The Best Chopin I’ve Ever Played

If you had told me a year ago that I would be able to play the piano this well—and that all it would take was focus, time, and what you might call “applied problem solving”—I would have said TELL ME HOW AND I WILL DO IT.

And then I told myself how, day after day.

Really, L and I told ourselves together; we compared notes (pun intended [pun always intended]) and borrowed ideas from each other and rejected the ideas that didn’t work and iterated the ideas that did.

And then, this morning, I played this:

I was able to play the Chopin this well today because I already knew I could do it.

Because I’d played it that well yesterday.

I played the Chopin that well yesterday because my family came to visit over Labor Day weekend and asked me to play Chopin and I whiffed one of the ornaments because I was nervous about not knowing it well enough.

And the next morning I told myself “okay, Nicole, you’ve been telling yourself that you are going to play a for-real piano recital on your 40th birthday, which means you need to iterate the process of giving a recital.”

So I started at the beginning of my program, played as if performing until I made an error, worked the error, and started over again.

That got me what you just heard.

It also got me this:

I’m not satisfied with some of the interpretation choices I made in this performance of Les Cinq Doigts (the Largo movement is way too fast, for example) but I am nearly satisfied with its technical precision and emotional resonance. (There are two tiny finger-wobbles in the piece that need to be eliminated; my guess is that they won’t appear during the next run, and if if they do, I’ll work them until they’re steady.)

And tomorrow I get to start the program again, and make new choices—because the thing about creating art, as Tara K. Shepersky recently reminded us, is that you can never do it exactly the same way twice.

Otherwise, it isn’t creation anymore.


Now I need to tell you about the book.

I have been steadily drafting, and just as steadily reading the draft to L.

He has said—and I agree with him—that these are some of the best ideas I’ve had, and that the writing itself can and should be reworked to make those ideas stronger.

This is a little discombobulating, because I am used to my ideas and my mechanics being fairly integrated. If I have something I want to communicate to a reader, I generally know how to find the right words with which to communicate it.

(I mean, it is literally my job.)

But L is right. The ideas in this last third of the novel, by which I mean the big old mush of plot-character-conflict-theme-setting, are the best I’ve ever had, I am getting better at all the pageturny plotbuildy novel stuff that I wanted to improve upon after writing The Biographies of Ordinary People, and the writing itself hasn’t caught up yet.

This might be because L and I are comparing my draft against the best examples of the genre. I could probably go over to Amazon and hit “self publish NOW” and send you the novel as it stands and you would say “Thanks, that was a fun read! Maybe not one of the best books I’ve ever read, but there was a lot of good stuff in there!”

I want it to be all good stuff.

And, maybe, one of the best books you’ve ever read.

Follow me on this tangent for a minute—L and I have set ourselves this project in which we pick a favorite author and read every book they’ve published in order, and we’re noticing that there appears to be this skills jump that happens when, I don’t know, the author decides to take their writing more seriously?

That’s probably not true. Writers generally take their writing very seriously all of the time.

Maybe it’s when they finally have the capacity to make their books as excellent/specific/magical as possible, whether that’s a time thing or a money thing or a career thing or a mindset thing.

Maybe it’s when they finally understand how to solve the problems that they previously ignored because their writing was “good enough.”

(Writers, if you want to weigh in on this, I am very interested in hearing your perspectives.)

In many ways I feel like I felt at the piano, a year ago. I don’t know how to do what I want to do yet, and it’s frustrating not because I don’t believe I can do it, but because I can’t yet comprehend the actions that will help me do what I want to do.

This is where a lot of people say “maybe this is as good as I get.”

That’s what I thought, as a pianist, until just last year.


I’m also back to “not knowing what I need to do to get better at chess,” and this is frustrating because two weeks ago I had this breakthrough that helped me become much better very quickly, and I played a three-hour game of chess with L in which it was obvious how much I had improved, and now it feels like I haven’t made any significant improvement since.

I don’t even know why I used the word “feels,” because this isn’t an emotional thing. I can look at the numbers, on Chess.com. 20 to 25 green moves in a row and then I make an error, game after game after game.

So I’ve gone back to the daily chess lessons, partially in the hopes that I will be able to use those lessons to learn more about middlegame and endgame patterns—and partially because I don’t really know what else to do right now, and I’m buying time until I figure it out.

(Suggestions welcomed.)


I also want to give you one freelancing recommendation before I share where I got published this week, and it’s this:

If you are looking for high-quality sources for your freelance articles, sign up for Qwoted. I had been a HARO fan for years, but the signal-to-noise ratio on HARO has gotten considerably worse over the past year (not to mention that some of the people who respond to your HARO queries, like, aren’t even real [search “HARO fake personas” if you want to know more about this]).

Qwoted experts are vetted—in fact, they’ll even vet you as a journalist/freelancer before they let you sign up. That way, anyone who signs up for Qwoted as a source knows that their insights will be shared by a reputable writer working for reputable publications, and anyone who signs up for Qwoted as a writer knows that they’re only going to be connected to reputable sources.

That’s a win-win. ❤️

Where I got published this week

Bankrate

How I used secured credit cards to rebuild my credit

Thinking about using secured credit cards to rebuild your credit? Here’s some advice from people who have done exactly that.

How does cash back work?

Learn about different types of cash back cards, how to use your rewards and more.

Why I charged a cruise on my credit card and how I’m still reaping rewards

The Discover it Cash Back comes with an impressive fourteen month period of zero percent intro APR.

Credit Cards Dot Com

A financial guide to mental health therapy

How to get the mental health care you need – and how to pay for it

Don’t Write Alone | Catapult

Job Opportunities for Writers: September 10, 2021

We post roundups of writing and literary jobs once a week. Here’s our list for September 10, 2021.

Submission and Pitching Opportunities: September 10, 2021

We post submission roundups once a week. Here’s our list of literary magazines and freelance opportunities for September 10, 2021.

In Which We Iterate Again

We’re going to start this week’s work-showing with yet more piano—but this one’s only a minute long, and you probably haven’t heard me play it before.

I started re-learning the Barber Excursions last Saturday, mostly because I was curious whether the “play until you make an error, stop, work the error, and start from the beginning again” method would work just as well on a piano suite I hadn’t played in 20 years.

