Eleven years ago I saw Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers play at the Austin City Limits Music Festival. I knew their music, but I couldn’t say I was a fan.
Still, the band was a headliner, and back when I was younger and my body could weather standing for hours on end within a mass of unshowered humanity, I loved attending shows like that to see bands I would have never experienced otherwise.
I will never forget the Heartbreakers’ set that night.
“Before the clouds rolled in, Petty and his Heartbreakers strolled onstage beneath the thunder of 60,000 fans.” Just six songs into their eighteen-song set, “the sky opens up, and the stage shuts down. By the time the 45-minute rain break ends, only the true blue remain.”*
Even though I’m not a fan, I am one of these true blue. I stay because I want to see what happens. I stay because I want my money’s worth. I stay because I might just be turning into a fan.
That’s when providence pours out a moment that can’t be scripted.
For the latter half of their set, the rain comes and goes. It’s never a deluge, but it’s there, threatening to shut down everyone’s good time.
But when that unmistakable guitar riff kicks off their first encore song, “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” the sky starts crying. The gates of heaven open wide.
That dark and foreboding riff—seriously, just play it right now as you finish this article—ushers in the storm. There couldn’t have been a better setting for the Heartbreakers to rip into this song.
And then, to hear the lyrics, in that moment, at that place:
“It was a beautiful day, the sun beat down … I felt so good, like anything was possible … The last three days the rain was unstoppable … I rolled on as the sky grew dark.”
I get goosebumps even now thinking about that unforgettable concert experience.
So what’s my Petty connection to the writing life?
At first, I thought I’d write about how, as writers, we need to learn how not to back down, how to stand our ground, how to keep this world from draggin’ us down “in a world that keeps on pushin’ me around.”
But then I remembered that serendipitous moment where sixty thousand of my newest friends and I ran down a dream with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
Last week, I discussed why writers have so much self-doubt. Part of the problem is that we often work for external rewards: being read, being published, being paid, being respected, etc. None of those are bad, but when they’re made the ultimate proof of whether you’ve “made it” as a writer, you’ll never feel vindicated. Even becoming a New York Times bestseller will only vindicate you for as long as your book remains on that list.
So, the goal ought to be to do the work for the sake of the work—to seek internal rewards that constantly propel you toward growing as a writer. In other words, you’re “workin’ on a mystery, goin’ wherever it leads, runnin’ down a dream.”
When you’re going wherever your writing leads, you provide more opportunities for your work to enjoy those serendipitous moments that can’t be scripted: the agent who saw your writing in a literary journal, the reporter who just happened to quote your book in the Washington Post, the reader who handed your book to someone who knows someone who knows Oprah.
Unless you’re a very cunning marketer or have no reservations about bribing people, you can’t plan these events. They happen because you did the work for the sake of the work without placing undue expectations on the external results of the work.
One of my favorite quotes is “I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.”**
The Heartbreakers couldn’t have scripted that moment eleven years ago. But since they had put in hard work for decades, they were ready for that moment. Since they didn’t back down from a threatening sky, they turned what could have been a failed show into an unforgettable experience.
The next time Resistance threatens to drown you, play “Runnin’ Down a Dream.”
Then do your work for the sake of the work.
And go wherever it leads.
- * ACL Fest Live Shots, Darcie Stevens
- ** While this quote is traditionally attributed to Thomas Jefferson, its origin is dubious.