Jerry Nelson: What I Learned About Writing From J.K. Rowling and a Homeless Violinist

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What I Learned About Writing From J.K. Rowling and a Homeless Violinist

By Jerry Nelson

At eleven o’clock I set the alarm, turned off the television and went to sleep. In about four hours, I would wake with J. K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame.

At two o’clock, I woke up as us old men are prone to do, and after the bathroom, since I was awake, I walked to the kitchen for a cup of coffee, when I heard a violin playing on the street. Even seven floors up in my condo at the top of the building, I heard violin music, and I listened. Whoever it was, was playing Bach — Partita №2, Chaconne.

Few moments in music are as dramatic as the opening bars of this devilishly tricky unaccompanied work. With jagged chords, and the unease and subsequent joy of resolution, it’s too much to bear. Only the very finest violinists can nail this stalwart.

A touch of honey to sweeten the coffee and a splash of milk, I went to the balcony to smoke a cigarette and listen to the virtuoso seven floors below.

As the sound echoed off the buildings, it was hard to tell where the violin was. At two a.m. there isn’t a lot of traffic. I spotted him playing under a street lamp. He came into focus.

Black, curly hair that looked like the dirty scalp of an alpaca, a faded, tattered olive green Army jacket with a pair of torn blue jeans. I recognized him as one of the homeless who live in my barrio here in Buenos Aires.

I first met him months ago when he was standing below my balcony muttering something in Spanish. Taking a cigarette from the pack, I dropped it over the rail so it would land at his feet.

Stepping back into the shadow where he couldn’t see me, I watched as he picked it up.

He lit it, spread his arms, and spoke to the Heavens: “Gracias, Jesus!” But he didn’t say ‘Jesus.’ He pronounced the Son of God’s name in that Spanish way: hay-SOOS.

I watched the violinist a few more minutes until he looked around and noticed there was no one on the street. Shrugging, he picked up his battered hat from the sidewalk, and stumbled across the street about the time I let a 100-peso bill flutter to the curb.

He watched it fall, then picked it up, spread his arms and said: “Gracias Jesus!”

I finished my coffee, tapped out the cigarette and headed back to bed.

About fifteen minutes later, I heard him again. For some reason I still haven’t figured out, I got dressed and hustled to the street to find him.

Just as I passed the lobby, I saw him walking down the avenue, still playing.

I followed him.

Down the street, turn right, two lefts and then I spotted The Elephant, a tea and coffee house I had never noticed before.

Hearing soft chatter from the inside, I walked to the door and opened it. Looking around, I saw the bartender and one amorous couple in the back left-hand corner.

Stepping to the bar, I ordered a Virgin Cuban Libre — diet please.

Taking a sip, I looked around.

At the corner table, facing the wall, was a head with blond hair cascading over like a waterfall on Mount Olympus. Busy typing away on a laptop, I watched for a minute as her fingers Tangoed across the keyboard only stopping to take a sip from the drink in front of her, wipe her nose, or stretch her fingers.

Curious, I took my drink and edged around the perimeter of the bar until I could see her face.

“Excuse me. You look like J. K. Rowling.”

Lifted eyebrows and eyeballs starting a gentle roll told me she had heard that a thousand times before. A passing whiff of Lilac & Gooseberry said she wouldn’t mind hearing it again.

“What’cha writing?” I asked.

Putting her hands on the side of her face while pushing her hair back, she asked, “Why does everyone ask me that?”

“Well, the MacBook Air and the steady tap-tap-tapping is a giveaway and makes people curious, don’t ya’ think?”

“Maybe. Maybe so.”

“I’m Jerry. Jerry Nelson.”

“I’m Joanne — my friends call me Jo.”

“So are you ‘Joanne’ or ‘Jo’ to me?”

“The jury is still out.”

Joanne took another sip, pushed the now empty glass and empty sushi plate back and stretched.

“I need to get some fresh air.”

“Mind if I keep you company?”

“Sure. But stay a gentleman. I’m beginning to like you.”

Holding the door, she stepped into the early morning chill. I lit a cigarette and asked, “Which way?”

