just beside the f-hole, where a steel peg was set humming at a high frequency. Through the microscope, once he got it tuned just right, he saw the molecular surface of the wood begin to pucker and ripple outward like rings on a pond, the ripples rising gradually into waves, and the steel peg a  blur at the heart of play.


When he drew the peg away, the ripples did not stop. In twenty-four hours, the ripples had not stopped. He saw, still, a concentric tremor on the molecular quilt of the wood. The violin, in the firm embrace of the vise, had a song, a thing to say. But then, in another twelve hours, the ripples had flattened and the wood lay inert.


Musicians know this without a microscope. An instrument dies if not played daily. A guitar, a violin, a lute chills the air for the first fifteen minutes of fresh play. It will need to be quickened from scratch. But the fiddle played every day hangs resonant on the wall, quietly boisterous when it first is lifted down, already trembling, anxious to speak, to cry out, to sing at the bow’s first stroke. Not to rasp, but to sing. The instrument is in tune before the strings are tuned.


Pablo Casals used to put it so: “If I don’t practice for even one day, I can tell the difference when I next cradle the cello in my arms. If I fail to practice for two days, my close friends can also tell the difference. If I don’t practice three days, the whole world knows.”


Writers know this when they are writing daily. With the first stroke, the hand may swim, the pen glide. The cold glass of the window brightens; the rug has a biography. Sweet tension of silent meeting throbs in the room. Unsaid words grow powerful, wish to speak out. Ideas gather their bones and rise up. A face become a life, a place a story. Everything speaks, or is powered by silence. Everything treads water, dreams aloud. The pen grows numb with haste, yet calm with plenty.


Yes, there will be labor, and hours with sweat dripping off the elbows. Yes, the words will have to be tuned — but the pen! Already shouting, poised and happy.



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