Sunday, December 11, 2011

Chapter Twenty One: "No Fear of Rejection: A Love Letter to Creative People."

In 1998, cartoonist J.Todd Dockery and I sat in an abandoned house on Virginia Avenue in Lexington, Kentucky, and drunkenly recorded a cassette tape of acoustic songs that would later form the basis for our two-piece rock band The Smacks!, an endeavor that would see highs and lows (well, maybe we saw mediums and lows) and last as a live act for over a decade. The Hasil Adkins/Violent Femmes-inspired songs were almost completely improvised and mostly comprised of my bad post-college/post-marriage poetry performed on a hardwood floor in an empty room onto a 1970s recording device used by the late TV broadcaster/news anchor John Lindgren in the early days of his career as a roaming radio announcer. I banged out riffs spontaneously on a series of random acoustic guitars that had been left in the house by our friend Jeffrey Scott Holland, while Todd banged out rhythms literally using kitchenware - a couple of wooden mixing spoons and a plastic strainer and a large metal pot, I believe.

The recording session had been instigated, if memory serves correctly (which is usually not the case, but we all have our realities), in an effort to soothe Mr. Dockery's broken heart, as he was having a particularly bad evening dealing with certain striferies of life that night. Drinking deep from the well of inspiration, and the well of bottled beer and Kentucky Bourbon, we closed the bars down in the Downtown of "The Horse Capital of the World" and planted ourselves in a house neither of us would ever really see the insides of again. The session was a wave of therapy for both of us as humans who lived in a perception of seemingly consistent kicks in the teeth on all fronts at the time, both as musicians, as writers of fiction, as visual artists, as eligible bachelors, and as just plain lonely people who wanted something more than passing out with beer on our stomachs and waking to go to work the next day.  

The next morning I began to cobble together the recordings into a mixed batch of sound bites that were semi-workable as songs, and created what would be our "debut" cassette EP. I titled the "album" a phrase that I attempted to live by back then: "No Fear of Rejection." After years of having a fatalist attitude toward the pursuits of my biggest dreams - playing original music and writing fiction - that time period, and that night especially, has always been an important one for me. One in which I feel like I snapped in the head and decided I would follow those two little dreams I had caught hold of when I was a kid because they were the things that made me happy. And I wasn't going to let a lack of financial support or approval by friends, peers, or lack of career in the arts deter me.

It's a point I sometimes need reminding of.

December marks the official six month anniversary of this here blog, but more importantly for me as again, another swift kick in my own teeth, it marks exactly a year since I stopped writing and submitting fiction. There have been a few pieces of flash fiction I've written, all of which were encouraged by my good friend Marie Direction, host of the local radio show "Keep Hearing Voices" on Crescent Hill Radio, itself a hub for creative writing. However, last December, while in the middle of a short story I had been kneading at for months, I stopped three fourths of the way through, and semi-retired myself.

Part of my decision to do so, I had to admit like a sad sack, was due to heaps of discouragement based on a consistent amassing of rejections. Every week for years, I mailed short stories in various forms to the beyond, waiting for months to hear what the verdict would be. This wait eventually become a guess of what style of rejection letter I would receive: standard form or personally written. I mostly laughed at the amount I would tend to receive per week, and would congratulate myself with the thought that the more letters that came in self-addressed envelopes in my mailbox, looking crumpled and dejected when I found them after work, the more it proved I was still trying and still aiming for a goal I had had since I was a kid.    

It took me a while to come to a halt, but I have to admit that after years of hearing "no" for pieces of work I had put everything I had into, my soul and drive ground down a bit and the tower that I had attempted maintain as a confidence in myself at doing this sort of "art" began to shift and fall apart. I definitely had moments of thinking, "if I just hear one 'yes' I'll be good for another ten years."

That was part of the reason. The other part came from the introduction to "A Miracle of Catfish," by Larry Brown. Like I've expounded on before here, Brown is probably my favorite author at this time; one who has become heavily influential on me. I had started his book in December of 2010. It was the last book he worked on before passing away in 2004 of a heart attack. At the front of my copy of the book, there is a short piece called "Larry Brown: Passion to Brilliance," written by Brown’s fellow Mississippian author and friend Barry Hannah (whom I've since become of a fan of, as well). The chapter basically seems to collect tidbits and asides Hannah wrote of his personal memories of Brown. As I moped over and questioned my skill at the craft I wanted to succeed at the most, I read this line from Hannah:

 "He [Brown] told me and the class that he was disheartened by teaching at colleges and summer workshops he was invited to...He loved talking about stories well enough, but he could not stand working with those who were not given over totally to writing, as he was."

