I Can Work With This

One of my musical mentors, Ginny Hawker, tells the story of first encountering her musical mentor, Hazel Dickens. She hadn’t yet begun performing at the time, but knew and loved Hazel’s music, and jumped at the opportunity to take a songwriting class with Hazel at the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, WV. When she tells the story, she sometimes includes the aside, “Like I’m ever going to write a song!”

I don’t know what keeps Ginny from writing a song (as far as I know she never has), but I know the things that kept me from writing songs. The primary one was a misguided notion that the song needed to be somehow worthy of being written. And since I had absolutely none of the technical skills required to write a song, worthy or not, I was at an impasse. How would I ever gain those skills without writing songs, and how would I ever write songs if my first one had to be worthy?

I got past the impasse in two ways. First, I picked up some of the necessary skills (primarily an understanding of folk song structure) by osmosis as Chris and I spent year after year learning and playing songs. Second, I eventually managed to lower the bar of worthiness in my mind to the point where I could jump it. And eventually an idea for a song came along which I was both capable of writing and interested in writing.

It was actually someone else’s idea. Barry Tashian was teaching a singing class at Augusta, and told about his uncle, a famous Chicago businessman who came to America as a penniless stowaway. Barry learned that his uncle had written an autobiography called “Stowaway to Heaven”—get it?—and tried for a year to write a gospel song with that title, only to conclude that it would never work because “you can’t stow away to heaven.” The idea of not being able to stow away to heaven stuck with me, and just as we were leaving Elkins it occurred to me that maybe you could write a song about that. So on the drive home I wrote my first song.

I wrote a few more songs, then ran them past a songwriter I respect, who said they weren’t great but was surprised they were any good at all, and encouraged me to keep at it. I worked at it for awhile, but then stopped, deliberately. The process of assembling some basic songwriting skills had given me a clearer appreciation for what it would take to write really good songs—and I decided I didn’t want to invest the time. There are plenty of good songs in the world, most of them better than I could hope to write, and I didn’t have any strong desire to express myself in song.

I have had a similar experience with writing prose, though rockier and longer-lived. I suppose in the early days I might have had vague daydreams about being known somehow for my writing, but no burning desire to pursue them. Meanwhile I found other more modest goals that required writing skills, and sporadically practiced my way up the ladder. At each rung I saw more clearly how difficult it would be to reach the upper parts, daunting enough to put any daydreams to death—but I also saw clearly what it would take to take the next step, and so when a reason came along to do that I was willing to put in the work.

So the daydreams shrunk from being a writer, to having written important books, to having written an important book, to having written a book—and even that thought is something I put aside several years ago. Meanwhile, my actual writing has grown from participating occasionally in Usenet discussions, to participating frequently, to participating with a focus, to making diary entries on a blog, to offering thoughtfully annotated links on a blog, to making thoughtful original entries on a blog. It used to be I didn’t have much to say, and most of it was clever comments. Now I can write one to two thousand words on a topic that interests me before it starts to feel unnatural. That’s the size of a (short) chapter, and 10-20 chapters can make a book.

So maybe there will be one or more books in my writing future after all. There are still several skills I’d need to master first, skills I haven’t needed to master for other reasons and which I can’t yet justify spending the time to master just to produce a book. But those skills may come.

I do keep notes on books I might possibly write. One of them is currently titled I Can Work With This. The inspiration came from Michael Lewis, a writer I admire who has written books I admire. It came as I was reading a long article he wrote about the Greek financial crisis. Here are the relevant passages, where Lewis is recounting his trip to a monastery to meet the monk in charge [emphasis added]:

But I also wondered how a bunch of odd-looking guys who had walked away from the material world had such a knack for getting their way in it: how on earth do monks, of all people, wind up as Greece’s best shot at a Harvard Business School case study?

After about two hours I work up the nerve to ask him [the head monk’s assistant]. To my surprise he takes me seriously. He points to a sign he has tacked up on one of his cabinets, and translates it from the Greek:  the smart person accepts. the idiot insists.

He got it, he says, on one of his business trips to the Ministry of Tourism. “This is the secret of success for anywhere in the world, not just the monastery,” he says, and then goes on to describe pretty much word for word the first rule of improvisational comedy, or for that matter any successful collaborative enterprise. Take whatever is thrown at you and build upon it. “Yes … and” rather than “No … but.” “The idiot is bound by his pride,” he says. “It always has to be  his way. This is also true of the person who is deceptive or doing things wrong: he always tries to justify himself. A person who is bright in regard to his spiritual life is humble. He accepts what others tell him—criticism, ideas—and he works with them.” […]

When we are introduced, Ephraim [the head monk] clasps my hand and holds it for a very long time. It crosses my mind that he is about to ask me what I want for Christmas. Instead he says, “What is your faith?” “Episcopalian,” I cough out. He nods; he calibrates: it could be worse; it probably is worse. “You are married?” he asks. “Yes.” “You have children?” I nod; he calibrates:  I can work with this.  He asks for their names …

This excerpt will be part of the book’s introduction. I have lots of other notes about what else might go into the book, but just one note so far on this excerpt:

Accepting what others tell you does not require you to accept that it is true, only that it is what the other person thinks. You don’t need to change that, or even express an opinion about it. The only important question: can you work with it?

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