How a Middle School Piano Lesson Helped Me Write My Book
Ilyon Woo on Frederic Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu and Lessons of the Past
My breath still catches when I think about the first time I received comments back from my editor on an initial draft of the first chapters of my book, Master Husband Slave Wife: An Epic Journey from Slavery to Freedom.
Ellen and William Craft escaped slavery in audacious disguise: Ellen impersonated a wealthy white disabled man, or “master,” while her husband William acted the part of her “slave.” I had opened the book with I thought was the emotional epicenter of the story: the moment when William loses his younger sister, as she is sold away from him on an auction block. I had discovered more in the archives than I ever thought possible and this moment, years before William’s own journey of self-emancipation with Ellen, to me, seemed the best place to begin.
My editor sent me six pages of commentary. Clearly, she opened, in words that I have learned by heart, I had done a “staggering amount of research.” But I had buried the characters. What I had created, as she vividly expressed, was a “scholarly tomb.”
Early in my journey with the Crafts, the historian Eric Foner had offered me this precious advice: “Don’t let the details overwhelm the story.” I had obviously failed to follow it. With all those staggering details getting in the way, Dawn concluded, quite simply, that I would have to start all over. And as I did, I revisited everything I thought I knew about writing, turning to other areas of experience, above all, music.
Once upon a time, before this book, I was an outliner, a faithful follower of recipes, to begin with another metaphor. My process was clear: bury myself in the archives. Fill pages, notecards, until I found the key moments upon which a story turned. Those would become the steps in my recipe, which I would then execute, line by line. With the recipe I had crafted in my book proposal now declared useless, I was left with a room full of ingredients, which I had no idea how to cook. And what Dawn was telling me was to cook as my family did—with feeling.
I should note that I come from a family of gifted, spirited cooks. My mother, my father, my brother, all have “the hand” as Koreans say—a hand that knows how to cook with feeling. Add a little here, taste, improvise. Let the ingredients tell you what they need. Not so me. I have learned to turn out serviceable meals, but not by any kind of magic. Give me a recipe, thank you, every time—the more precise the better. None of this “How to Cook Everything” stuff for me. In the end, though, it’s another activity beloved by my family—music—that helped me feel my way out.
When I was in middle school, about thirteen years old, there was a piece I desperately wanted to play: Frederic Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu. It was wild and dizzyingly fast—a horse untamed, unbridled. I asked my teacher if I could play it. Sure, she said, if you can learn the beat.
I soon found that what made for that rollicking, almost uncontrollable sound and feeling was that the left hand and right hand played beats against each other: three against four. Try tapping triplets with your left hand, three notes per beat, like: “strawberry strawberry strawberry.” Then, to the same beat, tap sixteenth notes with your right, four notes per beat, like “watermelon, watermelon, watermelon.” Now try tapping those strawberries and watermelons at the same time. For the middle school me, the task seemed impossible.
I was not above cheating. I asked my mother (a concert pianist) if she would tap out the beats so I could listen and learn—which is to say, copy. She refused. “You just have to feel it,” she said. I could not.
Finally my teacher said, I’ll give you one week, and if you can’t figure out, we’re going to have to move on. The solution, she told me, was not just to play one hand at a time and mash the parts together, but to listen for their moments of convergence.
I spent every spare moment tapping everything I could. My knees. Walls. Chairs, holding onto that shared moment, when 3 and 4 came together. And then, all of a sudden, it did. Reader, I felt it! I found my beat!
Decades later, as I faced my broken writing, my ripped apart recipe, my boring score, it’s the remembrance of this moment that became my deliverance. My editor told me that I could not start with all that back story, the past about the Crafts, as important as it was. Instead, I needed to move with the central action of the story as the present, then layer in the past. How to do this, when there was so much past to tell, and when so much of the past informed the present?
The past was in the left hand, the triplets, playing its own kind of tune. The present was in the right, the movement of the Crafts’ journey unfolding in time. What I realized as I remembered my piano lesson was that the stories of the past and present had to run not one before the other, but simultaneously—that it’s that simultaneity that would give the narrative vigor, speed. How to fold one into the other? Find those moments of convergence, the moments when past became present, when the present requires the past. And when I found those beats, the narrative began to move.
The music lessons, once I began to listen for them, unfolded one after another. A dear family friend, Ozzie Nagler, passed on this note from his flamenco guitar teacher: “You don’t have to fill in all the spaces.” Which is to say that the rests can be as important as the notes. I taped this note to my window.
There, too, taped below it, is Stephen Sondheim’s advice to Lin Manuel Miranda, recounted in a dazzling interview with Terry Gross: Rhythm demands variety. Change up the pace. I tested the rhythm of every line, every chapter of my book, by reading my words aloud.
In this way, I began to conceive of my book as an orchestral score, a double concerto, so to speak, in which the Crafts’ melody, provided so richly in their own 1860 narrative, sings over, with and against many other voices, both harmonious and dissonant—notes of both past and present, played to the same beat, converging and, at last, becoming far more than three against four: an open score that is ready to read.