The Happy Time Page was a kick in the balls for a kid like me.
On any given Sunday afternoon, 10 year old Joe Daly would have enjoyed building a Lego fortress and defending it against Cold War adversaries, watching the Boston Red Sox find a new and eye-watering way to lose, or listening to KISS albums on the little turntable in his bedroom.
Tragically, that was not how 10 year old Joe Daly spent his Sundays.
No, in those formative years, Sunday afternoons were reserved for the soul-whipping agony of writing for The Happy Time Page.
It was my mother’s idea.
The Happy Time Page was a feature in our local Sunday paper, wherein kids were encouraged to submit essays or poems on a generic subject that changed each week. The front page featured winning essays and poems, as well as the results of the weekly drawing competition that would make a guy like Ted McCagg head straight for the bourbon. Think of it as a print-version of The Nervous Breakdown, but without all the drugs, sex, travel, and introspection.
The best works were displayed on the front page of the section, with the author’s name prominently displayed beneath each piece. This is what everyone was shooting for- publication.
The only requirements for the essays were that they be on topic and at least fifty words. Fifty words. That’s where I hit the wall.
With a gun to my head (or the threat of television privileges being revoked), I could probably come up with twenty five words about baseball, spring, or some other subject like that. But fifty words? That was a whole afternoon, shot all to hell.
See, I had zero ambition to write. I was as motivated to write fifty words as a heroin addict would be to take a spinning class. I could speak relatively well for my age, but transcribing my thoughts with pencil and paper (I made too many mistakes for a pen) was a Herculean challenge for both my young mind and my tired hands.
Nonetheless, at my mother’s insistence, I would spend Sunday afternoons slogging through fifty word essays with the speed of climate change. It would take me upwards of two to three hours to churn out one of those pieces, with my mother requiring me to sit at the dining room table and write until I had a finished product.
During those two hours, after finishing each sentence, I would count the words on the entire page, praying that I had just completed the sentence that brought me past fifty words. On the odd occasion when I would allow myself to finish a thought even after reaching the fifty word minimum, I would expect the type of recognition generally reserved for Nobel Prize recipients, and would be baffled and resentful when such accolades were not received.
My mother would proofread each essay and returning each to me with several suggestions, all of which I would adopt without debate, simply to see the exercise come to a close. Although my mother’s own schooling ended at the age of sixteen, she had a great sense of the written word and she would coach me on finding concise and at times, even elegant ways of re-stating my thoughts.
Most of the time she would just ask me what I meant when I wrote a particular sentence. I didn’t realize it then, but the way we would discuss each sentence and the different ways of expressing a single idea gave me a new approach to writing. I’m not saying that I enjoyed it, but as the process evolved, churning out fifty words became a less odious task.
When the essay was finished, she would proofread it a final time and direct me to write out a new copy in pen, which she would then drop in the mail the following morning.
I stopped submitting pieces for The Happy Time Page as soon as I reached the maximum age requirement. I think my mother was bummed.
I ignored writing as a form of anything other than homework for the next twenty years. My first real publication came in law school, when I wrote an article for my law school’s IT Journal. If my article was approved by the editorial board, I would not only receive academic credit, but more importantly I could add the distinction of “Law Review” to my transcript and resume.
Articles were either accepted or rejected, with a select two or three being published in the school’s law journal, alongside the works of prominent judges, scholars, and attorneys.
To my surprise, I enjoyed the hell out of the process of writing my paper. Weighing in at a couple hundred pages, the format required that I submit two pages of footnotes for every single page of original thought. I had an editor who, unlike my mother, received quite a bit of resistance in matters of style and tone. It was exhilarating to feel passionate about something I wrote.
My friend Michelle also wrote for the Law Review and we agreed that if one of us were published, the other would have to buy a pair of cowboy boots for the lucky writer. More than anything, we both just wanted our papers to be accepted so we could collect the credit and graduate on time.
When the articles were reviewed by the editorial staff, we were stunned to discover that we were both nominated for publication. A week later, on a sunny Saturday afternoon on Chicago’s west side, we went boot shopping together.
