Young Man with a Horn (Or, Hitting the High Note)

We all have go-to movies, shows, or reruns when we need a good laugh, a respite from the day.  For me, one of my all-time favorite sitcoms is the 1950s classic, The Honeymooners.  Though the show aired years before I was born, it’s always been a joy for me to watch.  The Honeymooners features bus driver Ralph Kramden; his wife, Alice; and their best friends and neighbors, Ed and Trixie Norton.  (As an aside, I consider Ed Norton, played perfectly by Art Carney, to be the funniest character in television history, but Jackie Gleason’s Ralph isn’t far behind!)

honeymooners

 

In one memorable episode from March 1956 titled “Young Man with a Horn,” Alice digs up Ralph’s old cornet, asking him to throw it away, as she is trying to rid their apartment of unused and unneeded junk.  But Ralph protests.  “This means a lot to me,” he says.  He used to play it when he was younger, and feels sentimental toward it.  Alice grumbles, “You haven’t played it in years.”  But Ralph is adamant.  He wants to keep the cornet.

youngmanwithhorn

 

He tries it out, playing the old tune he used to practice when he was a boy.  It goes okay until he tries to hit a particularly high note half a minute into the song.  The result sounds like the wailing of a wounded banshee.

“I never could hit that high note,” he says.  This causes him to reflect.  He thinks of all the ideas, the projects he’s started in his life never to finish.  “I never stick with anything,” he says.  “I never hit the high note.”

ralphcanthithighniotecornet

 

That’s when they hear a knock on their door.  An elderly couple enters, apologizing for the unannounced visit, but they explain that, forty years ago, after getting married, they moved into this same apartment.  And seeing that today is their fortieth wedding anniversary, they are feeling nostalgic and wanted to see their old home.

oldcouple

 

During the conversation, Ralph learns that the old gentleman is the owner of a well-known donut company–“Your donuts are my favorite,” Ralph assures him.  He is impressed, and asks the man the secret to his success.

The man tells him that one day, many years ago, in this very apartment, he determined to become a success, to make it, to do whatever it took to climb to the top.  He explains that he created a list of his strong points and a list of his weak points, and posted them side by side on the wall, and then he worked to make his strong points even stronger and to eliminate his weak points altogether.

This sets a fire under Ralph,  He applies for a new job, a step up from the bus driver position he’s had for years.  He makes his own list of strengths and weaknesses.  “I’m going to be a success,” he declares.  “I’m going to hit that high note once and for all, Alice!”

youngmanralphinspiredtosucceed

 

But a week later, Ralph learns he didn’t get the new job.  Nothing has changed.  “I failed again,” he says.  “What a moax I am,” he goes on, using the term Jackie Gleason made famous during the show’s run.  “I’m not gonna be a failure anymore–what a laugh.”

But Alice will hear none of it.  She tells him she’s proud of all the changes he’s tried to make, the self-improvement he’s worked so hard on.  And as for the job he didn’t get, “there’s always next year, and the year after that,” she tells him.

Ralph looks at her adoringly, and says, “You know something–I did hit that high note once.  The day I married you.”

kissatend

 

And the curtain falls with the classic kiss and embrace nearly every Honeymooners episode ends with.

**************************

Old Ralph Kramden’s wish to hit the high note, to soar high above snowcapped peaks, is something I am sure we can all relate to.  And in the world of creative writing, it seems especially apropos.

As much as I love writing, as much as I cannot conceive of a life without it, I am the first to admit–the writing life is littered with hard days, days where the words don’t want to come, when the characters are performing their own literary version of a sit-down strike, when the desire flickers and wanes, and when the ideas are nowhere to be found.

ideaswontcome

 

Indeed, as Oscar Wilde is attributed to have said one long-ago day, “I have spent most of the day putting in a comma and the rest of the day taking it out.”

