Learn Three Words And Find Joy In Your Writing
So this morning, Hunter Thompson gets on the Q train.
How do I know? He announces it to the whole subway car. “I’m Hunter Thompson,” he says. “I’m here to tell you: Buy the ticket. Take the ride.”
I tell myself: Don’t make eye contact.
We all stare down, except Subway Joe, a Q Train 8 AM regular, who has been staring down the front of his cotton t-shirt, admiring his washboard abs, since he got on at Prospect Park.
Subway Joe makes eye contact with Hunter. “Hey, man,” he says. “I thought your ashes were floating somewhere over Colorado.”
“Wrong.” Hunter chews on his cigar. “I’m back for a day to impart some wisdom to you fakers.” He waves his hand around. “All you wannabes. All you pretentious morons.” He takes out his cigar. “All you naval-gazers.” He points it at me. “Like you. You. An angst-ridden pimple on the Butt of Brooklyn. You, who can’t finish what you start.”
Subway Joe laughs out loud. Everyone else studies the speckles on the subway floor.
“You listening to me?” Hunter says. “Hey. Old Woman. Look at me.”
Sigh. I make eye contact.
“You listening?” Hunter says.
“You’re the one I came for,” he says. “Been talkin’ to your Dad.”
I see the ghost of my dear-departed father hovering over Hunter’s shoulder. It’s a shadowy outline, but I recognize him by his trademark frown of disapproval.
“Impossible,” I say. “Dad was a good Mormon right to the very end. There’s no way in hell that you and he are hanging out in the same place.”
Hunter snorts. A spray of something saturates a six-foot arc. “You have no clue,” he says. He flips his cigar at Subway Joe, who ducks. “I’m here to tell you that your father agrees with me: Buy The Damn Ticket. Take The Damn Ride.”
My dad, the Innocent. My dad, who never in his life read Hunter Thompson, and, if he had, would have been puzzled by Every. Single. Word.
“I’m sure my dad misunderstood your meaning,” I say.
“You wish, dish,” he says. “Scrape the wax out of your ears. Your dad’s been telling me that you never finish what you start. You’re undisciplined.” He blew a smoke ring at me to make his point.
“You’ve frittered away 70 years in an undisciplined haze of half-finished half-baked projects,” he said.
Now I really believe that my Dad’s been talking to him, wherever that is. I’ve heard these “half-finished half-baked” phrases before.
“I’m telling you: When you buy the kiln, you gotta throw the pots, then sell ’em. When you buy beads, make the necklace. Market ’em. When you write something, send it in. Get an agent. Sell it. Otherwise you wasted your time. Your problem is, you’ve never been able to discipline yourself to finish what you start. Take those beads for example.”
“Yes,” I say. “Why don’t we take the beads as an example?”
“Don’t be a smart-ass,” Hunter says. “You buy beads. You make one necklace. You don’t follow through with making jewelry. You quit. What a loser. You’ve wasted your time and money, plus, you have a house full of useless beads.”
Subway Joe speaks. “You came back from the dead just to rag on some old woman about wasting money on beads?”
Hunter shrugs. “I’m just the messenger.”
“Thank you,” I say, with the politeness and civility that’s been drilled into me all of my life. “Please tell Dad I miss him.”
“You lie.” He pulls out a soggy roach and waves it at me. “I’ve got a medical license for this.”
Subway Joe develops a fire in his eye. He leaps up. “Let’s go.”
The train pulls into Canal Street Station. It’s been a slow ride over the Manhattan Bridge, especially since Hunter is a bit smelly. When the door opens, every single occupant of the car rushes out, including Hunter and Subway Joe.
The doors start to close. Hunter sticks in his hand. “Remember. Buy the ticket. Take the ride.”
“OR NOT!” I scream. I can’t help myself.
I am the only person left in the car. On the way to Union Square, I conclude that the Message From The Other Side is not convincing.
Was that really Hunter Thompson, who managed to reconstitute himself from his ashes long enough to find a roach and deliver a “message?” On the other hand . . . . ?
This nonsense about never finishing. About being undisciplined. I’ve never had that problem. Those are my Dad’s words. My Dad (RIP) never understood that I don’t have to “finish what I start.” Because the pleasure of the DOING is in the DOING. Got that? My finish line is different than his finish line.
Get it? It’s the process, stupid.
Here’s where I digress. Here’s the money shot. Here’s where I also switch to past tense to tell you another story. I’ll be quick.
Years ago, I saw an extraordinary necklace in a shop window, made of strands of semi-precious stones.
Astoundingly beautiful. I generally don’t wear jewelry. It was expensive. But the way it was put together! I mean, it was a beautiful necklace.
I bought it. Took it apart. Reverse engineered it. Figured out how it was made. And then spent the next year happily tracking down the source of each of the stones in the necklace. And the wire. And etc. I went from bead shop to bead shop to find matching (authentic) stones. Real, not fake, lapis lazuli. Real red, not dyed, coral. Real freshwater peals, not synthetic stones with faux nacre veneer. And I duplicated it. And I was done.
