This summer I tried to not have to learn lessons twice. I have several sticky notes of “Hard-Earned Wisdom” on my monitor, with such tips as “Don’t bypass LeechBlock. Just don’t. DON’T,” and “Hey, remember that funny thing from (x time) ago? DON’T LOOK IT UP. Just enjoy the memory.”
These things have helped me waste less time doing stupid stuff on the Internet when I should be writing or practicing, as has the candle I mentioned a few weeks ago. But all those things are external. What about that voice in my head that tells me I’m a two-bit no-talent hack and that anything I create just proves it?
The worst is when it pretends to be the voice of artists and writers I admire: “Whatever you attempt is nothing compared to my stuff,” it sneers, which is odd because a lot of these artists and writers publicly encourage those aspiring in their art. “Oh, they mean everyone except you should follow your dreams,” the voice tells me. “If they ever saw your stuff they’d just feel sorry for you.”
What if I just don’t have it in me to be truly good at anything?
I know—that kind of thinking just becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy if I let it. But it’s so persistent. How can I banish that voice for good and put my head down and just get to work, darn whether I ever get “good” at it? How can I stop imagining the masters of their craft looking at me and laughing at my pathetic attempts at prose or music?
Sorry for the dark night of the soul. These kinds of thoughts have come and gone for months at a time since I was in high school, and I’m no closer to figuring out how to deal with them other than struggling through until I feel like it’s safe to come out and create again. Guess it’s just Insecurity High Tide right now.
A supportive friend accompanied me to the Cotati Accordion Festival this weekend. It was my first time and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. The atmosphere alone was worth the price of admission. Everyone was there because they loved music and wanted to have fun with it, and it showed. I also bought a tiny handcrafted ceramic chicken figurine that reminds me of the children’s book character Minerva Louise and it gives me great happiness every time I gaze upon it.
I left my accordion at home for this one, but maybe not next year.
The key to being a writer, as they say, is writing. Seems easy enough, except I’m a human.
Getting my butt in a chair in front of a computer is not the hard part; it’s getting me to open up Scrivener and type and not to open up Firefox and plumb the depths of some blog I found or watch every SNL Celebrity Jeopardy! sketch from 1996 to the present. Because going down Internet rabbit holes is easier and less scary than writing what I know will be an awful first draft.
I’m really good at coming up with excuses to not write. I’m not in the right mood, I tell myself after a depressing news tangent. Now I just feel like an Internet glutton; I need to detox from the computer for a while, after a YouTube tangent. I’m thinking about [some media franchise I’m a fan of] too much to write, after a Netflix binge or video game play session. Or how about this one: I can’t write now—I feel like all the people in that awful comments thread I just masochistically read through are watching and judging me. And then, finally, after a full day of this stuff, It’s too late at night. I need to go to bed.
And that is how novels don’t get written.
I’m still working on avoiding temptation and practicing self-control. Something tells me this is going to be a lifetime struggle. But I’ve found a cheap little thing that’s helped me quite a bit. “One Weird Trick,” if you will.
It involves three very inexpensive things:
A 50-cent glass candle holder from Goodwill
A 75-cent votive candle from the Yankee Candle discount basket
A $3 barbecue lighter
And it is a simple 4-step process:
Declare candle the WRITING candle.
Place WRITING candle in candle holder.
Light WRITING candle with barbecue lighter.
Why is this so effective for me? It plays into a lot of my quirks—my desire to squeeze every penny out of that 75-cent candle, for example. If you’re familiar with those little 2-inch votive candles, you know that they never burn perfectly symmetrically; the wick always curves in one direction, pushing the flame out from the center of the candle and melting more wax on one side. Eventually (after about an hour, in my experience) the outer edge of the candle on that side collapses and all the wax drains into the candle holder, dramatically shortening the life of the candle and making you have to chip the wax off the glass after it cools. Worse, the wax now covers an area bigger than the opening, so it’s impossible to get it out in one piece.* To prevent this from happening, you have to extinguish the candle before the wax melts, around the 60-minute mark.
And since that is my WRITING candle, I do not want to spend my one hour of WRITING time on dumb Internet tangents.
The trick is to light it before that nonsense even begins.
Sure, while I’m writing I get writer’s block now and again, but the candle gives me something mildly interesting to stare at while I wait for more ideas to come. (Once I leaned in too close and singed my own hair a little bit. Don’t do that.)
By the time it’s time to blow out the WRITING candle, I’m often on such a roll that I just keep going. If I need inspiration, I just smell the candle. (I don’t know if that actually works or not. It’s just something to do.)
Just—y’know, be safe about it. Don’t leave burning candles unattended; don’t put flammable things near or above the candle; make sure the candle is on a stable, heat resistant surface; keep pets and kids away, etc. Don’t make dumb decisions. Don’t singe your own hair.
Anyway. There you go. Maybe it’ll help someone else, too.
*The trick to getting wax out easily is freezing the candle holder after the wax is completely cooled. (Freezing it before the wax has completely cooled is a good way to crack the glass.) The wax will shrink and pull back from the glass. The you can just snap the wax into a few pieces and take them out one by one.
“I should really sign up for lessons” is something I say a lot. Currently the only musical instrument I play that I’m taking lessons for is the djembe, and I can see the difference in how I play that vs. how I play piano, accordion, folk harp, and ukulele. The last time I took piano lessons was 2004, and I stopped accordion lessons in 2012 when I left the country. Since then I haven’t really pushed myself on either instrument. I used to be able to do scales on the bass buttons on the accordion, for example—now at the Celtic music sessions I mostly oom-pah (or oom-pah-pah) the bass in a very vanilla, uninteresting way. I’ve never had a teacher for folk harp and ukulele, and my experience with them has been pretty much messing around plus the occasional YouTube tutorial. I can’t tell if this is helping me develop my self-expression or holding me back. Maybe both.
Thing is… lessons are expensive, and I’m not exactly rolling in dough. Djembe is a group lesson, so that one’s affordable, but for everything else it’d probably have to be one-on-one. For the unusual instruments it’d be even more expensive (and I’d probably have to travel).
Dunno, just something I’ve thought about as I’ve plucked my harp and strummed my ukulele this week. Guess I’ll just keep going my own pace till I find opportunities and means to learn from real people.
On a related note, the Cotati Accordion Festival is coming up, and while that’s a bit of a drive for me it’s still something I intend to check out.