By Mark E. Smith
The Deer Head Inn, in the middle of virtually nowhere, in a 150-year-old saloon-hotel on the Pennsylvania-New Jersey border, claims to be the oldest continually operating jazz club in the United States. That status may be up for debate, but what’s a fact is that you’ll see literally among the best jazz musicians in the world there on any given Friday night, among a silent, eyes-fixed crowd of no more than twenty. It’s as intense as it gets.
Now, I, myself, know nothing about jazz. But, I know intensity – and I know what it takes to get that good. You play every day of your life. You play till your hands, fingers blister and bleed. And, when you’re not playing and practicing, you’re thinking about it, learning about it, breathing it. See, you don’t get to be the best in the world overnight, and you don’t do it without a drive beyond all drives, where nothing stops you, not even blisters and blood.
I’ve learned time and time again in my own life that when we start where other people stop, that’s where true progress begins.
Like the jazz musicians I go see at the Dear Head Inn, I have some idea of the sacrifice it takes to pursue the extraordinary, to start where others stop, to push yourself till you literally bleed. See, among the most intense, extraordinary times in my life was in my mid twenties, when I was broke, finishing up undergraduate work and writing freelance. I had come a long way in life, but I knew that I could write better, and by writing better, I could live better.
During that era in the literary world, San Francisco State University’s creative writing program was renown as the best-of-the-best, where from the students to the staff to the guest lecturers, it was an incubator of craft, the truest heights of writing. And, I wanted to go there; I wanted to be among the best-of-the-best.
However, there was every reason why I couldn’t go: it was unbelievably competitive to get in to, I couldn’t afford tuition, and, as one with a severe disability, I had no transportation to get there every day, 50 miles from my home. But, in growing up with cerebral palsy, I knew a lot about tenacity and perseverance.
I put together an application and portfolio, and was immediately accepted into the program. Then, I scrambled to secure grants and scholarships, getting my tuition paid. Lastly, I found that by taking two buses and a train, three hours each way, I could make the commute.
I remember sitting through my classes the first day and knowing that I was living the opportunity of a lifetime.
Semester after semester, I was being taught by and working with the top writers in the world. Guest lecturers flew in, best-selling novelists critiqued my work, and I learned the formal craft of writing to a level I never knew existed. And, then, there was the whole decadent, glamorous scene that surrounded it all – from the literati to the tantalizingly lurid.
But, for me to study and write at that level, I had to live it to an ultimately disturbing intensity. Due to my disability, I wasn’t able to simply use the bathroom, so the commute and my schedule had me not urinating or drinking for 18 hours per day. Ultimately, my body was at its breaking point.
One morning my wife of the time got to my urinal before I did, and discovered my secret: I’d been urinating blood for months, an infection so bad that I should have been hospitalized. Yet, like every other morning, I raced to catch the bus. Why would I risk my health and live in such agony, all in the name of writing?
The answer is, I didn’t want to stop where others would. If you’re going to be great at what you do, sometimes you must throw rationale out the window and push yourself beyond what’s logical. Like a jazz great, you need to play till your fingers bleed.