The best thing I heard around the campfire this fall
My brother-in-law has an album’s worth of songs, ready to record, although he’s not quite sure how to take that next step. He’s written them all himself – complex, poetic pieces that awe me, make me think that songwriting is really the ultimate craft, fusing lyric and song together.
He’s spent years working on them in his free time, keeping a guitar in his work trailer to play on breaks, polishing, perfecting, winning a songwriting award or two, building a body of creative work.
We’ve invited him to come camping with us in the desert where we’re evading typhoons and watching moonrises over slickrock and hidden dinosaur bones. Around the campfire, he plays the guitar, his sweet songs and full-throated raspy voice fills the air and I feel like I’m winning the campsite – I’m here with the guy who can sing. Not Kum-Ba-Yah, or the three chord standards that any of us who can pull off a G chord can butcher, but the Tragically Hip, Tom Waits, his own songs. His own damn songs!
What was the most important thing you’ve had to learn?, I ask him, because I always want to know the secret hacks of creative people.
Point-blank, he answers: Self-acceptance.
Once a year I’m asked by a high school journalism teacher to address his students. I accept when I can – how often do you actually get a captive audience? – and because the invitation gives me a chance to ruminate on what I think I know.
It’s not much that’s useful to a room full of 16 year olds. If I’m honest, I’m really giving my 16 year old self the pep talk I don’t remember getting – all advice being autobiographical, in the end.
This year, as I pondered the invitation, my schedule, my latest light-bulb moments, I considered telling those kids, at least the ones who nursed in their secret hearts the desire to write:
School is lying to you about the importance of being top of the class. That’s a con. A false promise. You do not have to be the best, the most gifted, the favoured one. You do not have to be a natural, hailed as a genius, the prize winner. You just have to accept that this is your skin, and your lifelong task is to feel at ease in it. Not to be better than anyone else, but to inhabit this piece of flesh and bone and water and blood as best you can, with curiosity and appreciation and playfulness and challenge, instead of judgment. Enough with the judgment. And if there are things in you that overflow and need to come out, express them. And as you come to know yourself better and accept yourself more, your voice will become truer – your voice, your signature, your schtick, your style. And it will speak to people. Or not. It doesn’t matter, really. It’s not about them.
At least, that’s what I wish someone had said to me 25 years ago, if that could have fast-tracked anything. Not that I would have taken any notice. I would have thought them preachy old fogeys. Which I have evidently become. For fear of proving that, I didn’t visit the high school kids this year. Maybe next year I’ll be feeling funnier. This year, I’m a person who hears someone say that the most important thing he’s learned in 46 years is self-acceptance, and my whole body sighs and sags into my camp-chair, and I think, man, after such a long apprenticeship, we better get on with things.
My brother-in-law kept returning to his music, singing and writing and practicing – as other friends made albums, and old band-mates teamed up with different collaborators and everyone grew up and got haircuts and jobs, as his life unfolded, as he fell in and out of love, met his daughter, renovated a house, moved up through the ranks at work, had his heart broken, hit his mid-forties, always, always trying to give voice to all the beauty bouncing around inside of him. And now, he has a body of work, as proof, that he has discovered his own exquisite worthiness. All the rest is gravy.