Why I’m a Writer (as far as I can tell)

If I could “be” anything in the world I would be a rock star. I blame it on my dad.

When I was a kid I discovered my dad’s music collection, a set of vinyl albums by The Beach Boys, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, the Mamas and the Papas. Even before that I remember lots of loud stereo music played throughout the day by my mother. The same songs played on the car radio with my dad. Country songs which I had no interest in until years later. This was the era of the outlaws and I eventually came to appreciate that kind of country as much as any kind of music. In my teen years my dad brought more new music to my experience: Tom Waits, Blondie, the soundtrack to Popeye.

Today I’m a music fanatic. I’ve seen dozens of concerts and I’m always on the look out for new sounds. Here’s something I’ve just discovered courtesy of the Outlands Music Fest:

Man I wish I could play like that.

While I’m sure it’s not too late to learn an instrument there’s something more important I’ve come to realize in the last while. It’s something I consciously do in my craft. I try to write like a rock star.

Seriously, this is one of the reasons I write. I have a desire to capture the angst, anger, and sentiment of music. Music generates an immediate understanding of what it is trying to convey, even when the song is brand new to the listener. The right song does all of the tingly things music is supposed to do for us, and in doing that it accomplishes the best of what we try to do in writing. Music is aided, of course, by sound whereas a story only has the inner voice of the narrative and the inner ear of the reader. And more than any other media form the one-to-one exchange between performer and audience in writing is utterly dependent on the skill of the reader, at least as much as on that of the writer. To capture all of the nuances of music as a story writer is perhaps an unattainable goal. I try anyway, when I write.

The rock and roll persona of most writers is greatly subdued. I have no doubt that there are many many writers, of more and lesser fame, who have just as engaging and charismatic personalities as the most radical music star, but because of the nature of storytelling it’s much harder to get at the dynamics of the person behind the story. Take J.D. Salinger for example. There is a new documentary coming out in a few weeks which purports to tell us a lot about the Catcher author that we haven’t known in the nearly fifty years since he left the public eye. Yet, what we do know, or supposedly know, is that this clever creator of Holden Caulfield, this outspoken originator of Franny and Zooey, was a man willing to walk away from the center of the universe and virtually disappear from the world he was partly responsible for creating (in the literary sense) at a point when his career was still gaining. And yet he allegedly continued writing every day, just for himself, for another forty years.

That, my friends, is very punk rock.

I think I write because I want to do something that really rocks. Apparently a lot of people want to do this, too. Well, then be assured that just trying, every day, to succeed at a story or poem or play or novel is rock star. It doesn’t matter how much you publish or how many volumes you create or where they sit collecting dust. Rock stars practice and so should you, you writing rock star.

I’m encouraged by a recent quote I saw from Ira Glass:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

Fight. That’s rock. Very punk rock. So there you have it. This is why I, and I suspect most of us, write. We hear something inside and we have to share it. Maybe it’s only a performance for one, like Salinger, but it doesn’t take away from the truth that what we do is nothing less than rock and roll. I hope you’ll take Glass’s words to heart and join me in writing one story a week. You can do it and so can I.

Rock on.

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3 comments on “Why I’m a Writer (as far as I can tell)

  1. Jaime says:

    Yes, I totally get this. I love music, even though I don’t play, and many of the essays and articles I write (somehow, some way) have a song behind them. It’s the feeling of the song, the essence, I’m trying to capture– not even of that specific song; it’s more like the song matches my feelings, and those are what I’m truly trying to get on paper.

    Anyway, thanks for putting this idea into words. Rock on! 😉

    • emperort says:

      When I taught this summer one of the assignments was for students to describe the sound of water. Sound is possibly the most difficult sense to describe. Music does something to words that the words along cannot do. Witness the lists of terrible lyrics put to popular hit tunes. Yet, for many of us the importance of capturing the emotion and inspiration of music in narrative is very important. Not easy, but important in hopes of relating the feeling we have inside with the results on the page. Very difficult to do.

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