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  • [TIPS OF THE TRADE] What makes you smile -- and why it matters
[TIPS OF THE TRADE] What makes you smile -- and why it matters
Written by
Ellen Cassedy
May 2015
Written by
Ellen Cassedy
May 2015

It all began with a clarinet.

I played the clarinet when I was a girl, but after the audition for college orchestra went badly, I put the instrument away in a closet (a series of closets, actually), and didn’t touch it again for three decades.      

Then one day my friend Josh told me he was in a bind. His daughter’s bat mitzvah was coming up, and he’d lovingly arranged a little piece for it. But the clarinetist in the ensemble (age 12) had decided she didn’t want to play after all. Could I fill in?

I went looking for my clarinet in the closet and brushed the dust off the case. I screwed the barrels together and moistened a reed. I put my fingers on the keys and blew. A sound came out.   

The bat mitzvah performance lasted about five minutes, and I wasn’t as nervous as I expected to be. In fact, I kind of had fun.    

Then Josh asked if I’d join him and his wife at a weeklong music camp. We chose a difficult piece, a Brahms trio, and worked hard on it. Playing that glorious music was absolutely thrilling. 

One day I looked in the mirror at camp and saw a huge grin on my face. 

What was going on? I thought I knew. “Playing the clarinet is fun because I don’t really care,” I explained to a friend. “I’m not weighed down by standards or obligations. I can just . . . well, play.”

Maybe that was part of it. But then I had another idea. Maybe the grin was there simply because I really liked playing the clarinet. Playing the clarinet wasn’t “important,” it didn’t meet my stringent criteria for what really “mattered,” but I liked it.

I decided I needed to pay attention to what was producing that grin. And when I did, I found my writing career utterly transformed.  

I’d always assumed I’d make my career as a writer, and I had. In many ways, though, I’d basically become a propagandist. I worked as a speechwriter for union leaders and government officials, a newspaper columnist with a focus on workplace issues, and a writer of political materials.

It was meaningful and satisfying work, but there was little opportunity to express certain parts of myself that had always felt important--my love of words and languages, history, sensory observations, and on and on. 

Judging by the grin I saw in the mirror at the music camp, when I shoved the clarinet to the back of the closet, I shoved some other things aside, too.   

That was about to change. Soon after, I stumbled across a diary kept by my late aunt and began turning her words into a rather unconventional play. At first this work seemed to be taking me far afield from the serious concerns--political and otherwise--that had guided my adult life. But once I’d finished a few drafts, I recognized the work as a powerful expression of values that had always mattered deeply to me. It conveyed some new ideas, too--about aging, about Brooklyn, about Walt Whitman. 

My next writing project, too, involved letting go of preconceptions about what “really mattered”--what “should matter”--and instead allowing myself to be drawn close to what truly engaged me. I began with a fascinating (to me) collection of old family photos and a quirky interest in Yiddish, and from there made my way into the fearsome terrain of the Holocaust in Lithuania. The work changed my view of the past, changed my view of the future, and changed me. 

Now that I think of it, I never thanked my friend Josh for prodding me to get the clarinet out of the closet. The clarinet, and the grin that followed, opened a new door for me as a writer. 

These days, once again, I’m feeling it’s time for a door to open in my writing life.   

I’m taking an art class.  And it’s making me smile.


Ellen Cassedy’s book is We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust (Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2012), which won four national awards, including the Grub Street National Book Prize, and was shortlisted for the Saroyan Prize. It’s now available in audiobook format as well as paperback and e-book. Ellen’s first post for She Writes was “Who Cares about Your Family Story? Ten Tips to Ensure Readers Will ...” Her [TIPS OF THE TRADE] series appears monthly. See all of Ellen's Tips for Writers.

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Trending Articles

  • Ellen Cassedy

    What Peggy Kelley needs as a writer is peace and quiet.  I know others who need bustle and noise, which is why they head for the nearest café when it's time to write. 

  • Peggy Kelley

    What makes me smile is peace and quiet!

  • Rossandra White

    Thank you , thank you, Meredith Louisell for that Louise Gluck piece! Most comforting.

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Karen Szklany Gault comments on how her involvement in music and visual art could enhance her writing.

  • Thank you for sharing your very inspiring story, Ellen!  I have been getting the feeling that if I spent more time with my flute  and painting, my writing would take on a new dimension, and I think it's true.  I do sing in a choir, and love when I can join the director's piano accompaniment with flute music, and that should tell me something. 

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Thanks, Mardith Louisell, for sharing Louise Gluck's words about her dry periods.  "I can't tell you the comfort I found in this," Mardith writes.

  • Mardith Louisell

    This from an interview with Louise Gluck  absolutely resonated with me ( P&W, Sept-Oct 2014). Gluck: “I go through two, three years writing nothing. Zero. Not a sentence. Not bad poems I discard, not notes toward poems. Nothing. And you don’t know in those periods that the silence will end, that you will ever recover speech. It’s pretty much hell, and the fact that it’s always ended before doesn’t mean that any current silence isn’t the terminal silence beyond which you will not move, though you will live many years in your incapacity. Each time it feels that way. When I’m not writing, all the old work becomes a reprimand: Look what you could do once, you pathetic slug.” I can't tell you the comfort I found in this.

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Looking back, I feel that when I've tried to push myself too hard it hasn't worked.  The secret for me has been to be receptive, to allow ideas to catch me unawares rather than to start off by sitting down and making a plan.  I'm always grateful when other writers share their fears of permanent creative drought, as Rossandra White does here.

  • Rossandra White

    Let's hope I can eke out a comment here considering the problem I've been experiencing trying to get a couple of words down. Anywhere. After twenty-three years of writing, it's just too difficult. I've been in "slumps" before and like I do everything else, I've been able to ram my way through. Not this time. There's a little voice that tells me to let go, take the break, the words will come. But what worries me is that they won't. Every writer's fear. So thanks for this Ellen and everyone who commented. There are many different things that can lead us back to the creative, like trusting the process? 

  • Ellen Cassedy

    "We need joy in our writing," says Olga Godim.  Switching genres is her way to stay with the joy.  What is yours?

  • Olga Godim

    Wonderful post, Ellen. Yes, we need joy in out writing. Otherwise it becomes a chore, and the smile goes. Like many other creatives, my writing feels like an ocean wave. Sometimes it's up, and the words flow. Other times, it's down, and the well of words seems empty. I guess the solution is not to force it but to switch direction. Clarinet playing or painting or reading or even watching TV can spark new ideas and recapture the joy.

    My solution is to switch genre or format. I wrote a few novels before, but in the last year, only short stories come to my mind, so I've been writing them and not forcing myself back into the novel mold. My WIP at the moment is again a new genre, Regency romance, which I've never written before (I'm a fantasy writer). It's also a new length - novella - and with everything new, the interest is rekindled.

    Publishing is another matter, of course, but we're not talking about publishing here, right? :)

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Cate, a lovely comment. We are indeed blessed when we can "recapture that inherent contentment and mindfulness children experience."

  • Rita Gabis

    Thanks for this Ellen.  There are so many different things that can lead us back to the creative.  Your blog post reminded me of a time when I couldn't write and so went out, bought a set of Prang watercolors (I hadn't used them since I was a girl) and began painting a series of windows in pastels…then one day…paintbrush went down and I started writing again:)