Fate, Karma and Writer’s Block
God is not finished making you when the doctor spanks your ass. This is something I have learned over 50 years on this earth, which is remarkable since I am only 28 years old. Life continues the process of making you who you were meant to become until the day you die. If you are open to it. When I was in the 4th grade, I remember reading a little story in our 4th-grade reader, “From Coins to Captains” (huh?) about a family who lived on a farm. The son, who was also in 4th grade, had raised himself a peach tree and was quite confident that he was going to win first prize in the county fair with his nice, sweet peaches. But then, as they are wont to do, his 5-year-old sister thought that she would help him by picking the peaches. Sadly, she fell off the ladder and impaled herself on a huge running chainsaw that her Aunt Hilda was using to trim branches off the tree. Actually I just made that up. Instead, she picked all the peaches she could reach, well before they were ripe. And the boy was grief-stricken; his precious peaches! He was ruined! But wouldn’t you know, when the county fair came around, the peaches that were left at the top of the tree had gotten all the resources that the low-hanging fruit would have used up, and were now the size of basketballs, thus winning him the coveted blue ribbon in the county fair.
One of my favorite things about Buddhist philosophy is the idea that nothing is “good” or “bad”, rather that everything just is, and labeling a situation as one or the other is the beginning of an unnecessary struggle with it, an effort to conform it to some model that keeps us from seeing it clearly and dealing with it for what it really is. Things get loaded down by this effort and we end up trying to solve a problem that’s really just our own errant spin on what actually is. When I first started trying to write music, I was an absolute study in paralysis. I had listened to so much music either weeping buckets of tears, or feeling like I was at the top of the world’s greatest carnival ride, or anywhere in between, that I had developed a completely impossible standard to write to. Each little phrase or turn of harmony I wrote had to simultaneously make the listener sob hysterically as they reflected on their dear old deceased grandma, yet squeal with exuberant joy like they were surfing in Hawaii, experience a state of existential nothingness while simultaneously feeling the oneness of the brotherhood of man, all the while pondering at once both their own inevitable, tragic death and their cheerful satisfaction at having bought my music for only $9.95. It had to sing like Jim Hall, yet rock like Eddie Van Halen. On and on. I had defined composition for myself as a kind of Himalayan expedition. And thus did it once take me 6 weeks of sustained effort to excrete about two and a half minutes worth of music. I’m not joking. If every aspect of what I was writing wasn’t 100% of what I knew was possible from all the music that had touched me over the years, I couldn’t continue. But having endowed me with both an ability to write and a reason to be paralyzed, God finally looked down and said “Christ, that head-tripping S.O.B is never gonna make me anything”. Well, maybe not “Christ”. And so he sent me a soap opera and a baby.
When my wife and I found out we were going to have our first son, Ryan, I knew it was going to be time to get off the road where I’d made most of my living for 10 years, completely at first, and substantially even later. This looked like a pretty serious pruning of my career in music, but I’d fully expected it and considered it a great and necessary tradeoff. I’d been in touch with David Nichtern, who was the head writer for “As the World Turns”, for a couple years and had managed to slide a few soap cues past my hangups and get them into the rotation where I’d figured out that they made pretty good money. But now it was time to get serious about making a good living without the road work, and I got back in touch with David and he welcomed me to write as much as I wanted. And it turns out that the beauty of this situation, as a real inflection in my life, was that the soaps paid by the minute used on the air. Get them to play more minutes of your music, and you’d make more money. So go ahead and spend 6 months writing a soap cue that would make Thomas Newman cry. It’ll make some money, sure. But write 40 cues in that 6 months, even if Thomas Newman would only yawn at them, and you’d make a lot more money. It was a totally commercial, minutes-for-dollars setup. And it was exactly what I needed to grow as an artist. So began my experiment with “about 80%”. I wrote, and I wrote, and I wrote some more. And as I worked with it in spite of my paralysis, I got in a habit of framing things in and getting them to about 80% and moving on while I was still in gear and had my momentum going. In the process, I got to where I understood how my composer’s brain worked, what my 80% sounded like, and what it took to get me past 80%. And as I got my bearings as a writer, I fell off of being incredibly critical of my writing and instead began wishing myself well as I wrote. And what I learned was that if I got something to 80% and then moved on to another aspect of the piece, that I developed enough perspective on the cue that I could come back and do another 80% on that 20% that remained. And once it was at 96%, I could see 100% just over the horizon. I did the whole thing figuring “well, at least it’ll be good enough for the soaps”, but the truth is that by relaxing in that way, I was able to do a lot of great work for them and never actually did turn in a piece I didn’t feel really good about (see below for a player featuring several of my soap cues). It didn’t make sense to get these cues to the level where I’d put them on a CD, and they were expressly background music, but damned if I didn’t get to where I knew myself well enough to understand how to marshal my resources to get some 300 really good cues out the door, in the process doing so much exploring and gaining enough experience that I can sit down and pretty reliably get a flow going and write a very nice piece of music in an hour or two. There are several tunes on Drew Zingg’s recent CD, for example, that I wrote in about an hour; we needed some music and I thought “let me just start something” and with no real expectations, no defining it as anything other than an experiment, and no “benchmark” to hit, off it went, unencumbered and directed by nothing other than where each piece told me it ought to go. The best thing about the whole process is that what was my old 100% is now about the equivalent of my current 20%.
And so at the ripe old age of 40, through an event that should have been pretty well unrelated, did life take a rasp and put some contours on an chunk of me that had sat unfinished since the doctor slapped my ass in 1962. I didn’t finally get over it by brute force, I didn’t get a Ph.D in it, I didn’t really toil away on it until I got on top of it, I didn’t Google it, I didn’t get surgery for it, and I think that if I had found a way to force it through by will, the music I make would sound like the fruit of toil, or like a mental exercise. Far from me “beating it”, the solution to my hangup just came alongside me and took the reins, with a little help from divinity and kharma, while my attention was focussed on one of the most beautiful things that ever happened to me. And in there is a lesson that’s very nice for me to learn at my age. The Buddhists say that nothing is simply good or evil, rather always some sort of a mix of both, and similarly I find that everything is also a mix of the expected and the totally unexpected, what you intend and what fate, or God, intends for you. Kahlil Gibran writes, in “The Prophet”: “As love is for your growth, so is it also for your pruning.” And at some points in our lives, I think a timely pruning is exactly what we need.
Cues from “As the World Turns”: