During my NYC years I used to watch, each autumn, as marathon runners of every sort dashed, shuffled, and sauntered across the Queensboro Bridge. Blind runners, wheelchair runners, amputees, world champions with chiselled faces and gangly arms, cancer survivors, friends of cancer victims, men and women hauling children in wagons. The participants in the New York City Marathon seemed like visitors from a distant planet— homo-nautilus super-humans with muscled thighs, dressed in neon tights and puffy shoes. The very idea that anyone could muster enough discipline to run twenty-six miles in a few hours inspired me. Someday, I would think, someday I will do that, too.
I’m a lousy runner. I’m also a bit top heavy. The last time I tried to jog I tripped over one rock and landed—chest-first—on more rocks. I broke a rib and sprained my thumb. Had it not been for the mercy of a kind woman—a real runner with the ability to avoid rocks—I might still be lying there with squashed breasts, eating gravel and wondering why I couldn’t breathe. Good thing I was wearing two bras.
For much of my adult life, the marathon dream nagged me. I longed for a long-term project, a race I could run without tripping, a finish line I might cross with my dignity (and rib cage) intact. About twelve years ago I discovered writing. Not journals or song lyrics or blog posts—I had already done all that—but books. I thought I had it in me to write one. The idea seemed exciting, challenging, and the kind of goal-oriented project I craved. I might not be able to run a marathon, but maybe I could write one. And that’s how my writing career started—with a scalding desire to accomplish a long-term goal. If nothing else, I wanted to prove I could cross a finish line. Then I would collapse in a heap on the other side, feel a sense of accomplishment, and get back to my life.
Most musicians cross little finish lines every time they play a set, a song, a phrase. I was used to that—writing a new tune, practicing it, performing it, getting bored, and moving on to the next thing. Writing a book seemed more like the musical equivalent of composing and performing a concerto—a complete work that would force me to make sense of the fragmented ideas banging around in my brain and organize them into a literary score. I wanted to orchestrate my thoughts with words.
But where to start? It’s hard to cross a finish line if you don’t know where the race begins.
Want to hear a couple of funny stories? Grab a beer, a bowl of stale almonds, and hang out with the local band on a break between sets. My dad, a versatile Pittsburgh drummer who played in symphony orchestras, jazz clubs, and burlesque theaters, kept our family entertained with stories about drunks, divas, and exotic dancers with names like Irma the Body. As a child, I listened to his pitch-perfect tales of life as a musician, and dreamed that someday I’d have my own stories to tell. To earn that privilege, I had to master the piano, go on the road, memorize thousands of songs, and navigate an obstacle course full of artistic booby-traps.
The idea for Piano Girl: A Memoir, came to me after thirty years of solo piano gigs in smoky cocktail lounges, roadside dives, plush Manhattan hotels, and European castles. This was a book I could write, a race I could run. From the other side of a grand (or not-so-grand) piano, I had played three decades worth of background music, entertaining myself by observing the human comedies, tragedies, and mundane miracles drifting past the Steinway. I was ready to start writing my stories. The characters and plots had waltzed into my cocktail lounge life and dared me to whisk them into a readable froth.
With a dose of cautious optimism, I sent my Piano Girl proposal to Richard Johnston, then the senior editor at Backbeat Books, a small house specializing in music books. Richard, who shared my love of the absurd, convinced his team that my stories deserved publication. When Backbeat surprised me with a contract, an advance, and a six-month deadline to complete my manuscript, I committed to a full-time work schedule. During that time, I learned to love writing as much as I love music. I also learned that writing a book really is a marathon—a long, daunting, and glorious haul to an illusive finish line that often feels like a brick wall instead of a flimsy piece of plastic tape.
Upon publication, Piano Girl received a Publishers Weekly starred review, an endorsement from BookSense, and landed feature interviews for me on All Things Considered, The Leonard Lopate Show, and NPR’s Piano Jazz with Marian McPartland. My publisher assured me I had won the National Public Radio sweepstakes. Henry Steinway sponsored a Piano Girl reading and concert at Steinway Hall, attended by the esteemed William Zinsser, whose wonderful book On Writing Well had been my desktop bible while writing Piano Girl. His hopeful smile in the audience that night cast a magic spell over the entire evening.
Backbeat organized a book launch cocktail party at the Waldorf Astoria. NPR taped the event, which was attended by friends, industry professionals, and booksellers from all over the country. I wore an over-the-top red evening gown, played “Night and Day” on Cole Porter’s piano (I still have the tendonitis to prove it), and read from my book. Sipping champagne, I checked out the stylish crowd flitting around the Art Deco Waldorf lobby, stunned that my childhood fantasy of having people listen to my musical stories had evolved into a book that people seemed to like. The glow of the Waldorf limelight faded quickly, but I can still feel its warmth.
In a way, sitting at the piano that night, I felt like I had crossed my finish line. The excitement and jet lag had kept me awake for three days, and I truly wanted to collapse into my well-deserved heap, but I couldn’t—I had to play the gig. My weary fingers found the opening chords to Misty just as I noticed a man in a banana costume strutting across the Waldorf lobby. Wow, I thought—I can use that in a new story.
That’s when the truth hit me like a ton of books: for a writer the finish line is a mirage. A thought becomes a word becomes a sentence becomes a phrase and a graph and a story and a book. You believe you’ve crossed to the other side, and you’re ready to accept your trophy, your medal, your gift certificate for a free massage. Then you see a man dressed as a banana, forget the race you’ve just won, and start the next project. You even look forward to it.
The wonderful author, Jane Smiley, said: “I believe that you either love the work or the rewards. Life is a lot easier if you love the work.”
The Piano Girl media hoopla stoked my ego, but I soon realized those temporary highlights couldn’t compete with the thrill of writing—the bliss that comes with finding the lore of a story or discovering the musical threads connecting the chapters of my life.
As a lyricist, I have been trained in the craft of setting words to music. As an author, I’ve learned to work from the opposite direction, by stringing words together and finding their musical flow. Whenever I get it just right (not as often as I might hope), I experience a whoosh of elation. My personal triumphs come from stumbling upon a perfect word, tapping out the rhythm of my sentences, and, on a good day, arranging the weird themes of my life into beautiful or ugly melodies that make sense.
Since that fateful Piano Girl launch, I have written four books. Waltz of the Asparagus People is a sequel to Piano Girl; Rhythm: A Novel tells the story of a young female drummer. My new book, Manhattan Road Trip, is a compact collection of short stories about musicians. The official publishing date is April 6th, 2016.
I hope you’ll read Manhattan Road Trip. You know those people who stand on the sidelines and hand out energy bars and water to runners as they approach the end of the marathon? That’s you—pushing me over the finish line and giving me the confidence to start another race.
“Watch out for the rocks!” you might shout.
I’m beyond grateful.
Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is also the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.
Coming on April 6th, 2016: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip!