Gifted

Andee takes marching to her own drummer quite literally.  Photo credit:  Colleen Dommerque.

Andee takes marching to her own drummer quite literally. Photo credit: Colleen Dommerque.

Remember that creativity is a tribal experience and that tribal elders will initiate the gifted youngsters who cross their path.

–Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way

Gifted. What a forty-quadzillion megaton stinkbomb of a word. (Don’t hold back, Andee, tell ’em how you really feel.) When I read The Artist’s Way some 20 years ago, the quote above festooned itself to my punctured ego and wouldn’t leave. I was on the verge of not being a “youngster” any longer (although of course such things are relative), and no one who knew what they were doing had offered to “initiate” me, or teach me the ropes. In fact, they never did. Therefore, I drew the conclusion that I was not “gifted” enough to justify taking myself seriously as an artist.

Now, it’s very possible that Ms. Cameron did not intend to invoke that reaction in readers; her book, after all, is all about overriding the old tapes that tell us we aren’t good enough to make anything that matters. But in those days I pretty much ate self-help books (warning: these will permanently mulch your metabolism), one after another after another, because I was starved for answers about why I had to be so weird and difficult, and where someone like me could possibly belong. And all the books I read about creativity, and all the workshops and meetings and therapists I want to, suggested that it was all about finding mentors, people who had done what you wanted to do and would show you the way, and that if you had talent it would be a snap to find them.

Here’s the problem: no one was doing what I was actually good at. In my coffeehouse days, there was one song I did that was a crowd-pleaser, and I performed it while drumming the back of my guitar. (I had seen a folk singer do this in New York some time in the mid-80s; his name escapes me.) For once, I wasn’t fumbling around with strings and tripping over my own chord changes, trying to play acoustic guitar when I hadn’t the fine motor smoothness for it. Drumming is largely gross-motor stuff, and I could, just by drumming on a guitar back, or bongos, or whatever, sing this song and it was so infectious that people would spontaneously start singing and clapping along to it even if they’d never heard it before. It was awesome. Too awesome, because I had no idea how to repeat that success.

If only a Tribal Elder had crossed my path and said, “Chuck that silly-ass guitar and load up on every percussion instrument you can get, you’re a frigging drummer and percussionist at heart. Those people clapping are trying to tell you something. You’re trying to fight your own instincts and what your hands and your mind actually want to be doing.” But it never happened. So all I was left to was what some people in Twelve-Step Programs refer to as the Shitty Committee, or (on the West Coast of the U.S.) the radio station K-FKD (pronounced “kay-fucked”); in other words, the inner voices of doom that would seize upon any possible evidence that I was terrible and beat me over the head with it. And the Shitty Committee told me that song was a one-shot deal, a fluke, anyone can come up with one decent song in their lives.

Let me tell you something: when I wrote that song, I didn’t go anywhere near a guitar. I formed the rhythm from my bare feet hitting the kitchen linoleum as I walked. You’re not supposed to write songs that way! But when I tried to write the “right” way, based on chords played on a guitar or piano, I would run into the limitations caused by my lack of facility on those instruments. I told myself I wasn’t disciplined, I couldn’t stick to a routine, I was afraid of success, and if I wasn’t, I’d be good at one of those instruments, dangnabbit. What a steaming pile of horsehockey. (I couldn’t possibly have afforded a computer-based music program in those days, but I strongly suspect my technological limitations would have posed just as big a problem as my fine motor limitations, given how user-unfriendly the technology was back then.)

So now I write almost every song based on my own analog rhythms, except for the dulcimer stuff. Sometimes those rhythms are formed by feet or hands, sometimes by tambourines or frame drums, sometimes by letting my brain free-associate until it comes up with a rhythm that makes me want to clap or dance. Then a bass line or a melody forms in my mind, and only when I have a solid idea of what my tune is do I go anywhere near a keyboard. I keep lists of titles and phrases I want to use someday, and play matchmaker, marrying titles to melodic phrases and giving birth to hooks. Sometimes it only takes a few hours to finish something, sometimes months, sometimes years. I usually have about five songs “in the hopper” at the same time, and finish them in strings. Often what gets me to finish them is a deadline (such as that I’ve imposed here on myself, to finish a track every two weeks).

“Gifted” is often what we hyperlexic kids were called back before anyone knew about hyperlexia or the autism spectrum. Because we knew lots of words, and learned them almost as if by magic, it was assumed we could quickly pick up knowledge about anything, without ever needing any real help, when that only applied to things like spelling and reading and if anything, we were worse at the other stuff than our peers. We were told we were lazy, didn’t pay attention, didn’t concentrate, and (this is the thing that killed me) didn’t care enough about our parents to do our best. We could be academic champions if only we tried. If only we tried. If only we tried, tried, tried. (Right now I’m imagining a tambourine slap after each of those last three sentences. That’s how my thought process goes nowadays.) They put us in Gifted and Talented programs at school, where we quickly realized how not gifted and talented we actually were, at least not by the standards of the day. It was frigging depressing, that’s what it was.

Is it any wonder, then, that it takes some of us this long, or almost this long, or even longer, to figure out that we might be good at something? That’s why I kind of want to take the word “gifted” and pound it with my drumsticks until it crumbles into powder. Who can say when a talent will show up in someone’s life and start making itself felt? Who makes these cockamamie schedules, anyway? That’s what I would have said, back in the bad old days, to someone else who lamented not being “gifted.” But I held myself to a different, impossible standard. They didn’t need to be prettier or thinner or more prodigiously talented or more charming to do good work; only I did. And knowing I was being unfair to myself didn’t get me to stop.

Even a year ago, I would have said, “I’m not gifted,” like it was some kind of medal of shame. “I want to be gifted, but I’m just not that good at anything. Except maybe spelling, and computers do all that now.” But almost overnight, something happened that changed all of that forever. I’ll talk about that in a later post, but in the meantime, at least I have an excuse to use the word “festooned.” Hyperlexia for the win!

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