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Underwhelmed

That's All She Wrote

By Sandy Asirvatham | Posted 12/25/2002

If you want someone to blame or to thank, let me suggest the novelist Paul Auster as a pretty good candidate.

He was the person who (unknowingly) suggested I wasn't crazy for wanting to ditch my not-yet-viable fiction writing "career" (one published short story and a thousand pages of unfinished manuscripts of varying lengths) for a precarious lunge at a different obsession. I interviewed Auster several years ago for Poets & Writers magazine. After a prolific 15 years as a novelist, he was being drawn toward new forms of creative expression: screenwriting and directing. Auster admitted he was having uncharacteristic trouble getting started on his new novel. Although he seemed a bit frustrated and concerned, he was shockingly sanguine about the possibility that, at age 52, he might be leaving fiction behind to embark on a brand new career in film. He'd done this kind of thing before. In his twenties, he'd been a poet, essayist, and translator--forms he'd been absolutely obsessed with for some time, but that suddenly stopped interesting him. His ardor for these things had been real, but so was his later indifference to them.

I remember sitting at Auster's dining-room table, scribbling notes as he answered my questions about his novels, his childhood, his first marriage, his writing habits, etc. All the while, though, I had one eye on the brown spinet piano in his living room. Oh, how I longed to stop the interview and go play Schubert's Impromptu in G flat major. After 10 solid years of living and breathing for reading and writing, I'd somehow come to a point where all my "free" time--borrowed guiltily from journalism projects with looming deadlines--was being diverted into music practice. But I viewed this phenomenon through the lens of self-flagellation. Playing piano, I'd told myself, was mere procrastination, and wanting to play piano for a near stranger in an inappropriate context was merely a childish craving for attention and approval.

After the interview, however, I couldn't stop thinking about how matter-of-factly Auster viewed his serial obsessions--as if there was truly nothing crazy about falling in and out of love like that. So maybe my growing desire to play music was not an indication of my weakness or laziness as a writer, but a deep, genuine shift in creative direction that demanded attention.

Three and a half years later, I look back and am amazed at how many obstacles I'd put up to avoid what I'd wanted all along. Truth be told, there was always some little brown spinet piano, or ebony baby grand, or beat-up Fender Rhodes beckoning me. I remember, in the seventh grade, at my friend Bernadette's party, I snuck off to her living room by myself to play her piano and sing a few melodramatic pop love songs I knew (this was the era of "You Light Up My Life")--while hoping one of the idiotic cute boys would find his way there and be mesmerized by my serenade. I remember playing the out-of-tune Steinway in the lobby of my college dorm, wanting my friends to hear me but never feeling entitled to actually invite them. I remember seeing a relatively famous pianist/singer at the Columbia Festival of the Arts about 10 years ago, and knowing full well that I could do the kind of thing she was doing, maybe even better than she could.

I suspect a lot of people have envious thoughts like this all the time, but never get past the "I could do that" to embrace the concept of "I will do that." Luckily, I have all sorts of terrible personal qualities (impatience, stubbornness, vanity) that ensured my move from "could" to "will." And also luckily, as soon as I started asking for serious support in my new direction, I received it--from teachers, friends, loved ones. Turns out, I'm not the bashful would-be performer I've long pretended to be; actually I'm an aggressive brat determined to find a way to do what I want. I still think that's better than being a passive-aggressive brat who sits cross-armed in the back row at other people's performances, eating fistfuls of sour grapes.

But I digress. I was talking about the changeable nature of artistic obsessions, about giving yourself permission to follow your inclinations. Well, for a long time--four years and three months--I've been more or less inclined to write this column. My passion for it was a big raging bonfire at the start, but has slowly and steadily died down to embers. When I realized this installment would be my 100th column and would hit the streets in the very last week of the year, it struck me as the right time to end it. (One hundred columns adds up to about 90,000 words--that's 360 double-spaced typed pages, the size of a decent novel manuscript. I guess I sort of wrote a book accidentally, despite myself.)

Multitudinous thanks to those of you who've read my stuff, who've invited me to your parties, who've written in appreciation (or in serious lack thereof--for even your nastygrams have taught me things, although not necessarily the things you intended). Check the listings for a jazz quartet called Flavor Crystal run by a newbie pianist/singer chick (shameless self-promotion!), and maybe I'll see you at my next gig.

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