On Badness

I’ve always been one of those people who gets labeled–sometimes euphemistically–as “creative.”  My writing is mainly what’s earned me that label, though I have dabbled in other arts.  I’m not a bad actress in a “doyenne of the community theater” kind of way, and while I don’t have the kind of visual talent that results in one’s paintings hanging in a gallery, I can draw a cat that looks like a cat.  The area of the arts in which I am totally deficient is music.

There is a myth–one that I’ve even heard espoused by some music teachers–that everyone can sing.  This is a myth I can easily debunk simply by opening my mouth.  When I was a member of my small-town church’s children’s choir (not a high-talent operation, I can tell you), the elderly choir director suggested, “Perhaps it would be best if Julia just moved her lips instead of singing the words.”  And so, while the other children chirped “Jesus Loves Me,” I lip synched like world’s tiniest drag queen.

My parents rightly believed I should have some kind of musical background, and since it clearly wasn’t going to be vocal, they opted for instrumental.  And so from the ages of eight to fourteen, I burned my way through music teachers like a string of failed marriages.  My first was a patient Christian high school student whose Pekingnese snoozed under the piano as I haltingly plinked away, his smoosh-faced doggy snores acting as a metronome.

Once my teen teacher graduated high school, I graduated to studying with a music professor at the college where my dad taught.  These lessons were held before school, early in the morning (not my best time of day then or now).  The professor would fuss over the length of my fingernails, ask me to remove my rings, and then listen to me sleepily fumble my way through dumbed-down versions of classical pieces.  I would joylessly practice these pieces the whole school year in preparation for the spring Piano Guild, where I would play them, sweating profusely and trying not to throw up, in front of a panel of judges.  I had worked on the pieces so long by then that I performed them competently, in the same way a chimp forced to type long enough might eventually produce a sentence.  I think back on this particular music teacher with pity because I know I was a miserable, lazy student.  She must have been miserable, too, because she was used to college students–music majors, no less–not sulky middle schoolers whose lack of talent was exceeded only by their lack of discipline.

Sensing my misery, my parents decided to try another approach to my musical education.  Dad suggested a former student of his who performed traditional Appalachian music with her husband and sons might bring more fun and less formality to my experience.  She taught in her little house in the country, and I probably learned more on her plinky old upright piano than I had anywhere else.  Instead of trying to force me into classical mode, she let me learn the songs I wanted to play, which led to the surreal experience of learning to play “New York, New York” in a house in a holler while–no joke–a fresh-killed groundhog simmered on the stove.

Once I hit high school it became obvious that my interests–and certainly my talents–lay elsewhere, and I dropped piano in favor of writing for the newspaper and acting in plays.  I hadn’t really thought about my dubious musical history until a few months ago when my middle schooler expressed an interest in learning how to play.  I poked around and found a reasonably priced digital keyboard and a piano textbook for the “older beginner” in hopes that it wouldn’t seem too babyish.  I figured six years as a lousy piano student qualified me to get him through the beginner book.  If he stayed interested after that, I’d have to outsource.

But first I was going to have to touch the keys again myself.  I discovered–somewhat to my surprise–that I can still read music, at least in the way a second grader can read an “early chapter book.”  Getting the message to my hands is another issue altogether.  My left hand, while perfectly content to tap away at a computer keyboard, resents the implication that it should hit the piano keys the same time as my more cooperative right hand.  Thirty minutes at the digital keyboard led me to have two discoveries.  The unsurprising one was that I still sucked, but now my suckiness was exacerbated by years of inactivity.  The surprising one was that I–perhaps for the first time ever–was having fun playing.

I played all the less degrading pieces in the beginner piano book, then decided I needed some sheet music that fit my woeful skill level but still sounded more adult.  Nobody–not family members, not even pets–wants to hear a forty-four-year-old woman hammer out “Sweetly Sings the Donkey” over and over.  I got online and typed in “easy piano” and “pop,” and after filtering through loads of Taylor Swift sheet music, I discovered the oeuvre of Dan Coates, a man who apparently makes his fortune by arranging classic rock and pop songs so they can be banged out by musically unremarkable amateurs.  I ordered a book Coates developed in collaboration with Rolling Stone magazine and rejoiced that soon instead of sucking at playing “Sweetly Sings the Donkey” and “When the Saints Go Marching In,” I could suck at playing “Iron Man” and “Ode to Billy Joe.”

I know if I continue to play around on the keyboard, I’ll get better.  But I also know I’ll never be good.  So why spend even a small stretch of my limited leisure time doing something I’ll never excel at?  The answer, my friends–and yes, “Blowin’ in the Wind” is in the Dan Coates song book–is because I have given myself permission to suck, and it is liberating.

