What does mastery look like? Part 2: Songwriting

Write a song, then perform it, accompanying myself on guitar at a musical open mic.

When I wrote out my intentions for this feat, I denoted musical open mic for a reason. I don’t want to give myself the wiggle room to strum two chords, spout off some gibberish or parody lyrics and call it a win. I have to risk being terrible, and being laughed at in a place that isn’t a designated area for that. This one is about vulnerability and being serious about an art form. Serious enough to risk being embarrassed. To put myself out there.

One of the alternate titles for this blog that I considered was, “Permission to Suck”. It is all giving myself permission to really be bad at something. To be bad at something I care about, more specifically. To live in it until I’m better—even if I never get good. To try. To risk. To dare. Writing a song is something I’ve wanted to do since I was old enough to realize that music didn’t just spontaneously spring fully formed from the sky. I am scared to death to do this challenge.

Most of this experiment is using the process of learning of novel skills and completing measurable goals is to help break myself from a decades long rut of failure and indecision. I have worked jobs that are not challenging (or are challenging in all the wrong ways) or fulfilling for most of my adult life; always with the idea that one day soon I would get my shit together and build a better life for myself. That I would carve out a place for Jeremy D. Nichols alone. Over twenty years later I was still spinning my wheels. I had flashes of inspiration here and there. I have written some things that got made into shows and films people have seen and enjoyed. I’ve acted in some great plays and films myself. I’ve made wonderful friendships and had great experiences learning with my collaborators over the years—this is not a case of me shitting on the things that I have accomplished or the people I have worked with. Far from it. I regret only that I, and I alone have not done more with my time. Most of my failures in life are failures of omission. Being too afraid to try something new or scary has held me back for too long. I think that I am naturally risk-averse and avoidant, but boy howdy have I domesticated and cultivated this tendency over the years. I grew them like a little hedge, to protect my home from the winds of the unknown and unknowable. But the hedge has long overgrown its bounds and has become a bramble-filled and tangled thicket that blocks my little house from the light. I may never be a great songwriter, but I declare here and now that I want that to be my goal. That I want to try hard and do my best at something that means a lot to me.

I wear humor like armor to protect myself from what I consider a hostile world. And I will use it like a weapon if I feel I’m being attacked. For many years, being funny has been my only “thing”. I’m the funny fat guy. For an avoidant person like myself, it’s the perfect persona to adopt. It can be deployed with flippancy to deflect anything that might make me feel bad or awkward. Sarcasm can let me be hostile to someone who’s hurt me without me actually having to be vulnerable and let them know how hurt I really am. Being funny is synonymous with being cool, so I get attention without having to work on being a better friend. People let me slide. They let me be their friend without me ever having to reveal who I am and what I want from life. If they do start to try to get to know me better, I can make sure that a cutting barb backs them up enough to give me space. If I fuck up or fail in some way, I can just shrug it off—everybody knows I don’t give a shit about anything, right? This is not to say that I don’t have real relationships and that my friends and loved ones don’t really know me. What I’m saying is, that in spite of my worst intentions I have love in my life. Love because they put themselves out there. I want to put myself out there with a song that I tried hard to make good. I want to sing it to the best of my ability, and I want it to be a great fucking song.

The greatest irony of my life is that I became a failure trying to avoid failure. I’m giving myself permission to suck.

One more thing:

I’m not saying that I don’t want to be funny. I just don’t want it to be my thing. In junior high I was the Led Zeppelin kid. I knew everything about them, owned all of their albums. I had posters, read all of the books I could find. Had my jean jacket covered in Led Zeppelin pins etc. But one day I decided I didn’t want to be that kid. I still liked the band when I decided not to be that kid anymore, but I didn’t wear a Led Zeppelin shirt to school three days a week. I just toned it all down a bit.