Shedding

Mark Twain's writing cottage was designed to resemble the pilot house of a Mississippi steam boat

I went to music school for college because it was the only way I could get my parents to keep feeding me while I joined a rock band and majored in psychopharmacology. I guess that decision probably has something to do with why I now shovel dog shit for a day job. Anyway, back at Berklee, people talked a lot about “shedding.”

Shedding is locking yourself up in a tiny room with your instrument and practicing. It comes from old jazz cats who would disappear from the club scene for a while. When the cat returned to the company of his peers and blew his horn, it was clear that he was now a bad motherfucker. If asked where he had been, the answer was, “In the woodshed.”

The woodshed is where you can practice without disturbing the people you live with. It’s also a place where they can’t disturb you.

Music school is awesome because there are vast hallways of tiny soundproofed cells in which you will find nothing but a piano or a guitar amp. There are no distractions from the task at hand–honing your skills.

Writers also try to spend a lot of time in the woodshed. For an author, there is no lighted stage. Even the performances that matter the most, the ones that will be shared with the world, happen in the solitude of the shed. Sometimes you have to fall off of Twitter and the blog feeds for a while because you’re shedding. If your shed has a TV, a video game console and an internet connection, it’s not a shed.

Virginia Woolf insisted on the importance of A Room of One’s Own, and Stephen King agreed whole-heartedly in On Writing when he said that you need to close the door on the outside world, and maybe crank up some heavy metal to further banish the distractions beyond that door. Mark Twain used to walk across his backyard and through a tunnel to a little cottage where he would write, and Philip Pullman wrote His Dark Materials in an actual woodworking shed in his backyard. Pullman eventually donated the shed to an illustrator friend on the condition that it will be passed on to other artists, musicians and writers until eventually all of the parts have been replaced and it has nothing in common with the original structure.

Which brings us to the other meaning of the word. To shed is to loose something, to leave something behind. To shed tears, to shed blood, to shed skin. These are processes of transformation.

I always sensed this connotation when I thought about shedding on the guitar. With enough practice, the varnish wears off of the wood and the callouses and blisters on your fingers get ragged.

I’m lucky to also have a shed attached to the back of my house. It’s like a long garage with a great big desk, a comfortable chair and a nice pair of speakers. Unfortunately I don’t get to go out there very often. Instead, I carry my notebook and pen around and find rare quiet moments throughout the day when I can jump back into my work in progress for a page or two, a paragraph or two, wherever I am. I write in the car. I write leaning on a doghouse in the backyard. I write if my son takes a nap. I even write in bed before I crash sometimes.

And I’ve noticed that if I do have the luxury of a big block of time in the shed, it can be harder to write, because then the pressure is on and I’m supposed to be getting some good work done. If, however, I have to steal my words from a busy day, somehow that other kind of pressure, the pressure of life, acts as a catalyst to make me fight harder for the craft, and I use those moments better because they’re so precious. I have to shed some ink before something interrupts and pulls me back to the real world.

So these days the shed is in my head. I don’t want it to be that way for much longer because life is short and there are a lot of stories I want to tell. But wherever I am, when I pick up the pen, I’m trying to shuffle off a layer of who I’ve been, and in the process, maybe have a moment of transformation.

How about other writers out there. Do you shed, or do you battle the distractions wherever you set the laptop down?

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