For love or money (part 2 of 4): College and L.A.
(This is part two of a four-part series on how I finally starting thinking about what I am instead of what I want to be, or something like that. Sorry for the long post!)
When I left California for college in Colorado, I still had no clear idea of what I wanted to DO in life nor did I know what to study. I remember feeling that I was leaving my music dream behind, it was a hobby now, a pastime, just fun. My new dream was to be a writer. I had fantasies of becoming the next Hemingway, but I was also keenly aware of the need to get real about life. I needed to prepare for a career and for reasons I don't fully recall, writing did not seem like a potential job. Maybe linking writing to making a living just killed the romance of it, I don't know; regardless, I did not think studying writing was a valid reason to be in college. Journalism would have been valid, because it's specific and career-oriented, but not plain old writing. Nowadays, of course, I wish with all my heart I could go back and approach college for what it truly is: that rare opportunity to simply learn about the world and delve deep into what you find interesting. But I cannot. So college, for me, became an extension of high school, a place where countless teachers tried to engage and teach me -- and failed because I was just not interested in what they had to say. Classes started an ended leaving not much knowledge behind, a year passed, twothenthreethenfour and... graduation. As amazed as I was to get into college I was equally amazed that I finished in four years. But now what?
I took stock. I was no closer to deciding what to do for a living, so I asked myself how faired the writing dream. The answer was discouraging. Despite four years of chance after chance to write a short story, a poem, something, I had written pretty much nothing, save for many papers about many books I struggled to even remember, much less understand and critique. But I had songs, lots of them, many of which I had recorded on my Tascam multitrack tape machine (pictured above, post-college, Whittier, CA). Was music my calling, after all? Were my writerly dreams and English degree just a detour? I decided -- with my parents' blessing and using the remnants of my trust fund, most of which had gone to college, as it should have -- to find out and I headed to Los Angeles and go to music school. Not a proper school like Berklee, mind you, but a place called The Guitar Institute of Technology (GIT), now called Musician's Institute.
At GIT a learned more about the guitar than I ever thought possible (it had seemed like such a simple instrument) but the most important thing I learned was that I was no guitarist. My deficiencies were deep and most likely impossible to overcome. The news was also less-than-encouraging for my songwriting. I knew in my heart that my songs needed to be better, but a review at GIT by Kenny Loggins of a song I had written called "The Upside of Down" confirmed some deep fears, and the one person I had actually tried to sell my music to had listened to a few of my songs and then turned to me to say, "I really hate music like this."
At some point, I sat down to write a letter to my sister about how things were going for me in LA. I wanted to write a letter that would convey both a sense of the place and a sense of self. I felt very lost, and writing the letter was going to be a grounding moment, but as I put pen to paper, I realized something even more troubling than my music worries: I didn't know how to write. Sad but true, I held a BA in English, yet I was unsure about what went into a basic sentence. How could this be? I was shaken, for now not only music seemed tenuous, but also writing, a skill I had always just kind of assumed was in me.
I put off writing the letter and headed to a bookstore, where I bought The Writer's Art, by James Kilpatrick, because, well, it just looked good. I can safely say that this book changed my life. It opened my eyes to so much -- grammar, style, Quality. Later, I bought Strunk and White, too, but it could not hold a candle to The Writer's Art. And from that day on, though I continued with my guitar studies and scattered attempts at writing songs, I would say I became a writer, not because I started writing stories (I did not), but because I started to think constantly about the craft of prose. And when GIT ended, I did not stay in LA to try to break into a scene that would not have me. Instead, in late 1986, after about 18 months arriving in LA, I drove out of the basin, the smog thinning as I gained altitude along 101, and when I crested the final hill, I remember seeing blue sky at last. Then I plunged into tule fog. And as I drove on into that dark, grey cold, I did not realize how metaphoric the sad, water-filled air was.
NEXT: THE LOST YEARS