As I continue to work on the sequel to The Eye-Dancers, I know full well what Wilde meant!  There are days when nothing seems to work, when the words you want to use are stuck, stranded on a raft upstream, separated from the page by a wide, unnavigable log jam.  On such days, I cajole, I wait, I take a walk, I key in a sentence or two, hoping for a momentum that doesn’t come.  The words seem to be coated with mud, viscous and thick, slowing the process down to a crawl.

logjam

 

There are other days when the words come a little easier, though with generous amounts of doubt and insecurity thrown in.  “Sure, I’ve written six pages today,” I might say.  “But are they any good?  Or will they just need to be scrapped and completely redone?  And what about the next scene, the next chapter, and the one after that?  Will I be able to pull it off?  Or will everything bog down?”

doubtandinsecurity

 

The questions and concerns of the writing life rarely fade, the self-doubts are rarely silenced in full.  But there are times–yes, there are times when everything comes together and wings spread wide, catching the current and soaring high over green, luxuriant meadows.  When and how these wings sprout, causing the words to sing and the ideas to race along like jackrabbits–I do not know.  I wish I did.  I wish I could bottle it.  But it comes when it comes, rarely, fleeting, tantalizing, here one day and gone the next.  But the taste of it, the memory of it–they linger, and they encourage, and they serve as a reminder that sometimes, some days, we can and do hit the high note.

soarovermeadows

 

It reminds me of all those days growing up when I would shoot baskets in the driveway.  My parents were good enough to put up a basketball hoop over our garage, allowing me and my two brothers to practice as often as we liked, despite the dented and damaged rain gutters such practices produced!  Some days, I’d go outside and dribble the ball around, and Rick, a good friend of mine who lived next door, would come out and join me.  If I was having a particularly good day and my shots were going in, Rick would say, “You got the feelin’!”

basketball

 

The feelin’.  The zone.  Hitting the high note.  Call it what you will.  We all know it when we experience it. We all hunger for it when we’re struggling.  It might be hidden, buried under boxes laced with cobwebs and old clothes dusty and  wrinkled from years of neglect, just as Ralph Kramden’s cornet was.  But it’s there–waiting, ready, and available.

oldboxesandclothes

 

We just need to keep plugging away, even on the soggy days, when the clouds are gray and low.

Because it will all be worth it when you blow your horn, hit your high note, and soar.

soarend

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

46 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lilyn G. (Sci-Fi & Scary)
    May 22, 2016 @ 20:08:01

    You know what? NO matter what, you’ve already did it once. You got a complete story down on paper, and you made it available to people. That, quite frankly, is an amazing accomplishment in itself. So many people, myself included, want to write – have amazing stories inside their head – but just can’t do it for some reason or another.

    You did it once. You can do it again. High notes get easier with practice 😉

    Reply

  2. John W. Howell
    May 22, 2016 @ 21:08:10

    Great post, Mike. Thank you. Fear ahead indeed.

    Reply

  3. jjspina
    May 23, 2016 @ 00:16:13

    Love The Honeymooners too. I am old enough to remember watching it. Great analogy. Keep plugging away, Mike. 😀

    Reply

  4. Mary J. McCoy-Dressel
    May 23, 2016 @ 11:33:28

    Great post as usual, Mike. ✍👍

    Reply

  5. Trackback: My Article Read (5-22-2016) – My Daily Musing
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  7. mcwoman
    May 23, 2016 @ 13:05:22

    Enjoyed the post. Hitting the high note is something every industrious person seeks. The success is in the striving.

    Reply

  8. Stephanae V. McCoy
    May 23, 2016 @ 17:02:25

    You are such a good storyteller Mike! Doubts and fears are longtime friends of mine and as I was reading this particular section I remembered a Brene Brown talk I heard last week where she was addressing creatives and talking about why the critics aren’t the ones who count. If you have a moment you might want to check it out at: http://99u.com/videos/20052/brene-brown-stop-focusing-on-your-critics

    Reply

  9. Karina Pinella
    May 26, 2016 @ 03:58:13

    Excellent post. Inspiring and true . . . such is life, eh?

    Reply

  10. Christy Birmingham
    May 26, 2016 @ 16:48:04

    Hi Mike, hope all is well! I’ve just written a review of The Eye-Dancers on my blog, as well as Goodreads and Amazon.ca. Great book!

    Reply

  11. Sarah Ferguson and Choppy
    May 30, 2016 @ 23:16:58

    Great post!

    Reply

  12. imaginenewdesigns12
    May 31, 2016 @ 04:57:16

    Thank you for liking “Drifting” and “Out of This World.” Yes, I know what you mean about those elusive high notes of creativity. When I was in college, I learned about freewriting and mapping and some other techniques that are supposed to help you overcome writer’s block. Focused freewriting helps me a little, but the other techniques did not. What really helps me is to accept the fact that I may not always be able to write a perfect draft the first time around or even after a few attempts. It is okay if my initial drafts are lousy because they usually help me find that idea or phrase that will lead to a better poem.

