“If you build it, they will come.”
The whispers of Kevin Costner’s cornfield ghosts are not pearls of secret wisdom: if you build it, they might come. They might not. Especially if you don’t tell anybody about it. To get to the truth in those whispers, season them with some negatives: if you don’t build it, they can’t come. You will never get anything published if you do not complete your manuscript. You will never get in better shape without actually doing the exercise.
All the to-do lists in the world won’t change that.
Seventeen years ago, in a rental car somewhere in Appalachia, I told my grandmother I wanted to be a writer. That was my plan. I went to college with that plan, happy to be an English major and mix creative writing with literature courses. I wrote for the school weekly. I put (my) poems up on the wall outside my dorm room. I wore a lot of black.
And then I signed up for a second semester of music theory to secure reduced-price trombone lessons. Even though I kept wearing black, I was soon spending most of my time in the music department. I still took my English courses, and I still enjoyed them. The intersection between words and music fascinated me. I concocted an honors project that involved writing a piece for orchestra, accompanied by a longish narrative poem. I hadn’t given up on being a writer, but I was busy being a composer.
If I had been a little less confident in my writing, things might have been different. As it was, I convinced myself that pursuing graduate work in English was wrong. I hated picking apart literary works; it felt like vivisecting a bird and being dismayed that it no longer flew. I did not think I would get much from an MFA beyond the time to simply write. (Never mind that I was and continue to be interested in the kind of writing usually dismissed as genre fiction, which was not exactly popular in the academy.) No, if I was going to learn something, it would be by pursuing further study in music composition.
That lasted about six weeks. I missed writing papers. I found the pragmatic questions composers asked about music shallow. (I was 22. I thought a lot of things were shallow.) I switched from composition to a dual degree in composition and music history. I got to write papers again. I got to research the esoteric questions that interested me. Meanwhile, I kept composing. I wrote some music that I still like almost ten years later. I was not writing a lot of prose, though, and poetry had pretty much fallen out of my life until I had to concoct a libretto for my thesis composition. By the time I started my doctorate, my work was about performance and theory and sociology, not about words.
I became a scholar, and that conversation in the rental car fell away.
I have spent most of the last seven years of my life taking care of my kids and working on a Ph.D. in musicology. The former gave me perspective on the latter. Maybe a little too much perspective, because I could not make myself obsessed with my research. (I eventually managed to foster an obsession with getting it done, which proved much more fruitful.)
The writing never went away, not really. I’ve written constantly for games, started but not finished a pair of novels, and continued to live with words. Academics live with words a bit differently, but I think that I am mostly finished with being an academic. I’m ready to get back to writing, really writing…writing the stories I care about, the poems that catch in my mind’s ear, about the way that favorite authors have kept me going.
So here I am trying to build something. Thanks for coming. I hope I do my job well enough to draw you back.
Keep writing, Josh. It’s a good thing.