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3.1
October 15, 2019

a-ha Moments and Lessons for a Floundering Writer

One-hit wonder. When you read those words, you probably recall an earworm of a song. Like perhaps Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping”. For children of the eighties like my wife Valerie and me, maybe it is “Relax” from Frankie Goes to Hollywood or Valerie’s personal favourite “Take On Me” by a-ha. In a fit of boredom infused with nostalgia one long Canadian winter’s day, we tuned into the VH1 special “Greatest One-Hit Wonders of the 80’s”. It was by turns fun, cringeworthy, and a fascinating study in human nature in the space of a hundred music videos.

The most interesting part of the special was the artists’ responses to the phenomenon. You could categorize them into three groups. Some artists were still punching the clock and dutifully belting out their hit at county fairs across the country decades later. Others felt it was cool to have a hit, but seemed to have good perspective of the hit in their overall context of their creative work or their lives in general. The final camp hated the legacy of their one hit wonder, and were either frustrated by the tunnel vision of their record companies and fans or blocked by the inability to recapture the elusive magic.

The lot of the second group – the perspective takers – seemed the most appealing. Even those who assumed a fairly normal life, but it was also fun catching up with the likes of Thomas Dolby, who was not actually blinded by science. He went on to invent the polyphonic ringtone for cell phones. I will also add that the members of the aforementioned group a-ha seem to age gracefully like fine organic wine. Mags is still dreamy.

You may have correctly guessed that I love music, but I am not really what you would call a musician. If I pick up my dusty guitar and remember the basic E, A and D major chords I consider myself to be doing pretty well. However, I have family and friends who are very creative. They write books and poetry, make beautiful and sought after art, and have records on real labels. Maybe you could say I have a generalized creative fantasy. I have long thought how great it would be to have that sort of talent.

I am fully aware that talent is seldom purely natural. The “10 000 hours” theory popularized in the Malcom Gladwell book Outliers suggests it takes that amount of engagement in an activity to achieve expert-level mastery. I have found that as life’s obligations and diversions stack up, that starts to look like an exceedingly large amount of time. Like a big percentage of your remaining life. That’s the kind of pep talk I have given myself over the years when contemplating creative endeavours. It hasn’t worked with the guitar, at least not in the way I have pursued the practice. I could not see that I would ever be able to invest enough time to be very good at it, as measured on the rock star scale.

Knowing I was also interested to try writing for creative expression (and perhaps thinking of my unsuccessful self-guided guitar practice), my wife Valerie suggested the Writing Apprenticeship offered by Elephant Academy. I had passed up the course before. When it came around again, Valerie looked at me and said “If not now, when?”. She had me. I could have easily mustered creative responses to indefinitely defer the start of a committed writing practice. But instead, I signed up.

Now for my own very small exposure (read: no delusions of grandeur) to the one-hit wonder phenomenon.

I went through all the materials, attended the live meetings and as instructed, I started writing. It felt chaotic. Life felt too busy. I felt anxious and late to the party. But I still kept writing and loving it. At the end of the first week I scrambled to figure out what I was supposed to do with my piece. I made the last few edits and submitted it. When I got a note back that my first piece was accepted for publication on Elephant Journal, I tried – unsuccessfully – to be unreservedly happy.

On a long road trip a while back, Valerie and I listened to Brené Brown’s audio book The Power of Vulnerability. One of our favourite segments related to the idiom “waiting for the other shoe to drop”. Brown describes how we miss out on joy by expecting it will be followed by something bad. Like the editor emailing back to say there was a mistake and they got my article mixed up with another submission. Or that I faced a savage, red ink experience that would expose me as an unworthy amateur, an imposter or fraud who hasn’t put in enough time as a writer. This sort of reflexive feeling when good things happen has been with me as long as I can remember. Even though there was a distinct “Aha!” moment when Brown described it, my reaction to the good news from Elephant Journal was proof positive that it is tough to change your default mode.

As I should have realistically expected, the editorial process was both positive and instructive. The changes to the title and structure were significant improvements over the original. Miraculously, I soon saw my piece on a site I had long admired. I shared the news and the article with friends and family, and to hear that it rang true, felt real, and evoked emotion for them was a very moving experience for me.

In the meantime, I had been working on my second piece. It was not going well. The words were not flowing. They felt contrived and clunky. Hello writer’s block.

I didn’t want to read the piece and I was pretty sure no one else would either. On top of my initial anxiety, I now had a strong sense that I was going to one-hit wonder hell in a Flock of Seagulls hairdo. Old man, you got lucky, for a time, but what you got ain’t selling this week.

I shelved the problematic piece for the time. I started working on other pieces including this one, and I am working on a new pep talk. One that helps keep the way cleared on the path of creativity, instead of slamming up the “Trail Closed” sign. Okay self, and anyone else for whom this resonates:

  1. The perspective takers in the cohort of the introduction have it figured out. Over worry about the perceptions of others and externally applied labels like “one-hit wonder” is playing the ego game. Check your intentions and keep your ego in check. If self-expression is the primary goal, express yourself and let go of the outcome. Life is bigger than all the words you can possibly ever string together.
  2. What about 10 000 hours and the path to mastery? Another relief. A quick internet search reveals there is an increasingly large body of literature calling this notion into question. Besides, what are you seeking mastery of? Guitar? Literature? Or is it the art of acknowledging your very human and universal frailties and moving forward through the fear and anxiety of expressing what is in your heart? Mastery of this art may be a long process, maybe even more than 10 000 hours of dedicated practice but remain gentle to yourself during the tougher moments.
  3. When you feel your heart pound and your pulse race, tell the amygdala that it doesn’t mean death is imminent, it might just mean you are feeling alive. Learn to embrace all joy in this short life, including the joy you find in creative expression. Other shoe be damned.

Photo by Kelli McClintock on Unsplash

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