East of Dixie

A blog about creativity

There is nothing mysterious about good writing

As a teenager I played guitar the way I played pretty much everything else: badly, and with pangs of guilt for not doing better.

Apart from a few lessons when I was very young, I was self-taught.

A friend showed me power chords in Grade 9, which was all I needed to learn “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” one of my generation’s defining tunes.

Over time I learned how to play real chords, which used all six strings instead of two. I learned scales and riffs—parts I worked through at high volumes with pals who struggled as much as I did.

I worshipped Jimi Hendrix, because that’s what all the good guitar players did. He was the consensus greatest of all time, and when magazines deconstructed his style they made it sound like magic.

He played rhythm and lead at the same time; he didn’t really need a bassist; he thought he was a crappy singer, but he was better than most.

I figured I would never be able to play like Jimi because conventional wisdom said nobody ever would, so I didn’t even try.

I bought one of his greatest hits collections and tried to understand it, tried to grasp his genius. But I couldn’t even do that right.

Then, a few days into the year 2000, when I was seventeen years old, I visited my friend Adam at his house in rural Ontario. He took out his Gibson Les Paul—a compact, beautiful and expensive instrument that was almost as iconic to me as Jimi—and let me hold it.

I plunked out a few riffs, embarrassed I couldn’t do anything useful with the gorgeous hunk of wood in my hands. Then I gave it back to Adam, who played it brilliantly.

We got around to talking about Jimi, and I mentioned something about how badly I wanted to learn his songs. I said it as if it were a fool’s errand, like asking one of the popular girls to dance.

Adam seemed to think it was possible. He started playing the main riff of a Hendrix song that is lost to memory—I think it was “Castles Made of Sand,” but it may have been “Little Wing.”

This was a relatively weak imitation, but most of the right notes were there. Adam casually showed me the chords, which were broken in ways I couldn’t replicate but had a similar structure to the ones I learned when I was younger.

So, there it was. Maybe nobody would ever play guitar like Jimi, but they conceivably could, if they worked hard enough. He was a god, but he worked with the same elements as the rest of us.

This, to some extent, is how it is with writing.

Most of us will never match The Bard, or any of our other heroes, for that matter. We will probably never win Nobel Prizes or Pulitzers or National Book Awards.

That shouldn’t stop us from trying.

Writing, as writing instructors like to point out, is a learned skill. No one comes out of the womb knowing how to spill brilliance onto a page.

Great writers become great through heaps of study and practice, and that means you can be a great writer too, if you’re willing to devote yourself to the craft.

If you don’t become great, you can at least become good. If you can’t become good, you can at least become solid.

(“Solid” is the word an instructor in my grad program often used to describe my work. It stung, especially because he was not more than a solid writer himself. But he was right. I have been practicing all my life, and I still have a long way to go before I become good.)

All of that to say: great writing has an air of mystery to it, like all great art. We sit and wonder where the brilliance comes from—the insight, the turn of phrase, the glittering sentences that give us shame.

Some of that is singular and hard-fought, the product of life experiences none of us will ever have. But competency—the ability to be good, or at least solid—is something anyone can learn.

So if you want to write, please do.

Forgive yourself for not being brilliant and focus on becoming good. If becoming good seems impossible, focus on becoming better.

Everyone can become better, and often all we need in a given moment is to be good enough.

I have made a career one assignment at a time, doing well enough to get a piece past an editor and resolving to do better with the next one.

Sometimes my writing is solid, like Adam’s imitation of Jimi Hendrix; sometimes it is good. But it is always getting better, and there is nothing mysterious about that.

I study, I practice, and then I study some more.

So trust me: If you want to do this, you can learn.

The first step is to try.

You can’t do it all (so make time for what matters)

My first job after journalism school was at a small daily newspaper in a small city that specialized in small stories.

We aspired to big things, but often we settled on little ones — the latest kerfuffle at city hall, the fundraiser for cancer research, the weather’s effect on business in a nearby beach town, and so on.

When I started, we had a four-person newsroom producing five papers a week; when I left a year and a half later, we had two people doing the same.

Working there was a valuable experience, one that taught me how to write lots and write quickly.