It does. This iterative learning process is just as effective for a (relatively) brand-new, (relatively) untouched piece of music as it is for the music that I’ve been studying since last August.

In other words, you don’t need to “learn” the music before you “learn” the music. (This is for all of you who were potentially mentally arguing that the only way I was able to iterate the Mozart to such specific depth was because I’d spent so much time learning it already.) You can start with the first measure, run it through the “can I play this perfectly yet” test, and then move on to the next one.

Also, this iterative method ensures you memorize as you go, which is a bonus.

I know I know I know that the true test of this iterative practice technique will come when I start working on a piece of music I’ve never seen or heard before, not a piece of music I learned (somewhat sloppily) back when I was in high school.

But I had the Barber close at hand, and sometimes you start with the music that is easiest for you to grab.

Especially when it’s a piece you already love. ❤️

For me, the most remarkable aspect of this week’s work-showing isn’t that I re-learned a page-and-a-half of Samuel Barber, but that I am so relaxed in the performing of it. This is what knowing feels like. There’s another scenario in which I put just as much time into the Barber but focused on breadth rather than depth, getting the entire movement halfway into my fingers and performing it with an incredible amount of tension because I know that I don’t really know what I’m doing.

Knowing is better.

Even if it means fewer measures “learned” in the service of learning those measures correctly.

An update on the book

A few weeks ago I told you that I thought I’d probably have the draft done this week, which I probably shouldn’t have told you because now I have to tell you that the draft is still incomplete.

I spent the past week focused entirely on the CLIMACTIC CHAPTER, which I didn’t expect to take quite as long as it took—and then, as soon as I read the freshly-drafted chapter to L, I immediately came up with a dozen ways to make it better-tighter-stronger-more-compelling-more-specific.

In general, I know which parts of the draft are really good. I also know which parts still need work. Getting to read each chapter aloud to an interested listener often helps me clarify in which ways the draft still needs work. It also forces me to push past “good enough,” because this book could definitely pass for “good enough,” especially if you’re the kind of reader (or author) who skims over the parts that aren’t great.

Reading aloud eliminates any possibility of skimming, both from the listener’s end and the author’s end.

But yeah, the draft isn’t done, I have probably 10,000 words to go, at least 2,000 of those words have been written already (like, two years ago) but need to be incorporated into what I’m currently writing, I have time blocked off to work on the book so I know the work will get done but I don’t yet know how long it will take, blah blah blah.

It’s odd that I feel like I have so little control over “when the book draft is completed,” given that I know to-the-minute how long it generally takes to complete a 1,200-word freelance article. Shouldn’t I be able to say “at 600 words an hour, it should take me between 13 and 15 hours to complete the draft”? (I should time it and see how close it actually turns out to be.)

After the draft is done I’m hoping to apply the same kind of iterative practice that I’m currently putting towards my piano and chess study towards my revision process. Start at the beginning, read until I come to something I don’t like, fix it, and start the book over again. ❤️

Where I got published this week

Bankrate

What does 0 percent APR mean?

Zero percent APR offers provide an attractive way to buy now and pay later.

Credit Cards Dot Com

How to build and establish credit in the Hispanic community

A guide to navigating credit in the United States

also, there’s a Spanish translation (I didn’t do the translation myself):

Guía de ayuda para acceder y establecer crédito en EEUU

Esta guía contiene sencillos y efectivos consejos para aprender a manejar tarjetas de crédito y otras líneas crediticias

Don’t Write Alone | Catapult

Job Opportunities for Writers: September 3, 2021

We post roundups of writing and literary jobs once a week. Here’s our list for September 3, 2021.

Submission and Pitching Opportunities: September 3, 2021

We post submission roundups once a week. Here’s our list of literary magazines and freelance opportunities for September 3, 2021.

On Iteration, and the Time Required to Complete Enough Iterative Cycles

First, before we do anything else—

Let’s have some Mozart.

There are four errors in the 20 minutes of music I just shared with you. Two of those errors were small enough that you might not even notice them (mere wobbles, as it were); the other two were a bit more obvious, though neither of them were the kind of thing that would ruin a performance. That said, If I had been practicing instead of performing, I would have stopped after each error and started over again.

Iterating my way towards error-free performance—by starting each movement from the beginning, playing until I made an error, working the error if necessary, and immediately beginning the movement from the beginning again—yielded better results in a shorter amount of time than any other practice method I’ve tried so far.

Yes, it probably helps that I have been working this piece for a year already—but I’m already excited to try this iteration method with a piece I haven’t fully learned (like the Bach Ricercar a 6) or a new piece of music I’ve never tried playing before.

I’m currently testing the iteration method on Ravel’s La Valse (the Garban four-hand duet arrangement, prima part), which is yielding similar results—faster learning, better recall, more secure performance.

Why?

The simple answer might be that working towards error-free performance leads to error-free performance. We don’t often tell people that they can in fact play something perfectly. We tell them that people make mistakes.

But the “people make mistakes” argument gives you an out, if you would rather make the mistake than do the work of correcting it.

For the past two weeks I have been working within a system that forces me to not only correct my mistakes, but also create positive controls that help prevent future mistakes.

I had my first error-free runthrough on Monday. It was just the first movement (since then, I’ve had error-free runs of both the first and second movements); but it was enough to make me see exactly what this kind of practice could do.

It was also enough to make me see how this kind of practice could change me, as a pianist. Look at how relaxed I am. My mind, as I play, is equally relaxed; in fact, it almost feels the way it does when I do epsom-salt floats at the local sensory deprivation center. It would be meditative, if I didn’t also have the hugest smile on my face the entire time—knowing, in this case, gives me the ability to devote my entire energy to loving. Loving the piece, loving what I’m doing with it, and loving that I get to share it with you.

You might be wondering whether this kind of practice regimen is more tedious or frustrating than the way I’d been previously working the music. It hasn’t been; not for a minute—in fact, it’s much less tedious and much more engaging. I hate to throw around the word gamify, but there’s a certain old-school sidescroller element to it; the idea that you start at the beginning, go until you accidentally fall off a cliff or run into a Koopa, and immediately begin again. It’s a full-brain, full-body challenge—how can I play this in such a way that allows me to keep playing? Where do my hands need to go, what does my breath need to do, what mental cues can I put in place to help me remember what needs to happen next?

