If you’re born a lemon-head, make lemonade.
Growing up my parents often smiled, saying, “You’re so smart!” It gave me a warm sensation in the pit of my stomach. Yet around the time I got to the point in school where they gave grades, that pleasurable sensation turned into a hard painful knot.
The problem was that my parents also told me that I was going to be like my grandfather E. K. Marshall, a doctor and scientist who’d helped discover sulfa drugs—saving millions of lives!—and who’d graduated college at age 19. I usually managed a B+ average. But I was smart enough to know that it was never going to get where they expected.
My mother knew why: she said, “You’re an underachiever.” But I tried so hard. As hard as that knot in my stomach.
Decades later I heard about ADHD. They were describing the kid I’d been..) I heard happy talk about how ADHD kids don’t have a deficit, but a difference. A recent study offers evidence for this—that we spacey, herky-jerky kids were more creative than our normal peers. We had assets that weren’t noticed, let alone praised in the gray conformist ‘50s—vivid imaginations and talents for lateral thinking.
What I’ve never seen mentioned is an odd result of the confluence of too much creative thinking and too little focus. Like most ADHD kids I was easily bored in school. Occasionally an idea would spark interest. But as the teacher went on to explain this interesting thing, I’d drift off into my imagination, where things were never boring.
The result is that I now carry around some…misconceptions.
For example, I heard long ago about the lost wax process in casting sculptures. As the article at the link explains, it’s a complicated process, neither easy to explain nor to do. (I still can’t quite picture it.) But when I heard about it I must have spaced out, because all I got was something about a model and wax being melted. I was certain that all that was involved was to make your sculpture of wax, encase it in clay or plaster, and when the stuff dried, pour molten metal into it. Chip away the outside and you had a perfect replica of your wax model in a hard material that would have been much more difficult to sculpt.
This mistaken notion sunk deep into me, until it surfaced years later as a metaphor for a technique I often used when writing music. In order to make a living composing, I had to churn the stuff out. And for some reason I was determined not to repeat myself. In the first years it was easy—I’d been playing professionally for fifteen years and had listened to a ton of music, creating a deep reservoir of ideas. But after writing several hundred pieces I felt myself going dry.
Once I got going on a piece I had no problem. As with many things, once the creative process catches fire it has its own momentum which carries you along. What’s hard is getting started.
And it’s hard because in the beginning you’ve got nothing. As with all living things, to get something out of nothing you need a seed.
What I stumbled on was the truth that the seed doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact, it can be quite lame. A cliched chord progression, tired melody, it didn’t matter. Because once I had that seed I had what’s called in musical structure terms, an “A section.” I worked it under my fingers on the piano keyboard, massaged it and tickled it until it threw out little shoots and grew a “B section.” (Speaking in terms of musical time, this growth occurred at the end of A, so B followed it.) And the B invariably was good. The most common musical form is ABAB. Now when I played the B, the momentum generated making it pushed me forward into a new A section, which replaced the old.
Over time, as it got me through many a grim morning at the keyboard (along with a quart of coffee, and in the early days, yes, cigarettes) I came to cherish this process. Using my mistaken understanding, I came to think of it as the “lost wax process of creation.”
It was only in starting this blog post that I googled that process, and discovered my error. The real lost wax process is too complicated, too arcane to explain the composing of music. And to compound my error, the metaphor itself was bogus. Because if my original A section formed of cheap wax became replaced by a new, better A forged in bronze, they should have the same precise shape. But aside from the fact that often the two A’s were of the same length in musical measures, they had nothing in common. That was the point of this exercise—one was good and the other bad.
Ah, but I wouldn’t give up this metaphor so easily. Because if, as I believe, composing and writing follow many of the same mysterious laws of creation, then that process should work with writing as well as music. And how did I start this post, if not with a crummy idea, worse, a monster of an idea—a fatally flawed metaphor grafted onto n ADHD kid’s misunderstanding?
I forced myself to type words until they came faster, and finally they started typing themselves. Because while my understanding of lost wax was still flawed, I realized that the creation of the book I’d just published followed that process more faithfully than any piece of music I’d ever written.
The seed for that book was a phone conversation. I hinted at it here (LINK) but now that the writing process is complete, I can reveal a bit more about it.
I’d called an old lover I hadn’t spoken to in years. The conversation was lovely until I told her I was writing a memoir. She said, “You aren’t going to write about me, are you?”
We soon hung up. I found myself in a terrible dilemma. The need to write my memoir had seized me and wouldn’t let go. And my material was my life. But to reveal that part of my life would cause anguish for another person. Because it was their life, too. I couldn’t do it, but I had to. So I turned this lover into a fictional character.
Several years, and drafts of the book later, I realized that she was no longer necessary, in fact was an impediment to the story. But I loved that fictional character. Finally, one day I sat down and cut all of her sections from the book. It was bloody and hurt like hell, but the book survived, and was better.
The wax that had seeded my story had melted away in the creative fire. And here’s the thing—the man who replaced her was of the same shape. A person who forbade me to speak, just as she’d done. And he was of much harder material than this person I still remember fondly. He would have been much more difficult to sculpt if I hadn’t started with her.
Like so many of my posts, this one started in one place and ended in another. It’s the fault of that lateral thinking. But I’ve long since accepted it. If you’re born a lemon-head, make lemonade.
John Manchester has written about the arts, life and growing up with his late father, the historian William Manchester, for Salon.com and Medium.com. He once made his living composing happy music. Now he writes deep, dark psychological thrillers.
His first Never Speak is available here.
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Written by John Manchester