Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Deke and Mr. Tanner

"... of all the cleaning shops around
he'd made his the best
but he also was a baritone
who sang while hanging clothes
he practiced scales while pressing tails
and sang at local shows.
his friends and neighbors praised the voice
that poured out from his throat
they said that he should use his gift
instead of cleaning coats..."

-- Mr. Tanner, by Harry Chapin

I suppose any artist has periods of self-doubt alternating with hopes of a grand future. There's a song I've always loved that speaks deeply to an artist's fears of putting his craft on display. It's about a dry cleaner who sings in his back room while sorting clothes. Harry Chapin's haunting tale, "Mr. Tanner," struck a sharp chord in me the first note I heard.

Everyone loved Mr. Tanner's singing, but he modestly laughed off any suggestions he put himself in front of an audience. He was well-known as an excellent tradesman, but kept his art to himself. My writing had long been a back-room thing, with me only dusting it off on occasion when something happened in my life worth chronicling. Mom and Dad constantly encouraged me to work on my craft, but I shrugged it off as parental pride. While I had been writing since my early teens and had success as a college newspaper editor and later professional reporter, the dust began to settle on my chops. It wasn't until middle age reminded me of mortality that I decided to gently feather dust the beckoning ghost of my only artistic talent. This blog was born to a 52-year-old writer who was extremely rusty. Today, my blog posts have been read nearly 150,000 times. It's mind boggling. Far out, even. I'm jazzed.

"... music was his life
it was not his livelihood
and it made him feel so happy
it made him feel so good
and he sang from his heart
he sang from his soul
he did not know how well he sang
it just made him whole..."

As an Arizona desert boy, I'd often ride far out into the dusty wilds to "find myself," which meant I'd sit on a rock in some remote place and simply think. Teenage angst drove my first clumsy poetic attempts, but when I began to learn journalism in college, I fell in love with fact-based writing. To take events and craft them into stories became a creative challenge. News reporting in the 70s was pretty cut-and-dry. Just the facts; all the rest was fluff. To sit at a typewriter, fingers poised over the keys, eyes closed, was a meditation better than anything else. The words would slowly form, which then stimulated the nerves in my hands, and stories would be typed via trance. Sometimes, I wouldn't even realize I had written something until a door opened, a voice beckoned. I'd startle, then pull a page out of the typewriter and marvel at what had appeared. I would be ecstatic to hold that week's newspaper, seeing the story in print with my name on it, and experience a euphoria that still sends chills down my spine. That feeling must rival what a musician feels in front of an audience.

This blog is now about four-and-a-half years old, and a great majority of the older posts are about to be published in book form. I alternate between near panic to dreamlike wonder as the pieces all fit into place. It's an agonizingly painstaking and laborious process, especially for a perfectionist like me, to produce a book. Even though most of it was already written, it has been a long road. I continue to waver between confidence in its worthiness to the utter terror of possible rejection. Some people are so confident in their abilities, even if they're the only one who feels that way. Many compliment my work, yet I still harbor grave doubts about my competence as a writer. To me, it's either really good, or not at all. There's no gray area where success is concerned.

"...but his concert was a blur to him
spatters of applause
he did not know how well he sang
he only heard the flaws."

Mr. Tanner decides to take a chance and put himself in front of an audience. He puts everything on the line, pouring every ounce of himself into the music, in hopes his greatest love will be allow him to leave the cleaning shop behind for a new life. It simply isn't meant to be, as he fails to impress. Critics crush his hopes, and he heads back to his old life.

This song has for many years had a great impression on me. I fear rejection. While I've held many jobs to pay the bills, the fear of failure has kept me from putting my craft out there for the public to judge. All the while, I should have been fearlessly relentless in practicing my love of words. Now that my book is about to be released, I'm filled with the same hopes and fears Harry Chapin describes.

"...but the critics were concise
it only took four lines
but no one could accuse them
of being over kind...
"...he came well prepared,
but unfortunately his presentation
was not up to contemporary professional standards
his voice lacks the range of tonal color
necessary to make it consistently interesting...
full time consideration of another endeavor
might be in order..."

As I see it, either the book will be a great success, or simply lie there like a limp noodle with no sauce to adorn it. My life's road to date has been bouncier than a bedridden nymphomaniac. Terrific highs with horrible lows. It's scary to put my art out there for critics to lambast, but if I don't then I'll always be stuck with "what if's" and "why didn't I's." It's better to give it a shot. Like the Special Olympics motto says, "Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."

I'm going for it. I'll need your help to spread the word around, and so far you've done wonders. Thank you all so much, and let's see what happens. If I'm lucky, I won't be left to softly tickle the keyboard deep into my future with tragic soliloquies of misbegotten dreams.

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