It also makes the process of finding and fixing errors feel joyful, instead of frustrating. My practice has gone from “euugh, I just made that mistake again” to “here comes a new problem to permanently solve.” Errors, essentially, have gone from weaknesses to opportunities.

On the subject of gamification: I did not get as far on my chess study this week as I did on my piano study. If you follow me on Twitter, you probably already know that L and I played a nearly-three-hour game of chess this weekend (he was astonished by my progress, he didn’t expect it to take three hours to beat me when it usually takes 30 minutes, he still won); other than that, I haven’t had more than 15 minutes in a row to devote to chess study this entire week.

And sure, at first I thought I could progress just as well with a bunch of teeny-weeny practice sessions—but it doesn’t look like the iterative system works that way. My biggest chess breakthroughs, in terms of understanding structure and seeing patterns, came when I had three hours in one evening to do nothing but start new Chess.com games and play until I made an orange or a red move.

It makes sense, doesn’t it, that iterative learning requires a long-enough chunk of time to see the results of the iteration? Like, you wouldn’t practice until you made a mistake, look at the clock, and say “well, I messed up, I don’t have time to start another runthrough right now, but I’ll try again tomorrow.” Playing chess against the Grandmaster Robot until I made a mistake, looking at the clock, and saying “well, I don’t have time to start another game right now, but I’ll try again tomorrow” hasn’t led to much progress.

But I’ll have an entire evening next week to devote to chess study, if I want to.

Where I got published this week

Bankrate

How to do a balance transfer with Bank of America

A Bank of America balance transfer credit card can help you avoid costly interest charges with a 0% intro APR offer.

Credit Cards Dot Com

What is a good credit utilization ratio?

There’s no magic number, but the lower your credit utilization ratio, the better – here’s how to achieve that.

Best startup business credit cards

Whether you’re looking for a travel card to help make business trips a little more comfortable or a corporate card to issue to your new employees, we have a list of the best cards to help you get your startup off the ground.

Haven Life

Tips for parents of children returning to school this fall

With younger children unvaccinated, and the Delta variant surging, schools are still figuring out the safest ways to re-open. Here’s how you can prepare yourself and your children.

Don’t Write Alone | Catapult

Job Opportunities for Writers: August 27, 2021

We post roundups of writing and literary jobs once a week. Here’s our list for August 27, 2021.

Upcoming Submission and Pitching Opportunities: August 27, 2021

We post submission roundups once a week. Here’s our list of literary magazines and freelance opportunities for August 27, 2021.

Knowing vs. Guessing

Our refrigerator stopped working this morning (technically, it probably stopped working last night). None of the food got so warm that we had to throw it out; the freezer ice trays hadn’t even begun to melt before we had everything out of the fridge and into another (temporary) refrigerator.

We suspect it’s a compressor issue, since something we believe to be the compressor had been buzzing angrily at us for the past two days. Interestingly, as soon as we removed all of the food, the thing-that-is-probably-the-compressor started right up again, a happy little hum this time, and the refrigerator went back to its proper temperature(s).

There are several reasons why this might have happened. Maybe the compressor was failing, and the fact that it started up again after we took the food out was a fluke. Maybe something in the freezer was jamming the compressor function, which is why it started buzzing and then decided to stop compressing completely. Maybe it isn’t even the compressor at all, and we just think it is because that’s one of the refrigerator parts we can identify by name.

The point is that we don’t know yet.

And the fact that we don’t know is making it a lot harder to solve the problem.

Knowing vs. guessing: Chess

Last week, I told you that I was changing the metrics by which I measured my chess study:

I would play the Hardest Robot until the point when I lost tempo. (Tempo is a music word that is also a chess word, and losing tempo means losing the advantage.)

Then I would resign the game and start another one, and play until I lost tempo again.

I’m going to keep track of the number of moves it takes me to lose tempo, and the types of blunders that cause me to lose tempo, and work specifically on increasing the number of moves and reducing the number of blunders.

This has turned out to be an incredible way to learn how to play chess.

It took me less than a day to figure out how to go from 10 moves (without losing tempo) to 20 moves (without losing tempo). I did this entirely through iteration; I’d play until I made an error—which is to say that I’d play until Chess.com told me I’d made an orange or red move instead of a green one—and then I’d immediately resign and start a new game.

I’ll go ahead and answer the two obvious questions:

  • Why not keep playing after making an error? Because I didn’t want to waste my time finishing games I was likely to lose. If I want to know how to win chess games, I need to practice winning.
  • Why not keep playing after making an orange move, which only means questionable and not terrible? Because I wanted to train myself to only make green moves.

After a couple dozen iterations, during which I studied patterns and memorized common sequences, I was able to consistently get myself into the middle of the middlegame before making an orange or a red move.

It took the rest of the week to learn how to get all the way to the endgame. This is not a bad thing. Middlegames are more complicated; they literally have more moving pieces.

Now I have to figure out how to memorize common endgame patterns, which is going to be even more complicated because there are mathematically more endgame possibilities than there are opening game possibilities.

But I will tell you this: I tried doing the thing where you turn on the “undo move” option, play all the way to the endgame without allowing yourself to undo a move, and then practice moving and undoing and moving again until you pick a green option.

This quickly proved to be a terrible way to learn, or at least a terrible way for me to learn something. Knowing that I can just guess, over and over again, and undo all my guesses until I pick the right one, teaches me how to guess instead of think.

Which means I have to do it the slower-but-better way, and start the entire game over from the beginning if I make an orange or red move during the endgame.

Because if you want to know how to choose green moves, every single time, that seems to be the best way to do it.

A short note on book-learning vs. experiential learning

If you’ve been following my blog for a while (before I started posting on Substack) you might remember that I spent a lot of time over the past year reading chess books and completing Chess.com tutorials.

Those books teach you things like “it’s a good idea to create bishop pairs.”

This is true. Having two bishops next to each other gives you a lot of offensive and defensive options.

But there’s a huge difference between thinking “I’m going to use my next move to create a bishop pair because the chess manual said it was a good idea,” and thinking “wow, the best move in this situation will result in a bishop pair.”

Because that’s the truth, about chess—and I didn’t understand it until I spent all week iterating and watching for patterns.

The best moves automatically lead to the book-recommended scenarios: octopus knights, connected rooks, etc.