    I also don’t feel so bad that I sometimes can’t write something good the first time around after seeing an online news story about how some hit songs sounded before they became hits. The article featured some videos of the early versions, and some of the songs truly sounded horrible. However, the musicians did not give up. The musicians revised the songs until they sounded better, and they were eventually able to, as you put it, hit their high notes. 🙂

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jun 01, 2016 @ 12:42:21

      That is a great point–and I will probably write a post about it sometime!–Just how bad first drafts and WIPs can be. A first draft is just that–a first draft.:) It almost always needs a ton of cleaning up and pruning. I am sometimes astonished at how bad my first drafts are.:( But as you point out, it’s what you’re able to produce in the end, when it’s all said and done–after all the revisions–that counts.:)

      Reply

      • imaginenewdesigns12
        Jun 03, 2016 @ 07:01:01

        Thank you, Mike. Writing is supposedly a process, but it is not like a scientific experiment where you follow the same steps every time and get the same results every time. Sometimes the inspiration to write well is not there. Then there are numerous other distractions that can ruin your concentration. At least you don’t have to publish your first drafts along with your final one. 🙂

  13. sherazade
    Jun 02, 2016 @ 20:06:25

    Sono italiana e nn leggo perfettamente ma quello che scrivi e come scrivi Ilike it!
    http://www.gifanimate.com/data/media/466/grazie-immagine-animata-0204.gif Sherazade

    Reply

  14. Anna Waldherr
    Jun 03, 2016 @ 03:46:28

    So true. You’ve captured the writer’s inner life. I actually remember “The Honeymooners” from my now remote childhood (LOL).

    Reply

  15. Marsha
    Jun 07, 2016 @ 19:42:44

    Indeed, as Oscar Wilde is attributed to have said one long-ago day, “I have spent most of the day putting in a comma and the rest of the day taking it out.” What a great statement! That is my experience with writing! I enjoyed the walk back down memory lane,

    Reply

  16. reocochran
    Jun 08, 2016 @ 02:19:04

    I like how you found a great line from “The Honeymooners” and incorporated it in your own experience of writing. Hitting a high note is a positive reference for all of us to “Find our groove” or get that “feeling” as you did as a teen, getting the ball in the hoop.
    Did you know not too long ago I wrote a post about my favorite “country shows” (Green Acres, Mr. Ed and Petticoat Junction). It began with a road trip and discovering a sign with the first show’s name for a farm. 🙂
    I believe your Muse is within you, Mike!

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jun 09, 2016 @ 19:15:55

      Thanks so much, Robin! I will need to read that post.:) I also realized–somehow I hadn’t really paid attention to it before . . . you and began blogging on WordPress almost at the same time, in the summer of 2012! It’s amazing that nearly four years have gone by . . .

      Reply

  17. Julie Butler Chanteuse
    Jun 13, 2016 @ 14:01:54

    This is great Mike. For what it’s worth, wheel stuck, I listen to Eckhart Tolleson and do his very simple meditation. I find that “staying in the body ” and not so much focused on your thoughts, allows the music or thoughts to flow through you and easily. I listen to us audio book “practicing the power of now” and it’s a huge help because it helps me to get out of my own way. Just a thought…

    Reply

  18. carolineturriff
    Jul 15, 2016 @ 13:00:50

    I agree that writing sometimes flows and sometimes is a little sticky. But the only way I got two novels written (one of which I completed almost entirely in 5 weeks) was by putting something down on the page every day, accepting that it might be rubbish or need massive editing. Perfectionism is the enemy of productivity in writing. And when I recently read the novel I’d finished in 5 weeks it needed work but had a lot of good elements. I really find writing to a long form synopsis helps as it gives you a framework. Good luck with the sequel!

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jul 15, 2016 @ 19:40:49

      Those are great points! I think you’re absolutely right about perfectionism–especially when it comes to the first draft. An eye for detail needs to come later, during revisions, but the first draft is all about flow and creativity and the process. I often find that’s easier said than done, and too often nitpick even during the first draft. Your thoughts on this are a great reminder.:)

      Reply

  19. maguinolbay
    Aug 18, 2016 @ 01:46:21

    Honestly, I cease to care about my writing style. In the world of lawyering, you are at an advantage if you write well. But in blogging, writing style counts a lot but 65 percent of the blog value comes from the experience or the subject of the article. Well done!

    Reply

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