Picking Up the Banjo: Unusual Paths to a Writing Career

Written by Kari Maaren

I’ve had a weird path to becoming a published author. If I were to go back and trace it, it would look something like this: child with writing ambitions > university student > grad student > webcartoonist > university instructor > independent musician > about-to-be-published author (as well as webcartoonist, university instructor, and independent musician, all at the same time). If you want advice on how to replicate this path, I can’t help you. All the advice I’ve heard about building a writing career will tell you to do the opposite of what I did: begin submitting early (I submitted a novel once in my twenties and then nothing until my mid-thirties), produce lots of short stories (I’ve got one old short story kicking around looking for a home), don’t split your attention between too many endeavours (yeah…), rely on hard work rather than dumb luck to get your first acceptance (yeeeeaaaah…). It’s good advice. But I don’t think it’s the only way.

The creative people I know tend to be creative in all sorts of directions at once. I know at least two writer/cartoonist/musicians, one of whom also designs escape games. Writer/musicians are common as well; I know several of those. Some of my most creative friends are physicists. I know a physicist/writer (who also loves and has written musicals), a physicist/singer/pianist, a physicist/artist, a physicist/guitarist who eventually left physics to become a pilot, and a very successful physicist/filmmaker.* Physics is not exactly a creative art, but it is creative, and it tends to attract people whose brains are happy to mull over string theory and parody lyrics at the same time. Grad school in general is full of people overflowing with a sort of angry creativity that occasionally erupts into comic songs, satirical magazines, and short films about how croquet can go terribly wrong.**

Many of my non-grad-student friends are creative too, and again, the creativity is not singular. It’s funny how we’ve got this idea that concentrating on a single area is necessary for success. Well…maybe it’s not so funny. Musicians will understand this one. Compare a multi-instrumentalist with someone who has studied a single instrument—let’s say the clarinet—for decades. The clarinetist will have mastered this one instrument to an extraordinary degree. She’ll live and breathe the clarinet. Her hard work and talent will combine to make her extraordinary. This doesn’t guarantee her success, but it gives her a leg up.

The multi-instrumentalist plays the piano quite well and the guitar okay and the mandolin with surprising skill and the accordion in a slapdash manner that is actually rather appealing. She can handle the flute and the tin whistle and the banjo and the ukulele. She’s acquired a cittern and a second-hand saxophone and is learning to play the harp. If you hand her some sort of percussion, she’ll figure it out. She hasn’t achieved mastery on any of these instruments, but she’s a lot of fun at sessions.

So which one has it right? The clarinetist has poured everything into a single instrument; the multi-instrumentalist has spread the love around. To some, it will seem like a no-brainer: the clarinetist wins, of course. She is utterly familiar with her instrument. She has spent her life sculpting something sublime. Others, however, will be on the side of the multi-instrumentalist. She’s learned to adapt. She can transfer the skills she’s acquired on one instrument to others. Her approach is more chaotic but also more flexible. And who’s to say that her ability to pick up a banjo and just sort of figure it out will not add something to her musicality that the clarinetist is lacking?

Not all creativity is the same. Some grows from intensive study; some comes together in a glorious mishmash that appears sloppy and haphazard from the outside but produces something that wouldn’t have been possible with a more single-minded approach. One type is not necessarily better than the other. And so I’m not sure the “there is only one true path to becoming a writer” cliché is entirely fair. It also may not quite be keeping up with the unexpected zigzags our culture has been taking lately. The Internet is a strange and wonderful landscape full of weird creativity. I’m not sure it’s always going to be seen as a bad thing to be bizarrely creative online while trying to rev up your writing career.

If you’re more of a clarinetist, stick with that. Mastering one skill completely is a fantastic thing to be able to do. But if you’re just not built that way, don’t be afraid to pick up a banjo. Sometimes that bit of twang is just what you need to get you to your goal.


*I’m not actually sure why I know so many physicists. My degree was in English literature.

**It’s called Oddballs, it was created by grad students in the 1960s, and someone has taken it down off YouTube…damn it.

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