I recently attended a concert by Ted Yoder, a hammered dulcimer player from Indiana who was on tour of the Western U.S. He plays a mixture of traditional songs, “yoderized” pop songs, and original compositions, and was the hammered dulcimer national champion in 2010. I enjoyed the concert immensely, as one of my characters in a recent novel plays the hammered dulcimer, and I was pleased to see I’d “gotten it right.”
Later I started finding out more about Yoder himself and came across this video in which he tells his story. He was born into a musical family, learned to sing and play piano, and wanted to be a rock star. Later in life he had the chance to hear a hammered dulcimer and was immediately smitten. He wanted to play the hammered dulcimer. It would be years before he would actually get his hands on an instrument. He began learning to play.
When a car accident left him unable to continue his career he decided he had to make a change in his life and pursue music instead. In 2008 he set a goal to play at least fifteen minutes every day. In less than two years later he won the national championship and has been able to support his (somewhat large) family from music ever since.
Why am I telling you this? Because I see a few lessons for writers in his experiences:
- It’s okay to pursue your dreams, and it’s okay to change your dreams. Yoder initially wanted to be a rock star. He’s not. But he is a professional musician and is making the music he loves. We may not end up doing what we initially imagined as writers, but it’s okay to try for it, and it’s okay to change it as our circumstances and perspectives change. Dan Well wanted to write fantasy, but has put himself on the map with horror and YA sci-fi.
- It takes time to “learn your instrument.” If I heard correctly it took Yoder ten years to learn to play before he got serious about his music. It took another two years to get to the level he wanted to be at. Learning a new instrument is a challenge. So is learning to write well. There are so many elements that go into creating a compelling story. Even those who “make it” as writers are still honing their skills years later. I recently finished a six-book series by Michael J. Sullivan which were his thirteenth through eighteenth novels of all the ones he’d written. I could still see significant improvement from the first book in the series to the last. We may never achieve perfection as writers, only “good enough”, and even that may take time.
- Winning boosts confidence. It’s entirely possible that Yoder was already good enough to make money as a musician before he won the national championship. But that one piece of outside validation seems to have been a turning point for him, at least mentally if not career-wise. He was already good, but he had proof that others thought he was good. Likewise, whether we self-publish or traditionally publish, there may come a point when we realize that people do indeed like to read our stuff. That boost of confidence likely goes a long way. And yet for myself I’ve always been averse to putting my work out there to be judged, because I feel I’m not ready. And I realize now that’s probably a mistake. Getting that key positive feedback may be a turning point, but I’ll never get it if I never seek it.
- Play the long game – have a plan. Yoder, when he decided he wanted to go professional, didn’t just say “Hey, I want to go professional”. He sat down and mapped out what he felt he needed to do to get there. He started with something manageable: practice at least fifteen minutes every day, whether he wanted to or not. He set a goal to compete in the national championship. He broke it down into steps he could take toward his goal. We can do the same. Do we need to establish a habit of writing every day? Do we need to work on particular aspects of writing, such as characterization or setting up good twists? Map it out. Make a plan of what you think it takes, and then work the plan.
- Write what you enjoy. Yoder loved his instrument, but he didn’t necessarily like the music that is traditionally played on that instrument. So he began arranging and composing music he wanted to hear. It turns out that’s what other people want to hear, too, and they’re willing to pay to hear it. (I myself bought every album he’s made.) While I suppose it’s possible to “fake it ’til you make it” in writing, I believe there’s a special synergy that comes from writing what you enjoy that kicks your writing up another notch and attracts attention. Yes, it’s possible to appeal to too narrow a readership, but even that may be preferable to appealing to none because you’re “playing it safe” or “writing to the market.”
To be honest, I never would have thought it possible to make a living playing hammered dulcimer. It’s not exactly a well-known, popular instrument making it big in grunge bands or the like. Ted Yoder is taking the road less traveled and making it work. Perhaps there is some inspiration there for all of us. Here’s the whole video: