I’ve spent the last 30 years as part of an industry that I have never loved. And, frankly, it has never loved me, though I take pause even with that assertion. Does it really love anyone? Or is it merely more tolerable and pliant and giving (and forgiving) to the ones who have the gift for manipulating it? I don’t. Have the gift, that is. I never did.
Now, let me preface everything that follows with the pronouncement that I have had a fortunate career (writer and musician are my vocations). It’s never been large. Never global. But the shelves are always stocked. There’s always content. And I am blessed.
Here, however, is the crux of my quagmire. I have always resisted working the system. And I’ve had people in my life literally shake my shoulders with, “what’s wrong with you!” Especially when they know me well, and know that as equal as is my great skill of ignoring the system, is also, paradoxically, my great desire to thrive within it.
There’s the time I had a foreign record deal. I was in a state of ridiculous elation over having scored this. And when I was overseas promoting it, I was asked in an interview what I thought of my hit song. (Yes, I had a hit song in this particular country many moons ago.) The truth was, I hated it. I thought it was poorly composed, and I was angry at the phenomenon that merely based on this particular writer/producer’s reputation and popularity in the community that his song (ostensibly my song) was an instant hit. Did anyone out there ever actually stop to consider if the song was good? …. had been my perplexed self-questions.
I reflect now back to the day we recorded the song, at the legendary Capitol Records, which gave me a total thrill independent of the dreck I was about to record, and the knot in my gut over said dreck. And I remember having a hard time connecting with the song, and therefore failing to deliver any semblance of an authentic take. I sounded terrible to myself. So I asked the man producing the track, the songwriter, to please tell me what the song meant. I didn’t understand the seemingly disconnected lyrics, but felt it was only fair to give him the benefit of the doubt, and assume first that I just didn’t get something, that it was over my head, rather than to assume it was simply lazy writing. When he, very frustratingly, said to me, and clearly done with me wasting his time, “What do you mean, what does it mean? Just sing the damn song!” I knew in that instant that we’d all sold our souls to the devil.
Now back (or forward, as it were) to being interviewed about it. Why would anyone even ask me IF I liked the song? I’d recorded it. I’d been complicit in the crime. I was here promoting it. Why wouldn’t they just assume I liked it? Instead, as if I were wearing my guilt and shame on my forehead, they would ask me, in their barely conjugated English, if I liked my big, giant hit. And I suddenly felt like that old commercial about E.F. Hutton, where everyone turns their head in my direction, and shuts up. If there was any part of my soul that hadn’t yet become the Devil’s bitch, I owed it to said part.
And so I said, so sheepishly that if I’d had testicles they’d’ve been sucked right up inside of me: “No.”
The room went bedlam. Seriously. And bedlam in a foreign language is just white noise, but the gist was pretty clear.
I was properly schooled and ripped a new one, later on that day by a label rep, on the obligation that is mine to play the game, and oh, I don’t know, maybe think about being a little bit gracious for this opportunity you’ve been given in the first place, Miss Brown. There wasn’t a single thing that was said to me in this rant that wasn’t absolutely correct, and what I deserved. I’d signed on for this ride. It had been responsible for a lot of money in my pocket (fleeting though that was), my first jaunt abroad, and the potential for who-knew-how-many doors to be opened for me. And now it was time to help sell this thing, to help make its investors their money back, to help us all get somewhere in this business. I was obedient for the rest of the trip.
Needless to say, they were not interested in renewing my contract for a second album. It was “good riddance to that arrogant chick.” I cannot blame them. I’d been their liability with that one little powerful word. And yet once I got back to the States, and resumed my life, I was beyond frustrated with my failed efforts to parlay that experience into something more, bigger, better, a roll, a continuing relationship with that record company. And I genuinely did not understand how that closed door might’ve had anything to do with my unwillingness to be a company man.
Okay, here’s just one more example of my industry and me being at odds, and then I’ll leave it alone, because truth be told I’ve got examples by the droves, but I’m sure you have my dynamic by now.
My second literary agent (I’ve been through two, with no book deal between them) seriously believed in my writing. The way she praised me, she could not have been any better for my ego. She’d read two of my manuscripts (one of which is now The Assassination of Gabriel Champion, which came out last year, published under my own imprint, because I’ve never managed to get that book deal), and she thought I was someone very special. She also stated quite frankly to me, in agreeing to take me on, that her specialty was selling romance writers, but that she so believed in me that she would try this area that was not even her expertise, which is the general fiction/literary fiction genre.