But it was also incredibly stressful. After a few weeks, I began to feel as if my job were crushing my soul.

I rarely had the chance to write the kind of stories I wanted to write, and when I did there was never enough time to give them the treatment they deserved.

It didn’t take long to realize I could spend the rest of my life on this path — a path that would never let me do the kind of work that mattered to me — and something needed to change.

So as often as I could, sometimes late at night but more often on weekends, I would sit on a cheap folding chair in my basement apartment, using a TV tray as my desk, and tap away on my computer.

In moments my job couldn’t swallow, I wrote what was in my heart.

I wrote about things that were deeply interesting to me, in ways that demonstrated my potential as a writer.

I got honest with myself in ways I was could not be honest at work, and those small truths pointed me to a better place.

The better place was another, better job. Five months later it was to yet another job that was 10 times better than the last one.

But it also helped me understand it was no longer acceptable to spend 99 percent of life doing things that broke my spirit.

I needed to write about things that mattered, and that meant stealing time.

It meant writing my first book on evenings that would otherwise have been spent with friends or in front of the TV.

It meant being selfish, with the understanding my selfishness was also an act generosity I owed myself.

In her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert says: “If I am not actively creating something, then I am probably actively destroying something.”

This is what happens when we defer our dreams, or give up on them altogether. We ruin parts of ourselves, and then we go around ruining parts of other people because we can’t stand seeing them happy.

So, selfishness is generosity. It’s about you, but it’s also about everyone else.

If you don’t nourish your soul — a word I use to describe the person you truly are and hope to become — it dies.

I learned many lessons from that first job out of journalism school, but the most important was that I needed better, deeper more meaningful work than it could provide.

Much of that work takes place in my current job, for which I am truly thankful.

But some of it comes in the bits of time I steal for myself — never on the job, of course, but often in quiet moments that could be spent a million other ways.

The purpose of my life is to write honestly about things that matter and pass them along to others, hoping it will help.

Whatever the purpose of your life is, I hope you’ll be as selfish, generous and courageous as it takes to live it out.

Start small, and see how far you get.


How to measure success

Writing a book was at the top of my bucket list for years, and as I worked on the manuscript that became my first release, I told myself it didn’t matter if nobody read it.

I told myself there was intrinsic value in the work, and the process of writing could be its own reward.

It would be an accomplishment just to finish a process I had begun so many times but always abandoned. I told myself if my message took hold with only a few people, that would be enough.

But the truth was, I wanted to be read. I wanted to make at least a little bit of money at this, and preferably a lot.

I knew the chances of becoming the next Malcolm Gladwell were slim, but I had read a lot about other self-published authors who made a good living from their work.

So when I released my book in mid-February and it sold a single copy in its opening weekend, it hurt. When six weeks passed and my marketing efforts produced only a handful more sales, I felt like dirt.

Yes, there is inherent value in the process of writing. It’s like any other form of artistic expression, from playing the piano to learning how to paint.

But every writer wants to be read. If we put nearly two years into a project and pour our souls onto the page, like I did—the truth is, we want it to amount to something.

The first six weeks of my book launch were incredibly difficult—sobering, humbling and a little embarrassing.

I had put my work into the world and the world said, “Meh.”

What I learned along the way was how to measure success, and how to not let my self worth be reduced to math.

Small victories

I would prefer to have sold a million copies by now, but I can rest in this: A bookstore in the rural county where I grew up carried my book and sold out within a few weeks.

Six people were willing to spend actual money on something I created. That’s not much, but it’s something. It’s a win.

The bookstore ordered six more copies and gave me my first royalty cheque as an author.

That went a long way to legitimizing my work, even if the cheque was barely enough to fill up my car with gas. It was enough to keep me going.

Take the compliment

Nobody has formally reviewed my book so far, but I have a colleague in the magazine industry who twice told me it was wonderful.

Another colleague told me she enjoyed it and discussed it with me at length. A fellow author said similar things and went as far as to quote her favourite passages in a thoughtful and encouraging email.

I have family members who loved the book, and so far none of my friends have disowned me.

They perceive me differently now, because I wrote about a lot of things I kept inside for years. I can handle that. I told those stories with the hope they would help other people, and maybe they have.

