Ask me, at age 16, what I wanted to be when I grew up and there was only one answer. Rock star. Despite having played in front of an audience just once, despite having two bands crumble around me (because of my own ego, which I didn’t realize at the time), I was going for broke. At 17 I was writing riffs almost every day. Almost all of them were rip offs, but that’s how young artists get started. Right?
By 18 I let that dream take the backseat. I was headed to college and had to think in more practical terms. I’ll just work on the business side, I thought. And so I filled out a course schedule based on a recording engineering major. It even included choir chamber, despite my complete inability to sing on key.
Standing in line, waiting to get the course sheet signed, something in me changed. To this day I can’t name the feeling. Likely it was some form of fear. But before I got to the front of the line I turned back to the table and remade my course schedule: English Composition, Sociology, History, Philosophy, and Mass Media.
What the hell happened?
Fear might have incited me, but reality loomed in the background. Much as I loved guitar, I wasn’t actually good at it. I had dreamt of Berkely School of Music, but they would have laughed me out of the audition.
It hurts even more in reflection. At that point, age 18, on the cusp of college, I’d spent more hours playing guitar than I had on anything else. What did I have to show for it? I could play Stairway, not particularly well, and some Metallica songs. My subconscious knew that the jig was up, that it was time to focus on something else.
Yet my conscious refused the obvious. My English Comp teacher told me how good a writer I was, and I knew that I could pursue that. But it was almost the knowledge that I could pursue another art that gave my conscious the freedom to continue pursuing guitar.
I spent thousands of dollars on equipment.
I spent hundreds of more hours playing, but not practicing.
At age 19 I decided to audition for a metal band not far from where I lived. They weren’t half bad, and we seemed to get along. Yet the songs they wrote were a bit above my technical capacity. Perhaps I showed them something when we jammed on some Ozzy tunes. They handed me a CD of their stuff and said to practice it, that we’d be back in touch.
I drove away that night without the CD. I’d left it on my car roof and drove away. Typical Joe, my friends and family might have said. So absent minded. But I firmly believe that my subconscious did that on purpose. It knew that my conscious wouldn’t have the discipline to sit down, practice, and learn those songs. So it gave me an easy out.
When I see the same tendencies creep into my writing, I cringe. How can I let myself make the same mistake twice, with two disciplines I, by all internal indications, love?
Sometime between my freshman comp teacher praising my writing and graduation I decided that’s what I wanted to do for a living. Yet I hadn’t joined the school paper. I didn’t set aside time every day to write. To friend I talked about all the material I was gathering for the novels I’d write.
But I never got down to the writing part.
Finally, unemployed and living with my parents at age 23, I started writing daily. The practice grew. Then I got a job that somewhat involved writing. Before I turned 25 I launched a blog that forced me to write every day, and took a job that required daily writing.
For a while it was mostly play. I wouldn’t go back and edit my work. I typed from the mind and heart, and it was better than at least 50 percent of what existed online. People praised my work. And so I saw little reason to improve.
It was music all over again. When I was 16, I was better than most guitarists I knew just because I played all the time and there weren’t that many guitarists. By age 18 almost everyone I knew had surpassed me. Even if they practiced an hour a week, they were getting that much better than me.
By age 27, the internet had become crammed with writers. I might have still been better than at least 50 percent of them, but there were a lot more people, by definition, that were above average.
For the first time in my life, I actually practiced something.
My dad, encouraging my career track, sent me half a dozen books about writing. One in particular hit me with the exact advice I needed at the time. At that point I started using Sunday nights to review everything I’d written the previous week. I took notes. Then I woke up Monday morning, knowing what I needed to work on.
Five years later, writing is again going the way of the guitar. I started neglecting it in early 2013, when my daily habit sputtered and stalled. Writing felt like a chore at points, mostly because of the droll shit I had to write for my day job. By early 2014 I was looking for anything I could do on the job that didn’t involve writing.
What the hell happened?
Career ambitions took over, I think. Something happened last week that I’d rather not detail, but suffice it to say that it made me realize how far away from writing I’d moved. I didn’t write every day, and it showed. Articles that would normally take two hours, took four or five. Distraction consumed me. Everything I wrote was so flat, so milquetoast that I sought anything that would let me avoid it.
That’s not the way life was supposed to go. I already let guitar slip away from me. It’s a love that is far behind; I haven’t picked up my guitar more than twice in the last year. That can’t happen with writing.
If I’d seen this blog challenge a year ago, I’d have thought it a ridiculously amateur move. I’ve been blogging since 2005, son, I don’t need some challenge.
Only, I do. Ideas have rattled around in my head for years now, and if I don’t execute they’ll get stale. Worse, someone else will do it better than I ever could. The only way I can prevent that from happening it to start, so that I can get so good that anyone who tries to imitate me won’t stand a chance.
That doesn’t happen by avoiding the work. That’s what this challenge means to me. It means removing excuses and not letting anyone outwork me.