Sitting in a hole-in-the-wall pizza place, I was mid-interview with a singer I’d heard in the East Village and wanted to know more about. He had an interesting look that photographed well but his bristly baritone is what really caught my attention. I’d learned about his early introduction into music and what fueled his love of songwriting, then near the end of our conversation I asked where he’d like to go next. He had a puzzled look on his face and he squinted as if he was looking into the sun. Cocking his head, he exhaled, “I have no idea.”
“So you’re open for whatever’s next,” I offered, always hunting for the positive spin. He shook his head.
“No. I know what I want, I just don’t know how to get it.”
He’d spent all of his money on a crudely produced EP of four original songs he hoped to shop to record labels and that was after weeks of sleepless nights practicing to get the guitar licks just right and that was after years of training, classes and learning from experience during performances. Now, he was stalled. He didn’t know what the next step was to get noticed. He had the EP, the vocal chops and was singing in any venue that would let him, yet he was completely stagnant.
Many artists I’ve met don’t have a problem knowing where they want to end up; the problem lies in not knowing how to get there. I understand the feeling. Often, knowing what you want but not seeing a path to execution feels like being in a plane that’s delayed once it’s already in the air, circling aimlessly, waiting for someone to give you the go-ahead to make a move.
Some creative fields offer a loose roadmap of sorts. Take musical theatre performers for instance. For most, they start by booking parts in non-union productions, which hopefully leads them to being a part of the union, which then allows them to be seen for parts that might pay more, might be in bigger theaters, or may even be on Broadway. To be fair to each of those artists’ individual process, I’m aware this is a wild generalization of “making it” as a song-and-dance performer, but at least there’s a loose, pencil-drawn map of what might lead you to the success you’re looking for. For other artists, like this songwriter I was interviewing, no blueprint exists and he watched as sub-par amateur singers on YouTube amassed millions of views and were signed to subsequent record deals while his videos were hardly watched. He was sitting on a dream, fully capable, fully present and fully available for the follow-through, but was stalled completely.
I’m a writer. It’s the gift by which I self-identify. At some point during my day, every day, I write. It’s like prayer; it’s something I have to do daily in order to stay connected to myself and to God, my gift-giver. But that in no way means writing comes easily. For me, writing is like a cosmic game of Scrabble where half the blocks are upside down and the other half are Zs and Qs. It’s a puzzle I have to daily fight to unlock; an escape room with very few clues. At my roots, I’m a wrestler, but rather than wrestling a sweaty dude in a Bayside High singlet, I wrestle with words and phrases and colloquialisms and run on sentences. And I live for the challenge. That’s the part I love and that’s the part that brings me fulfillment. That fulfillment takes place before I even consider what to do with it once it’s complete. Sure, I have a laundry list of goals and dreams just like any other artist and sometimes I also feel stalled and stuck. What’s the next step? How do I get there? What’s the right outlet to pitch to? Does my pitch letter make sense? Not being YouTube fake-famous, or reality show fake-famous or any other form of fake-famous that exists in our cultural landscape, it’s difficult to pry open the door to get a finger, much less a foot, in.
The problem with this is when I become so preoccupied with the “next step” part of the gift that I forget the gift entirely. I see an author talking to the gals on The View and I think, I’d love to do that, or I see the posters in the window of a bookstore for book signings and I think, That’d be super cool. That leads my mind to wander the bendy road my imagination carves: Book signings and interviews and paychecks and paying off student loans and buying an apartment and writing about my lavish journey around the world which then leads to more signings and interviews and guest columns and so on and so on. I have to remind myself that while my daydream might spiral to all of those places, none of which are negative things in any way, that’s not why I write.
The way I see it, it’s not about acclaim or money; it’s about the release of what’s been gifted to you. If these gifts and talents are actually gifts, then their intention is to be given to someone else, not holed up inside us like good boots that never leave the closet shelf. How arrogant of us to assume they’re only for us to know and experience. We are meant to give those things to others and by not doing so, we are both selfish and ungrateful. We’re also incredibly foolish for wasting what little time we have on this earth allowing our gifts lay dormant or hoarding them for ourselves.
So like the man who stands at the exit of the Columbus Circle subway stop, incessantly handing out flyers while repeating “Jesus is coming” to the river of New Yorkers going to work, I keep writing. Even on the days when my well practically echoes because it’s so dry, I put words on a page for as long as I can. If I’m going to call myself a writer then I will write, regardless of the outcome. And to be transparent, I don’t know what the outcome will be. I don’t know that it will ever include a book deal, corporate optioning, author talks with great reporters, or signing copies at a Barnes and Noble before they head to the half price bin. But I keep writing. Even in the stalled moments, I keep writing.
Writing is what I know to do to exercise the thoughts, feelings, stories and ideas that are inside of me. I write because when I do, I feel the flow of those thoughts and feelings. They start somewhere in my chest, make their way up to my heart and my brain and then out through my fingers and onto this page. That flow of creative energy inside of me is the same as plugging in a phone with a dead battery and watching it illuminate back to life. That’s what I feel when I write and I’d continue to do so even if the only people who ever read it were those I had to bribe with a free dinner. The deep parts of me cry out to be explored and transmitted outward, and excavating those parts feels great and feels natural.
The singer I interviewed who felt stalled remained that way. A few months after the interview, I checked his Facebook music page to see if he had any new music I could help promote. What I was met with was the reality that he’d given up. He’d been mired by the next unknown next step to the point he lost the joy in his art. My artist’s heart broke for him and I made a decision to never allow myself to become a victim of the same fate. My gift is writing, something I love and would do even if you weren’t reading this. Maybe your gift is different. Maybe it’s not and you’re a better writer than I am. If that’s the case, send me a link to your stuff so I can learn from and celebrate you. Along with the knowledge that I don’t know what’s next, I also know that I don’t know much at all. I will remain a perpetual freshman when it comes to writing; wandering wide-eyed through the limitless expanse of others’ learned skills, techniques and articulations, trying to soak up and learn as much as I can.
So write. Or sing. Or dance. Or organize. Or clean up. Or instruct. Or edit. Or apply. Or bake. Just do something that makes you feel that transmission of creative energy, do it well, then share it. Allow your gifts, whatever they may be, to feel substantive and important, regardless of the “what’s next” outcome. You owe it to yourself and to your gift-giver to stay connected to the things that make you feel most alive.