I have here an email from a high-school senior in Texas who told me he wants to become a writer. He asked if I had any advice. Here is an excerpt from that letter:
“…Please help! I want to know how to pay my bills with writing! Any advice on this career path is appreciated.”
For starters, I have no advice. I’m terrible with advice. I’m even worse at paying bills, which is why my face is on posters at the local post office.
But I can tell you a story. And this story opens on a drizzly night in Atlanta. I was 24 years old. I sat in a little cafe, after hours, with an old man who I’ll call Moe. My band had just finished playing at a nearby beer joint. Moe had filled in as our substitute guitarist that evening.
In the back of the diner, a waitress was trying to force feed an elderly man in rags who was barefoot and shivering. Merle Haggard sang overhead.
Music is what I did before I became a writer. I played guitar with no-name bands. I did construction before that, but I quit that job to pursue music fo a while. Which was a huge mistake. This meant I had to “pay the bills” with music.
I was suddenly forced to take every gig that presented itself, from Chiefland to Timbuktu. So for years I played in ugly joints your mother warned you about. Occasionally, I also played at the Moose Lodge on bingo night. Or I played piano at revivals.
I quickly started to hate music. I discovered that the professional bar-musician life was not the carefree experience I once thought. I slept in crud-covered motels. I ate fast-food. I missed my wife.
I learned that the easiest way to kill what you love is to treat it like a career. I know this sounds painfully trite, but recall, you asked for my five-and-dime-store opinion.
So Moe and I sipped coffee and watched the waitress feed the barefoot man. Our ears were ringing from an entire evening spent playing loud music for drunk people in cowboy hats.
Deep in my heart I had always wanted to play sweet songs like “Stardust,” “Paper Moon,” and “Smile.” Instead, I was playing “Achy Breaky Heart” with a chain link fence around the stage.
Moe must have sensed how miserable I was. Because over our fried eggs he started telling me about himself.
He said his mother died when he was a boy. His father abandoned him at 14. He raised his three sisters then put himself through college and was determined to become “somebody.” And he did. He climbed a corporate ladder and became the president of a company in his previous life.
I almost spit coffee. “A president?” I said in disbelief.
Moe had scraggly white hair and an unshaven face. His appearance called to mind Gabby Hayes after a very bad night. He did not look like an executive.
Moe said he’d gotten so miserable in his former career that he’d forgotten how to have fun. He avowed to approach his next phase differently, which was why he sold everything and took a job working as a clerk in a department store.
Moe spent his evenings playing with local Atlanta acts because he loved music. And he was ready to have a little joy in life.
Then Moe told me something I’ll never forget. He said, “You ever heard of Bobby Jones?”
I frowned. “You mean the makeup brand?”
“No, not Bobbi Brown, you nit. Bobby Jones, the golfer.”
I shook my head. My people weren’t golf fans unless Dale Earnhardt was on the green.
Moe went on to explain that in the 1920s, Bobby Jones was the dominating golfer in America. In fact, Jones was maybe the greatest player to ever live. But here’s the thing. Jones never played professionally. He never even considered it.
Try to wrap your head around this. Jones was in his 20s, in his prime, the greatest golfer on the globe, but he refused to quit his day job.
Which I find astounding. Most 20-something guys I know are waiting to hit the bigtime. And by “hit the bigtime,” I mean they want to make enough money to purchase exotic islands, complete with matching pairs of exotic giraffes.
But Jones remained an amateur. He never endorsed a soft drink brand, never wore a jumpsuit with sponsorship logos emblazoned on the hindparts, never advertised foot powder on TV. What Bobby did was have fun with his life.
So I won’t bore you by talking about how Bobby Jones beat the stew out of the nation’s top professional golfers. And I won’t weigh you down with details about how Jones made history by claiming victories in four major tournaments (the open and amateur championships in the U.S. and the U.K.).
What I will tell you is this: When Jones was 28, he retired. And here’s what he said about it:
“It [championship golf] is something like a cage. First you are expected to get into it and then you are expected to stay there. But of course, nobody can stay there.”
Moe explained all this to a 20-something kid in a cafe one rainy night. A wayward young pup who, as it happened, needed to hear his gentle words.
After we finished eating, Moe tipped our waitress $60. He left the cash on the table since she was too busy feeding grits to the barefoot man.
Whereupon Moe looked me in the eye, and in the grizzled voice of experience, said: “Son, you were created for more than just paying bills.”
I never forgot it. Maybe you won’t either.