If It Was Easy I'd Be Famous By Now

I remember back to the days when there were no computer keyboards for untrained hands to hunt and peck at. It was a time when typewriters were for secretaries, a feminine thing – not something a man would ever want to do. Unless that man was a writer as I wanted to be.

But I had no typewriter. And I did not see myself as a typist.

I graduated from high school in 1966. Although I could have learned to type in school, back then I could not separate the “feminine” notion from my fantasy of been a writer. Some guys in my grade took typing, including one of my “straight A” buddies. But that just made him seem more weird to me. I knew he studied ….  and studied a lot – that's nuts! (That's what I thought back then.) I had no idea that one day I'd own a computer and type on it every day. I supposed that the words my teenage mind might think of would always be captured by pen and paper. That's all I had at the time and all I ever thought I'd have.

I could not see past the realities I faced in my youth. I was poor. I wanted to be a writer. But I knew I was destined to be a factory worker for all my days. I would write on pen and paper when I got home from work, I guess.

I never really thought it through. Was afraid to.

That's the problem with fantasies. Details corrupt the dream, even tiny ones like what I'd use to write on. So I didn't think about that. I just dreamed of the novels I'd write …. how great they'd be …. how rich and famous I'd be …. how respected I'd feel as my readers fell in love with my work and with me.

That never happened.

At least, not yet.

I wrote poems and songs and short stories with pen and paper for many years. Most of them were lost to thoughtless storage; more were lost each time I moved to another city for another job. Hundreds of pieces were lost in a hard drive crash after I bought my first computer. I did spend most of my working life in factories but I was an actual factory worker for only a few years. After I got seriously hurt on the job I changed careers a couple of times. I did retail and I was a good salesman but I could make no money.

I was married during my retail years. My wife was very uncomfortable with the idea of me spending my days selling stuff to women. To save my marriage, after a series of serious arguments, I left my store manager's position with no prospects for another job. I didn't work for six months. Fortunately I had saved a lot of money and we lived on that along with my wife's income.

The marriage didn't last and, as it turned out, that was a good thing. We were not meant for each other. I still remember the day I had planned to tell her I felt I was compromising too much, letting her have her way on everything. On that very day she told me exactly what I had planned to tell her.

If no one is getting their way …. if both parties feel cheated …. the relationship has no future. That was true for us. 

I worked in construction the last year or so of my marriage. My wife's uncle had spent his life as a construction worker and had made good money at it. He told me all I needed to do was show up at the gate of the project where he worked and they would hire me as a helper. In a few years I would make as much money as he made.

I needed work and I needed a job my wife would approve of. I ignored my lack of mechanical skill. I ignored the fact that my right hand was still partially disabled from a previous on-the-job injury. I ignore the fact that I didn't know anything about the construction business. I just showed up at the gate and they gave me a job. But not a helper's job …. the one with a future.

I was hired as a laborer – the job with little chance of advancement, the job you got if they sized you up as someone who had no skill and little promise. They saw me coming and they saw right through me.

I tried my best but it was obvious that even unskilled labor work was difficult for me. Nonetheless, my labor foreman saw something of value in me and a good word from him to the right person changed my future in construction. On that first construction job I was promoted from a laborer to a warehouse clerk, to a special warehouse receiver for the client, to being in charge of the warehouse (by that time I was the only person who worked in it because the project was almost completed). That all happened in one year.

I made good contacts and on my next construction project I was a non-salaried office manager, a position that didn't actually exist in the contract.  I also did cost accounting and purchasing. This was an existing factory where my company would do new construction and improvements. The project superintendent was pleased with my work and tried to get me put on salary but could not. He offered to classify me as a journeyman and pay me top journeyman's pay. That seemed dishonest; I thanked him but refused. 

At the end of that project the client's chief construction engineer told me I had saved him $40,000 in salaried wages by doing all the work I did as a $7.00/hour unofficial office manager in addition to the work I'd been hired to do. I remember feeling that, instead of thanking me, he was congratulating himself for saving all that money.

On my next project I was a salaried administrative manager. This project had a salaried slot in the contract for me. The project superintendent from my previous job got this new project and he insisted on me as his administrative guy. The company controller didn't want me, said I wasn't qualified. And he was right. But my old boss talked with his boss …. and his boss made it happen. I went from $7.00 an hour to $325 a week with benefits. I was somebody. I kept that position for the remainder of the nineteen years I worked for that company. There are lots of stories hiding in those nineteen years but I won't tell them now.

That third project was a straight 40 hour week. I took classes at night to learn accounting. Before I began the project I got a crash course in project-level accounting from the company auditor …. but it didn't take. I struggled mightily for six months, on the phone almost every day with the home office, but I finally figured it out. I got so good at processing invoices that the assistant controller asked me to write a manual for the other project administrative managers. 

As it turned out, the crash course was ineffective for just about everyone who took it. My manual became the guide for the projects and processing invoices stopped being a hassle for everyone.

One other thing happened while I was on that project. My songwriting got a lot better. I had become a member of the Nashville Songwriters Association International and secretly hoped to become a pro. I started recording demos of my songs at a local recording studio. I met some studio musicians and they sounded pretty good on my stuff. I played my guitar and sang the vocals. That was a lot of fun but very expensive. 