And you can only learn that by playing a hundred games against a grandmaster-level opponent.

Knowing vs. guessing: Piano

I don’t have a recording to share with you today because I spent a good chunk of the morning moving food from one refrigerator to another, but I will tell you this: as soon as I figured out that “resigning and starting a new chess game as soon as you make an error” helped me anticipate and avoid errors, I immediately decided to apply the same thing to my piano practice.

In other words:

  • I would begin Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 12 in F major, K. 332.
  • I would play until I made an error. This could be as large as a missed note or as small as “that run wasn’t as even as I hoped it could be.”
  • I would stop, do some specific practice to fix the error if necessary, and begin the piece again.

This is a tremendously successful way to practice error-free performance. To train yourself to remain focused throughout the entire piece, because if you mess something up you have to go all the way back to the beginning. To train yourself to both create and activate positive controls. To not let anything slide, or tell yourself you’ll fix it later, or tell yourself that every performance has a few mistakes in it.

Imagine being able to play a piece while knowing exactly what you need to do to make every note sound the way you want it to. Imagine being able to trust your own knowledge, instead of thinking “euurgh, here comes the hard part” and then getting nervous and messing things up. Imagine never, ever having to guess—and never getting frustrated because you guessed wrong.

I have felt a bit of what that could feel like, this week.

I want more of it.

And then I want to play for you again.

A short note on practicing even when your refrigerator breaks

When something happens to throw you off your usual work/life routine, you have three options:

  • Write off the entire day. Do the minimum amount of work required to fulfill your work/life responsibilities; spend the afternoon scrolling Twitter and reading about everything that could potentially be wrong with your refrigerator even though you’ve already made an appointment with a refrigerator repairperson. Grumble about the day being wasted, if you choose.
  • Cut whatever would have happened during the thing that interrupted your routine—in this case, my morning piano practice—and get right back on the schedule. Grumble about not getting to do the thing you wanted to do, if you choose.
  • Truncate your routine without cutting anything that’s essential or important. I only practiced the piano for 20 minutes today, and I only played chess for 20 minutes, and yesterday I needed to shorten the time I had set aside for novel-writing by an hour. I still feel really, really good about the work I was able to accomplish. No grumbling necessary.

Knowing vs. guessing: Novel-writing

When I began re-working the novel I had started writing a year ago (after reading the first few chapters to L and having him say “yep, I want to know what happens next, you should finish this one”), there were about five chapters left to write before the book was complete.

These weren’t necessarily the five last chapters, btw. The last chapter of the book was written a year ago. One of the unwritten chapters, which has since been drafted, came very early in the story.

The point is that I should have a completely-written novel within two weeks—at which point I will need to figure out what knowing vs. guessing means, in terms of taking a novel from its fully-written, partially-revised stage to its final draft stage.

So far I’ve been using the metric “If I think this sentence can be better, then I need to make it better.” In most cases, better equals more specific. More detail, for example. More variety, in terms of word choice. Fewer clichés. (Zero clichés, if possible.)

It’s interesting, because I already know how to go from guessing to knowing in my freelance writing. It’s all about understanding the specs of the assignment, creating a path to completion, and making the most efficient choices in terms of both project management and sentence construction.

I’m not sure that’s exactly the same for fiction writing, because you don’t always need to make the most efficient word choice—but you still need to make the most specific one. (Same goes for plot choices, character choices, and so on.)

I wonder what I’ll learn as I continue revising. What’s the equivalent of an all-green-move game, when you’re writing a book?

A short note on how to know when a book is finished

There’s one more metric I want to apply to my novel process, once I finish writing the last few chapters and begin the next round of revision passes. It comes from Hank Phillippi Ryan, in the just-released anthology How to Write a Mystery (which I very, very much recommend, even if you aren’t currently writing a mystery):

I always know when I’m finished, because I forget I’m editing, and realize I’m simply reading the story. It’s not my story anymore, it’s its own story.

Want to be interviewed for an upcoming Money Talks post?

I’m putting together some upcoming Money Talks posts for Vox, and I’m interested in talking to people who might be able to speak to any or all of the below:

  • Couples whose financial priorities changed during COVID
  • Couples who come from different financial backgrounds/socioeconomic statuses
  • Siblings who grew up with the same financial background but now have significantly different financial priorities/incomes/etc.

If you’d like to be interviewed for the series, email me at dieker.nicole@gmail.com.

Where I got published this week

Credit Cards Dot Com

What are low-interest credit cards?

Consider these three options if you’re looking for a low-interest credit card.

Haven Life

Do college students need life insurance?

Life insurance could help protect some college students in the event of worst-case scenarios — but it isn’t a prerequisite.

Don’t Write Alone | Catapult

Job Opportunities for Writers: August 20, 2021

We post roundups of writing and literary jobs once a week. Here’s our list for August 20, 2021.

Upcoming Submission and Pitching Opportunities: August 20, 2021

We post submission roundups once a week. Here’s our list of literary magazines and freelance opportunities for August 20, 2021.

On Tempo, and the Importance of Knowing What to Work On

Last week, I told you all that I had decided to start playing Mozart’s Piano Sonata Number 12 in F Major, K332 at tempo. I was in the process of adjusting my schedule to accommodate more focused freelancing so I could free up two days for more focused novel-writing, and it seemed appropriate to refocus my practicing as well.

As I explained, in last week’s post:

[…] asking myself how can I focus my time to ensure accuracy at 140 and how can I focus my time to ensure I complete five freelance assignments in 2.5 days has really helped me, for lack of a better phrase, FOCUS MY TIME.

This is still true. My practice sessions are much more focused, my freelancing sessions are very very focused, and I’ve given myself two full workdays per week to devote to my novel-in-progress without cutting back on my freelance work or my piano sessions.

In fact, I’ve increased the time I’m putting towards the piano, but that’s also because I’m spending more time knowing what I want to do and doing it instead of guessing at what might work and then getting tired because guessing takes a lot of mental work and then getting frustrated and giving up.

(This difference between knowing what you want to do and guessing at what you might want to do is significant, btw. It might be the biggest factor in all of this increased focus—that, and the ability to prioritize both work and rest—and I should probably write an entire post about it at some point.)

