Author Stephen King's nonfiction book On Writing is one that I turn to often. For a short work (short compared to his usual), there's a lot to be found there. He gives an overview of the highlights and lowlights of his youth, including harrowing bouts with ear infections, a babysitter who sat on him and farted in his face, an older brother who came close to getting Stephen killed with various scientific experiments, and his early forays into writing. He moves on to technical advice about writing (most famously "The adverb is not your friend"), gives us the play-by-play on his near-fatal encounter with a careless van driver, and shows us exactly how he goes about taking a raw idea and working it into something publishable. He even gives us a list of books that have made an impression on him.
Recently, I had occasion to put into practice one of his principles, which could easily have gotten lost in the midst of all the other equally pertinent nuggets.
On pages 149-150 of the paperback edition, he tells an anecdote about how his son got it into his head that he wanted to play saxophone like the late, great Clarence Clemons of the E Street Band. Stephen and Tabitha King were delighted -- have you noticed that one sure-fire way to make parents happy is to hint that there might be a Young Musician in the Family? -- and promptly rented him an instrument and signed him up for lessons. But seven months later, the experiment ended. The youngster didn't say "I hate the sax." He didn't have to say a word. He just treated practice like a job -- get it done, get it over with, satisfy the minimum requirements and then do something you actually enjoy. His parents saw no point in pursuing this. The kid may have had ability, but there wasn't enough there to encourage him to keep it going, apply himself and grow something from it.
I think a lot of parents would have started nagging and shaming at that point -- "Quitters never win and winners never quit" is one cliche we're all quite familiar with. "After all the money we spent on you for this...!" is another. But maybe it was the hippie in these parents that understood the importance of going your own way, following your instincts, doing what you really love, and not wasting time on things you don't.
Before reading that passage, I was in the "nag and shame" mindset instilled by my parents. I almost fell into that trap a few months ago, when I signed up for acting classes.
Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I wanted to be on the TV show Dark Shadows. I was in love with Barnabas Collins (played by Jonathan Frid). I pretty much believed the show was real. I wanted to meander through spooky woods, listen to stormy waves crash against the cliffs of Maine, travel back through time, hunt ghosts, and more than anything, wanted to be enfolded in the satin of a vampire's cape as he sensually drained a unit or so of blood via my jugular vein. I don't think I realized (or wanted to realize) that the show was produced on a shoestring budget in a stuffy New York studio, with confusing script changes, electrical cords that could be tripped over, and co-workers wondering if this would typecast them for life (and it did, oh, it did...). But at any rate, I signed up (or got my parents to sign me up) for an acting class. I got very little out of it and felt my parents' disapproval. My mom's in particular. She was extremely leery of "show-biz," having grown up with a Mama Rose-type mother, and having encountered the shadier side of the entertainment industry while on her own in New York City. She saw no value in my ambitions; she didn't like Dark Shadows. For my part, the classes were pointless to me. No vampires, no spooky music. I felt no motivation to keep it going, and abandoned it after maybe four sessions. The fact that I discerned no talent in myself didn't even cross my mind at the time.
My next foray into acting was something extremely easy called Readers' Theatre, sponsored by the church I currently attend. About eight years ago, I joined some co-congregants and participated in a couple of short productions. To give you an idea of the incredibly deep, religious significance of this, my "break-out role" was Sara the Skunk. Even with minimal lines and a completely non-threatening atmosphere, I managed to flub. Didn't derail the production in any way, but I felt the failure and the stress of it all, and finally realized that acting was not for me. I got the itch out of my system and thought that was that.
But this past summer I contacted a Facebook acquaintance and plonked down a bit of cash for some lessons. Why? I wanted to see if I could "fake it till I made it" and overcome some of my introverted awkwardness. At work, I have this tendency to hole up in my cubicle, do my work, and largely avoid conversations, because most of the time I never know what to say. My co-workers, meanwhile, love nothing better than to schmooze the day away (and the night, when company business takes everyone out to the ballgame, a bar, or a fancy downtown restaurant). I felt left out of the loop, and it was my own fault ... so I thought acting lessons might help me to overcome that.
But after 4 lessons, when the instructor recorded me reciting some dialogue and asked me to take it home and work on it, I suddenly discovered this deep longing to iron clothes, clean the bathtubs, and mend the curtains. Who'da thunk? Yeah, I'll get to the dialogue thing right after I... When I made that promise to myself for the 7th or 8th time in one day, I knew I'd defined my feelings about the class. Whatever I'd been looking for, I wasn't gonna find it at my friend's little studio. So I quit. Not on Facebook, not over the phone; I drove over there and told her in person. Fortunately, she was setting up lighting and getting a group together to work on something and had no time for heart-to-hearts or True Confession. So I got off easily. I soothed my awkward feelings with a trip to DQ.
So I thank Stephen King, who knows a thing or two about success. There is no dishonor in quitting. It's a whole lot better than not listening to yourself.