Most great writers aren’t great successes, as the world counts success. Write anyway.
A few weeks ago* my son and I drove down to Richmond to see Americana singer-songwriter Caleb Caudle, a guy I’d heard only on the Internet. He is living the typical musician’s life, friending fans on Facebook, recording and releasing music on his own, and driving from gig to gig. He was playing on a bill with two other awesome, up-and-coming songwriters, John Moreland and Aaron Lee Tasjan. The three had been touring the east coast in a van, and the show started an hour late because the thing had broken down on the way.
They played for nearly two hours to an enthusiastic if thin crowd—there were twenty of us there, maybe, and only some of us had come to see these guys on purpose, the rest having drifted in from the restaurant attached to the showroom.
How little known are these guys? They stood in the back joking with each other before the show, less a magnet for attention than an impediment between you and the men’s room. That’s another way to say that as these men are doing great work, their daily remuneration is a few bucks each and another all-night ride in a broken-down van.
But what a show! The songwriting was smart and sharp, and superior to the lion’s share of better-known artists. I’d rather hear their stuff than nearly anything by the millionaires on the radio.
As those three watch their peers enjoy big-dollar contracts and People magazine profiles, they must nurse a nugget of doubt. It’s hard to believe that you’re amazing when the spoils end up between somebody else’s (often less talented) hands. It’s true across the arts. After my friend, Torian Hughes, a peerless comedian, moved to LA from our clutch of open-mic friends in Nashville, he told us the first lesson he learned there: This is the only place where you can be told every day you’re a genius and starve to death.
It’s true for writers like you and me, too. Sometimes the best jobs go to the boss’ niece, or somebody the manager would like to go out with. (“Go out with.” Let’s use that quaint –ism for the sake of the spam filter.) Sometimes the person who’s doing the hiring wouldn’t recognize a good writer if he arrived with a Pultizer under one arm and a scrum of literature groupies behind. And sometimes you never even get a chance to pitch yourself, anyway.
Thing is, there are more great writers than there are great jobs and accolades. Even stunning talent ends up less often with a corner office in a high rise than in the window seat in the van to Richmond.
Quality is the most under-recognized thing in the world.
The joy of being a writer must come from your satisfaction with the work, not from the applause of others. Dr. Johnson said only a blockhead would write for anything but money, but he had it exactly backward: Only a blockhead would think money’s the point.
The writing life is the thing. You’re almost certainly a better writer than the world seems to be telling you. Don’t let your professional position undermine your self-worth.
(And, hey, support live music, mkay? Buy a track or two from these guys!)
* This column appeared in slightly different form in June 2015. I’m pleased to report these musicians have all grown considerably more successful since then.
This is a condensed version of the keynote speech he delivered at Magdalen College at Oxford for a speechwriting seminar in March.