Whenever kids start an extracurricular activity, whether it’s music or karate or dance, sooner than later the emphasis turns to performance or competition.  Even if the kid only started the activity because it looked like fun or because the outfits looked cool, he or she is soon practicing exhaustively for a recital or tournament, being scrutinized, criticized, and evaluated.  For the kids who keep up with the dance or violin or whatever into adolescence, the time demands often swell due to membership in a company or a youth orchestra so that there’s no time for anything else but school and homework and–one hopes–sleep.

True, there are some kids with talent and drive who will grow up to be professional gymnasts or dancers or musicians, but for the ones who won’t, extracurricular activities that are too time consuming and performance oriented can lead to stressed out, burned out kids.  I explore the subject of pressured gifted kids in my novel Gifted and Talented, but here my concern is for the kids who aren’t prodigies.  Isn’t it possible to expose kids to the arts and music  just for fun, for the experience of trying something different with their minds and bodies, for maybe making their worlds a little bigger?

There is value in being achievement oriented, but there’s also value in dabbling in something you’re not particularly good at for fun.  The key, I think, is in knowing you’re not that good.  Being bad and thinking you’re good is another issue entirely.  It’s painful to watch tone deaf people audition for “American Idol” thinking they’ll be the next big thing (Don’t these people have family and friends who can talk them down before they humiliate themselves on national TV?). I’ve had students enroll in my creative writing classes confident of a future place on the New York Times’ Bestseller List  who can’t write a competent sentence.  And maybe–just maybe–a certain ex-President should limit showings of his barely competent paintings of what his feet look like in the bathtub to family and friends.

But private dabbling is fun, and by working on something that doesn’t come naturally to me, I’m stretching my brain a little.  Surely it’s better to spend one’s spare moments getting less bad at playing “Ode to Billy Joe” than it is to spend hours getting really good at “Candy Crush.”  And so, like Salieri in Amadeus, a merely competent composer driven mad by jealousy of Mozart’s genius, I say “Mediocrities of the world, I absolve you.”  And I say this knowing that for me musically, mediocrity is a level to which I can only aspire.

 

 

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“The Watts Line” Revisited

Words you have put into print take on a life of their own.  Publications, no matter how small or obscure, never die.  That’s why I wasn’t as surprised as I probably should have been when a woman browsing my table of titles at last year’s Kentucky Book Fair said, “You’re ‘The Watts Line’ girl, aren’t you?”

That’s me.  Or rather, that was me, around thirty years ago when as a high school student in Corbin, Kentucky, I wrote a weekly entertainment column for The Corbin Times-Tribune.  I’m still not sure why the newpaper’s editor, a cigar-chomping Appalachian version of Lou Grant, agreed to let a fourteen-year-old contribute to his publication.  He had gone to high school with my very pretty mom.  Maybe he had a crush on her.  Or perhaps he had been amused by my confidence when I pitched the idea to him.  He had nothing to lose.  The Times-Tribune‘s pitiful weekend entertainment supplement consisted only of TV listings and a few syndicated filler pieces.

It was probably an act of adolescent hubris to think I could produce a weekly entertainment column in Southeastern Kentucky, which is not exactly a mecca of popular culture.  Movie reviews were the staple of my column, yet within easy driving distance there were only two movie theatres (one with only one screen) which changed movies every three weeks.  In the best of times, my parents would drive me to Knoxville or Lexington for a play or concert which I’d review.  In the worst of times, when I’d seen all th movies at the nearby theatres and had no prospect of leaving the immediate region, I’d trudge to the video store (which, for the record, had a tanning bed) and select a VHS tape from the new releases.

If I were truly committed to doing this blog justice, I’d wade through my messy garage, find the box filled with my old “Watts Line” clippings and revisit the writing of my teenaged self.  But I’d rather not.  “The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman” seen in those columns makes this middle-aged woman wince.  As a young writer, I showed promise but no restraint.  I never passed the opportunity for a pun or a witty–or so I thought at the time–aside.  Under all the Dorothy Parker Wannabe witticisms, I see a lonely kid who masks her insecurity with arrogance, who aspires to bohemianism without fully understanding it, who wants to be an iconoclast but with every breath is screaming, “Like me!  Like me!”  I also see someone who doesn’t know herself nearly as well as she thinks she does, especially when it comes to her sexuality.  Honestly, was I in such deep denial that I convinced myself that I had a crush on Bruce Willis?  “Moonlighting” Bruce Willis, mind you, not “Diehard” Bruce Willis.  But still.

