About ten years ago I spoke to a crowd of journalism students at one of my alma maters, Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. This particular batch of journalism students wanted to be music writers/critics, and at the time I made a small part of my living as a music writer/critic. I wrote for several publications, and the best-known publication won awards from The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune. It sold, in its best months, about 400,000 – 500,000 copies per issue. You could find it in places like Barnes & Noble and Borders Bookstores, in most national and international airports, and countless other places. The TV show “Portlandia” mentioned it. It was something of a cultural (if not a hipster) phenomenon. And I wrote as much, if not more, as any other writer for the publication. I was the back-page columnist, every issue, and I wrote hundreds of other album reviews and feature articles. And yes, I got paid for doing so.
It was a good gig, and I will be forever thankful for it. So please don’t take any of this as a criticism of the fine folks at Paste Magazine or what they created. And my alma mater had invited me back to share my success story. I was nothing but grateful.
But here’s what I told the assembled journalism students: “Follow your passions during your free time, whether that’s in the evenings or on the weekends or whenever that might work out for you. I know you don’t want to hear that. And I understand why you don’t want to hear it. But unless you’re independently wealthy, you need to figure out a way to earn a living, and music writing is very unlikely to be it. At some point in the not-too-distant future, you will need to make rent or mortgage payments, and buy insurance, and see your family doctor and dentist occasionally. And you will need to pay for those things. Your Plan B, whatever that is, needs to be your Plan A. Let me encourage you to think about this in ways that you probably haven’t considered before.”
If it was appropriate to tar and feather journalists from award-winning publications, I believe I would have been tarred and feathered that day. The hue and cry, the howls of outraged sensibilities, could have been heard as far away as Columbus. And I got it then, and I get it now. Such seemingly dour, pragmatic advice undercuts half the “If you dream it, you can do it” Disney movies ever made, and these young men and women were nothing if not the children of Disney. That message, and a thousand minor variations echoed on after-school TV specials and in classrooms and in churches (yes, there is a special Christian version of this) is as much a part of the American experience, the quintessentially American sensibility, as “anyone can grow up to be President” and “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” It was inscribed on the hearts and souls of those young, earnest journalism students. It is, sadly, not true.
I like the young woman quoted below. I like what she’s made of her life. She doesn’t deny the validity or the power of hopes and dreams, passions, the stuff that drives you and makes you glad to be alive. Nor would I. Without those things, life is little more than grey, monochromatic existence. But maybe it’s because I’ve encountered too much of what I like to think of as the “Baristas at 40” phenomenon; earnest songwriters and poets and painters looking for that one big break, either naively idealistic or cynically beaten down, slinging Venti macchiatos and fantasizing about their first interview with Oprah. Either no one told them, or more likely they simply didn’t want to believe, that it’s actually a good idea to feed your family, that work, in itself, can be ennobling, and can teach you lessons about perseverance, and looking for and finding joy in the mundane, and simply connecting with and caring for those around you, wherever you are.
If I was a 20-year-old journalism major (and I was), I wouldn’t want to hear that. So no offense taken, you Bobcats. But sometimes humans of New York are on to big truths. The person interviewing her probably didn’t want to hear it, either.