Things become totems.
Banal, routine things take on significance out of any legitimate proportion to what they actually are. I deal with death fairly frequently in my job and I’ve seen family members, crushed with grief, find some sliver of solace in a book Gammie read to them when they were four-years old, or in a lawn mower their father used every Sunday afternoon and from which they could still smell not only freshly-mown grass but grape Kool-Aid and store-bought chocolate chip cookies.
Recently, I got a check for a story I’d written and sold a few years ago. It had been long enough ago that I sort of forgot I hadn’t yet been paid. The business end of writing was never my best thing so when the check arrived, it was quite a pleasant surprise. I set the thing on my desk and promised self I’d get to it in a bit.
But during that ‘in a bit,’ period, something I’d lost years ago came back to me.
My life, were one to read the unwritten autobiography, would have two overall arcs: literature and music. Those have been the obelisks, a personal Easter Island, that have stood tall over my days (20,535 days, in fact, as of the day I’m writing this).
Construction began on those obelisks in my pre-history and continued in the time before I have memory. My mother read incessantly and loved music and those loves carried down to me. I’ve written endlessly about Mama’s library but her music was always there, too. It was the early ’70s so it was funk and soul, symphonic, a little blues: Eugene Ormandy, the O’Jays Live In London, Lou Rawls on the radio.
This was my every day and I grew up fueled by the breadth of their emotion and the depth of their critical thought. I not only read, as so many people do, but I also wrote, as fewer people do. I not only listened to music, as so many people do, but I also played, as fewer people do. I played in school bands, in choir pop groups, in orchestras, in jazz bands and rock bands, in a metal band, in a drum corps, in percussion ensembles and marching drum lines, even in a wind ensemble once.
In fact, up until I moved to Denver in 1992, playing music was one of the most important things in my life. But it was also in Denver that playing began to fade behind writing. I played in a band or two, played with an orchestra a few times, but then, like west Texas rain evaporating before it hits the ground, it all just…dissipated.
Life became real in Denver. A mortgage, bills, real jobs. I became an adult but one with a desire to hit the bestseller list. Yet not only was writing not supporting me, it wasn’t even supporting itself, so working all day to pay those bills meant, by definition, writing at night.
I wrote fiercely. I wrote and wrote and focused on publishing. When I got published, I focused on larger, more prestigious publications. When I published in those, my focused changed to novels, to plays, to poetry, to essays. There were also conferences, readings three or four times a week with national and international authors, two different writers’ workshop groups, and constant reading to learn how other writers did it.
The point being that my entire life, beginning in junior high school (the time when I discovered both writing and playing) had been a balance of writing and playing but in Denver, that balance changed. It was a place of transition: me consumed into being an adult and my free time consumed into being a writer.
Understand, I never stopped listening to music, or buying music, or attending concerts, or piddling away at drums or guitar alone in my basement, but I did stop playing writ large because everything became bedrock to being a writer.
While it was Denver where the balance I’d had in my life changed, it was also in Denver that I started to have success. In June, 1994, I sold my first story to an Irish speculative magazine Albedo-One. After Denver, when I moved to north-central Illinois and got a job with a pension and health care and a company car, I continued to have success as a writer, though it was success writ small.
It was short stories ‘sold’ to markets that hardly paid, if at all, and novels ‘sold’ to publishers who offered almost zero marketing support or those who waffled between publishing only a few titles every year to make each title something special or publishing scads of hardly-readable books in order to flood the market and pick up random sales.
It was in that context that, while working on a new short novel a few months ago, I realized I had no idea what was supposed to happen next and that even if I did know, I didn’t care. I hated the story, the setting, the characters, the color, the pacing. Everything about that novel drove me bananas.
Except it wasn’t that particular novel, nor was it writing generally. What I had come to hate was writing fiction and, more so, trying so hard and desperately to sell that fiction. The world of publishing fiction, and trying to hyper-aggrandize one’s self to sell everywhere to everyone, had turned me into a zombie.
That realization had been a long time coming, and in the months preceeding it, I longed to play music again. I longed to be in an ensemble, part of something larger, that would move my soul as playing had done in Midland and Lubbock and even in Denver.
Perhaps those two things were connected, perhaps not, but regardless, I walked away from fiction. Set it aside, and immediately felt a lightness of soul I hadn’t felt in years. Then I hooked up with the Illinois Valley Symphony Orchestra, and even before I’d finished my first rehearsal, I felt the stirrings of who I had once been.
I had, in the course of just a few months, transitioned again.
Which brings us to the totem.
The check I’d set on my desk with a vague promise to deposit it soon.
I realized, when I stood in JC Penny, buying a new black suit for the IVSO concerts, that the suit was going to cost almost exactly what the check had been.
A totem. Something simple, an every day thing, that symbolized fleeing fiction for music. The last of my fiction writing was going to pay for the first of my music playing. The issue of Black Cat Mystery Magazine that had what could well be my last sold fiction was published a few weeks before my first concert with IVSO.
That check symbolized that transition.