Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Selling my Guitar

I was talking to a group of kids, parents and teachers recently (and lovely it was too) promoting The Poison Boy.  Their questions were at once engaging, unexpected (“What kind of car do you drive?”) and direct. On the spot like that, there’s no time to think – I just answered. Here’s a sample exchange which surprised me; not the question so much as my response. One lad asked, “What most helped you become a writer?” and I answered, “Selling my guitar.”

Bizarre. I hadn’t thought of that old thing – a Gibson Epiphone – for ages. I’d forgotten all about getting rid of it. I stuck it on Gumtree two years ago and a guy with plasters on his fingers and dubious personal hygiene arrived, strummed it in my front room for a bit and handed over the forty quid. After he’d gone I had to open all the windows.

I’d bought it just after university when I was in a band called – depending on the week – Idiot Jukebox, My Fat Friend, Barson, Stepford Robinson or The Cup of Tea. Most of my creative energy was channelled into song writing and the quality of outcome was, ahem, variable. Though, once we sent a demo off to Cog Sinister and I got a call back asking whether the band could support The Fall on their upcoming ‘Middle Class Revolt’ tour. I was so terrified I bungled the call; went mute – blew it. Progress was generally glacial and that phone call, taken one evening in my tiny flat on Northen Grove, was the closest we ever came to any kind of success.

But ten years later I still had the guitar and I still played a few old songs now and again. “Selling my guitar”, though. Why that? All of us have dabbled before; it’s a quality of childhood – the skateboard, the skis, the fishing rods and tackle collecting dust in the garage or attic. We are encouraged by our education system, by friends, by parents, to get quite good at twenty different things rather than expert at one.

Recently I was reading Neil Gaiman’s ‘Make Good Art’ speech, a commencement address to the students of The University of the Arts, and was struck by his frank admission: “I escaped from school as soon as I could, when the prospect of four more years of enforced learning before I'd become the writer I wanted to be was stifling.” Here was a guy with tunnel vision. No dabbling from Mr Gaiman. He goes on to say, “I had a list I made when I was 15 of everything I wanted to do: to write an adult novel, a children's book, a comic, a movie, record an audiobook, write an episode of Doctor Who... and so on. I didn't have a career. I just did the next thing on the list.”

There, succinctly, is the reason I sold my guitar. I didn’t have the courage or maturity to know it at fifteen, but at least I do now.

So clear out your cupboards, people! You ain’t ever getting any better at cross-stitch or watercolours. Put that trombone on e-bay; sell your saxophone to a smelly stranger. Ditch all the paraphernalia of the dabbler and dedicate yourself to the pen and paper.

Then, in the words of Gaiman, just do “the next thing on the list.”

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