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Every other day, I think about quitting.
I’ve written four novels, hundreds of short stories and articles and essays, and a book about a world famous metal band that has thus far been published in five languages worldwide. I’ve been interviewed by media in the US, Brazil, Portugal, Poland, England, and Spain, and one of my books–mentioned in the same breath as Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes–was selected by Ukraine’s most-read newspaper as a Book of the Month in late 2014.
Yet, every other day, I think about quitting.
I’ve been working at this writer gig for over 15 years. I started out submitting my work to agents, editors, and publishers before the digital shift took hold, mailing stacks of hardcopy manuscripts with SASEs enclosed, and was summarily rejected over and over and over again. Demoralizing, maybe, but it felt right; I always had this romantic impression that a true writer’s skin was covered with the scars of rejection.
And every other day, I thought about quitting.
I knew where I wanted to be, even if I didn’t know how to get there. I enrolled in an MFA program to learn how to, in a sense, write right (though I soon learned there is no such thing). My mentors, all of them amazing writers and human beings, highly respected in the world of traditional publishing, with countless awards and accolades and bestsellers to their names, told me the fight was fruitless. “Teach for money,” they said, “and write because you love it.”
But I was defiant. There were no thoughts of quitting then, only thoughts of proving them all wrong. I didn’t enroll in a writing program because I wanted to teach. I enrolled in a writing program because I wanted to write, goddammit.
“Why not write for money,” I said, because there is no fucking shame in that, “and write because you love it?”
But maybe they were right. The industry has changed. Reading habits have changed. People have changed. You’ve changed, I’ve changed, we’ve all changed. Success, as an ideal, is an illusion.
This morning, just like every other morning, I thought about quitting. I woke up thinking it was all pointless. My words didn’t matter–and wouldn’t ever matter–to anyone.
Then I had an idea, and I started writing.
I wrote all day.
And I couldn’t help myself.
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I spend well over a couple hours on the road every day. It’s always the same roads, passing the same vehicles that carry the same people going through the same routine as me. I start to feel a certain affinity for them, a sense of community; if I don’t see the gray 2005 Nissan Altima one day, or the bright yellow pickup truck, I wonder if that guy got fired or quit his job. Maybe he called in sick. Did he die in his sleep?
This morning, while zoning out on the road, I was listening to the French singer Camille. I’m a big fan. It was her most recent album, Ilo Veyou, and I hadn’t heard it yet. Before pulling out of the driveway, I’d sliced my fingernail through the CD shrinkwrap and pinched the disc out of its mini-gatefold cover, careful not to get my greasy fingerprints all over it. I enjoy this routine. It reminds me of being a kid, peeling the plastic off of a new vinyl record and sitting cross legged in front of my stereo speakers, absorbing the album art and reading the lyric sheet – even the credits and list of thank yous – while the music plays. It was ritualistic. It was sublime.
And it got me thinking, on the road this morning, of that two- or three-year period when I’d lost my passion for music.
I was always that kid who would sit down with a new cassette tape and get his rocks fucking off over hearing a cool riff or a clever lyric for the first time. I’d sometimes lay down on my back with the speakers pressed up against my ears, trying to hear every note, every harmony, every subliminal message. I felt it. These feelings inspired me to learn how to play drums and guitar, and start bands, and spend my science class labs designing logos rather than studying the periodic table because it wasn’t enough to feel it. I had to createit. I had to be it.
I’ve spent so much money on music it almost makes me sick to think about. When Amazon’s web store first opened, I would spend half of a paycheck on CDs, completely drunk with euphoria when an order came in and I’d tear open the box and pore over these discs – many of them imports – that a few short years earlier I would never have been able to get my hands on.
Something happened around ten years ago. Torrents. Albums regularly leaked long before their release dates. I downloaded everything and, at first, I loved that access. It was a drug. How was I supposed to wait for an official release when I could download a leak two months early? I was too passionate to wait.
But the more I downloaded, the less I listened. The ritual was gone, and slowly, the passion went with it. Why? Because music had become a commodity. It had become fast food.
I kept it up for a few years, downloading mostly leaked albums before their release, but always buying the actual disc when it hit the stores. But even that got old. Before the Internet, I would drive to the record store, buy the CD or the cassette, then sit in my car and listen to the whole thing, straight through, before even pulling out of the parking lot. After the Internet, I would drive to the store and buy the disc to the support the band…then file it away because I had already heard the leaked copy a hundred times.
The ritual was gone. The passion was gone. The magic was gone.
It has something to do with the perceived value of a product. When you receive something for free, over and over and over, your perceived value of that something will eventually be reduced to zero. This is why, I believe, the Internet generation is less passionate about the music and more intrigued by the celebrities behind the music. But even the celebrities lack value; they are faceless and generic, just different incarnations of the same reality television character, and sadly, as Michele Catalano suggested, there really are no more rock stars.
Anyway, sometime in the last few years, I managed to reinvent the ritual in this digital world. Maybe I missed the anticipation of waiting for a new album. Maybe I felt guilty about all the music I downloaded but never actually got around to buying. I don’t really know.
But zoning out to Camille’s latest, while driving to work this morning and wondering if the guy in the 1998 Ford hatchback had slept through his alarm, I felt that the magic had returned.
And I was grateful for it.
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