And if I put my fingers here, and if I say
“I love you, dear”
And if I play the same three chords,
Will you just yawn and say
It’s all been done
It’s all been done
It’s all been done before
Barenaked Ladies. Some lyrics from It’s All Been Done. I ponder this as I rise this morning, plucked from my warm bed at 5:15 a.m. by the chirping of the CO2 detector in my bedroom. (In my dream, it was a persistent shrill whistle on a job-site.) If I go back to sleep, I think, will it just wake me again? And then, inevitably, I think of the Const. Laurie Hawkins tragedy, how she and her husband and their two kids, were all found dying of carbon monoxide poisoning in their Woodstock, Ontario home in December 2008. They’re the reason I have the CO2 detectors. If I go back to sleep, will I wake up again?
I get up. I’m not overly concerned about carbon monoxide build-up, though. The fireplace in my bedroom recently had service. I google CO2 detectors and see that “Kidde units manufactured prior to 2013 had a 7-year lifespan ONLY.” I have Kidde units, so I guess this one’s telling me it’s time to purchase new ones.
What does all of this have to do with “it’s all been done”? I think it started as I descended the stairs, reluctantly (what could I possibly have for you at this hour?) heading toward my MacBook in the kitchen for something beyond googling CO2 detectors. I know Boris the Boston Terrier is currently replacing me under the covers. It’s his MO. Also, my fiancé B has already left the house, to catch an early flight, for business. The kids all flew the coop years ago. And I think, I’m alone. There’s no witness. I can do anything. Or, because “it’s all been done”, nothing at all.
And then, comes the ghost. The eerie feel of the house that I raised my kids in. So different from the morning family home that was. And zwhipp. (A sound my mom used to make.) Nostalgia slithers into my body, much like a short-haired, nervous dog into a warm, safe haven.
“Go away,” I say. “I’m writing. It’s what creatives do. Steal grey, pre-dawn moments, even in cold, depressing January, turn them to gold.” Minus sentimentality. My artist friend Deb has taught me sentimentality is the enemy. I see this now too. When the passage of time gets you far enough away from a piece of your own work, or an editor writes in red “too much here?” on a piece about one of your heroes, you’ve forgotten to chuck sentimentality, along with ego, at your office door.
And so, I stick AOC (Ass On Chair), work on the fiction piece, set in a different time and place – warmer – than here and force myself to stay at it until daylight and hunger set in. Later, while slurping granola and reading a grisly murder tale in today’s paper, “Sublet killer seeks ‘closure’”, I think about a recent exchange with a potential children’s book writer.
“The problem is,” she said, “that every time I think of something to write about, it’s already done by someone, or there is a book out about that.”
And I answered, “Everything has been done before. It’s the writer’s job to put their own spin on it.”
Here’s a good example: I did a writer’s correspondence course, with London (yes, The Apologetic London) writer Joan Barfoot, when I was working on Long Climb Back. As luck would have it, I chose to read her novel Luck – “a dark, witty novel about life, love, death and happiness”, also a Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist – to get to know her style of writing prior to our correspondence. Do you know what Luck is about? The collateral damage suffered after a forty-six-year-old man suddenly dies. What is Long Climb Back about? Same. As I tried to shake it off – Barfoot’s grand style, approach, success – inside my head I railed, Luck is fiction! Why couldn’t she have made him a forty-five-year-old man? Or forty-seven even? Mine is memoir. I have no choice.
So, in pursuit of your dream, whatever dream that may be – or even plucked from a dream – do you give in? Because you miss the mark, over and over? Or because someone might “just yawn and say, ‘it’s all been done before’”? Or because it’s been done before better than you can possibly imagine?
Or does the burning inside you make you find a way? Your way? Like Sinatra? Like Glenn Frey, perhaps?
Bernie Leadon, a founding member of the Eagles and the one who famously quit the band in 1975 by dumping beer over Glenn Frey’s head, recently wrote to Bob Lefsetz about his bandmate. I really liked what he had to say, about universality in general and Frey’s creative talent in particular:
“One thing I learned over the years about a songwriter expressing personal feelings, is that it turns out that since all humans feel essentially the same feelings, but that most folks don’t know how to express them, that when a songwriter talks about something very personal, it turns out to have universal appeal, because everyone can say ‘yeah! That’s how I feel! He understands me like no one else!’ So in a very counterintuitive way, it’s not the large general statement which has universal appeal, but rather the most intimate and personal which does.”
Website picture is of me, pleased with myself because of a couple of hours of early morning words written my way.