Tell your parents you dream of being a successful writer (or actor, artist, filmmaker, etc.) and, after they hopefully give some encouraging words, you’re bound to hear, “That’s great, but you should have a backup.”
We all know what that means. Few people make a living pursuing a creative career, they’re thinking, so you better have an alternative career path lined up when you inevitably fail.
But I’m here to tell you that you can’t fail at any artistic pursuit. Your first or tenth novel might never see the light of day, but if you keep honing your craft and putting words to the page, you’re allowed to put “writer” on your business cards. That means you don’t need a backup!
Now, I want to be clear, that doesn’t mean you don’t need another job. A backup is something you do after you fail at your first pursuit. A job is something that brings in money and other positive benefits while you’re a writer. (If it doesn’t, you should get a different job!) There’s nothing wrong with that. Many successful writers have held down other jobs. Kurt Vonnegut still worked as a car dealer after publishing his first novel. Philip Glass was a plumber while he composed music. Many successful writers continue to teach. A second job can provide community, inspiration, and interesting characters. It can keep you sane and get you out in the world instead of insolated in your home with your cat and laptop your only friends. Spending 40 hours a week writing is likely to make you crazy. You don’t want to end up like Jack Torrance, do you?
So, when you’re working on a report for your boss, serving up coffee at Starbucks, or suiting up as a professional wrestler instead of working on your next book, embrace your situation. Your job isn’t a backup, it’s a lifestyle choice.
I can’t say I was ever a huge Eagles fan. On the other hand, I probably know the lyrics to most of their hits. It’s not hard to get Glenn Fry’s songs stuck in your head. They are so well crafted and filled with hooks that it would take a major blow to the head to stop me from singing along.
But I didn’t know much about Fry’s creative process until after he died. I would love to write a book that stuck with readers as well as one of his three minute songs. But even if I never achieve that, he did a couple of things right (and one thing wrong) that I think are important lessons for writers.
1. Be a Perfectionist. Eagles guitarist Don Felder said this about Fry: “Glenn, I think took three days in the studio on the word ‘city’ at the beginning of ‘Lyin’ Eyes.’ It would either be a little early, or a little late, or the ‘T’ would be too sharp. It literally took a long time to get that word perfect — maybe to an extreme. But every time that word goes by now and I hear it, I can appreciate the time and dedication and perseverance that it took to get it perfect.” Every writer should strive to be that meticulous about his/her writing. It’s time-consuming, but it’s how great novels are written.
2. Paint a Picture with Your Writing. I can’t hear “Peaceful Easy Feeling” without feeling relaxed. Sometimes I even imagine myself lying back in the cool grass, watching clouds roll by. I can’t listen to “Take It Easy” without getting a vivid mental picture of that girl “in a flatbed Ford, slowin’ down to take a look at me.” And, as for “Hotel California,” I’ve never quite understood it (Perhaps because I’ve never listened to it stoned.), but the imagery in it will always stick in my mind.
3. Know Where Your Gold Lies. Just before Fry died, there was a wonderful interview on the NPR show Sound Opinions with the music producer and engineer Glyn Johns. He shared his frustration about working with Glenn Fry and the Eagles. Their strength was in writing and performing mellow, melodic pop songs. But they wanted to be rock stars. They didn’t understand where their gold was, and even though they wrote a few memorable rock songs, they never resonated the same as their best hits.
So rest in peace, Glenn. Your music will live on, and will hopefully serve as a powerful reminder of how much can be achieved with the right creative approach.