Twenty Feet from Stardom – Inches from a Realization

I’ve just come back from a visit to London – my first since my dramatic exit last summer, and yes we’ll talk about that someday, but right now I’m burning to tell you about the movie I watched on the plane.  In fact, I’m burning so fiercely that I’m writing this post in a notebook by hand, with six more hours to go until landing/wifi!

The movie is called Twenty Feet from Stardom and it’s a documentary about the rise and fall of American backup singing, as its own industry and as a jumping-off point for solo careers.  The messed up thing, which you realize right away as the film opens with displays of astounding talent from people you’ve never heard of, is how often some of the greatest voices of the time period faded away.  About halfway through the movie, actually, I was starting to get a bit bummed out.

But then.  Then the singers start talking about discovering what they wanted, and how hard they fought to get it.  One line that really hit home went something like: “when you sing backup, you’re singing to make someone else happy, concerned with what they need and want, but when you go solo you have to figure out what it is that you want and need.”  The implication is that such freedom is wonderful but also terrifying, especially in light of how much risk and work and desperation (as Judith Hill would say) is required to even try to make it on your own – and there are a lot of ways to fizzle out.

The thrill of that mix of fear and excitement cut right through me.  Not only am I at a point in my life where, for the first time, I’m flying completely solo (no partner, no school structure, no ‘legit career’ tying me down), but I’m also at a bit of a crossroads writing-wise.  For months now I’ve been trying to figure out my next step, determined to really focus on what I want and need, but it’s been really difficult as all kinds of immediate requirements – rent, food, a sense of place in society – have distracted me from my goal of chasing a more long-term dream (and figuring out what that dream is).

If you’re rolling your eyes at that last parenthetical aside, I don’t blame you.  I have a habit of ignoring my obvious dreams/talents/goal.  In college I wasted nearly all of the first two years and far too much of my GPA ‘exploring’ classes and study areas outside the ‘easy choice’ of English Literature.  It wasn’t until I’d suffered a W (Withdraw) in Oceanography my sophomore year – I couldn’t even bear to finish the course, I was doing so badly – that I finally faced what had been obvious all along: an English major was the ‘easy choice’ because I loved reading and writing, and what’s more I was good at it!

I promise this is related to the movie.  There’s a bit where Darlene Love talks about how she’d given up on singing and started cleaning houses to make a living, and one of her songs came on the radio and smacked her in the face with the truth: she was a singer.  I felt that way about the E Lit major, and this week I felt it again about writing (I had some help to get to the conclusion from a very good, inspiring writer friend in London).

Now, the big difference here is that my art will likely never support me fully.  In order for it to do so, I’d have to either play the role of backup singer – writing copy or ghosting or constantly pitching articles I think might sell, even if I’m not interested in writing them – or somehow ratchet my production way up, to a (sellable) book a year, which I don’t think I’m right for, given that my talent lies less in genre, plot-driven writing and more in constructing introspective rambling sentences like this one!  BUT, and this is important, I can still find other ways to support myself that give me time to focus on my writing and prioritize it, even if that means taking risks.  It’s scary and thrilling, but I think I’m finally figuring out what I want, and I’m ready to pursue it all out.

You’ll hear more about exactly what I’m on about soon, I promise.  For now I’ve got to ride this buzz and crack the whip on myself to chase my dream.  But I leave you with this: WATCH THIS MOVIE.  Seriously.  It’s fascinating and inspiring and full of amazing music and driven souls.  Watch it.  Then come back and tell me what it inspired you to do.