While it’s easy for the forty-something I am now to laugh at the teenaged smartass I was then, I have to say that the years I spent writing “The Watts Line” taught me some lessons that are still with me today.  The first and most important was to sit down and write, no procrastination and no excuses.  My copy was due on Wednesday afternoon so it could make the weekend edition.  I got it done no matter what school or extracurricular activities I had going on.  Sometimes I’d be writing about something amazing I couldn’t wait to tell people about.  Many other times I had nothing to write about but a mediocre movie I’d watched on the VCR while gorging on Doritos.  Not inspiring, but I wrote anyway.

I know a teenager hammering out a movie review isn’t the same as a real writer laboring for hours over a story, poem, or play.  But writing every week still demystified the process for me thanks to the power of the deadline.  I had to write my column–they didn’t pay me $20 a week for nothing–and so I did.  My small experience with newspaper work made me remarkably un-neurotic about writing.  Some days produce better quality writing than others, but I never have trouble with the act of sitting down and working.

Other than the writing itself, the greatest pleasure I got from “The Watts Line” was having readers–not just my parents, but people who didn’t have to read my work because they loved me.  Periodically, I would get “fan mail” sent care of The Times-Tribune.  Often these readers expressed astonishment that “The Watts Line” was written by a teenaged girl (As an adult, I am astonished by their astonishment; I might as well have been dotting my i’s with hearts).  Kids at achool who never took notice of me otherwise asked me about–and often argued with me about–my columns.  A disparaging comment I made about David Lee Roth caused me a few particularly dark school days, but at least I was being shunned for my written opinions and not for something stupid like my shoes.

The most surprising piece of “Watts Line” correspondence came after I reviewed a Neil Diamond concert I’d seen in Knoxville with my mom for Mother’s Day.  In the column, I praised Diamond’s talent but poked fun at his (to my eyes then) aged female fan base and his propensity for displaying his graying chest hair.  I have no idea how a copy of The Corbin Times-Tribune found its way into his hands, but Diamond himself wrote me a charming note in which he called my wise-ass comments “fun and funny and true.”  The note was signed “your fan, Neil Diamond.”  I still have it.

Cranking out “The Watts Line” every week was a good introduction to the writer’s life, both because of the steady writing habits it instilled and because of the reader response that made a lonely artistic type feel less lonely.  And come to think of it, that twenty bucks a week may have been the steadiest income I’ve ever earned from my writing alone (It also allowed me to have an enviable collection of Chuck Taylor All-Stars).  And so while I don’t want to look at any of my old columns any more than I want to look at pictures of myself in braces and big eighties glasses, I know that being “The Watts Line” girl helped shape me into the writer I am today.

Sisyphus Does the Dishes

My housekeeping is lackluster. I say “lackluster” because it sounds more flattering to describe it for what it lacks (luster) rather than for what it is (slovenliness). I’ve heard many fellow slobs say they’re messy because they’re creative. While I’m not sure that messiness equals creativity, I do know that I’d much rather work on a chapter of my current novel than clean something that’s only going to get dirty hours–or minutes–later. Writing is always new. Writing is discovery. Cleaning is(and my apologies to Albert Camus for borrowing this analogy) Sisyphus rolling that damn rock up the hill so it can roll back down again.The one Sisyphean domestic struggle I do undertake daily is washing dishes. While I hate cleaning, I do like cooking for my family. Cooking, like writing, is creative. Unlike writing, it produces the greasy, crusty side effect of dirty pots and pans. Usually I manage the mess by cramming it into the dishwasher, but last week the dishwasher went on the fritz right after I’d shelled out for an expensive car repair. Fixing the dishwasher would have to wait for another paycheck.

A broken luxury item definitely falls under the heading of a First World Problem, so I promised myself I wouldn’t complain each night when I piled the dishes into the sink and filled it with hot, soapy water. What I didn’t expect was that this nightly ritual would bring back a memory about one of the reasons I became a writer. 

As a kid, I ate supper at my maternal grandparents’ house a couple of times a week. While Nana waited for the cornbread to brown, I’d sit in the living room watching a rerun of “Gilligan’s Island” or “The Beverly Hillbillies.” I’d know we were ready to eat when Nana hollered, “Buttermilk or sweet milk?” She always asked, though I invariably said “sweet.” Apparently she lived in the vain hope that I’d develop a taste for buttermilk.

Supper was always a variation on the same theme: pinto beans with the aforementioned cornbread, fried taters, and a cooked-to-mush green vegetable such as cabbage or turnip greens. In the traditional Appalachian style, all items were seasoned with and/or cooked in a heaping helping of hog fat, be it bacon grease or lard. Filling to the point of rendering the eater torpid, it was a meal for coal miners but not for cardiologists. 

