A STEINWAY RETREAT
By Katy Simpson Smith
or the month of June I’m sharing a cabin in the New Hampshire woods with a grand piano. She’s an intimidating roommate; she knows very well I don’t play. (Childhood lessons hardly count anymore, do they?) Her bulk eats up a huge portion of the room, so I weave around her—pardon—to get from my bed to my desk, where the real work of writing takes place. But you know what’s way easier than writing? Not writing. The piano, she is a temptress.
She’s an 1897 Steinway Model A, with flowerpot legs and a music stand that rises from the keys in a tangle of filigreed wood. When I first arrived, we glanced at each other across the room for a while, me with idle hands, her with tantalizing hinges. I couldn’t resist. I hoisted open the heavy lid. By studying images of pianos online I deciphered what a fully Transformered instrument should look like. My Steinway, once clammed up in her shell, is now fully winged and cantilevered, that open maw of golden strings ready to announce throughout the forest my faltering endeavors.
Did I mention I’m here to write a novel?
On my second day at this artists’ colony, I walk to the country’s oldest library and ask if they have any sheet music. “What kind?” they reply. “Any ol’ kind,” I say. They are either impressed by my nonchalance or deeply concerned. After some consultation, the librarians produce several songbooks; one score comes in a dusty nineteenth-century box, and I explain that I shouldn’t be trusted with that. Instead, I borrow the 1947 Fireside Book of Folk Songs, which includes both spirituals (“Go Down, Moses”) and “songs of valor” (“Dixie”).
My right hand retains its knowledge from elementary school, when a kind brown-haired woman moved my fingers up and down the keys with mind-numbing consistency (“And again…”), but my left hand is slower to come on board. I pick through “La Marseillaise” and “Loch Lomond” before really committing to “Wayfaring Stranger.” (Really committing, for those keeping score, translates to still not writing.) But boy, it’s hard to make those hands match up! I keep my foot firmly on the left-most pedal, the one I call Quiet-Now, which muffles my fumbling errors so passersby aren’t forced to cover their ears. I could close her lid, but that would cramp her style.
Watching the action of the keys trigger the mechanical innards gives me a fleeting feeling of control; I make a stab, and the black knuckles crack inside the case. In fact, the key makes a white knuckle leap up, striking the long steel string, and then a black knuckle falls upon it as soon as I release the key, dampening the sound. So it goes, up to Very High E, when the black knuckles disappear, allowing the high notes to ting away unfettered, and down to Very Low E, when a second set of strings sits above the main set, to fit in those fatter bass notes.
I like sad songs. I’ll flip through sheet music and stop when I see a B-flat in the key signature. (Wikipedia suggests this is the key of D minor.) I pour myself into the woeful lilt of this old ballad, adding my weak and warbly voice to my pecking at the keys: I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger / Traveling through this world below. I inhabit emotion by borrowing someone else’s: this is art’s cannibal magic. It’s also why I read, and why I should be writing.
I give up on matching the left and right hands. Instead, with the ambition of the amateur, I graduate to Schubert. A book of classical piano pieces was left in my cabin, and I flip through rondeaus and rêveries to something I recognize: “Ave Maria.” I look out at the white pines and hemlocks surrounding my cabin and see the haunted forest in 1940’s Fantasia, when nuns progressed through a Gothic allée of trees to this same holy Schubert tune. I look back at the jumble of notes on the page, the book splayed on the ribboning knots of the music stand, my hands limp on the century-old keys. I plunge in.
Like my playing, my writing process is stop-start, haphazard; I am (should be) revising a novel, so sentences now strike me piecemeal, each phrase with its own improvable rhythm. I spend ten minutes fiddling a word until it rings right. This sounds like missing the forest for the ants on the leaves, but the ants on the leaves carry their weight too. Word by word we go, stumbling, smoothing. Meanwhile, literal carpenter ants, as big as black olives, trundle across the window sill. At some point, I’ll push myself away and see all the pages at once, soaring, weaving—at some point.
Scrolling through a writer friend’s Instagram, I find an old photograph of the poet Jane Hirshfield—she’s sitting with an impish expression on a piano bench, the piano behind her all closed up and covered with loose papers, each probably crowded with beautiful apt words, and it takes me a moment before I recognize the mustard-colored rug beneath her socked feet, the pine paneled walls. The cabin she’s sitting in is the cabin I’m sitting in; beneath her scatter of poetry is my 1897 Steinway Model A.
I’m stricken with feelings of inferiority and pride. Photographic evidence suggests she was diligent while she lived for a time in this same space; she produced the art she intended to. But! Did she not open the magic box? Did she miss out on the humbling joy of this particular procrastination—how it cuts you at your creative knees? What a gift to be reminded of your limits, to flounder and even to fail. I walked into the cabin thinking I was an artist, and I opened the fallboard to discover I was not.
I work on “Ave Maria” for days. Ten minutes here, half an hour there. I work on the right hand, then the left. The lower keys stick, or else my pinky is weak. Some of the ivory has chipped away, like an old friend’s tooth. I enlist the help of another resident of the forest, a composer who patiently sits with me and shows me where the A natural falls. Gradually my hands begin synchronizing, and the excruciating slowness of the hymn starts speeding up to the molto lento Schubert requests. Is it ever perfect? Hardly. Does the composer ever applaud? No. But it starts to sound right in that great black tomb of an instrument, with its stout fluted legs and its baroque breakable stand.
The pedal box holds three treadles: Quiet-Now, Mystery, and Flow-Together. I use Quiet-Now and Flow-Together with regularity, since they act like Auto-Tune on my musical hiccups. I press on Mystery when I’m finished, to say thank you, and to signal that I’ve done what I can do here, and it’s time to move the eighteen inches from the Steinway to the desk, where another ragged symphony is waiting.
“Tiny Travels” is part of our weekly story series, The By and By.
Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.