This week, I spent my piano practice sessions in much the way I spent my novel-revision sessions: by isolating specific problems and specifically addressing each of those problems in turn.

Not at tempo, but at the speed at which I could uncover a potential solution to the problem.

And then I went back to tempo, to see if the solution worked, and then I continued iterating between at-tempo and not-at-tempo as necessary.

You’re going to want to see my work, so here’s the last movement of K332 at tempo. I spent much of this week working on getting my pinky finger uncurled, and you can see definite improvement there. The performance isn’t where I want it to be yet; there are still a lot of problems to be solved, especially in the development section. But it’s a lot better than it was a week ago.

This week, I also started spending my chess practice sessions in much the way I spent my piano practice sessions—play at tempo, figure out why you can’t play at tempo, adjust until you can.

Playing at tempo, in this case, means playing the hardest Chess.com robot.

Previously I had been doing what you were “supposed” to do, which was playing each level of robot successively until you could beat them (same as what you are “supposed” to do at the piano, which is playing a passage at 40 and 50 and 60 beats per minute before you ever try to play it at 140 or 200), which at this point has grown frustrating because I know enough about chess to recognize when the mid-level robots are making obvious blunders.

But I don’t precisely know why I’m still making my own blunders. Otherwise, I wouldn’t make them.

So I started playing the Grandmaster-level Robot, and after a few games in which I got my chess handed to me and a few games in which I used Chess.com’s “give me every hint” function to win, I settled on a different strategy.

I would play the Hardest Robot until the point when I lost tempo. (Tempo is a music word that is also a chess word, and losing tempo means losing the advantage.)

Then I would resign the game and start another one, and play until I lost tempo again.

I’m going to keep track of the number of moves it takes me to lose tempo, and the types of blunders that cause me to lose tempo, and work specifically on increasing the number of moves and reducing the number of blunders.

This actually reminds me of the early days of freelancing, when I set myself two goals:

  • Increase the amount of money I earn every week
  • Reduce the number of assignments it takes to earn that money

Tracking these metrics was one of the best things I did as a freelancer, because it helped me focus on what I considered to be the most important aspect of freelancing: earning as much money as possible per word. When I began strategizing all of my freelance choices around increasing my income and decreasing my workload, I automatically began seeking out better-paying clients.

I’d like to think that strategizing my chess choices around increasing the number of moves it takes before the Hardest Robot starts winning and reducing the number of obvious mistakes that give the Hardest Robot an easy win will be equally gamechanging—but we’ll have to wait at least a week to find out.

Where I Got Published This Week

Bankrate

How to use a credit card

Here’s how to choose and use your credit cards to hit your financial goals this year.

2020 was hard on my finances. Here’s what I’m doing in 2021 to get back on track

In December 2020, Alainta Alcin got laid off a month after buying her first home. Here’s how she turned the situation around and got her finances back on track.

Cash or debit vs. credit: What’s the best way to pay?

Use this guide and think twice before deciding which payment type is best next time you’re in the checkout line.

Credit Cards Dot Com

Capital One Quicksilver vs. Bank of America Unlimited Cash

Both cards offer 1.5% cash back on every purchase – but that doesn’t mean they’re identical

How to pay for immigration fees

Learn how you can finance these fees with a credit card

Don’t Write Alone | Catapult

Job Opportunities for Writers: August 13, 2021

We post roundups of writing and literary jobs once a week. Here’s our list for August 13, 2021.

Upcoming Submission and Pitching Opportunities: August 13, 2021

We post submission roundups once a week. Here’s our list of literary magazines and freelance opportunities for August 13, 2021.

On Anxiety, Scheduling, and Making Specific Choices

“There are three different kinds of anxiety,” I told L.

“Just three?” he said. “I think there are at least fifty-six different kinds of anxiety, and we’re finding new ones every day.”

“There are three different kinds of anxiety,” I continued. “There’s anxiety about performance; that’s when you’re not sure you’re going to be able to do the thing you have to do, or the thing you’ve said you’re going to do, or the thing you want to do. Then there’s anxiety about outcome, in the sense that you’re not sure what the outcome of a given situation is going to be and so you worry about it. There’s also anxiety about opinion, in which you worry about what other people are going to think about you, or your performance, or the outcome of your performance.”

“Okay,” L said.

“THE POINT IS THAT I AM NOT ANXIOUS ABOUT THE BOOK ANYMORE,” I said.

I am, in fact, no longer anxious about the book.

(You can tell because I’ve started sleeping through the night again.)

I told L, the other day, that I felt about the book much the same way that I’ve started to feel about my piano practice—that is, that I know I can make this project as good as I want it to become (which is to say, excellent) as long as I keep working at it, and as long as I keep specifically working on making more and more specific choices.

Let’s start with the “keep working at it” piece.

Time management is choice management

One of the biggest anxieties I had about this book centered around when I would find the time to work on it. I ended up deciding to batch my work into “freelance days” and “book days,” putting freelance on MWF and book on TTH (or, if you went to a certain type of college, TR).

This meant figuring out how to complete the same amount of freelance work in 3/5ths of the days, which is not the same thing as 3/5ths of the time; at the moment, for example, I am scheduling my day so that I complete one assignment in the early morning, practice the piano for two hours, and then complete one assignment in the later morning/early afternoon.

That gives me five freelance writing slots (M1, M2, W1, W2, F2). The sixth slot (F1) goes towards writing this weekly blog post.

This is the same number of freelance time blocks I had given myself before, five freelance writing slots per week (M1, T1, W1, TH1, F1), but now it’s been compressed into fewer days.

More on this in a minute. It’s important.

Never mind, more on this right now.

Time management is choice management, Part Two

This actually ties in with what I’m currently doing at the piano, which is to say that I’ve been working on getting Mozart’s Piano Sonata Number 12 in F Major, K332 up to tempo, which is to say fast, and although the traditional pedagogy suggests that you’re supposed to set the metronome at 80 and then 90 and then 100 and then 120 and then (finally) 140, making sure you can play everything perfectly at the preceding tempo before acceding to the next one, I’m trying something a little different:

What if you had to play this piece at 140, without all the stops in between?

What would that change about the way you practiced?

How would you focus your time to ensure accuracy at 140, if you didn’t have the experience/crutch of ensuring accuracy at 100 first?

