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.