Giving it away

I’ve only sold a few books, but I’ve given away dozens of copies to colleagues, family and friends.

One of those copies was to a woman whose daughter is considering a career in journalism. Her mother requested a copy as a birthday gift, and there is a chance it will inspire the daughter in some way.

As small victories go, that’s pretty spectacular. And I know for certain that others who received free copies have read them cover to cover.

If the goal was to be read, for my words to be constructive, and for my message to connect in some meaningful way, I may have succeeded.

Perseverance is key

A quotation from Ray Bradbury, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, is popular in writing circles.

“Quantity produces quality,” he said. “If you only write a few things, you’re doomed.”

I knew that was true as I worked on my first book, and I know it’s true now, as I begin working on my next one.

I’ve decided there will be a next one, and hopefully a few others after that. I’m going to take my lumps, learn from my mistakes and get better as I go.

It took a lot of small victories to bring me to this point, as well as some genuine and encouraging words.

A few of them came from an extraordinarily kind woman who told me I should keep writing, regardless of how many books I sell.

“Follow your dreams,” she said.

That was exactly what I needed to hear, and I continue to write with the hope my words have the same effect on whoever reads them.

How to find your voice as a writer

Years ago I watched some kids in a heavy metal band play a reality T.V. show that made me think of high school and autumn fairs and American Idol.

All the kids were about 12 years old and four feet tall, hilariously precocious and extremely talented. The crowd loved them, but the judges often gave measured, restrained feedback.

After one performance, a judge who was also the singer in a relatively successful rock band from the ’90s and early 2000s, gave a simple critique.

He said, in effect, that when he heard the kids play, he heard all of their influences, but he couldn’t hear them. He couldn’t hear a unique sound that set them apart from all the bands that came before them.

The kids had lived long enough to figure out how to play their instruments better than many adults. They were a great cover band. But they hadn’t lived long enough to figure out who they really were.

We writers have the same problem. When we begin our practice, we mimic our heroes. We want to sound like Hemingway or Kerouac or Truman Capote.

If we are serious about this, however, we must find what makes us unique. We must find our voice.

As a kid I modeled my writing after the magazine columnists Allan Fotheringham, Rick Reilly and Scoop Jackson.

Fotheringham was a political writer for Maclean’s who got away with murder because he was so good. He was pompous and brash, but also funny and a brilliant storyteller. When he skewered a politician, the politician sometimes took it as a compliment.

I thought: I’d like to do that.

So I tried. My earliest newspaper columns were imitations of him, but they fell flat. Fotheringham was one of a kind. He had found his voice, and my attempts to be like him weren’t worth reading.

Reilly, as you know, was for many years the back page columnist in Sports Illustrated. He found stories no one else had and told them with humour and grace.

He had a knack for analogies, some of them so brilliant they made me laugh out loud.

When I started writing columns, I tried to do the same thing and couldn’t. My analogies never fit, and if they did, they weren’t funny.

I kept coming back to a line from The Simpsons: “like a yak in heat.”

Nothing cleverer came out of me, and eventually I realized I had to stop grasping for analogies if I wanted to start meeting deadlines, so I did.

Scoop wrote for SLAM, a basketball magazine I read religiously. He mixed the cadence of a hip-hop emcee with what seemed like a genuine love for the game and a willingness to experiment.

He put Michael Jordan on the same level as God. He wrote that Larry Bird played so well it gave him an erection. He got away with writing two-word sentences.

Scoop was so rare, so remarkable, so cool that it seemed inadequate to write about basketball or hip-hop in any other way, so I tried. And failed miserably.

Then, when I was in my mid-twenties, I took a job at a newspaper in the small town where I went to high school. This was a place where many people had known me since Kindergarten.

They knew who I really was, so it was hard to pretend. Eventually I stopped trying to be anyone else on the page but myself, and that’s when I found my voice.

When I write as myself, the prose is simple and carefully crafted. I try not to be fancy. The focus is on the story I’m telling, and the purpose of the story is to convey an idea.

The truth is, I have an ego. I want you to think I’m a good writer. But most of the time I’m trying to make a thoughtful point in an artful way. If I do that, I’ve succeeded.

