What Metallica Teaches Me

Turn the page.

Turn the page.

So I’m watching this James Hetfield video, him at Guitar Center jamming a bit and talking about his early career with Metallica. About half way through, he starts playing this riff, and I think, “Could I ever learn to play that? I’ve got a Fender Strat electric and a Gibson Epiphone acoustic electric, surely I could learn to play that.”

Yes. I could. Gimme a year and practice every day, I could learn to play that riff.

But it would never be natural. It would never be second nature.

So here’s the hard truth: Writing fiction is pretty much the same way.


It all depends on what you want out of it and what you expect out of it.

Jame Hetfield apparently worked at “a sticker factory.” Which somehow fits, I don’t know why. He might’ve ended up staying there, maybe becoming a sticker factory manager someday. (After all, someone has to be the sticker factory manager. There ought to be pride in that. There ought to be pride in every job, but our nation currently doesn’t really support that – but I digress.) Maybe old James would’ve quit and gone on to study music in college, and become a professor someplace. But he didn’t. He went on to become Metallica. Meh tal ih KAH!

But he’d still be playing guitar. I’d bet anything on it.

James Hetfield plays guitar because James Hetfield can’t not play guitar.

I write novels because I can’t not write novels.

What is it you cannot not do? That’s the thing you should be doing. You might still have to work at the sticker factory or become a professor to fund whatever it is. (I know this because it’s what I’m in the process of doing – preparing to get paid for something other than writing novels. I probably won’t work at the sticker factory, though.)

There is a world of difference – and generally, years of difference – between “I wanna be a rock star” and doing the work it takes to get there. As in music, are there flashes of wild success in fiction? Yes. Whether these authors are “good” or not is a matter of opinion, of course, just as tastes vary wildly with music preferences. But both musicians and novelists, like any artists, can also hit a nerve in a community at a right place and time.

Most of them, however, work their butts off to get there. And then double the effort once they’ve “arrived.” That’s the secret. That’s the trick. There isn’t another.

The reality is, I may never be a New York Times bestseller. Not for lack of trying or hoping. I may never keynote at ALA, again not for lack of trying or hoping.

But I keep thinking about these musicians I know, who make crap money gigging around the world, country, or neighborhood, and can’t imagine doing anything else. They cobble together a living, maybe with some teaching on the side or as a studio back-up. They’re doing what they want to do.

There is a price for that lifestyle, of course. Only you can determine if that price is worth paying. (If you can marry rich, go for it.) (Mostly kidding, folks.*) There’s health insurance and car insurance and retirement to think about (if you have a car). Rent or mortgage. Hey, ever pay for pre-school? That’ll shock ya. Oh, and food and clothing.

Among other things.

So what are you willing to give up to do that thing you can’t not do? What path can you forge to do that thing for a little or a lot of money?

Hope is not a business plan. Luck is not the foundation of a life-long career.

Figure out what you want, then make a plan to go get it. Take yourself out for a nice long chat sometime and really ponder this thing you want to do. If you can see yourself doing anything else, you should probably go do that thing instead.

But if THIS thing—whatever it is, be it music, writing, poetry, cooking, gardening, becoming a SEAL, whatever—if this thing you cannot breathe without . . . then figure out how you’re gonna get there.

Because you can.

That’s all. Love ya.

~ Tom


*Oft told story: Joy and I were at a dinner with friends of her family. Someone asked us what we wanted to do as careers. We both answered truthfully. The guy laughed and said, “An artist and a social worker. You’re gonna be rolling in cash, huh?” 

Well…maybe someday. But no, prolly not. 🙂

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