What I Wish Someone Would've Told Me About Writing
The following essay was written for our blog by DartFrog Plus author L.C. Matherne. Her book Mystery School is due out later this year. In the meantime, check out her website magazinestreetjournal.com to see more of her musings.
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What I Wish Someone Would’ve told Me about Writing
Put Down that Bottle, Stop Worrying about that No-Good Man, and Listen!
I wish someone, like an angel or fairy, would’ve come to me when I was around six, about the time I was writing little poems, playing the piano, dancing, and singing every moment of the day. I wish the angel would have jolted me from my play with a pierce of her trumpet and said:
“This is it, Lela! These are your gifts! And you can get really good at these arts, and they will bring you great and endless joy, but you have to work at them!”
And then, I wish that angel would have returned to remind me of her wisdom at various times in my suddenly, grown-long life.
The first time I could have used her help was when I was thirteen and the shit hit the fan. I was such a good kid up until then. I journaled, wrote poems, and even wrote a little, dumb short story about all these shallow characters with long hair who were involved in some sort of espionage, and I was advancing in piano to the point that mine was the final performance of the neighborhood recital. But at thirteen, all the hormones kicked in that would plague me until about yesterday. I wish my angel had intervened then, tooting her celestial trumpet and shouting:
“Forget about all this nonsense with your friends and boys. They suck, mostly, and won’t matter soon. But, if you don’t give up now - if you do the work - in twenty years, you’ll be able to play these classical pieces from memory at your concerts, interspersed with the quite good songs you’ve written. People will love it! Tell your mom that you want to begin learning musical theory, and that your English teacher, Mr. Crespin, is terrible, and that you need some support in his class, not to mention Algebra, because all learning is learning that, one day, in some way, you can use.”
But there was no trumpeting angel, at least not one loud enough or bright enough I could hear or see, so I stopped taking piano lessons, and got into trouble with Mr. Crespin, and never understood algebra.
Oh, if only my angel would have visited me upon the eve of my first day at Manual, a great high school, where, miraculously, I was allowed to go for my junior year after I got expelled from George Washington High for drinking, cutting class, and forging my mom’s signature. If only, that night, while I laid out my new school clothes that mom bought with her student-loan money, the angel had appeared, blown her horn and proclaimed, loud enough for me to hear:
“This is your chance! Finally, you can learn the foundation of all the knowledge you’ll later wish you had ever known. But you must do the work! Actually crack open your books every night when you get home, instead of talking to your friends on the phone, or sneaking out of your house to be with boys, or cutting class to sit in the parking lot of South High with a bunch of stoners!”
But there was no angel, or, if she did come, I couldn’t hear - probably too drunk and stoned and high on cocaine, and ‘in love’ with someone who didn’t know I existed - so I flunked out, got my GED, and never read The Odyssey or deciphered Shakespeare, losses that line my soul in shadows still.
But was she there? Was my angel trying to get my attention, but I couldn’t see her through the haze of the binge-eating, drugs, alcohol, and humiliating sex? Was Jay Marx (God rest his soul) an incarnation of my angel on that day he told me he liked my poems? Did my angel take the form of Megan Comfort when she told me that the notes that I passed when I should’ve been focusing on class were a treat to read, because I wrote just like the way I talked? And was that her, in the form of Lenny Zaltzman, who told me, after our shift one night, “You should be a writer, Lela”?
I only thank God that finally, her trumpet was loud enough to hear; that day came to me, disguised as a customer who suggested, out of the blue, that I go to France to be a nanny. By some miracle, I did the work. I filled out all the papers, saved the money, and went to Lille, where I was so lonely that all I could do was to write, dance, and sing, and to pray inside the shockingly beautiful churches in languages I didn’t understand.
The mysterious prayers must have worked, because, hallelujah, I heard her again! She appeared as a friend from home who encouraged me to go to her college, Loyola University in New Orleans. I did the work of completing the application, including writing a small book of poems and an essay on Eve and the apple, and I got in.
Then, maybe my angel thought I didn’t need her anymore, maybe she thought she had gotten me to the promised land; a place that offered me every opportunity to learn and to write. But I polluted the heaven she showed me, letting the fertile earth of education go to seed. I just drank, smoked weed, did acid and cocaine, and spent every ounce of my mental energy avoiding the work, using it instead to get all wrapped up in boys whose names I can barely remember now.
But my angel took pity on me, as she watched me make a ruin of my life, smashing my God-given gifts like my alcoholic step-father smashed up the rooms of our home, and she returned, taking the forms of Dr. Mackielski, and Dr. Fernandez. They wouldn’t hear my excuses for not writing, and demanded me to write the papers I avoided like Covid-19. So I did the work, though I thought it would kill me, and began to learn to write, though I only stitched an inch of learning from the yards of intellectual fabric set out before me. I could have dressed myself like a queen, but took only enough material to clothe her serving girl.
Luckily, while fashioning my servant’s clothes, my creative writing teacher, Ralph Adamo (surely an angel), invited Gordon Lish to speak to our class, and he opened the sky with his words of truth: It’s easier to do someone else’s material, but we’re here to create our own. That’s the work.
So I began to write my own songs with my long-lost-friend the piano instead of performing covers at the open-mics in town, and soon, I had many songs. I divorced my alcoholic husband and met my musical partner, Ruby, about the same time. Then came the angel investor, and the contract that bought me a house, and a car, and the money to record an original album in the studio of my dreams, and I still fucked it up.
The work was too hard. The relationships, the piano, the guitar, the singing, the writing, the putting myself out there. I metaphorically set it all on fire. I wrecked my burgeoning band, Watyr, and drowned the relationship with the angel investor as if I were a hurricane, and escaped to L.A. But karma is real, and the fire and floods I generated came back for me three-fold.
The flood from Katrina caused fires to break out in the city, and my house was one of many that burned, so I had to go back to fix what was destroyed. Who knows what I could’ve done in the city of angels, had I less than three months there. The one thing I did do was, on a whim, to audition for an esteemed improv group, the Groundlings, just before the storm. Back in New Orleans, I learned I had gotten in, but I had to return to L.A. by February, or I would lose my spot in the class. And I had already met Marvin.
So I didn’t go back. And who knows what I could’ve learned there, where I could’ve gone, who I could’ve been. Instead, I re-built my house, better than ever, eventually selling it back to the man who bought it for me, and cast my lot with my ever-loving Marvin and his adorable Po-Boy shop. I settled into a quiet, if painfully humble, life, in which I discovered the soft joys of family, community, and domestic harmony. I began a yoga practice that required me to show up and do the work, everyday. And finally, I heard my angel, her trumpet’s song like the first drops of rain on the cracked ground of the desert. Her melody accompanied me as I sat down to do the work I never really did. I hear her every morning still, six years later, when I write these books I’m writing.
Of course, I often ignore her, turn a blinded eye to her true glory, deafen my ears to the splendor of her trumpet. I watch Netflix when I know I could be deciphering Shakespeare, or reading The Odyssey, or practicing Bach, or dancing, or recording a new song. But, glory be, at least I wake, and I write. I do the work. I might not do it as perfectly as I could, but at least I face it head-on. And that, really, is the only thing I ever wish someone would have told me about writing, loud enough that I could’ve listened, over and over and over again.