Supper was followed by the evening news. Nana took a particular interest in celebrity death. Once, when Papaw had left the room during the news to fetch a fresh plug of tobacco, she hollered at him, “Arthur, Sid Vicious is dead!” His response: “Woman, who in the sam hill is Sid Vicious?” After the news, it was time to do the dishes.

I don’t know if Nana and Papaw’s domestic arrangement was spoken or unspoken, but she always cooked, and he always washed the dishes. My job was to help Papaw, though I’m sure he managed just fine the evenings when I wasn’t there. Sometimes he’d wash and I’d rinse (or “wrench,” as he pronounced it), sometimes the other way around. 

Regardless of which of us was doing what, Papaw told stories. Nana’s stories were interesting, too, but they were always dark, dealing with illness and accidents and morbidity. Papaw’s were often funny, and he was an audience-centered storyteller. With me, he told stories a kid would like. He told about how as a nine-year-old boy, he kept sneaking sips from a bottle of sweet Italian wine he’d been charged with taking to his parents in the coal camp, until he got so drunk he curled up and slept in a ditch. He told about how his grandmother tripped over a cow in a dark field and went on an unexpected (by her and the cow) ride. He told about his buddy in the mines who always ate dessert first so in case there was a cave-in, he wouldn’t have missed the best part of the meal. My hands soaking in the hot dishwasher, my developing writer’s mind soaked in his stories.

Feeling that same sensation this week of my hands growing pruny in the soapy water, I felt the presence of Papaw by my side, rinsing while I washed, his stories still alive inside me.

My First Blog

My First Blog” sounds like “My First Doll” or “My First Potty”–a purchase one might pick up for a baby growing into toddlerhood. But this is truly my first-ever blog. Despite have written over a dozen novels and quite a few short stories and essays, until today my blog virginity has remained intact. I’m sure it says something about my lack of ease with the electronic format that I drafted this out longhand on a yellow legal pad.

The yellow legal pad is where all my writing begins. I always finish on a computer, but I never start on one. Sitting in front of a glowing screen feels like work, and for me writing must be play. And so just like I used to sprawl out with my drawing pad and markers when I was a kid, I sprawl with my legal pad and pen and let that same part of my imagination take over.

Later, once I’ve completed a draft, I turn to the computer, the perfect tool for revision. Need to get rid of that tangent where I clearly lost my mind for three paragraphs? Block and delete. Need to move a passage from one chapter to another? Easy breezy. The computer is such an ideal revision tool that I can’t imagine how I would have revised my work in the pre-digital age. Retype the entire manuscript on paper? No, thanks. I probably would’ve been too lazy to be a novelist and would have had to develop a talent for shorter forms, like limericks and haikus. Plus, there’s the whole issue of authors only having one copy of their work on paper, a copy which could easily be lost or destroyed–a thought that makes me so anxious I have to stop writing about it right now.

When I talk to other writers, I’m always fascinated by their individual approaches to the process. In addition to the longhand versus computer question, there are environmental issues: In an office, café, or comfy room? In absolute quiet or with music or background noise?

One piece of advice I always give busy grownup writers is don’t write only when your ideal conditions are met. Flexibility is important. When I was much younger an much more wrapped up in the idea of being “an artiste,” I used lots of statements about my writing which contained the word “only”: “I can only write at night after everyone else is asleep.” “I can only write with a cup of Earl Grey tea.” “I can only write on Big Chief Tablets like John Boy Walton used” (I know, this one is weird). These statements, while they must have spoken to my identity at the time, were horribly self-limiting. If I had an idea I was ready to run with, why wait until everybody else was in bed? Why delay my creative urge because I had the wrong brand of paper or was down to Darjeeling in my tea stash?

As a busy grownup writer, I have learned to toss away superstitions about when, where, and how I can or cannot write. Ten minutes early picking up the kid at school? Whip out that legal pad and write on the dashboard. Why read a two-year-old issue of “Good Housekeeping” in the doctor’s waiting room when I could use the time to write instead? Every week I try to get in a couple of stretches of writing under closer to ideal circumstances, but the writing I do on the fly adds up as well. And when I’ve finished my draft and start revising, I can’t tell the difference between the work I did during a long, interrupted stretch versus what I wrote while waiting for an oil change. Some of it’s good and some of it’s bad, but the quality seems unrelated to the writing circumstances.

Writers write. It’s what we do, though sometimes we get so particular about the wheres and hows of it that we do less of it than we should. That being said, I’m still mighty partial to my yellow legal pads.

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Published on July 16, 2014 10:34 • 54 views

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