This is, as these things often are, a gamechanger.

It’s also worth noting that I have been studying K332 for a year at this point, and I’ve been freelancing for nearly ten years. I would not suggest jumping into at-tempo playing (or, for lack of a better term, at-tempo freelancing) without that kind of background and prep work.

But asking myself how can I focus my time to ensure accuracy at 140 and how can I focus my time to ensure I complete five freelance assignments in 2.5 days has really helped me, for lack of a better phrase, FOCUS MY TIME.

It’s also helped me prioritize rest.

Essentially, I can’t dilly-dally when I’m working—but I can’t dilly-dally when I’m not working, either.

Otherwise, none of this works.

Specificity management is choice management, too

That’s all great, Nicole, I can hear you thinking, but let’s get to some WORK-SHOWING.

Okay. Here’s what I’m doing on the book, in terms of making increasingly more specific choices.

Let’s start with the original first page:

“I’m not going to choir practice tonight,” Larkin told her mother.

“Yes, you are,” Josephine Day said, not looking up from her laptop. “I already told Ed you’d be there.”

“You can’t tell people I’ll be places,” Larkin said, not getting up from the sofa. “That’s not how this is going to work.”

“I think I get at least some say in how it’s going to work,” Josephine said. “Since you are living in my house.”

“Temporarily,” Larkin said. 

“I’m well aware.”

“And I’m supposed to be taking some time off,” Larkin continued, projecting her voice towards the kitchen table in the hopes that it would loom over her mother and withdraw with some sympathy extracted. “To think about what I want to do with the rest of my life.” 

“Are you thinking about it?”

“I’m thinking that I don’t want to sing in community choir.”

“It’s not a community choir. We’re bringing together all of the choruses in the Corridor for this concert.” At least her mother had not called it the Creative Corridor this time, emphasis on creative, as if that would entice Larkin to get off the sofa and get back to creating. She did not want to make art in Iowa. Not in Iowa City; not in Dubuque, Des Moines, Davenport or any of the other towns they listed in The Music Man; and certainly not in Cedar Rapids.

“Are we getting paid?”

“Of course not.”

“Then it’s a community choir.”

Here’s the first page as it currently stands:

“I’m not going to choir practice tonight,” Larkin told her mother.

“Yes, you are,” Josephine Day said, not looking up from her laptop. “I already told Ed you’d be there.”

“You can’t tell people I’ll be places,” Larkin said, not getting up from the sofa. “That’s not how this is going to work.”

“I think I get at least some say in how it’s going to work,” Josephine said. “Since you are living in my house.”

“Temporarily,” Larkin said. 

“I’m well aware.”

“And I’m supposed to be taking some time off,” Larkin continued, projecting her voice towards the kitchen table in the hopes that it would loom over her mother and withdraw with some sympathy extracted. “To think about what I want to do with the rest of my life.” 

“Are you thinking about it?”

“I’m thinking that I don’t want to sing in community choir.”

“It’s not a community choir. We’re bringing together all of the choruses in the Corridor for this concert.” At least her mother had not called it the Creative Corridor this time, emphasis on creative, as if that would entice Larkin to get off the sofa and get back to creating. Larkin did not want to make art in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She didn’t want to make art in any city where you had to say the name of the state afterwards.

Larkin didn’t even know if what she did qualified as making art, anymore. At one point Larkin was very sure she was going to make art, staging plays and musicals that revealed truths that no one in her audience had ever considered. At a different, slightly later point, she’d told herself it was just as worthwhile to teach other people how to make art—although she’d also asked herself how she could teach something she hadn’t actually done. Larkin had considered this truth and then ignored it, not that it mattered. At this point, nobody was interested in hiring Larkin to teach or make anything.

“Are we getting paid?” 

“Of course not.”

“Then it’s a community choir.”

I feel like I should explain what I did here, but I also feel like it’s kind of self-explanatory. The first draft has a somewhat pandery Music Man joke. The second draft cuts the joke and makes a more specific choice: it not only clarifies what Larkin doesn’t like about Iowa, but also what she doesn’t like about herself. It also introduces the primary internal conflict that Larkin will need to resolve by the end of the story (the primary external conflict being, of course, CAN LARKIN SOLVE THE MURRRRRRRDER [also it’s a murder mystery]).

Anyway. I’ve been doing a lot of this kind of work on the book, and I’ve been reading it all to L in the evenings, and we are all agreeing that this story is progressing in exactly the way it ought to go.

Now let’s show some piano work, which is also getting more and more specific every day:

(I should tell you that immediately after I recorded and watched this video, I asked myself “how many of the technical problems would be solved if I uncurled my right pinky finger?” and it turns out the answer is A LOT OF THEM.)

And let’s end this, as we always do, with my freelance work:

Where I Got Published This Week

Bankrate

How long can a debt collector pursue old debt?

Debt collectors will keep calling even after the bank stops. Here’s what to expect.

Credit Cards Dot Com

A financial guide to college extracurricular activities

The impact of extracurriculars can last long past graduation – both the friendships formed and the financial decisions.

Haven Life

What is collateral assignment of life insurance?

Don’t know what collateral assignment of life insurance is? That’s ok — read on to find out what you need to know.

What are the different life insurance risk classifications?

Curious about the different risk classifications involved in life insurance? Read on to find out more.

Don’t Write Alone | Catapult

Job Opportunities for Writers: August 6, 2021

We post roundups of writing and literary jobs once a week. Here’s our list for August 6, 2021.

Upcoming Submission and Pitching Opportunities: August 6, 2021

We post submission roundups once a week. Here’s our list of literary magazines and freelance opportunities for August 6, 2021.

Showing My Work: Starting Thoughts

It seems like there are three things I want to tell you.

Maybe four things.

The first thing is about money.

No, wait. The first first thing, the pre-emptive piece of information that I want to share with everybody (now that I am sharing these posts on both Nicole Dieker Dot Com and Nicole Dieker Dot Substack Dot Com), is that I’m just going to assume that you’re already familiar with what I do and what this iteration of my narration is about.

I’ve been a freelance writer for a decade; I’ve been a six-figure freelancer for the past two years and counting. I’m the author of The Biographies of Ordinary People, a Millennial-era Little Women that follows three sisters from childhood to adulthood, and I am currently working on my next major fiction project.

