The first song I ever learned to play on the guitar was a stripped down version of “Foolish Games” by Jewel. By stripped down, I of course mean strumming the chords once without keeping time and skipping all the F chords because they were too hard.
I proceeded to dabble on the guitar in college, writing terrible, tremendously embarrassing songs about heartache I hadn’t yet experienced with a bald yearning one can only muster in the naiveté and faux-confidence of young adulthood. You know, the kind of songs that are mostly minor chords with lyrics like:
Please don’t go/I love you so/ You’ll never know/ That my heart is broke
Foolish games, indeed.
Thankfully, I never performed these songs for anyone but a few friends and family in the comfort of my dorm room and, overall, my singer-songwriter phase didn’t last long. I packed the guitar away for over a decade, only pulling it out again this past year knowing my kiddo would love it. After all, he doesn’t care that I only know four chords. To him, I basically shred.
While I may have been a godawful songwriter, I was doing what all writers do by searching for my creative and expressive voice. Writers and musicians aren’t so different, after all.
The artistic process of churning on an idea, working and reworking that idea until it becomes the finished, intended product is quite similar. The act of processing our own experiences, the depths of our pain, the boundless joys, all to create a THING – song, essay, book, album, is what makes us all branches on the Artist Tree.
A lot of my friends and family are musicians trying to do the thing. Singer-songwriters, band members, performance artists, they cover the spectrum of genres and tastes and I’ve been to many, many shows.
From the show where I am one of four audience members, to the album release show that fills a venue, from coffeeshops and dive bars, to music halls and tours, I’ve clapped and danced and sang at all of them.
It is through this experience that I’ve been witness to raw artistic evolution over time. I’ve seen each of them get so much better. The growth of their confidence, the strength of their stage presence, the finesse of their songs, it all improves and develops (and slays, because of course my people are also mega talented).
Through constantly practicing and performing, they are honing, and we as audience members bear witness to the incremental laying of groundwork for a career in music. We somehow feel a part of their growth because a performance is a living, breathing experience. A musician’s try is so out-loud.
What if we turned that thinking back on ourselves as writers? All the deleted drafts and developing manuscripts, are they our practice sessions? Are our soul-baring blog posts and published essays our gigs prepping us for the big time? Performances that, despite the audience size, make our craft stronger, the rhythm tighter, the voice clearer?
Is having a small blog that dissimilar to performing in a coffeeshop for mostly disinterested parties? Getting up at on open-mic
begging hoping someone will listen to you?
It may not be any less bruising to play a show for an audience of three than it is to write a piece that has been read by three people, but there is something we all collectively agree on: that it takes serious courage and confidence to get on stage and perform, no matter the size of the venue.
It is also through this bruising that our skin thickens, callouses form, and we are tested for how much time we are really willing to devote to this non-linear, saturated, maddening path. Though they are similar in many ways, music and writing are ultimately diverging paths. Music was not the way for me to find my voice because I didn’t have the talent, plus, as I learned through doing it, I didn’t want it enough.
But when I work on my novel or blog posts, I only ever want to write more. I only ever want it to be my life. I am willing to do the work because of the wanting.
Though we may be stuck in the coffeeshop open mic phase of writing longer than we’d like, and don’t know if we’ll ever fill a venue or get a deal, we can never stop plucking away at those strings, standing up at that mic, and singing our hearts out.
When you’ve got the music in you, the rest is just noise.
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