I didn't take this photo. Hubert Worley Jr. did.
In a way, it’s almost a slightly snide comment Brown is sliding under the door there. "You don't love it as much as me." But given my state of mind at the time, my shaky confidence began questioning my own motives and thoughts about writing. Maybe I had not given myself over totally. I work two jobs, play music, watch music, and mix in other extracurricular activities and the even the desire to possibly be around other people in at least some attempt at a social life: the hours can wear away during the day, and the time I did have at the keyboard, I was often unfocused and droopy-eyed. I felt my writing had become lackluster and diluted and that I was not dedicated to it enough. So, I quit. It wasn't a snap decision that I declared to the gods and muses one night in a sad moment drenched in beer, but whenever I sat to finish that story, I managed to talk myself out of it, until I just never re-approached it.

It seems silly to talk about, and this entry isn't actually about my writing. But I have wondered how and when that happens to artists; that point when they suddenly hang it up. Years of rejection, years of trying and not rising to another level at what they do. I know many more musicians than I do writers, and I see this happen in the music scenes often. "Whatever happened to Bill?" or "I wonder why Sam isn't playing around anymore."

I think for many people (many of those people possibly being parents), they chalk up artistic pursuits as "phases." Do the band thing for awhile, but eventually you have to "grow up." This is just an attitude I never have understood. Maybe it's because music and fiction and creativity just mean too much to me to give up. I mean, there are people who do seem to stop at a certain age, but am I supposed to stop yearning to play and sing and write songs at the age of 30 (or 40 or even far beyond) to "grow up"? Just because I've not fashioned a paying career in the field of the arts and make my money at it, I can't seem to ever consider liking it less and not needing to pursue it.

But the rejection can weigh on a person who does take what they do seriously. It's not necessarily a matter of money, although the job factor, I think, can have a smothering and slowing effect, and that I do understand. The pressures of paying rent usually come down to needing something other than the art, which can make the artist push things aside slightly in order to survive. That coupled with perhaps having a family, and time can just become too limited. I do know many artists that have found ways to make this work, but it can be an influence. Work can alter the mindset and sometimes exhaust attempts at trying. I mostly sit at a desk in front of a computer for 8-9 hours of the day; some nights, coming home, it can be a struggle to sit back down in front of a computer and start typing again to dash out a masterpiece.

I also know several people who have given themselves to the pursuit and given up on dealing with the financial support. And this I completely respect, although I’ve never become one of those people. Many of my friends have, and I wish I could dedicate myself that wholly, but fears of homelessness and lack of survival have scared me from it. And I’ve been criticized for that.

Or is that because I haven't given over totally to writing? Makes me question my motives and dedications.

I can only speak from my worldview. When I go through periods during which I've done nothing music or writing-wise, creativity-bound, I feel, well sort of rotten. A little lost. I've often made the joke (especially after a slew of rejection letters or a few bad shows in a row), "well, I can always just quit trying and get all of my entertainment and emotional needs satisfied by watching some basketball on TV." The idea, though, of settling for the routine that has to be settled on sometimes of getting up, going to work, coming home, eating dinner, watching some TV, going to bed, getting up going to work coming home eating dinner watching some makes me break up a little.

And I badger myself when I find myself complaining of the job and the exhausted time left over at the end of the day; I feel lucky to have a job and to be able to support myself. And there are millions of other people who struggle with the same thing. So ante up and work at it and stop whining, brine. 

A musician friend of mine recently found himself jobless and made the age old comment to me over the phone while talking about his feelings concerning the whole debacle: "I just wish I could make music all day and not have to go to a job I can't stand, spending my hours there instead at a table writing songs." It’s a feeling I suppose everyone who has ever pursued art in anyway has struggled with (unless they really love their job).
The lack and pressure of time can also maybe coupled with rejection, whether it be in the state of a form letter from a publisher or from an unrespondent crowd. Or even worse, from a vicious crowd. A couple of weeks ago I witnessed the attack of the Sick City Four (that night performing as a trio) by an unruly group of basketball fans who had flooded the bar the experimental jazz group was performing at. My review of the show was posted here. I briefly discussed the crowd's reaction to the band, but learned of other insults that were hurled at the musicians during their set. Another review of the show that expands on some of this (and has the same opinions as I) by is here. Grown men and women making slashing and choking gestures at the group; outright mocking of the trio as they played their way through some amazing jazz, a rarity in Louisville. Some of the University of Louisville fans became vocal and started grabbing microphones to vocalize their disapproval. One woman approached Heather, the trumpet player, to explain to her that the drummer couldn't keep a beat (very untrue; Bart was amazing; he just wasn't playing 4/4 time for everyone to (easily) dance to) and asked them to please stop, then continued to rant and rave outside when the band played on.