Here’s how I earned those cowboy boots.
The first true labor of love that I published was an article about a band from San Diego called The Rugburns.
I spent colossal chunks of free time on AOL’s music message boards in the mid-nineties, becoming a regular on the boards for The Rugburns after hearing their anthem, “Me and Eddie Vedder.” Ironically, one of the people whom I met on those discussion boards would, years later, draw my attention to Brad Listi’s blog, and eventually to The Nervous Breakdown.
I found immense pleasure in writing about music on those discussion boards- especially where I would write a lengthy essay on an interpretation of a song or how certain music made me feel. My posts were pompous and at times self-important, but gradually I learned to discuss music in a way that allowed me to express my point of view without insisting that others agree. Writing about songs and artists flowed very easily for me, and the writing skills that I acquired in law school helped me present those ideas with clarity and in some cases, persuasion. I loved the challenge of finding creative ways to express my feelings about music. Talking about music was a passion, but writing about it was a rush.
One day a girl contacted me about The Rugburns. She had read some of my posts about the band and wondered if I would be interested in submitting an article for a zine she had just launched called “Lunatic Fringe.”
I agreed and a couple months later, I published my first piece about music.
Even after I began practicing law in 1994, music was always my number one passion. I would much rather be listening to Soundgarden bootlegs than working weekends to impress my bosses. In 1996, I spent a week touring around the midwest with The Rurburns. It was one of the most significant experiences of my life. So much so that when I returned to Chicago, I quit my job as a lawyer and began immersing myself in all aspects of music. I took up guitar, I expanded my musical tastes into new genres, and at the suggestion of an entertainment attorney, I began studying how the music industry worked. I had amassed a number of contacts in the music business- artists, managers, and quite a few contacts at some pretty big record labels, and I soon found myself writing promotional biographies for bands. When a band was in the final stages of preparing to release a new album, their label or management would pay me to write a short biography of the band that would be included with the CD and press kit that was sent out to radio stations all over the country.
The pay was lousy, but money mattered little to me in that regard. I did it for the sheer enjoyment, although at times it was a character-building experience. I received a request to do a bio for a solo artist, and without much guidance, submitted a first draft to the artist and label. The artist’s PR agent ripped the draft apart so ferociously and so personally, that I took almost a year off from writing any other music bios.
Another time a label hired me to do a biography on a band whose music I could not relate to at all. It was a hard rock band and I’m a hard rock guy, but I just could not get there from here. Still, I had to sit down with the band and find out what made them tick. The following exchange actually happened:
I asked, “So what are you guys trying to convey when you play live?”
“Dewd, we just like, want to like, try to you know, like, get people with jobs and shit to like totally forget their day, you know? It’s like, some guy works like forty hours, you know, and we just want him to come to our show and like, forget about his week. If we can make just one person forget about their week, then it’s all worth it, dewd, you know?”
“But they could just stay at home and get drunk to forget about their week. We need to highlight what makes you guys different. They should forget their week not because they’re drunk, but because your music is memorable. Does that make sense?”
“Exactly, dude! See, you get it. Alcohol only makes our music sound better!”
On the other hand, I had the privilege of writing biographies for some fascinating artists who were releasing jaw-droppingly good music.
To this day, I still take on the odd band bio, although an inflexible requirement is that I actually like the music.
SPIN Magazine is, depending on the reader, either a pretentious conclave of indier-than-thou hipsters, or a vital alternative to the commercially-savvy and creatively bankrupt Rolling Stone. While SPIN can sometimes trip over its own emo-ness, overall it gives exposure to bands and music that other mainstream publications might ignore.
Other than reading the magazine occasionally, my first real connection to SPIN was sleeping on the floor of their suite at the Driskill Hotel during the South By Southwest music festival in 1997. My college roommate Dan was interning for SPIN, doing a lot of hustling for the magazine for little or no pay. In return, we received a place to crash, a great view of the main stage, and we got to smoke pot in the suite with The Supersuckers.
