Here’s the scene. It’s early on a Sunday evening on a Fourth of July weekend. On a community built around a lake, in houses built by doctors and lawyers and captains of local industry. Boats fill the water. People eat and play Frisbee and badminton and drive around the boats, waiting for the sun to go down and the fireworks to come.
This is the setting I was in last night as I sat with my son and listened to my 13 year old nephew play an 8 song set with his punk band (nephew on guitar and vocals, a bassist/keyboardist/vocalist, and a drummer – playing under the name Last In Line – the perfect moniker for a band made up of 13 year-olds). They were having great fun ripping through their original songs, much to the delight of a handful of 13 year-old girls who were watching them.
My son commented that all the songs they were writing were simplistic love songs, the “Oh Gwendolyn, won’t you go out with me?” type. I said that this was because at 13, they had a blinkered view of the world, and this was all they knew about, especially with the type of music they were probably listening to. Since they were listening to Green Day type punk, this type of love song was probably their entire frame of reference. “Once they get some more experience in life,” I said, “they’ll start writing different types of songs.”
At this point my son decided to give me a hard time. He said, “Their dads didn’t say, ‘Hey son, try listening to some Kate Bush.'” Then he pointed to the band. “See, Dad, I could have been normal!”
(In my defense, I didn’t make him listen to Kate Bush. He heard her during the normal cycle of my listening and latched on to her. I think he still has my Kate Bush CD’s at his house…)
Toward the end of their set, something interesting happened. A police officer turned up and asked them to turn it down. Some neighbor with no sense of humor or festivity had called the cops on the fledgling band. From the look on the officer’s face, he was really amused that the racket was coming from three junior-high kids. If I might read too much into the situation, I think he might have even been chagrined about having to make the visit, considering the sounds of merriment that were drifting in from all over the lake.
I told my son, “This is the greatest thing that could happen to them. Now they can go out and write their first ‘let’s stick it to The Man’ type song.”
Indeed, Last In Line must have sensed this. The drummer came forward and, after turning down the volume, said “We want to dedicate this next song to the people who called the cops on us.” And they proceeded to play Iggy Pop’s American Idiot (which they obviously learned about via Green Day).
My point in recounting this – besides the fact that it’s going into the annals of one of my great Fourth of July memories – is that, while writers have been successful through shutting themselves off from the world (the sickly, tuburcular Edgar Allen Poe did more to define the tenor of modern fiction than anyone else), the world is also full of Ernest Hemingways who went out and lived life on the edge. Which is better – to retreat into the imagination, or to go out and experience life and use it as fodder for your fiction? Well, I know which one would give you more time to write and which one would give you more of that pleasing adrenaline rush that some folks seem to crave.
I also know that finding the right balance means treading the line between being a success who never did much of anything, and being someone who had lots of life adventures, yet never did something that they always wanted to do, which was write about it all.
The trick is to find your balance. Being a successful recluse might be a great image, but it’s also a cliche. Get out in the sun and darken that pale goth skin a little. Being an adrenaline junkie is also a great writer’s image. And cliche. Unless your time is spent in finding the next fix instead of thinking about what your many experiences have meant to you.
Find the balance. Tread the tightrope. That’s the greatest rush of all.
Listening: Elvis Costello, “Accidents Will Happen” (via iTunes shuffle play)
Correction: I just happened to see a TV Bio of Green Day yesterday and learned that American Idiot is an original song by Green Day. I must have been confused by Iggy naming his albums American Caesar and The Idiot.