If you poke around the Internet, you will find courses aimed at helping you find your voice as a writer. I haven’t tried any of them, so I can’t critique them in any meaningful way.

All I can do is offer these tips to try before you spend any money:

  • Be honest. A non-fiction writer’s first responsibility is to the truth—both the facts, and the deeper lessons they contain. The truth will lead you to your voice.
  • Try to be yourself. If you pretend to be someone else, we’ll know.
  • Use the vocabulary you already have. It’s important to grow your vocabulary, of course, but don’t go searching a thesaurus every few minutes. Trust that you already know most of the words you need to say what you want to say.
  • Small words are better than big ones. I stole this from Fotheringham, who often ignored his own advice. Aim to write simply, so people engage with your ideas instead of getting distracted by your prose.
  • Take risks. Be ambitious, and push the boundaries of whatever form you practice. Some editors will let you get away with it and some won’t, but the cliché is true: You never know unless you try.

It’s not easy to be authentic on the page, but it can be done. All it takes is time and practice. As writers, we can build upon our influences and find our true selves, just as those precocious kids in the heavy metal band may eventually have done.

Start with the truth, and see where it leads.

How to be a prolific writer

Malcolm Gladwell spent years as a newspaper reporter before graduating to The New Yorker and publishing a series of best-selling books that made him a modern publishing icon.

If newspaper experience teaches you anything, Gladwell told podcaster Tim Ferriss last year, it’s that you can’t have writer’s block.

“I mean, you quite literally can’t,” said Gladwell on an episode of the Tim Ferriss Show that deconstructed his success as a writer

He might start on a story at 10:30 a.m. and it would be due by the end of the business day, held at the mercy of a hard deadline.

“If you went to your bosses and you said, ‘I’m blocked on this story,’ they would look at you like you were insane,” he said.

“I did used to have these issues and then I went to the Washington Post, and you get cured in a hurry of any pretensions you have about your writing.

“You just keep typing. There’s no kind of alternative.”

Journalists are prolific by nature. Their editors demand it, and so do their readers.

We can learn a great deal from journalists about how to produce quality writing at an impressive clip. Here are a few ideas to keep in mind

  1. Deadlines matter

A former editor of mine relayed a story about a colleague trying to explain journalism to a young reporter.

“We call them deadlines,” the colleague apparently said, “because if you miss them, you’re dead.”

That’s an extreme thing to say, but it hints at the truth. Deadlines matter, because without them the paper doesn’t make it to press on time or the newscast doesn’t make it to air.

Deadlines exist to ensure a publisher or broadcaster keeps its implied contract with readers and viewers, ensuring a high-quality on product on time, every time, with no exceptions.

It’s the same with many other businesses, and it should be the same for every blogger and self-published author.

Set deadlines and stick to them. You’ll be surprised how inspired you will become when you’ve only got a few minutes to deliver.

Write as well as you can in the time you’ve got, while being extra-careful not to make factual mistakes or grammar errors.

This is key to building a reputation as a writer who can be trusted, and it’s an essential step to becoming prolific.

  1. Keep a list of story ideas.

Most journalists have a list of story ideas they’re constantly updating. I keep one on my phone and add to it as ideas come to me.

When I was a newspaper reporter, I emailed my editor a story list every Sunday evening, and it became my blueprint for the week ahead.

We added to and subtracted from the list for any number of reasons – sometimes a big story broke mid-week, and there was no time to write a piece about the local man with the giant rutabaga – but most of my story ideas made it to print.

Keep a list and add to it constantly, providing a few notes about how you would structure the piece. When you sit down to write, those notes will serve as inspiration for publishable work.

  1. Be wary of your influence

Most journalists are extremely careful about the words they put into the world.

They know their writing has incredible power, so they triple-check facts, verify claims and ensure a story serves the public interest.

The need to be prolific doesn’t absolve anyone from the profound responsibility that comes with every type of publishing.

A former classmate of mine put it this way, channeling dialogue from a Spider-Man movie: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

All writers have power, so be careful.

  1. Use an outline

It’s hard to write more than 1,000 coherent words without one.

