“I remember once hearing one of my younger brothers telling his girlfriend my story, what my career was like – I was born, I was talented, I got into piano, I had this neat place and I worked with Miles Davis. He left out this giant part which was the struggle!” Keith Jarrett, jazz pianist [From The Man and His Music]
As I now know, at each step you take you will feel anxious, depressed and tempted to remain with “the devil you know” rather than strike out for the deep blue sea. …. Pursuing something that really means a lot to you; something that comes first in your life; something that is almost as precious to you as a child; something that essentially means putting your soul out there for anyone to stab at if they want to; something that means getting emotionally naked – well, it hurts. … I met someone at a party once who told me she had become a journalist by default because writing a novel in her 20s had taken over her entire life. “I couldn’t think about anything else!” she said. “I wouldn’t want to be like that again!”
Don’t be one of those people who need permission from the rest of the world to be a happy successful human being. You don’t. You only need your permission. … When I confided in my cousin, who had never heard me sing, that I wanted to be a singer, he totally dismissed it as nonsense and told me a terrible story about his ex father-in-law who had similarly “set straight” some poor neighbor who’d asked his advice about whether or not he should be an opera singer. Of course not everyone who wants to is going to be able to sing or paint or write or whatever. But my cousin [who now loves my singing] hadn’t even heard me sing. Yet, I obediently went along with his advice.
Or maybe I just used him as an excuse.
Today I thought it would be a good idea to explain the actual TITLE of my book. Anything I Can Do You Can Do Better: How to Unlock Your Creative Dreams and Change Your Life. One of my friends messaged me on Facebook saying: “You obviously haven’t heard me sing!” which made me realize that some explaining is in order.
When I was writing in my journal this morning — by the way, journaling is definitely de rigeur for anyone pursuing a creative life — whether they are writing or singing or painting or sewing or what — so many ideas come to me when I am journaling that would never have occurred to me if I were, say, watching breakfast television, or even (perhaps) reading War and Peace! Phew, that was such a long sentence that I am going to gratuitously end right there and pick it up again in the next. It came to me that singing isn’t something I “do”, it is something I “am” or maybe “have”.
So the book isn’t going to tell you how to sing, or write or paint or sew or whatever. I think that is probably something you have an innate talent for or not — although of COURSE practice makes perfect, not to mention “use it or lose it”! So it’s definitely worth thinking about what it is that you are best at before you decide to devote the rest (or even the next ten years) of your life to it. But the idea of the book is how to then “do” whatever it is you have chosen, or has chosen you.
I forgot to mention earlier in the blog that another major player in my career change was life coach Laura Berman Fortgang, who gave me three months of her amazing personal coaching just before I got into it. I had met her while researching an article which was published in 1997 for the Times in London on Life Coaches (I promise to add the link to the article in a day or so — still learning how to do these things), and thought it would be interesting to experience being coached and maybe write about that. [Much later, I was helped in making the transition by a year of coaching from another fantastic life coach, Mark Forster, but more on that another time.]
She asked me what I wanted to focus on that I had wanted to do all my life and I picked singing because, (1) I was living with someone, who (for the first time since I had grown up) really believed, not only in my talent but in its possibilities for me and (2), I had always dreamed of doing it. As a very small child. Shopping in the local VG store for dinner all through my teenage marriage. Ferreting through clothing in charity shops for something decent to wear when I was a single mum. Even in my 30s (in San Francisco), singing at the top of my voice cleaning the houses of my favorite clients; the Good Germans (who had an amazing collection of jazz music, which I looked forward to listening to because I didn’t have money to buy CDs) and Joseph, who understood. Everything. Who gave me Tower Records tokens every Christmas with a stern note about how I was to use it only to buy music. Who once called me at home and told me off for leaving money in exchange for an orange I had eaten. [“Anything in my kitchen, Tessa, is yours!”] And who, when he died of AIDS, left me his CD player.
And had I not got married to an older man when I was 16 (i.e., before I really even started “living”), to be a singer was what everyone around me assumed I was going to do for a living when I got older. As it was, at a very formative age I spent two and a half years married to someone who was so insecure (clearly, secure men in their mid 20s don’t go around impregnating children — as I now realize I was then) that he pretty much imprisoned me, until I escaped one day (with Mum’s help) when he was at work. I was allowed out on my own only twice during the entire marriage. He even raged about my going back to school to do my ‘o’ levels (which I did in only four months, instead of a year), So singing? Fuggedaboutit!
So that severely put the kibosh on those childhood dreams for myself — which belonged as much to my friends and my “Irish twin” brother as to me. And then being solely responsible for a child, financially and emotionally, from the age of 18. Well, it wasn’t easy — speaking of “You Can Do Better!
Worth it? Yes! Easy? No!
But not to grizzle. Because I think all those experiences have made me what I am (not to mention provided me with the most amazing son), and are there in my music now. And I hope that they can be useful to others who might be thinking that they threw their lives in the bin by making one “mistake” or who might be thinking it’s too late, or too soon or too anything (er … try scared! I know a lot about that one). Or who might be doing really well in one field but don’t know how to begin to change to another. No, I wouldn’t say I am a wild success in terms of raking in the dosh (cough!). But even in the midst of despair, and feeling stuck, when I think about how lucky I am and how far I have come in the ten years that I have been singing professionally, I am willing to put my head down and keep soldiering ahead. And I’d like to inspire others to do the same, and pass on some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way.
In the book I talk to my friend British plumber Mal Peet, whose first novel, Keeper, was turned down by five publishers (including the one who eventually picked it up!) before going on to win the Branford Boase Award and the Nestle Smarties Children’s Book Prize. His third, Tamar, won the Carnegie Medal. And he has just won the Guardian Prize for Fiction for his most recent, Exposure. For years he had come home in the evenings after a hard day’s plumbing to spend his evenings literally wallowing in the tub, with a pint of cheap beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He started his new career after the age of 50. US corporate business woman Karen Quinn (also in the book) wrote her bestseller The Ivy Chronicles (currently being made into a movie), after being laid off. “Tessa Souter” (that would be a fantasy version of me) actually has a singing appearance in the book, which she was still writing at the time I first interviewed her. She’s now on to her fourth or fifth. A huge success.
These people inspire me! And I hope they will you!