Who Can Dance to a Fiddler Who Plays Off Key?

In the book Steering the Craft by the prolific author Ursula K. Le Guin, there is a phrase that continues to nudge me in the ribs:

“How can a reader trust a writer ignorant of the medium she works in? Who can dance to a fiddler who plays off key?”

Le Guin’s book is specific to the craft of writing. It’s not a book you probably want to read unless the subject of verbs, complex syntax and indirect narration is your thing, but I feel that her question applies to all professional skills – not just writers.

Anyone can pick up a fiddle

All you have to do is connect the bow with the strings and the instrument will emit sound. It will be noise more than a tune, but technically it can be said that you are playing the fiddle. This applies to many other skills, like speaking, writing or thinking. Everyone has the ability to do it, but the quality of output is variable.

Playing the fiddle well requires practice

Doing anything well requires time and commitment. I don’t play the fiddle but will share with you one of my most memorable rejections. I was axed from playing in the orchestra for a Wang Leehom (a Taiwanese popstar for the uninitiated) concert because I bombed when they were doing individual auditions. Playing with the section at the rehearsal was fine, but I could not mask the fact that I had not practiced enough when it was one-on-one with the conductor.

When you’re good, you’ll engage others

What’s really great about Le Guin’s question is that it involves a third party – the dancer. A fiddler who plays off key will not attract the attention of people. They will either tune him/her out or complain. In this day in age, it’s usually an “unfollow” or “unsubscribe”. A great fiddler not only plays a tune, but other people are drawn to the music and can’t help but participate.

When I think about what Le Guin wrote, I feel it a reminder to not only do the job, but do it well, and so well that it creates engagement, participation, flow – and even enjoyment.

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