Whether it’s a feature story for a magazine, a lengthy blog post, or a book, you’ll likely need a map to stay on track and guide your reader from your starting point to the desired destination.

Gladwell says writing a book is maybe 20 per cent writing and 80 per cent organization and logistics.

“For every hour I spend writing, I spend three hours thinking about writing,” he told Ferriss. “I’m just putting down on the page what has already been kind of figured out in my head.”

  1. Always deliver a story

When a reporter heads out into the field, they often discover the story they planned to write isn’t there.

Once, an editor sent me to cover a billiards championship with this question in mind: Does anyone care about billiards in the age of video games?

I showed up and asked that question, but no one seemed interested in it.

Knowing I still needed to file a story that day, I wrote the one that emerged from my interviews – a short, interesting piece about women in what was then a male-dominated sport.

If you start out with one story in mind and end up with a different one, it’s no problem. Just be sure to deliver something worth reading before the deadline passes.

  1. Don’t be condescending

It’s easy to think derisively about journalists, especially if you are a literary type who wants to win a Nobel Prize.

Some people think of journalists as failed writers, or hacks who couldn’t get a real job. Most people who think this way don’t know much about the depth, breadth and quality of writers who rely on journalism jobs to pay the bills.

In any case, reporters can teach us a great deal about how to be prolific, and the habits they acquire are worth holding onto.

“Those habits that I learned over that 10 years at the Washington Post have stayed with me,” said Gladwell.

I don’t know about you, but what works for him is good enough for me.

How to keep your creative life from spinning out of control

We drove Bud’s cramped sedan to a gravel parking lot in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, and with his blessing I gunned the engine.

The car lurched forward and we built speed until Bud hit the extra set of brakes on the passenger side. We swerved wildly and I spun the steering wheel, trying to straighten our path.

As we swerved, I fixed my eyes on a single tree on the horizon, steering toward it, blocking out every distraction. This was what Bud had counselled me to do, believing it would help keep us from spinning out of control.

Our path straightened as the car slowed. We did not spin out of control. We did not die. We would live to drive another day.

“That was cool,” I said when it was over, high on adrenaline. I hoped Bud would match or at least validate my enthusiasm, but he seemed a little bored.

“Yeah, most people like it,” he said.

He added something about how I had done well, and how I had passed this portion of my driver’s education.

We put the car in gear, drove out of the gravel parking lot and moved on to the next driving exercise, not saying much and not showing much emotion.

This was just another day at the office for Peter “Bud” McGuffin*, driver’s education teacher extraordinaire. I tried to act as if it were nothing special to me either, but of course it was.

If you took driver’s ed in southwestern Ontario in the late 1990s, you likely had an experience similar to this.

You know hitting the brakes in loose gravel was meant to simulate the effect of hitting the brakes on a patch of icy road in the dead of winter.

It was a controlled environment that provided the chance to prepare for a potential disaster, to save lives and save property.

You picked a point on the horizon and steered toward it. You stayed calm and brought the car to a stop. You were careful and conscientious, and if you were lucky, no one would get hurt.

I often think of that day in the parking lot when I am unsure about what to do with my life. So many times, I have felt unfocused and spinning out of control.

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a writer until I discovered writers don’t make any money. I floated around, directionless, until I discovered journalism and began working toward a career in that.

As a teenager I discovered journalism was harder than it seemed, and I was no longer sure I wanted it to be my life’s work.

A crisis ensued and I did not refocus until university, when I decided journalism was the only thing I was likely to be good at.

I became hyper-focused on getting the grades I needed to get into journalism school, then getting through journalism school, then getting a job.

When I got a job, I realized what I really wanted to do was write books, so I spent two years doing that. Then I published, and my book sold a single copy in its opening weekend.

So much of my life went into that project, so much emotional and physical energy. The sentences were carefully pruned, the thoughts vigorously refined.

This had been my dream for so long, and it had come to nothing.

So now what?

What would I do with myself?

I decided to do what I have done ever since that day in the parking lot: Pick a point on the horizon, and steer toward it.

Writing is still the thing I want to do more than anything else in the world. It is hard work, but it gives me joy. It’s the thing I believe I’m meant to do with my life.

