As the writing guru at the small college where I last worked, I attended summer orientation for new students. During one session, the academic dean made the mistake of saying that sometimes students fail—not necessarily flunking a course, but simply not doing well—and that this was not the end of the world. Of course, several of the parents became indignant. They weren’t paying all that money, they made clear, for their children to fail; learning to them meant always succeeding. And I realized that a setting influenced by those expectations could never be more than a fantasy world.
But I’ve spent too much of my life expecting the same from myself. I think of the hours, weeks, years I’ve wasted not writing, not running, not loving, not learning because it might not turn out well, because I might be crappy at it.
I thought about that this evening while playing my electronic piano keyboard. I bought the keyboard during one of those moments that everyone with a Costco membership experiences eventually. While shopping for something else—groceries, batteries, who knows?—I found myself staring at the $450 keyboard, complete with stand and bench. For years, I had been threatening Dutch, my long suffering wife, with the idea of getting a piano and picking up where I left off during my single year of lessons at age 14. I called Dutch on my mobile.
A perfectly reasonable response from her would have been, “So you want to spend about $450 bucks to bring home an instrument you were mediocre on 40 years ago? And I’m going to have to listen to you practice? I don’t think so.”
Instead, she said, “That’s okay, if you really want it. We can afford it.” Of course it didn’t hurt that, since this was an electronic keyboard, it came with earphone and a plug-in jack to prevent anyone else from hearing when I played.
I brought it home, and at first my decision looked like a bust. Following a flurry of music-book purchases, and tortured attempts to work my way through them, I realized how far I actually was from playing music. Within two months, I was barely sitting down at the keyboard at all. Periodically, I’d look at it guiltily, consider practicing, then walk away, discouraged. Weeks and months slid by in which my rear and the bench never met. Then, at some point, I got tired of looking at the keyboard sitting silently there. I decided that I was probably never going to be any good, but I also decided that if I kept working at it, I would almost certainly get better. Most importantly, I decided that “better,” whatever that level ended up looking like, was okay.
Now, you won’t see me posting tour dates any time soon. But I slowly learned more and more chords, and I can play actual songs. I even enjoy improvising and have reached the point where Dutch has actually asked me to play. But the real payoff is that after 15 or 30 minutes of noodling around on the key board, I always feel better. The same thing happened when I took up running again nine years ago. I resigned myself to spending the rest of my life as a tortoise-like plodder, but I decided I didn’t mind. Five years and many races later, I had gotten back a part of myself I didn’t know I missed.
We hear so much, these days, about the need to be exceptional, innovative, exciting, engaging, successful. But we’ve lost the virtue of being crappy. I don’t mean crappy because you aren’t putting in any effort. I mean the kind of crappy that comes at the end of working hard, putting in the time, and still ending up an also-ran. I saw it for years in students who believed that if they couldn’t excel they weren’t going to try. And I’ve seen it in myself as a writer.
I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions, but I’ve set 2015 as my year to be more sincerely crappy. To spend time working earnestly to produce more, even if a good bit of it doesn’t set the world on fire. It probably won’t be anything I’ll show to others, but I’ll know that I’m striving, however that striving turns out. I’ve finally realized that, paradoxically, if I’m not spending at least some of my life producing crap, I’m probably not trying hard enough.
I’ve already made a start. The other day, at Ikea, we bought a sewing machine. I’ve never put down a stitch before in my life; I can’t wait.