I’ve been a teacher, in some form or another, for most of my life; both of my parents are teachers and my mom started asking me to help with her youngest piano students when I was in junior high. I’ve taught, at various points in my life, piano, acting, directing, and Shakespeare. Now I teach writing and the business of freelancing.

Both of my parents are also classically-trained musicians, as am I (my degrees are in music and theater, both of which are more common among professional writers than you’d think). The person we’ll call “L,” whom I can accurately describe as the great love of my life, is also a classically-trained musician. We spend a lot of our free time practicing the piano and discussing how to get from good enough to excellent.

That’s what this weekly newsletter, whether you’re reading it in WordPress or Substack form, will focus on: How to get from good enough to excellent, at whatever you’re trying to do.

I mean, at what I’m trying to do.

(I don’t know what you’re trying to do.)

The excellences I am currently pursuing include:

  • Freelance writing
  • Teaching
  • Piano
  • Chess
  • Math
  • Strength training (like, with barbells)
  • Relationships (yes, it is possible to pursue excellence in your interpersonal relationships [and once you know that, it becomes impossible not to])
  • Novel-writing

It’s that last one that has thrown everything else just slightly off balance—but that’s the second thing I want to write about, and I told you that the first thing I wanted to write about was money.

Money

As soon as I decided to write fiction again, I could feel the immense pressure of the question “is that going to be your primary way of earning money, can it be should it be will it be” settling into my neck and shoulders.

I think that is a ridiculous question, for at least three reasons:

  • The math doesn’t work. I would need to sell 20,000 books per year, at $5 net profit per copy, to pull in six figures as a novelist. I do want to write the kind of book that people will want to read (more on that in a minute), and I might even like to write the kind of book that people will want to pay money for, but to assume that I would surpass my current freelance earnings through some combination of advances and royalties is, at this point, a very foolish assumption.
  • I am, at this point in my life, excellent at freelancing. It’s my best thing. I know how to work with clients, I know how to interview sources, I know how to write to spec and turn in perfect copy by deadline. I have a decade of expertise in my primary beat (personal finance) and have not yet reached the end of my ability to share what I’ve learned with readers.
  • Pulling back on the freelancing would also make it harder for me to teach. Right now, I’m developing a course on “personal finance for the freelance writer,” which combines three of my favorite things (teaching, the business of freelancing, and personal finance). I would not be able to teach this class if I were no longer actively freelancing; while the core of the business remains fairly constant, there are enough updates to invoicing platforms, industry trends, tax law, etc. etc. etc. that trying to teach something I was not actively practicing would be both foolish and futile.

There’s also a fourth reason:

  • I’m not sure how long it will take to rework my current draft from good enough to excellent. I have the advantage of having the draft already written. I’ve read much of that original draft to L, and he agrees that this should be my next big creative project. But going through the draft, sentence by sentence, and turning every unspecific choice into a more specific one will take time.

Which brings me to the second thing.

Manipulation

This could be a 2,000-word blog post of its own, but the tl;dw (too long, didn’t write) is this: changing any aspect of something, no matter how small, changes the entire thing.

Which means that when I started trying to perfect my physical form in the squat rack (squat below parallel, keep knees in line with toes), it made me want to focus on perfecting my physical form at the piano (wrists below knuckles, keep pinky fingers from curling up).

Both are very achievable, if you are willing to focus on achieving them.

The trouble is, putting all of your focus on one area of something seems to open up a bunch of other problems you might not have completely solved. When you’re focusing on wrist position at the piano, for example, the part of the piece that isn’t fully memorized starts to fall apart, even if you’ve been able to play it “from memory” for weeks. When you’re focusing on wrist position at the gym, you might not squat or press to your previous depth because you’re putting more of your effort towards a different issue—which means that if you’re serious about solving the wrist problems while getting your hips below parallel, you probably need to deload.

Or, as I told L earlier this week: “I started writing new fiction words for the first time in, like, two years. And then everything else fell apart, and I’m worried that I’m going to be insufferable until I figure out how to rebalance it all.”

By “everything else” I basically mean my ability to manipulate the elements around me instead of being manipulated by them, which would sound like the most pretentious thing I’d ever written if it weren’t my daily goal. To act, rather than react. To make the kinds of choices that compound positively, rather than the ones that compound negatively. To avoid the impulsive overcorrections that cancel each other out. To keep the stress of my new project from leading to stress eating, for example—which leads to spoiled dinners (nutritionally and conversationally) and indigestion and poor sleep and uncomfortable bowels and the kind of overall energy deficit that makes it harder to do excellent work the next day.

It used to take me a week or more to get out of this kind of deficit. This time around, I think it’s only going to take me two days. Part of that is because I have L on my team; part of it is because I know that being my best self makes both of us better (individually and in relationship).

The other part is that I understand the ways in which being able to manipulate the elements around you leads not only to excellence but to magic.

Which brings me to the third thing.

Magic

L and I very much want to become magicians—not in the sleight-of-hand sense (though we keep saying we’re going to study sleight-of-hand one of these days), but in the mastery sense.

This means, among other things, avoiding that which is not magic in both the work we choose to produce and the work we choose to consume.

“People who want to become magic,” as we often say to each other, “need to surround themselves with the work of other magicians.”

And we’ll know that we have become magic when people (including other magicians) want to spend time with our work.

In many ways, I’ve already achieved mastery/magicianry as a freelancer—and I hope to write more about that as I continue this narrative.

But I also want to demonstrate mastery at the piano, and in my current fiction project.

I’m also working to understand the concept of mastery itself—because I suspect that the same form-function-heuristic-building work that I’m doing in the barbell gym and at the piano will also apply to my fiction work and, if I’m lucky, my chess study.

I built my freelance career by setting myself two problems to solve, every week:

  • How can I increase my gross freelance income this week?
  • How can I increase my earnings per hour?

I don’t think those are the problems I need to solve with piano and fiction writing; with the former, it might be something like “how can I increase measures memorized per hour,” and with the latter, it might be “how can I increase word count per hour,” though you also want to make sure the words and the measures are as close to excellent as possible, there’s no point in getting faster if you just get sloppy.