Sick City Four

I had witnessed a similar incident occur a few weeks earlier when the post-game patrons entered, chanting "C-A-R-D-S" and expecting to hear the sweet sounds of Shania Twain while they performed their victory chants and talked about whatever fans of sports talk about post game: awesome dunks? car washes? house insurance? I don't know. Instead of a top 40 dance party in red, they were greeted with the twisted but amazing tunes of singer-songwriter The Kentucky Prophet, eventually leading one slurry Cards fan to rush the stage, grab the mic, and yell, "you have the worst voice I've ever heard."

The Kentucky Prophet

Don't get me wrong; I can handle heckling. I enjoy it, and I often respond well. This was far beyond that. And also: it wasn’t the establishment’s fault. I applaud their idea of local music on a night that might be crowded with a variety of folks. To me, that’s the best idea that still exists in America: different groups and cultures colliding.

But, I'm with the Prophet on this one: fuck that guy. And fuck that attitude. I'm not pinning this all on basketball fans, but these attitudes and behavior toward someone attempting to entertain are insane. I personally abhor...let me stress basketball games. The only thing I hate more than college basketball games are sitting with people watching college basketball games. However, if I walk into an establishment and people are screaming at a game on a screen, I don't take my annoyance over to them and demand they quit. I either deal with it, move on, or ignore it. I guess my parents raised me that way; you know, to not be a selfish asshole that lives in my own head. The culture that these people come from makes me think they never "grew up."       

That was a slightly off-tangent rant, but a deserved one.

To get back to my elongated shifty point: to lose focus or even worse, to lose confidence in oneself as an artist, can irrefutably take a chunk out of your being if it’s something you’ve been striving for your whole life. Ill-attended shows or mounds of rejection letters should never wear one down to a point of quitting; nor should lack of time. And it’s a point I didn’t forget, but didn’t listen to in the back of my head. This point was approached and discussed fruitfully at the Small Press Expo in Bethesda this year, as I sat with J. Todd and artist Tom Neely. Sitting in the shadow of the death of comic artist Dylan Williams, owner and runner of Sparkplug Comic Books (friend of both Neely and J. Todd), we ended a long weekend noting how Williams was a man who pushed others to strive, create and continue on, despite the let-downs and drop-backs that can occur in one’s life and head. We all agreed at that time that pursuing the creative plate on our backs was the best thing we could do in the short amount of time people have in this life.

There are slippery slopes and tunnel-visions that can ruin attempts at creative output, and often those things can win over the mind. I’m lucky to be surrounded by a massive amount of creative folks in my vicinity (including my brother Derrick and some of my closest friends who might be embarrassed or mad at me if I name them here) that remind to continue on, to never give up, to maintain target, and to dig out of ditches and ruts. I feel like this entry has been some bland pop-psychology at work on my part, but its bland pop-psychology that was needed for myself. Louisville and Lexington and the surrounding regions provide a swirl of support that I’m happy to yell exists big and loud. Just because some folks at a bar after a Cards game become antagonistic, well, they don’t get it. But there are lots of people that do. And sometimes they’re quieter. But so much more powerful.

Thanks for being my therapy session. I’m finishing that short story. I’d like to sit and list everybody that comes to my mind that I’d like to thank while typing this, but the list would be too lengthy. But everyone who has ever made a collage, recording, writing, photograph, drawing, painting, sculpture, chapbook, onstage joke, played a show or just supported: you folks are amazing.

Besides, I should have read an earlier quote from Hannah in the same chapter in Brown's book last December:

"Fail again. Fail better."


Paul said...

If you didn't get discouraged and depressed, you wouldn't be much of a writer, since emotion and the experience thereof is the essential driver for good writing.
The answer in any case is to keep writing, keep playing music, whatever, otherwise you'll reach middle and old age a very unhappy person for what you didn't do, whether you "succeeded" or not.
As for obnoxious audiences, yup, I often want to walk around a club speaking firmly (maybe with a 2x4) to the loudmouths. Does no good, though, most of them are simply too stupid to understand.

Terri said...

You're still writing, B. Just not fiction, exactly. It's okay!