Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Necessity is the Mother of Reinvention

by Marilyn Brant

While this is in no way big news to anyone who grew up with me, what I thought I wanted to do with my life when I was a kid was "to become a rock star." Clearly, I was a very original 7th grader. (And oh, yes, I am definitely mocking my sensitive, lyric-writing, junior-high self.)

There were only three tiny problems with my plan to achieve the kind of global Top 40 domination that one-name megastars like "Madonna" and "Prince" had:
1. I could carry a tune, but I was a long way from possessing anything that approached a 'rare and natural' vocal talent.
2. I had acute stagefright and actually hated performing musically in front of anyone.
3. I was too anxious and too unwilling to take the steps needed to improve #1 or manage #2.
You know, I just really liked the fantasy...

So, I did not study much music in college, despite my deep love of the subject, until it turned up as a requirement for my major. All future educators had to take this beginners' guitar class. (I think some "Sound of Music"-loving administrator in the department was secretly convinced that all elementary teachers should be able to mimic Fraulein Maria and sing "Do Re Mi" in key while strumming.) Up until then, I'd played a couple of years of viola -- horribly, by the way -- and a few years of piano -- more successfully, but that's not saying a lot. Guitar was a brand new instrument for me, and the first time I tried to tune it, I broke two strings.

However, my classmates and my instructors did not know about my childhood daydreams of rock stardom or the lingering sadness that washes routinely over such a dreamer whenever she realizes she's given up on a passion without ever really trying. So, I decided I'd do my absolute best in this class. Give it my full effort. Pretend I wasn't scared to the point of nausea at the mere thought of singing/playing in front of everybody. Besides, I had no choice. I wouldn't graduate without those 3 effing credits.

The results were pretty gratifying. I picked up the basics of the instrument in just a few weeks. Delighted in the calluses on my fingertips, much as it hurt to develop them at first. Sped through learning the required songs and had the assistant professor listen to me play so I could get them checked off the list. Most of all, I was shocked to discover that the assistant thought I was one of the best guitarists in the class (though, keep in mind, this was a group of all beginners), and other students were starting to ask me questions like, "Hey, have you ever played before?" I did not say, "Only when I was imagining myself onstage as Pat Benatar." But I did feel that warm, inexpressible joy inside at getting to -- in a very small way -- acknowledge a dream I'd once had, confront a longstanding fear, and reinvent my self image. Not as a future rock star, of course, but as someone who could, in fact, play and sing in public. At least when necessary.

My final performance piece -- in front of the professor, the assistant, and a bunch of classmates -- rocked. Well, rocked in a country music sort of way (it was a John Denver song, LOL), but I not only got my required class credits, I managed to work up just enough courage to audition for our university's musical not long afterward. And I even got a part. A small chorus role in our college's summer production of "Li'l Abner." The rare and natural vocal talent I heard from some of my castmates during the show convinced me that I'd truly be out of my depth if I tried to compete with any of them professionally, but the gift I received was in getting a taste of the reality of singing onstage, not just the fantasy of it.

I thought about that whole experience a lot during my years as an aspiring writer. Sometimes being in a circumstance where we just don't have a choice in doing something or are limited in our options can be an odd blessing, particularly when it comes to figuring out who we are, what we really want, and what we're genuinely capable of doing. The reward is the confidence and courage that come from meeting an unforeseen challenge...and the knowledge that in some new, similarly unexpected circumstance, we could probably do it again.

p.s. What's a song or two that you love? Any that you wished you could sing onstage? If so, did you ever do it?!

Marilyn Brant is a national bestselling and award-winning author of contemporary women's fiction and romantic comedy. Her novel A Summer in Europe (Kensington 2011) was a Rhapsody Book Club top 20 bestselling title in "Fiction & Lit," and the Polish-language version was just released last month. Her next story, a coming-of-age romantic mystery called The Road to You, will be out in early October. It features the road-trip music of the 1970s, so there was much (private) jamming to Led Zeppelin, Boston and Bad Company while writing it. Also some Bee Gees, but don't tell anyone. ;)


  1. What a great post, Marilyn! I first and foremost wanted to be a rock star too and started writing songs way before I started writing fiction. I had some small successes along the way fronting my own bands and still love music. In fact recently I've gotten back into it, writing songs with my husband. I'm finding I like this shorter form a lot better when compared with slaving away on a novel that takes much too long to finish!

    1. Wendy,
      Thank you!! And I remember that music video you posted to go along with one of your novels. I really enjoyed it and was so impressed that you'd found such a lovely way to incorporate literature and song ;).
      It's been years since I've written lyrics, and nearly as long since I've composed music, but that does sound like a more tempting form of expression...especially today when I'm dealing with a particularly difficult chapter revision!!

  2. Marilyn, how interesting, in my eyes, you've always been a rock star! How funny that you mention Pat Benatar. To this day I listen to her while I'm on my exercise bike -- I close my eyes and pretend to be her....I too have limited musical experience, therefore I turn my fantasy into story. Maybe it's a thin line? Well done on following your musical dream as well as your writing career!

    1. LOL, Donnell!! Oh, I love you - thanks for saying that! And I agree that one of the great joys of writing is getting to turn fantasies into stories. What a great way to express it...
      I'm glad we share a love of Pat Benatar, btw! I have a bunch of her songs on my iPod and have found "Heartbreaker" to be a really good one for the elliptical :).

  3. Marilyn, I love this! I still want to be a rock star.

    1. Thanks, Brenda!
      You'd make an awesome rock star ;). Hey, aren't there a bunch of famous writers who are in a band together? Amy Tan and others?? Maybe we need to form a GBC rock group, too!!

  4. I loved reading this, Marilyn! You are always so inspirational and I so admire everything you've done. I really wish I could sing. I can't even carry a tune. I'm absolutely awful. When I was younger I totally used to dance around my room and pretend I was on stage, though. Pat Benatar was a favorite. As was Madonna. Oh, and the music from Flashdance. :)

    1. Oh, Robin, I love the music from "Flashdance," too!! ("What a Feeling" - another great song on my iPod... ;) I can't wait until we get together again in person at a conference so we can go to one of our rooms and dance around! I miss seeing you. xox

  5. Marilyn, You ROCK anyway girlfriend you rock when you write :).
    No I never wanted to be a Rock Star, me I wanted to be on Broadway, I did manage to get some thespian gigs in highschool played in the chorus of Camelot, 110 in the Shade and The Sound of Music I never had stage fright I could hold a tune just not one that was very memorable.
    My daughter however has one upped me and grew up to be an Opera singer on stage and a professor of music at a local college. Her voice is amazing and the first time I ever heard her solo perform she brought tears to my eyes.

    Now if I had to choose a song or two that I wish I could rock on stage one would be If Ever I would Leave you from Camelot and the other would be How Great Thou Art.
    Great post Marilyn

    1. Deb,
      Every message you write makes me smile! Thank you ;). I knew about your daughter being an opera singer and always thought that was amazing!! I can only imagine what it must be like to watch your little girl perform...I just know she got a lot of her talent from her mom! How wonderful that you were able to be in so many productions yourself. I've always liked "Camelot," and absolutely love "The Sound of Music." :)