Photo by Brandon Hilder
I'd like to propose a New Year's toast to the failures and disappointments of 2019.
I don't mean failures and disappointments in the world at large, though there were plenty of those in the last year. I mean in my personal sphere, particularly in my life's work as a musician and writer: all the applications that were rejected, the contests I didn't win, the flubs onstage, the projects that fizzled, the possibly great ideas that I never found the time to pursue, the possibly bad ideas to which I devoted considerable time, the empty seats at events, the songs and stories that I never finished or that fell short of what I'd imagined, the opportunities I did not seize...
In 2019 I accumulated a sizable stack of all these things, but I didn't really talk about them on social media, in my newsletters, or in other public communications. I didn't post about this stuff in part because instead of broadcasting my whining or complaining, I'd rather use whatever platform I have to share positivity and gratitude.
I also spared you the low points because that's what all artists are compelled to do in this era of perpetual self-promotion and personal branding, in which everyone is desperate to radiate success and confidence regardless of how they actually feel. That's why the social media feeds of artists are so full of triumphs—adoring fans, packed houses, rave reviews, prestigious awards—and the indignities and letdowns are conspicuously absent. (The same is true, of course, of most people on social media, who share a carefully curated montage of glamorous travels, children's accomplishments, lavish meals, and flattering selfies, and edit out the less picturesque moments.)
So in my public posts I generally focus on the good things that happen—and there were plenty in 2019, which was by many measures my best and most productive year ever in this quixotic pursuit of writing and music. And yet there was also, as Paul Harvey used to say on the radio when I was a kid, "the rest of the story." Hence this acknowledgment of everything that did not work out this year—the half-empty side that gives a more accurate image of what the entire glass looks like.
For me, one of the most important measures of a creative life is whether, year to year, I have broken new ground. Have I tried a different type of venture or medium, stepped out of my comfort zone, put myself in the awkward or scary position of committing to something I really do not know how to do?
Taking steps into the unknown can produce plenty of anxiety and, inevitably, setbacks along the way, but it also is essential to staying vital as an artist. I do aim to accomplish things; getting positive feedback on whatever I create or offer is incredibly gratifying, and of course I want and need to make a living (for most of us, successes pay a lot better than failures). But the fuel behind all art is learning—and there is no learning without risk, or without failure and disappointment.
I often think of something that the brilliant songwriter, guitarist, and performer Richard Thompson once said to me in an interview.
I think to be a musician in any real sense of the word, you have to be dissatisfied. You have to not be totally happy with who you are and what you do. To achieve anything significant, you have to be driven, and I’m not sure what by—often it’s some kind of demons. Perhaps it’s your tortured childhood, or just some sense that you can always be doing better. I don’t know, but most of the musicians I’ve ever met who have something special that I’ve really admired seem to have had this kind of inner drive that propels them to work harder and do better.Richard Thompson
So, yes, I do want to celebrate the high points of the year, with deep gratitude to all who've come to a concert, read a book or article, watched a video, listened to an album, taken a class or workshop, or given me a platform to share my words and music.
But I also want to acknowledge and appreciate all the low points. More than 30 years in, I feel that I'm better now at just about everything I do—playing guitar, writing songs and prose, singing, performing, teaching—than when I was younger. And for that I have to give due credit to dissatisfaction, and to all the rejections and frustrations that teach and remind me there's always so much room for improvement.
My wish for 2020 and beyond is to keep driving ahead, and to use the setbacks as object lessons and challenges and opportunities. And I wish the same for you, whatever you do or create. We're all on this path together.
Happy new year.