Three words from my music teacher were enough.
The chorus room at Ardmore Junior High School was a mausoleum of battered pianos and out-of-tune autoharps. We sat in folding chairs as Mr. Hawthorne instructed us in the major and minor scales.
"Mi, a name I call myself," I sang out. The girl next to me winced.
On the day of chorus tryouts, Mr. Hawthorne sounded middle C on the piano. I warbled my way through the opening measures of "Morning Is Broken" and felt a firm hand on my shoulder.
"I'm sorry," he said. "You can't sing."
And I didn't. For 20 years.
Oh, I kept bleating away in the shower and on family road trips, buoyed by the fact that my parents couldn't carry a tune in a Chevrolet. But in public, even when friends chorused "Happy Birthday," I kept quiet, afraid my voice would curdle the mix.
We all carry self-fulfilling stories, mash-ups of what we've been told, where we've succeeded and how we've gone horribly wrong. The stories can buoy us—the coach who coaxed us to run the distance; the English teacher who praised our poem—but just as easily, they can freeze us midstride. They keep us on the tame side of creativity. To violate them is the hardest kind of trespass: surmounting the stereotypes we hold about ourselves.
And that's exactly what brought me, one sweaty-palmed and dry-mouthed Sunday afternoon, to play my guitar and sing for a bunch of strangers.
I'd been taking private lessons for eight years. At home, I'd sit on the porch, Victory ale by my side, and strum my folky repertoire. But I had never sung, not even once, during a lesson in my teacher's basement studio.
On the way to the recital, I fiddled with the radio until I heard the words "creativity" and "fear." It was novelist Elizabeth Gilbert on the TED Radio Hour: "Have a little conversation with your fear when it starts to get riled up," she advised. "Let it know, 'I'm just trying to write a poem, no one's going to die.'"
When I arrived, the backyard was set with a hodgepodge of borrowed chairs. The other students were just like me: gray-haired amateurs toting our battered instruments and worrying we'd forget how to finger F# minor.
And if we did, what terrible thing would happen? We weren't neurosurgeons or air traffic controllers. Playing music in middle age isn't an impulse to risk your life. It's a chance to show your soul.
So what was I waiting for?
That afternoon, my left knee quivered as I plucked the occasional tuneless string. My notes floated out, a little sturdier with each measure, and mixed with bird calls, with helicopter buzz, with the applause—loud enough to silence Mr. Hawthorne—that followed each imperfect song.