I know it likely won’t make me any money, and I know it will be demoralizing at times. But I’m going to stay at it, trusting that I will get better as I go, and hoping the words that matter to me will connect to an audience willing to receive them.

When we pick a point on the horizon and steer toward it, we find peace in what would otherwise be a world spinning out of control.

We simplify our lives and focus on what really matters. We’re able to shut out distractions and move forward, possibly panicked and worn out and demoralized, but also hopeful and full of purpose.

A life spinning out of control is scary and dangerous and full of potential for disaster.

But most lives can straighten out, even if it seems like they’re messed up beyond repair. We simply need something to aim for, something that brings clarity to our mess.

If you’re a writer, the point on the horizon might be your next book project, your next blog post, your next poem.

You must know, as I do, that it’s possible only a handful of people will read it. You must know there is inherent value in the work. You must know it’s possible to beat the odds and sell a million copies.

Be honest with yourself about what you want, and move toward it. You’ll find clarity and purpose. It will help keep you from spinning out of control.

It might just save your life.

*Not his real name

Lessons from a pro

I covered a concert once in a small town on the lake. The Sadies played first and then Ronnie Hawkins did, his beard white as a ghost in winter.

There were only a handful of people in the audience, but Ronnie put on a show. He brought out Garth Hudson, the legendary keyboardist from The Band, and they jammed for what seemed like a very long time.

Hawkins, of course, is a legend too. He’s rockabilly royalty, with a career that left him rubbing shoulders with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Bill Clinton is apparently a fan.

So no one, apart from the promoters and the dozens of people watching, would have blamed Hawkins for ditching that concert near the lake. He had a reputation to protect, better things to do.

But he treated that show as if there were thousands in front of him. He was a pro honouring a commitment. He was a performer who seemed delighted to play.

During a break, one of the concert staff stopped by my table and we chatted about our careers in music journalism. Neither career was impressive.

I had toiled mainly for small websites, interviewing low-level rock stars and reviewing their albums, always working for free.

We swapped stories about how badly we wanted those kinds of bylines and how desire was the key to making it anywhere worth going.

We had worked hard to get to the bottom of the middle and we were still trying to climb.

I knew nothing about music when I began writing for websites, and I was horrible at deconstructing it. My first review was a thin appraisal that didn’t know what it wanted to be.

I quoted the singer, invented an adjective and called the band a bunch of “Georgia peaches” because they were from Georgia and there was a photo of a peach on the album cover.

The review had to be revised and rewritten. I’m not sure it was ever published and if it was, the site has since taken it down.

But I stuck with music writing, quitting the site few times over harsh edits but always returning.

My writing improved to the point major publications let me contribute. I told them I didn’t care about getting paid. All I wanted was the experience and the byline.

It worked. I built a portfolio and eventually went pro.

Writing about music brought me to the point I could write about nearly anything. I learned how to ask the right questions, how to act as if I belonged in the room.

When I finally got a job and started covering municipal politics and ratepayer meetings, I got along fine.

I was willing to learn. I was willing to work hard, willing to pay my dues.

All of that led to better things, including an internship at a national newspaper and a master’s degree in journalism, neither of which I ever thought I would have.

I wrote hundreds of articles for free before I went pro, and hardly anybody read them. But working for free, with a low profile, helped me get better.

It made me versatile, well-rounded and valuable. It taught me I was not above any assignment, that I would always need to work hard.

It took my ego and crushed it, then built it up with a quiet confidence.

A while ago I came across an interview on GQ.com with Adrian Wojnarowski, a revered basketball columnist for Yahoo!

Wojnarowski cut his teeth in small markets, working for newspapers in Fresno, Waterbury, Conn., and Bergen County, N.J.

He never had a big-time internship at the Washington Post, the New York Times or Newsday.

“I’m so much better for having [not],” he said, “because I covered the high school football games in the mud and the rain and filed my stories from the 7/11 phone booth and tried to get in the athletic director’s office to plug my computer into his fax machine. I came up that way. That was way harder than any of this is.