When all efforts were exhausted to get me a deal, she took a meeting with me, and urged me to consider writing romance novels. I told her that I’d never read them, but had a good impression of what we were talking here, and that it was of no interest to me. She gave me a handful of books by some of her authors, encouraged me to learn what the genre was about, and to at least consider it. Her spiel was that she didn’t have a clue how to sell a literary novel (not the most popular in this age’s quick-read-bathroom-reading-airport-reading-breezy-formula culture), but that romance she knew, and she knew it well, and she could make us both a lot of money.
I took the books home, read a couple of them, and my stomach churned at how much I disliked them. And not the specific books themselves, or the writing, per se, but the formula. Which includes: That the conflict in the story always be external, never internal. It needs to be about someone or some thing/institution getting in your protagonist’s way from her (almost always a her) intended pursuit (romance, of course). It is never about internal conflicts and psychological dynamics being the barriers to a protagonist’s road. It is never intended to be an exploration of soul or the human condition. And the result must always be that she gets her man. Not my kind of book. I want my guts turned inside out by a book. So, as a reader, I knew what kind of writer I wanted to be … what kind of writer I was.
I prayed so hard on this, because I knew that I was just a “yes” away from possibly making my name as a writer (my agent was confident that she could do right by me). And that was damned enticing. Yet, in the end, I chose not to go that path. My conversation with self and God was that life was too short, and my creative voice too precious to exert any amount of energy writing something that I did not love. Self-important? Well, yes. I believe there should be no shame in believing that what we are put on this earth to do is important.
So, there you go. This is what I do. I derail.
In all of my frustrations over the years with continuing to be what many would call “small time” with my artistic pursuits, it almost never dawns on me my own culpability in the deed, and my seeming penchant for self-sabotage. And so I’ve remained, for better and for worse, a loiterer in this business. Someone who doesn’t really belong here, but who has hovered around the fringes long enough to actually be somewhat of a tiny institution, a familiarity (even loved by some, which always humbles me), but almost never invited to come inside and sit at the grownup table. That’s the “worse” part; that because of my own stubborn, self-important machinations, I may never be lauded on that scale of which I’ve always dreamed.
But then there’s the “better” part. I have carved for myself a voice, a brand. It is unique. Some love it, others not so much. That’s okay. It has perseverance. It has legs. Even in spite of the many closed doors. And it is here that my penchant for stubbornness and hardheadedness actually works FOR me.
Doing it on my terms is the surest way to sleep soundly at night. To keep my soul clean, and my legacy one I’ll never, ever have to disclaim. It is who I am. It not only nourishes my spirit, but keeps me firmly grounded in integrity.
Opportunities may have passed me by. Many never offered. But my voice, as an artist, writer, songsmith, singer, is strong and immovable. It is oak. And I am learning to let go of regrets. It’s a rancid lesson sometimes, full of painful dawnings. Because what I do know about myself is that I always seem to take 4 steps when 2 would do the job. There is just a make-it-happen! gene that I seem to be missing. But I also can’t help believing that if I had managed to master the chops of working the system, that I simply would be a different artist. And, frankly, I’m kinda partial to the one I’ve cultivated.
Is this about reclaiming my better self? Fostering grace? After more than a decade lingering in and out of minor depression? Self-doubt? Bitterness at my industry? Bitterness at having to age while still holding onto that rung of my youth-worshipping business? I think it may well be. It also could be a mass of rationalizations. But then again, what is that? Just a way of accepting, really. That the here and now is all that matters. That our efforts and our contributions, and even our sometime inability to make things happen, will render whatever it renders. And whatever that is….is a part of our story. And is okay.
That’s a far more peaceful way to live. I’m opting for that. Non-attachment to outcome. Just do. Because truth be told, I have ridiculous stretches of creative productivity, and they are always accompanied by joy. Is there a better way to live than that?
Life has unfolded for me exactly as it was meant to. The rocks that have been thrown in my way (or that I’ve tossed in my own way) have built a certain muscle on me. Some walk between the raindrops, and get everything easily. I know many of that type. I have a good life, a blessed life. But I am not that person. And if I were, frankly I’m fairly certain that I would be unmanageable. So, I do believe I am a better person because of the path that has been selected for me.
And yes, that means I was destined to be the difficult one. The one you just can’t reason with, when an opportunity is being offered. Stubborn to a fault.
Oy. There are worse mantles, I guess.
Angela Carole Brown is the author of three published books, The Assassination of Gabriel Champion, The Kidney Journals: Memoirs of a Desperate Lifesaver, and Trading Fours, and has produced several albums of music and a yoga/mindfulness CD. Bindi Girl Chronicles is her writing blog. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram & YouTube.