The summer after college, while waiting to deploy for the Peace Corps, I lived at home and got a job driving a bright blue-green bus around to low-income neighborhoods in New Hampshire. My partner and I would read stories, do a related activity, and then lend out books to the children. It was a great summer job and led me down the path to where I now find myself: cultivating literacy in teenager as a high school librarian.
But this post isn’t about literacy, it’s about what I did with my first paycheck: I bought a guitar.
I had always wanted to play the guitar. I wanted to be just like Ani DiFranco, no matter that I can’t sing. Lou Reed has a craggly voice, and he’s an icon. I got a nice acoustic one with a flat, not glossy, finish. I bought books to teach my how to play. And I practiced. Sort of. I tried to wrap my hands around the neck of the guitar to push down the strings. It hurt my fingers and I strained to reach the proper placements. Still, I optimistically downloaded the chords for “Both Hands.”
At the end of the summer I took a road trip though upstate New York and then down to Georgia and back up the East Coast. I brought that guitar with me. I stuck stickers on it from the places I visited, including ones I got at an Ani DiFranco show in Rochester, NY. The guitar was tucked into the back seat of my 1987 Volkswagen Cabriolet. I never played it.
I did my time in the Peace Corps, sans guitar, but brought it with me when I moved to New York where it gathered dust in the corner of my Brooklyn apartment. I moved it again, back to New Hampshire for a month, then to Boston. That’s where I finally admitted I was never going to play the guitar, and sold it to another girl in her early twenties. I hope she achieved what I never did.
All of this came back to mind as I’ve been reading The Element by Ken Robinson. If you are unfamiliar with Ken Robinson, you need to check out his TED talks. The Element is about finding the point where your natural talent and personal passion meet: it is what you are meant not to do but to be. In the book, Robinson tells the story of talking with a very talented keyboard player named Charles. Robinson told Charles that he would love to play the keyboards that well. Charles replied, “No you wouldn’t. . . . You mean you like the idea of playing the keyboards. If you’d love to play them, you’d be doing it.” (p. 24). Such was the case with me and the guitar: I liked the idea of playing it more than the work of learning.
But this is not the case for me with writing. That whole summer, through the road trip, while I was in the Peace Corps, in New York and Boston, I was writing. Writing stories, writing in journals, attempting novels. It would have been a choice not to write rather than to choose to write.
I used to scoff when people told me they want to write a novel some day. Sometimes I even found it offensive — as if it dismissed the hard work that I had done — that I still do. I don’t think I have it in my personality to tell that person that they don’t really want to write, because if they did, they would already be doing so. But, in the end, that’s what’s going on. The way they want to write a novel is the way I wanted to play the guitar: nice enough as an idea, but not a passion, not an element. In some ways, it’s a compliment: what you do is impressive, and it would to do that someday. But, nice is not a passion, and so it sits in the realm of wishing, like playing the guitar, being an acrobat, and excercising more are for me. Nice, but not a priority.
I will probably go on encouraging these people, letting them know that writing is very hard, because it is, but the work is worth it if you love it. Who knows, maybe someday that person’s passions will shift. Maybe writing really is that person’s element, and they just haven’t found their way to it yet. So I will keep giving the only advice I know to be true: if you want to write, then write.