Across the street was an ancient church with a large blue and white banner above the door, announcing “Paradise in Augustines” and Lucano’s Kitchen was next door. The silver metal tables and gray plastic seats of Lucano’s were empty and begged for someone to stop a while.

“How about Lucano’s?”

“Sure,” she said. “Your treat though.”

We pulled two chairs away from the table and told the waiter, “Two breakfast specials, please.”

Minutes later, as we sipped our coffee, the waiter brought out sausage, thin-sliced ham, two poached eggs and two slices of toast with more coffee and a small glass of orange juice for each of us. Setting down a battered chrome and glass salt-and-pepper shaker, he asked, “Anything else?”

“No. We’re fine. Thank you,” said Joanne.

Joanne asked, “Have you visited The Tea Rooms?”

“Tea Rooms?”

“Yes. At the castle. A delightful little spot not far from here, and also the middle of the route the thieves took when they boosted the Stone of Scone.”

“No. Haven’t been there. But it sounds like a nice place to go sometime.”

“Well, what do you want to do now?” Joanne asked.

“I guess I’d better let you get back to your writing.”

“Oh no. I can do that anytime — and I do.”

She finished just as the soft sounds of violin music came around the corner. Playing Bach — Partita №2, Chaconne, the man eased into view.

Joanne set her coffee down and listened.

“This guy’s good,” I said.

“Oh. You’ve heard him?”

“Yes. No. Well, I’m not sure about much anymore.”

The violinist got closer and switched to A Thousand Years by Christina Perri.

“What is it you do, Jerry?” Joanne asked.

“I’m a writer. Well, I want to be anyway.”

“Do you know what the difference is between someone who IS a writer and one that WANTS to be a writer?”

“No. I guess I don’t.”

“A person who WANTS to be a writer talks about writing. A person who IS a writer is too busy writing.”

Smiling, I asked, “What other gems of wisdom you got?”

Pointing to our homeless friend, she said, “That violinist can teach us some things about writing. Do you think he picked that instrument up and played as well the first time? Do you think he never got tired or bored with practicing?”

“Well, I, er…ah…” I stammered.

“Persistence counts for something. I spent seventeen years working on Harry Potter before I finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Seventeen years — about as long as it takes a kid to go from kindergarten through high school.

“You may love a project, but the day will come — maybe days, weeks or months later — when you’re bored and fed up. But look at what happened to me. It can happen to you if you gut it out.”

I reached for the Sheldon Cooper-esque notebook I kept in my pocket and jotted down: Be Persistent.

“What else?” I asked.

“Listen to how he plays. He hits the mezzo-piano notes just right. Immediately before the mezzo-piano — and he doesn’t telegraph the change. Do you think that comes naturally? No. It doesn’t. He thinks about his music even when his violin is in the case.”

“So the lesson here is…?” I asked.

“Think things through. I was on a train when I got the idea of Harry Potter. You could say he just fell into my head, but I had nothing to write with, so for the four-hour train ride, all I could do was think. If I had time to slow down the ideas so I could capture them on paper, I may have stifled some and missed others.”

“In other words,” she continued, “Don’t be too quick to get something down on paper. Think about the structure and the concepts, and the conclusions and the way you want something to play out BEFORE you commit it to paper.

Turning to my notepad, I jotted down: Think Things Through.

“Be sure to write when you’re on,” Joanne said. “I write through the night — or in cafes. I like just enough people around to get lost in. But when I was ready to finish Deathly Hallows, I checked into a hotel so I could write the ending with no distractions.”

I guess Joanne could see I wasn’t loaded with money because she said, “You may not be able to afford a hotel room or have the energy for an all nighter — especially if you have kids you have to get to school in the morning. But whatever time you can, structure your work day so you’re writing during your peak energy time — whenever that is for you.”

I wrote in my notepad: Write When You’re On.

Glancing at my watch, I said, “Wow — the time flew. I’d better be going.”

“My pleasure Jerry. My pleasure.”

“Mine too. Have a nice day Joanne.”



“Call me Jo.”

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