I never was completely satisfied with the results of my studio projects. Or the cost; I spent three thousand dollars at the studio in just a few months. I wanted more control of the sessions and the mixing but my skills were lacking. I found it hard to communicate exactly what I wanted, especially under the pressure of an hourly rate for the studio rental and the musician's pay. That was about the time MIDI was created. It let different pieces of gear -- synths, drum machines, sequencers, computers – sync up with each other. You could edit a performance after the fact until you got what you wanted, within the limits of your talent and understanding of MIDI.

The idea of that fascinated me. I stopped going to the studio to make demos. Across several years I bought $13,000 worth of gear and set up a studio in my apartment living room. That first year I wrote a few songs but spent most of my free time learning how to use the gear. I also wrote a few poems and stories but was primarily devoted to learning technical stuff.

As I learned more about the gear I occasionally swapped old gear for new gear that suited my purposes better. I learned piano chords on a Korg synth keyboard and performed songs by myself while I recorded them onto my Tascam semi-pro eight track recorder. I later mixed down the results to a semi-pro two track.

This was all happening way back in the early 1980's.

I eventually upgraded my keyboard to a Yamaha DX7. I later added a rack version with four independent sound modules. Along with my drum machine I had six live sources plus seven tape tracks and enough outboard gear to mix it all down at once.

Then I began noticing a ringing in my ears. My tinnitus had returned. After I survivedtwo explosions in Vietnam, my ears rang for years until they fully healed. But now the ringing had returned. It seemed to be brought on by constant listening to the digital sounds from the DX7 and modules. My old synths were analog and were much easier on the ears. I had upgraded myself into a situation my ears couldn't deal with.

Then I got transferred.

My next project was a “hard-money” project. My other projects were all cost-plus. The new project was already in trouble when I got there. It never made a profit for the company. I worked 70 to 80 hours a week for nine months (no overtime pay). The drive from my new apartment in Winston-Salem, NC was over an hour each way. That made for a long work week.

I sold all my gear. I never even had time to look at it for nine months. And unless my ears got better I couldn't use it anyway.

I left out an important part. Late in the year before my transfer to the new project, I went to a symposium provided by the Nashville Songwriter's Association International. Two things happened there. OK, first let me say I truly enjoyed most of those three days. Met lots of people with the same dream I had. Nashville was a nice town. The people there were warm and friendly. But two disturbing things happened. A person high up in the NSAI organization told me if I really wanted to be a professional songwriter I was going about it wrong. She told me that as long as I had a good paying job I'd never be fully committed to songwriting. I needed to quit my job and move to Nashville. That suggestion gnawed at me a long time.

The other thing that happened occurred in one of the critique sessions of the symposium. Pros from the industry sat on a panel and listened to cassette tapes of songs we wrote. Then they gave their professional opinion. My panel had a music publishing executive, a producer, and a song plugger (the guy that helps you get your song heard by artists and record companies). All thirty of us had high hopes as we sat down in that room.

Their critiques were brutal.

One by one, our hopes were dashed against the stone cold reality of what it takes to get an amateur's song recorded by an artist or even accepted by a publisher. The music business seemed like a fortress, these guys were tough and heavily armed gatekeepers …. and we didn't know the password. Some people cried in that room. When it came time to listen to my song I sat there frozen. I almost passed out until I remembered to breathe.

I had brought my very best song to be critiqued. It had an interesting title. It had a hook. It had good standard structure and it was less than three minutes long. If they didn't like this song there wasn't much chance I'd ever be a pro. 

The song plugger did not like it. I got the impression he might have liked it if I had been a known writer; his prejudice against amateurs came out in almost every one of his critiques. The publishing executive did not like it, didn't say why, just didn't like it. I think she was getting bored.

The producer liked my song. It had promise. It could be a love song or a religious song. But it wasn't quite ready. I don't know exactly what that meant because they shoved in another tape and moved on.

So, in case you're wondering why I sold all my gear so quickly …. here's the real reason. Before I went to the symposium I already had a collection of rejection letters from music publishers who would not accept my songs. It was disheartening but I still kept at it, hoping for a lucky break. When my fantasy of being a pro songwriter saw the light of day in a pro environment, when I understood the sacrifice required to turn pro and the unlikelihood of success, when I faced real people who had no interest in me or my work, when I realized that even in Nashville, as I drove down Music Row with dozens of music publishing houses, I didn't have the courage to knock on one music publisher's door …. that was all too much for me. I had worked so hard for so many years, often late into the night, for a fantasy goal that, in the reality of my life, was too risky and too much trouble to shoot for.

I thought I wanted it but I found I could not do it.

I was completely deflated.

I sold my recording gear and did not write another song, another poem or another story for fifteen years. I put all my efforts into my career and spent almost as much home time studying software and other work-related subjects as I had previously spent on creative things. I kept my guitar. But it stayed in its case for every one of those fifteen years. When I finally opened the case again the front face of the guitar had cracked. I sent it off to be repaired and it somehow got misplaced. It was lost for a year.

But that's another story.