Maybe the first step in showing my work—and the work I can show you next week—will have to do with identifying these specific (not to mention measurable, achievable, replicable, and time-bound) goals. ❤️

Where I Got Published This Week

Bankrate

Chase Sapphire Reserve benefits guide

The Chase Sapphire Reserve offers an impressive array of travel benefits, from annual travel credits to luxury hotel perks—here’s a guide to help you get the most out of this elite travel credit card.

How to do a balance transfer with Wells Fargo

Learn how to do a balance transfer with Wells Fargo.

TSA PreCheck vs. Clear: Which is best?

Decide whether you’d like to apply for TSA PreCheck, CLEAR or both.

Credit Cards Dot Com

What you need to know about instant use credit cards

Some credit cards let you make purchases before your card arrives in the mail.

Pairing the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Chase Freedom Unlimited

Check out this beginner duo of Chase credit cards.

Earn $500+ in credits in your first year, and offset the Amex Gold card’s annual fee

The American Express Gold Card has added new perks – and it’s more valuable than ever.

Don’t Write Alone | Catapult

Upcoming Submission and Pitching Opportunities: July 30, 2021

We post submission roundups once a week. Here’s our list of literary magazines and freelance opportunities for July 30, 2021.

Job Opportunities for Writers: July 30, 2021

We post roundups of writing and literary jobs once a week. Here’s our list for July 30, 2021.

In Which My Problem-Solving Skills Turn Out to be Cross-Disciplinary

Nicole Dieker almost called this one “revising a novel is the process of going from guessing to knowing.

The thing is that I don’t think I’d be able to revise this novel — or any novel — if I hadn’t spent the past year learning how to solve problems at the piano.

I’d always had a top-level problem when it came to novel-revision, and it’s that I did the majority of the “work” before I ever started writing any of the story. I’m the kind of writer who will create a very detailed chapter breakdown and a character breakdown before starting the first draft, which is to say that I write the book before I write the book, which means that if you were to tell me “I think you need to rework Chapter 2,” I would say “you mean I need to rework the entire manuscript, because every individual element in Chapter 2 is there for a reason and is connected to everything that comes before and after it.”

There is very little waste, in my prose.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t problems.

The problems, in this current draft, are similar to the problems I’m experiencing in the third movement of Mozart K332. It’s not the problem of getting words on the page; that’s the problem I’m dealing with right now as I learn the Bach Ricercar a 6 (“getting words on the page” being roughly equivalent to “getting notes in fingers”). It’s the problem of having many, many good words on the page and several words that are just good enough.

Which, if you heard me play K332 right now, you might say “good job.”

But if you heard me play that Chopin Nocturne that I’ve been working on for twice as long, you might say “wow, you had absolute command of your performance and were making specific, distinct choices throughout the entire piece.”

I mean, you probably wouldn’t say that. L would, because he’s a piano teacher. You might just say “wow.”

The difference between good job and wow comes down to problem-solving.

And the thing is — and this is what I didn’t understand, before this year — is that you can actually solve every problem in a piece of piano music, as long as you are willing to put in the time and the effort and don’t have an external deadline (like a recital) pressuring you to cut a few corners.

I always assumed that there would be a few measures in each piece that would always be clunky or awkward or nerve-wracking, simply because the music was “hard” or I had “small hands” or whatever.

This has not turned out to be the case. L and I have come up with a solution for every problem we’ve found in Mozart K332, whether it’s changing the fingering or making sure the fourth finger doesn’t collapse at the first knuckle or shaping the phrase towards its final note.

Which means that I can also come up with a solution for every problem I have in my current draft, whether it’s a clunky sentence or an awkward transition, without having to rework the entire plot from scratch.

I mean, we don’t rewrite Mozart just because we can’t play one of the passages.

And I don’t have to rewrite my entire book just because one of its passages isn’t as solid as it could be.

I just have to figure out what the problem is — not a general “this doesn’t work,” but a specific reason why it isn’t working, just like I do at the piano — and then fix it.

Which I can do, because I’ve spent the past year learning how to do it. ❤️

p.s. in case you’re having trouble deciphering that header image, it reads “truth in a novel is the same as accuracy at the piano,” and the reason I crossed it out is because that’s my way of identifying that I’ve taken an idea out of my notebook and put it somewhere else.

Form Check

Last night L and I were talking about cross-disciplinary work, and how committing to multiple practices (that is to say, polymathery) can strengthen everything you practice.

Which, naturally, got us talking about Stronglifts 5×5.

“Lifting weights feels a lot more like practicing the piano than doing those online chess lessons,” I tried to explain. “With weights, it’s the same kind of physical work — you’ve got this movement that you want to execute, and you need to focus on precision and form and specificity and breath and hand position and everything else because otherwise you can hurt yourself.”

I am sure I took a breath at that point, and then made another one:

“I mean, you can be a lot less precise about form on the piano, and a lot of us are sloppy about form because we aren’t in quite as much danger of hurting ourselves, though you could still damage your wrists and everything else long-term if you aren’t careful. With weights, you have to try to achieve perfect form every time.”

And then, of course, the obvious realization:

“What if I tried to achieve perfect form on the piano, every time?”

So that’s what I did this morning. It was, as you can expect, a completely different practice. Committing to perfect form — not letting my wrists gank up, not letting my fingers flatten, avoiding that first-knuckle collapse that always happens if you aren’t thoughtful about key-strike and follow-through — made an unbelievable difference in my playing.

Here, you can see it to believe it:

This Chopin performance is the most specific I’ve ever been, and because of that it’s also the most emotionally compelling. Every note lands because I am focused on landing it with perfect form, and I’ve kept just enough of the “playing the piece as if I were discovering each note for the first time” (which I kind of am, since I am essentially discovering a new way of playing each note) that it sounds fresh and — pun intended — striking.

There are a few situations in which my first knuckles still collapse, but those are rare enough that you’ll have to watch very carefully for them. Compare this Chopin to the one I recorded last month, which is a decent performance but, like, half of those top knuckles are weebling and wobbling and falling down:

Working towards perfect form makes a difference.

It all makes a difference.

Which means that I’m going to have to — gladly, willingly — work at making that difference every time I practice the piano.

And, since I’m committed to multiple practices, figure out what the equivalent of “perfect form” is when I play chess. (My guess is that it has something to do with “always knowing the best move,” though I’m nowhere near that level of play yet.) ❤️