Back in the early 80’s, on the Ocean City boardwalk, I begged my parents for money and purchased a Men At Work painter’s cap. A day later I added a button that featured the cover art for the Business As Usual album. Men At Work’s songs sometimes featured flute solos, and I played the flute in the Oaklyn Elementary School band. I had been trying to learn parts of the song Down Under. It all made sense. The hat and pin made me feel like a rock star.
By the time middle school began, the Men At Work painter’s cap had been trashed. It wasn’t exactly winning me cool points. (Nor was my ability to play Memories on the flute.) And I had learned that such things matter.
My fellow middle schoolers were listening to rap—Ice-T, N.W.A., Public Enemy—or hair / metal groups like Poison, Cinderella, Metallica, Iron Maiden, and Megadeath. Edgier music without flute solos.
in my portable tape player; learned a little about Louis Farrakhan; and tried to count just how many f-bombs were on N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton.
By the time I went to high school, my flute was collecting dust and I was wearing penny loafers and argyle socks, and pegging my jeans. I often wore turtlenecks under sweaters. A long blonde swoop of hair fell over my left eye. Alternative music was what I gravitated toward at this period of my life, thinking that listening to bands like The Smiths, The Cure, The Violent Femmes, Fugazi, and the like somehow made me a more sophisticated person and set me apart from the kids who were listening to whatever was playing on the radio.
Then in college it was indie rock music. Sebadoh, The Wedding Present, Polvo, Rodan, Archers Of Loaf.
During each phase it seemed important to define myself by the music I said I liked, what I hung on the walls of my room, the carefully crafted mixed tapes I made and gave as presents. I suppose most teens go through the process of trying to figure out who they are, mirroring the choices of a select group of peers. Is it because we don’t know who we really are at that age?
The truth is that I have always been interested in all types of music and never stopped liking the old music when I went into a new phase—all of the groups and bands listed above can still be found on my iPod—but for whatever reason it felt like I couldn’t publicly announce my fandom for all of the different types of music at any given time, that doing so might have made me seem indecisive, undefined, not easily categorized, odd, or even crazy.
On some subconscious level I believed that my opinions were like an access card to the right tribes and herds, and therefore I had to make sure that the right opinions were carefully expressed.
A few weeks ago I came across a web site that listed synopses for YA paperbacks. One was for a book I had read and loved. The author of the article described the plot vividly and ended by saying he would definitely read the book … if he read young adult literature.
As a former music snob, I understood the disclaimer.
The author of the article felt the need to align himself with a certain tribe or herd—the I’m-too-sophisticated-to-read-YA tribe—and obviously felt that stepping out of his normal set pattern would put his access card in jeopardy. I’d made many similar disclaimers in the past when I was worried about belonging to this or that circle. But it still bummed me out, mainly because that person’s snobbery was keeping him from reading a damn good book and also because we’re all adults now—old enough to free ourselves from such limitations. And yet it often feels like junior high never really ends.
Writing and especially publishing have changed the way I look at all of the above. When I am writing well, it’s usually because I am not thinking about how the work will be categorized or what type of writer I should be. It’s because I’ve been able to shed the fan mentality and resist labeling myself as the _____ guy. For me, being an artist means coming to terms with my truths and expressing those truths on the page the best I can, regardless of how they will be evaluated and categorized by the tribes and herds. It means being open and receptive and tolerant. And this has often been a struggle. It’s admitting you really want to be able to play the Men At Work Down Under flute solo (and I still do) and then wearing the painter's cap proudly no matter what social setting you are in, no matter who is around to judge you, no matter how many snickers you will endure.
It means being comfortable with who you really are.
It means being comfortable with who you really are.
I spent much of my MFA experience trying to be someone I am not in real life. I’ve seen many writer friends fall into this trap time and time again. People too afraid to be themselves on the page, who would rather strive to be the writer they think they should be, to align themselves with this or that school of thought and a certain set of rules. This sort of mentality is incredibly limiting.
The best speech I heard during the MFA experience was delivered by a famous mystery writer. During the Q & A someone asked about his influences. The response went something like this: I know how I’m supposed to answer this question. I’m supposed to list all of the big impressive writers like Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare and the like. But I learned to write reading comic books. So, Fantastic Four. You could hear the defiant edge in his voice. It was as if he were daring the room to disqualify his answer. His honesty was refreshing and the moment may have been the most important of my MFA experience, because for once it felt like someone was telling the truth, regardless of consequences. Someone was brave enough to be himself. Someone had quit posturing and was acting like an artist.
There is always pressure to live up to the expectations of others, especially when you are trying to make a living.
It’s a balancing act, for sure.
One that I’m still working on myself.
Like what you like.
Write what you’d want to read.
Let everyone else do the same.
And let’s all pay attention to those disclaimers and what they really mean.
To be continued, and keep being you.