Five Ways Music is NOT Like Writing

Last week on the blog, we discussed how many aspects of a writing career give a sense of warm, fuzzy familiarity to those who are coming at it from a career in another creative field.  But as I’ve dipped my toes into the swimming pool that is the writing life, I’ve noticed a few things that are very different from my experience with music. Sometimes refreshingly so.


Unlike music, writing is not live.

For me, this has been the most welcome change. If I have an off day on the day of a performance—illness, bad sleep, just plain not being at the top of my game—that can sometimes spell bad news. Not always; sometimes God comes through to help me deliver a performance that is far better than the one I should be able to deliver in the circumstances. But all musical performances exist only in that moment; whatever happens, happens. Missed notes? Came in at the wrong spot? Sorry. It happened. Just let it go and move on; nothing to be done about it now.

But with writing, you can take the time you need to polish it until it’s just the way you like it. If you have a bad day of writing, so what? You can delete every single word you wrote on that day if need be. No one ever has to know. While it’s important to push through and write even—especially—on the days you don’t feel like it, you’re never stuck with what you produce on those days. To someone whose day job requires me to be “on” on days when I might not be, this is a comforting and encouraging change.


Unlike music, writing is more open-ended

This has been another refreshing change. Last week, I talked about how each orchestra has a set number of positions for each instrument. If a cello section has ten spots, it’s because the Powers That Be in that orchestra have determined that that’s how many they can pay. They’re not going to make an eleventh spot, even if the one who wants it is Yo-Yo Ma.

When there is at last an opening, there are auditions. And it’s not enough to be in the top five. Or even the top three. No matter how talented everyone else is, to win the job, you have to be the best. (Or, at the very least, the one who plays the best on that day and at that time. See above!).

But with writing, I’ve found that there’s always room for talent. Some agents are closed to submissions—they’ve got the clients they want, and they can’t take on any more—but most I’ve researched are always willing to take on another talented writer whose work they love and believe in. It’s true that, to be published, you have to create a niche for yourself and wedge your work onto an already-crowded bookshelf, but being the absolute best in your genre is not required.  As a wise friend once told me, these things are always subjective, but the best finds a way to rise to the top.

It’s so encouraging that there’s room at the top for more than just one.



Unlike music, writing is more isolated.

While it’s true that most of the top musicians spend hours alone in a practice room, the paid portion of one’s job, at least for those of us who play orchestral instruments, is done in community. When I go to work as a musician, I’m with a quartet at a wedding, or with an orchestra onstage, or with a worship band at a church. I’m almost never alone, and even though I’m an introvert, I find that comforting.

I've found writing to be a much more isolated profession. When I “go to work” as a writer, it’s just me and my laptop (although my beloved Wenlets do their very best to remind me that I am not alone, sometimes as often as every two minutes! SO kind of them...). That’s why I’m grateful for my critique partners, my local chapter of the ACFW, and all the amazing friends I’ve made online. It helps me know that I’m not in this by myself, that I’ve got a whole cheering section, and I am happily a member of everyone else’s fan club, as well. Plus, there are writers’ retreats and conferences, ranging from small weekend getaways to full-blown national conventions. (The introverted among us find that prospect quite intimidating, and even a little puzzling. Who decided a bunch of introverted writers needed to get together? In person? An extrovert must’ve sneaked into our ranks…)


Unlike music, writing is a bit more personal.

When I perform the Elgar cello concerto (my favorite concerto), I put my heart and soul into it, as any good performer would. And if someone criticizes my interpretation of it, of course there’s a sting.

But what if someone says they thought I did a great job, and gave a passionate performance, but they just don’t like the Elgar concerto because they think it’s boring? Obviously there’s a difference of opinion, but ultimately the criticism isn’t aimed at me. It’s aimed at Elgar, who has been dead for decades and no longer cares what anyone thinks of his cello concerto.

Writing, however, is one’s own creation. It’s not my interpretation of something that sprang from someone else’s imagination. It sprang from my imagination. If I write a book that encompasses my hopes, my dreams, things that came from the deepest part of my mind and heart, and you think that’s boring? That tends to cut a bit deeper.


Unlike music, writing is less immediate.

For me, this has been the biggest difference. When auditioning for an orchestra job, you practice for months, yes, but the actual getting of the job happens very quickly. You arrive at the site, check in, warm up, play your audition, wait around for everyone else to finish (usually a couple of hours with the orchestras for which I’ve auditioned; with big ones like the New York Phil it can be a couple of days), and then someone emerges to tell everyone the results. Sometimes there’s another round of auditions, where they winnow out the best of the best and have those people play again. But with all but the largest orchestras, the vast majority of the time the day you perform is the day you find out.

You writers are chuckling right now, because you know what’s coming. The timeline with writing is greatly expanded. First of all, it takes several weeks to several months (or several years) to write, revise, edit, re-revise, get critiqued, re-revise, re-edit, and polish a novel. Then you hit “send” on that query, and you wait. And wait. And wait. If an agent requests more material from you, you celebrate, hit “send,” and then wait. And wait. And wait.

If the agent wants to represent you, congratulations!! But then your work goes on submission, and you wait. And wait. And wait. And even after you sign that contract, it can be several months to a couple of years before your book is actually out in the world, available for people to purchase, and by then I’d imagine you’ve almost forgotten what you wrote about!

But in both careers, some degree of patience is required, and what I’ve noticed with both of them is that dependence on God is an absolute must. He knows all the ins and outs of your career far, far better than you do, so I have learned—kicking and screaming, but I have learned—to back off and let Him do his thing. Even if it seems like it takes forever.

Because in the end, that standing ovation? That box of books with your name on it? The feeling you get when someone tells you your performance touched them, or yourbook changed them?

That is always worth whatever wait it takes to get there.