“That was way harder to sit there and keep your stats on the sideline and it’s raining, like trying to get your numbers to add up on the running plays, and the passing plays, and write a story that’s readable for 15 inches for the paper for the deadline. That’s harder than anything I do now.”

All of this to say, a writer must sometimes work in obscurity.

Success does not always come overnight. A blog does not always find a huge audience right away and a book does not always sell a million copies.

We must use our time here in obscurity to improve. We must put the craft first and write our guts out.

We must give as much effort for a small audience as we would for a large one, just as Ronnie Hawkins did that day near the lake.

There are many definitions of a pro, but that’s mine.

Writing is rock and roll

In an essay for The New Yorker about the origins of rock and roll, Louis Menand uses an anecdote Patti Smith told about going to see The Doors in the late 1960s. Smith claims she was not transfixed by Jim Morrison in that concert, like everyone else at the concert.

She saw what Morrison was doing and decided she could do it herself.

“For many people, that response is the essence of rock and roll,” Menand writes. By rock and roll, he means music associated with pioneers like

Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Buddy Holly, as well as the Beatles’ early creations.

“To this way of thinking, rock and roll … is music that anyone can play (or can imagine playing) and everyone can dance to,” he writes. “The learning curve for performing the stuff is short; the learning curve for appreciating it is nonexistent. The instrumentation and the arrangements are usually simple: three or four instruments and, frequently, about the same number of chords.”

It’s possible to add a whole lot more than that, but what matters – or so the argument goes – is the feeling.

“Rock and roll feels uninhibited, spontaneous, and fun,” Menand writes. “There’s no show-biz fakery coming between you and the music. As with any musical genre, it boils down to a certain sound. Coming up with that sound, the sound of unrehearsed exuberance, took a lot of work, a lot of rehearsing.”

Here is where I argue that writing is rock and roll.

It’s true that writing is sometimes like Chopin or Rachmaninov or Bach. This is the kind you did in high school or college, trying to master someone else’s idea of what made for a good essay, lab report or short story.

Maybe you went to journalism school like I did and mastered all kinds of story forms so you could plop names and dates and quotations into them and churn out five stories a day.

That’s not the kind of writing I’m talking about. I’m talking about the kind of writing you want to do, the kind you need to do in order to stay sane.

This is the stuff that flows out of you easily onto a computer screen, unpretentious and unadorned, without worrying what an anal-retentive professor might think.

The kind of writing I am talking about is as much about feeling as it is about form. It’s about saying what you want to say, or need to say, in the way you want to say it.

It’s about saying things simply – three or four instruments and about as many chords. It’s about swallowing at least some of your inhibitions and doing the work you are meant to do, if not professionally then at least in your spare time.

Menand argues no one contributed more to creating the sound of early rock and roll than Sam Phillips, who founded Sun Records and discovered Elvis.

Phillips opened a recording studio on Union Avenue in Memphis in 1950 with the slogan, “We Record Anything – Anytime.”

He recorded church services, weddings and funerals. But his dream – the reason he set up the studio, according to Menand – was to create a space where aspiring musicians could come and play. When they did, he listened to them and encouraged them.

“He hated formulas,” Menand writes. “He thought that music was about self-expression, and he liked songs that were different … Phillips preferred imperfection. It made the music sound alive and authentic.”

Castoffs and misfits started turning up in his studio, musicians no one else would record. He was the first to record B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison.

He produced and released some of the genre’s biggest hits, including “Blue Suede Shoes,” “I Walk the Line” and “Great Balls of Fire.”

Above all, Menand writes, he was supportive. He got musicians to believe in him by getting them to believe in themselves.

Here is where I try being your Sam Phillips.

I do not need you to believe in me, but I want you to believe in yourself. I want you to believe your stories matter, and so do your insights. If you are compelled to share them, you should.

Be careful not to hurt anybody in the process, but write what is in your heart. Tell us what you have learned so far, so that we can avoid some of your mistakes.

Formulas are fine, if you want to use them. But it’s better to say what you need to say in the way you want to say it. Your imperfections will make your writing seem alive and authentic and beautiful.

Chances are you have read a book or two that transfixed everyone and you thought, I could do that.

So do it.

Start telling your stories.

