When I was eleven, the academic curriculum I was involved in at school was provided the opportunity to do a remarkable thing. Remarkable to us, in any case. We were allowed to make the big, dangerous walk across the street, through the sports fields, and into the giant halls of the
to the confines of the band class so that we could participate in a unique grade seven music program. Through a quirk of fate and germs, I managed to miss the first visit. When I arrived in the second week, all of the really cool boy instruments – the trombones and trumpets, saxophones and tympanis, the lone guitar and drum kit – were taken. Senior Secondary School
I was left with the choice of clarinet or flute. The teacher said I had a good embouchure for flute (if @migroddy wanders through, maybe he can explain that concept in the comments), so that’s what I got. In time, I came to appreciate that placement – there are some really cute girls in the flute section – but at the time, just stumbling out of the blocks into pubescence with all of its sharp corners and early-adolescent contrasts, I did not feel lucky. I felt ripped off, like a cruel joke was being played on me. Like a giant “kick me” sign (to replace the one, only slightly smaller, that I already thought I possessed) had just been hung around my neck. I was not an enthusiastic student.
Three months later and heading towards the holiday break, I was facing my first test; about sixteen bars of simple melody that I could not complete on my best day. Not even close. My inadequacy was earned; I didn’t practice. The space between that band class and my closet space at school where I could hide the offending instrument, or home where I could hide it even better, was a bit of grade school social hell for me. Subsequently, I was on the road to failing said test, a probability that was, to me, as or more horrifying than the sentence of having to walk around in public with a flute case.
Not doing really well in school was not something I was comfortable with, in any subject. I was a nerd and proud of it. So with a few nights left before the test I suddenly came face to face with my desperation to excel and please my teachers, dug the flute out at home, and tried to practice.
It was dismal. When Mom now complains about tinnitus, I wonder whether that evening had something to do with it. I know that it didn’t, but still, I now know that nothing says “I love you” like a parent suffering through the early stages of music tutelage. After a whole fifteen minutes of trying and failing I was frustrated and ready to give up. I’d just quit the music program. I hated flute anyway, hated the snickers and the jokes and the insults. Mostly, to be honest, I hated not being better than the others. I hated standing out for the wrong reasons.
And then, for what was to be the first and last time, Mom made me keep trying. Like the one spanking I received, it had a profound effect. And like that one spanking, I’ve later wished she’d done it more. A lot more. I never really learned about how good discipline could be for you as a kid, but I wish sometimes that I’d had the opportunity to learn that lesson better, and younger.
But on that night, she was stern and strong and unwilling to equivocate on the subject of my practicing. As I got up to quit, she got in my face and made me sit back down. On that night, my fear of failure was confronted by that fierce motherly aspect, and my fear backed down.
I took my seat and tried again, her at my shoulder. And then I tried again because that time sounded as much like bird torture as the time before it. And again, and again, and again. It took another thirty minutes of really trying, of having no safe place to retreat to, of being stuck between a flute and a hardass, before the crux passage finally worked. Magically, my spasmodic fingers managed to function together and I made it through the bar of eighth notes and through to the finish. The only smile in the room bigger than mine was Mom’s.
Band and jazz band and orchestra ended up being extremely dependable and relatively easy A’s for me for the rest of my public school career. I was never exceptional, just a bit better than most, good enough for first flute but not enough to ever worry about a scholarship, and I was (sadly) okay with that. I learned to enjoy playing and being surrounded by girls even more. (A good embouchure is also useful for kissing.) All thanks to Mom and half an hour of not quitting.
But, as I said, it was a one-time lesson. I could have, should have, received that lesson many, many more times. But Mom got pretty busy with the boarders, and I was always too proud to ask or admit I needed it. So I coasted, and then floundered, and finally learned how to avoid challenges so as to avoid failure with an alacrity that bordered on evil genius.
It didn’t affect every part of my life, that aversion to risk, just the creative ones. Just the important ones. I did well in my chosen jobs, was successful when I went pack to school at 26 to re-educate following a motorcycle accident, and managed to get through most things looking like I sort of knew what I was doing. But I also didn’t really “complete” a lot of things. When the going got tough, I got going… the other way.
Through my thirties I was provided opportunities to learn lessons that I wish I’d learned in my teens. Somehow I managed to stumble into management positions, and where I was comfortable failing myself, I found I wasn’t comfortable at all failing the teams that depended on me. That sense of obligation or responsibility was the leverage my mind and heart needed to get over the hump and push through to completion, even when my legs wanted to go the other way.
Those lessons took a long time to learn though. I wrote the first draft of the prologue of the story I’m writing nearly fourteen years ago, got forty or so pages in, drew maps, and then abandoned it. I told myself it was just fantasy and not literary enough. I told myself that it was unrealistic to want to be a writer. I told myself that I was almost thirty and should start being a responsible adult. And they were all excuses.
At forty-three, I finally had enough confidence, frustration, angst, disillusionment, hope… whatever… to try again.
You know this part of the story if you’ve been reading along for a bit. (If not, search “life inversion” and catch up.) I quit again, but this time only the parts that were really bad for me – the corporate job, the consumerism, the stuff-accumulation, the pretending and pretension. I decided to put all my eggs in one basket, say “fuck it”, and write that goddamned novel I’d always said I was going to write.
I finished the bastard last Friday.
Well, not “finished” it in the sense that I’m ready to try to sell it just yet, but I finished a second draft. It’s close. There’s a bit of polishing, then the sharing with trusted and valued readers, then a final polish. But then, soon, only a couple months away now, I’ll be trying to find an agent.
When I typed the last word of the last chapter on Friday, it felt a bit like vindication. Not over anyone else. But over me. To me it felt like giving a big middle finger to the part of me that thought I’d never do it; to the voice that whispered in the dark that I was deluding myself; to the piece that was still convinced I was a fuck up. I felt like I was standing over that remnant, that vestigial quitter, on the field of battle, my foot on its corpse, sword in hand, screaming something primordial into the cold gloaming air. My own Barbaric Yawp.
It was how I’d felt, just that once as an eleven-year old, when Mom made me keep trying until I fucking got it, only better.
Some lessons, I suppose, take longer to learn than others. Mostly the important ones.
Epilogue: The mss is essentially done. Like I said, there’s a bit of polishing to do, but it’s pretty much complete at 180k words. I edited over 50k of them in the last month (my own sort-of NaNoWriMo), so thanks for hanging around while I took that break. Regular posts will now commence again. I’ll keep you updated.
P.S. I missed you all.