Dan went on to secure the best job in the world- making mix tapes to send to college radio stations for the magazine. He spent his days listening to new (and free) CDs and making mix tapes of his favorite songs. Thirteen years later, I have yet to hear anyone describe a better job.
As Dan became more plugged in at SPIN, he made many connections, one of whom oversaw the magazine’s online column, “It Happened Last Night.” IHLN featured reviews of notable concerts and events across the country. They kept a list of writers and photographers in major cities across the country so that when a cool show was happening that they wanted to feature, they would reach out to the local writer and get him or her to the gig.
One day, while literally stepping onto a plane in Cabo San Lucas after an entirely undeserved vacation, I received a text from Dan. SPIN needed a San Diego writer. Black Francis (The Pixies, Frank Black) was playing a solo show there that they wanted to review. They had seen one of my artist bios and wondered if I might cover the event for the magazine.
A couple weeks later, I published my first music article for a major publication. I remember sitting backstage with Black Francis and Warren Zanes (The Del Fuegos), talking about our favorite pizza joints in Cambridge, MA (where I used to live), and thinking how awesome it would be if this were my actual job.
My friend Dana had been a Brad Listi junkie for quite some time. After hearing her incessantly raving about his writing, I began following his blog, and eventually The Nervous Breakdown. I instantly fell in love with TNB. The authors were talented, down-to-earth, and they wrote about subjects to which I could easily relate. Also, the comment culture was fun and people seemed to actually support each other, with fascinating conversations occurring along with the featured articles. I chose to lurk rather than participate in any of the conversations.
Dana would pepper me with entreaties to apply to write for TNB, which I resisted for a number of reasons. Mainly, as someone who had neither published a book, nor had any sort of platform, I was worried that I would have nothing to offer the site. I am grateful that she persisted because sometime at the end of 2009, I submitted an application. A month later I received a welcome letter from TNB with instructions on how to get started. The only thing left to do was write.
I agonized over my first article for two weeks, starting and scrapping ideas for three or four different columns. Finally I chose to write about my first band back in Chicago, and on a Saturday morning in February, 2009, I began writing. I finished that evening and spent the next 48 hours proofreading the piece ad nauseam. Each time I started to publish it, I chickened out and proofread it again.
Finally I threw caution to the wind and hit the “Publish button.” J.M. Blaine left me my first comment. As the day wore on, I began receiving and replying to comments from the very people I had always read and admired. Nine months later, I have met many of these authors in person and I am in contact with several on a regular basis. TNB is my online home.
As I published articles on TNB, I would post links to each piece on Facebook, asking my friends to take a look if they were interested. One day after posting a link, I received a note from a college friend whom I had not seen or heard from in close to twenty years. He had read some of my work on TNB and said he enjoyed them- especially the pieces about music. He wondered if I might be interested in talking about book ideas. As fate would have it, he was a literary agent.
In July, 2010, I was laid off from my job. Instead of jumping right into a job search, I decided to see what it would feel like to write for awhile.
I am now in the process of completing a proposal for my first book. It might never see the light of day, but in the course of the past month, it has been the most fulfilling work I have ever done. I sit at my laptop in my kitchen or at a local coffee shop, and with the sounds of Sigur Ros, Dead Confederate, or The Stone Roses wafting from my headphones, I write about things that matter to me. I laugh out loud, I research obscure details about bands and music, and I occasionally run upstairs to sift through papers and photographs to jog my memory as I write.
When people now ask what I do, I really have no answer. I clumsily say something like, “Well, I’m out of work now, and just writing to make use of the time…”
But once in awhile I boldly answer, “I’m a writer.”
It feels fucking awesome.
My mother would have been 77 years old next week had she not succumbed to cancer in 1989. The older I get, the greater the clarity I have with my past, and especially my time with my mother. As I look back on those Sunday afternoons in the dining room, wishing I were doing anything but writing for The Happy Time Page, I now see the gift that she has left me.
I am both humbled and grateful.