My friend Katy Kania asked, "What's the weirdest way you've found a connection between DJing and writing?"
When I started spinning back in aught-three, I was aiming for the underground. My intention was to make the world's best bedroom mixtapes. I planned to do weird things with retro pop music, but I loathed contemporary mainstream radio. I had zero intention of being a dance-floor DJ, or compromising with anybody, ever.
Then I played for a crowd for the first time, and things started shifting around in my brain. While it caused me immense psychic pain to buy my first Sean Paul single, I quickly learned that my technical skills were adrenaline-based, and that playing music that made people happy made me happy.
That doesn't mean it was an easy road. I was notoriously unpleasant when people had requests, and it wasn't just about the songs. For a beginning DJ, beatmatching on vinyl -- particularly using tracks with live drums -- takes total concentration, and I was always one drunk Beyoncé request away from a train wreck.
But I learned to talk while I mixed, and to follow the tastes of a given crowd. At first it was for economic reasons. I had a load of evil, early-twenties credit-card debt, so I started spinning three nights a week to pay it off. After two years of 6-hour sets in Albany, I was playing whatever people wanted me to play. It was a matter of survival.
And it made me miserable. A few years into the most successful phase of my DJ career, I dropped everything. I thought I was quitting for good, and it felt justified. I'd ended up so far from where I'd started that I could no longer recognize myself. The Kangol-wearing, licorice-root-chomping, all-request-playing character I called "BFG" wasn't me. I was having a crisis of authenticity, and once the debt was gone, I was willing to ditch that steady paycheck to get through it.
For the next couple of years, I played whatever the hell I wanted, often when the crowd didn't want me to. I ventured into quirky EDM and refused top-40 requests. I turned down paying gigs at bars, clubs, and weddings. Luckily, I started working with an artsy crowd who was into that sort of thing, so I didn't quite fall off the face of the earth, but I wasn't working all that much, either.
Then I had a baby. I started taking any gig I was offered, and I quickly came to my next crisis.
I remember the week vividly. Within the span of two days, I booked my first bar mitzvah -- still the most difficult juggling act any DJ can attempt -- and a corporate Christmas party that called for 1/3 classic rock, 1/3 country, and 1/3 Latin.
It was my worst nightmare. I cursed myself for selling out at least once an hour. I lost sleep. I exhausted the patience of my closest friends. Then I stomped in, galvanized by the weirdest anger I'd ever felt, and crushed both parties.
The weirdest thing happened after. By combining everything I'd learned when I was doing things my way with the lessons garnered by forcing a smile and playing Garth Brooks, I attained a flexibility that's become the keystone of my sets.
Before that moment, I was playing records.
After, I was playing the crowd.
Today, I honestly don't give a shit whether it's a corny line dance or the illest, most obscure white-label that gets people moving. I'm going to find a way to put peanut butter on their chocolate, because that's what I do. A Southern girl walks in and asks for country, I'm going to mix her Luke Bryan into my Daft Punk, then segue into Rob Base, and keep the crowd moving throughout. Today, I'm as interested in response as stimulus, and I can feel the difference in my sets -- and in my bookings. It's taken a long while, but I'm finally back where I was with the late-night bar gigs, just without the late-night bars. I feel good, and for the first time since I started out, I'm not actively considering quitting this year.
What does any of that have to do with writing?
That decade-long identity crisis came down to a struggle between my personal vision of art and the direct influence of a paying audience. It was long, it was rough, and it ended up where I never expected it to. And I needed that struggle. I wouldn't be the DJ I am without both the back-turned, no-requests approach and the complete capitulation to commercial demands that followed.
So when the same damn thing started happening with my writing, I was prepared. It took four years to sell Dead Boys, and in the midst of constant rejection, I freaked out so throughly that it made my identity crises as a DJ look fuzzy and adorable, because I cared less about DJing than about writing.
The world seemed to be telling me that I needed to change my writing in order to get it out.
I saw myself at a crossroads. I could go down one path -- marked Staying True to My Artistic Vision -- and learn to be content with satisfying myself while selling absolutely nothing.
I could go down the other and Find a Way to Compromise with Commercial Fiction.
It gave me some small comfort that I had, in a strange sense, been through it all already. The pushing, the pushing-back; the wrestling, the collapsing; the retraction into obscurity, the trying-on of the mainstream: I had a feeling that I knew where this was going, even while insisting to myself that Writing Is Different.
And writing is different. A readership is not a dance floor. Sweaty drunk people are a lot less complicated than a heterogeneous group of editors, critics, and readers. It's harder to justify the integrity of a guy pissing people off in a bar with music they hate than it is to argue for a career-killing but artistically brilliant move like the publication of Moby Dick.
But the differences didn't matter to me as much as one bizarre and purely theoretical similarity.
It was possible that compromising my personal vision of my life's literary work with the demands of the market could make my writing better in the same way it made my DJ sets better.
It was also harder to get myself this point, because I'd been working with my back turned and the door closed for over fifteen years. I had more skin in the game.
It was only because I'd been through it before that I was willing to push myself to try.
Once this new Dead Boys is out and about, you'll be able to make your own determination on whether that compromise was worthwhile. The next book I write will push the envelope even further, and I still don't know what will happen.
Will my inner Kilgore Trout continue to mourn the loss of my imaginary career as an avant-garde author once I have books in stores? Or will he go the way of my inner backpacker, who once wept every time I dropped a Taylor Swift track, but hasn't been heard from in years?
Tune in for the next exciting installment of Overthinking Everything, and you probably won't exactly find out.