Rock on, man.

Your nature is good

A fast-talking man in a white cowboy hat, a scruffy beard and a southern accent looks into a camera and starts sounding off about the value of human life

He speaks directly to the viewer, as if they are sitting across from him and he is looking into their eyes.

“There’s a lot of you out there today who are dealing with issues of self-worth,” he says. “You don’t feel very good about yourself, simply because of the things you’ve been through, things that you’ve done and the things that have been done to you.”

He holds up a $20 bill and asks if the viewer would take it if he offered it.

“Chances are, you would,” he says. “But before I give it to you, I gotta offer a warning, because while this $20 bill could be used for a lot of good, chances are it’s seen a lot of bad,”

If this $20 bill could think and had a mind, it might have a bad conscience, the fast-talking man says. He shares a list of bad things the bill could have been used for.

Maybe it’s been used to do drugs or buy drugs. Maybe a drug deal went bad and somebody died over this. In fact, maybe it was used to fund a terrorist organization or to buy a prostitute.

“Any number of things could have been done with this $20 bill,” he says, pushing it toward the camera again.

“Do you still want it? Of course you do, because no matter what’s been done to it or with it, it’s still worth 20 bucks.”

Then the fast-talking man tears the bill in a couple of places.

“Maybe I can take it today and rip it and scar it and put marks on it that are just simply unfair and unsightly,” he says.

“Still want it? Of course you do, because an authority higher than us gave it its value and nothing can take it away.

“Same with you. No matter what you’ve been through, no matter what you’ve done, you still have worth. It’s built into you and you need to remember that.”

The fast-talking man says there are things he wishes he could go back in time and “redo, undo and just never do at all.

“But I can’t. And even though I’m reminded every day by many folks and even by my own conscience and heart that I did them, I still have to remind myself that something with greater authority than me and even bigger than my own actions, gave me a self-worth.”

The implication here is that human lives have worth because God has decided they do. That’s a beautiful idea. I believe it most of the time and I hope it’s true.

But whether you believe in God or not, there is truth in what the fast-talking man says.

We have all used our lives for good and for bad. We have all been beaten down and ripped up and scarred.

We have all done things we wish we could redo, undo and never do at all. But we have inherent value.

We are worth something, and no matter what we have done, there is the possibility of redemption—hopefully from God, but certainly in the way we conduct ourselves now and as we move forward.
Every life that was bad in the past can be good in the future. We can still make something out of what’s left of it. And as we go, we might as well share our stories.

Lessons spring from every good decision and from every bad one. This is how we learn what is true about the world, about ourselves, about other people.

We ought to share those lessons so others don’t repeat our mistakes, so their lives can be enriched by the wisdom we accrue.

“It is only by sharing our stories, by being strong enough to take a risk—both in the telling and in the asking—that we make it possible to know, recognize and understand each other,” Richard Wagamese wrote in One Story, One Song.

Later in the book, he quotes Thoreau: “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and they go to the grave with the song still in them.”

So sing, or write, or speak. Your life has value. It is worth something, and so are the stories, thoughts, insights and jokes you feel compelled to share.

Share them with us, teach us, enrich us. Help us get through the wonderful, miserable journey that lies ahead.

We won’t be able to make it on our own.

My new book is out, and it’s fantastic!

We use stories to make sense of the world and to find meaning in the weird, wonderful and painful things that happen to us before we die.

We use stories to carve our names in history, like graffiti cut into wood. We use stories to prove we were here, and we mattered.

Our stories often produce wisdom — lessons we ought to share with others who are fumbling with questions we have answered.

This is why anyone who wants to write should give it a try. It doesn’t matter if we’re good or not, especially in the beginning. What matters is that we do our best each time we sit down to type, and that we keep typing.

Writing is a way of sharing our stories and conveying our wisdom. It is a way of saying we were here, we mattered, and we did what we could to help those who come after us.

My new book is a small, powerful volume  meant to encourage shy, gifted loners who struggle to believe what they have to say is worth sharing.

It’s also for brash, confident extroverts who want to make a lasting record of their insights.

This book is for anyone who has ever wanted to write anything but lacked the courage to try.

Click here to order.

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