Note: Did you know you can’t buy just one bead? You have to buy a strand. Over the course of that year (and a few others) I ended up with tens of thousands of beads. (They’re very tactile, you know. Depressed? Forget Wellbutrin; run your hands through a pile of cool, shiny agates).
My Dad: “Nice necklace. So now sell it. Make some more. You have the material. Start designing. Go to craft fairs. You’re an entrepreneur! You’ve got a product that’s going to sell! (Or publish. Or manufacture. Or produce). Make some money here.”
To Dad, if I didn’t monetize what I’d created, it was all for nothing. How many I sold determined how good I was. Experiences were measured by outcome, never process, which he saw only as a means to an end, which was some kind of tangible proof of your creativity.
That necklace design belonged to someone else. I wasn’t about to sell it. Rather, I quietly thanked whoever made it for teaching me something so incredible. I became a bead enthusiast. I didn’t have to sell anything. I found my pleasure in the process of making it.
Message to Dad: Contrary to what you told Hunter, I have plenty of discipline. When I lost the ’72 election in Hawaii, I couldn’t get a job. In desperation, I painted little canvases: Two rocks, two palms, one wave, and sold them by the side of the road. Thousands of rocks, palms, waves. I supported my family that way. That’s not creativity. That’s discipline. That’s called making a living. If that’s your destination, stick with it.
I was good at sales, promotion, marketing. I expanded the line. Did the craft fair circuits. Opened a gallery. Built a sizeable corporation around my images: calendars, cards, prints, posters, clothing, jewelry (made in China), perfume, and a complete line of children’s books, clothing and toys, complete with 2.5 hours of animation created on Macs — in 1990. (That’s another story).
But I spent my spare time starting “unfinished” projects. It drove everyone crazy. Like the time I decided to make all of the plates, cups and bowls for a family reunion. I bought a used wheel and kiln and figured it out. When I reached my goal — enough tableware for everyone — I was done. I never threw another pot.
Or my felting craze. I made the rounds of sheep farms and managed to snag a bag full of wool from a highly prized ewe, “Dolly,” who had a long waiting list for her curls. I learned to needle felting. Nuno felt. Spin. And I was done.
It took me a long time to turn off the nagging voices: Why don’t you finish what you start?
To figure out that the pleasure was in the process itself.
Fire up unused parts of my brain. Leave my comfort zone. Learn something new. Follow a new path. Discover Whatever. I didn’t have to be the world’s greatest jewelry designer. Or pot-thrower. Or glass-blower. I set my own finish line, and had great fun along the way.
Someone else’s “finish line” may be to sell a thousand necklaces.
Or publish a novel.
Or get the most Likes.
If that’s their goal, fine. It doesn’t have to be yours. Your creativity is not defined by sales, publication, likes, craft fairs or accolades. You get to pick your finish line.
These days I teach songwriting classes in Baltimore and DC. Talented folks of all ages arrive, saying they want to learn to write a hit song. Surprise: They don’t like what I teach. “ You’re wrong about song length,” they tell me. “ I saw on TV that a hit song HAS to be 3 minutes and 30 seconds.” Or some nonsense.
They’re in it to make it big and make a billion.
One fellow came in sounding like John Prine. His goal was to be another John Prine. I suggested he find his own voice. Go deep into that voice. Don’t sit down to write a hit song. Sit down for the pleasure of writing a song. His song.
Epic meltdown. “Why are we doing this? I’ll never use this stupid song again. I spent hours working on it. I can’t sell it. I can’t send it to agents. What a waste of my time, writing stupid stuff that has no purpose. I want to learn to write HIT songs like John Prine.”
I tell my students what I tell myself: Write (or do anything creative) for the satisfaction of rolling words around in your head and letting them trickle down to your fingers and onto the page. Write for the sheer joy of getting it right, of finding the true rhyme, the scansion, the rhythm. Write to find characters, to craft, to edit, to sculpt, to tell stories. Write to figure out your life. Write until eight hours go by and you look up and don’t know where you are. Write or create because you can’t NOT write or create.
One more time for the road: Don’t fall for the myth that the measure of your creativity is in its monetization, publication, or exterior adoration. The affirmation of your creativity is in the sheer joy of creating.
It’s the process, stupid.
Screen-shoot this cartoon, print, cut it out, and tape it to your computer:
The Q train pulls into Union Square. I sit in the park and watch a terrible juggler have a good time trying to juggle. Good for you, Juggler.
If you see Hunter or your Dad, or hear a million other Voices of Doom and Guilt — kick them off your train.They’re not going where you’re going.
You were the one who bought the ticket. You get to take the ride. And if you’re The Designated Angst-Ridden Pimple On The Butt of Brooklyn (which I shall not illustrate), you get to pick your destination.
(Note: This is my first Medium post. If you liked it, or even barely tolerated it, clap. I’m sure there are Mistakes Galore. Tough titty. I’m 70. I’m allowed mistakes. I had a good time writing it, and that’s what’s important. And remember: Perfection is the Enemy of Production. But that’s another story).
For more, go to www.dianahansenyoung.com. There’s a link to free art downloads. I give my stuff away. You don’t even have to leave your email. Or your first-born.