Joni Mitchell & The Myth of Overnight Sensation
by Writing Workshops Staff
A month ago
We listen to Joni Mitchell a lot in our household. Especially on road trips. I've long been fascinated by her music, her voice, her singular career. It is hard not to think of her as anything but a fully formed artist from the very beginning. But, Joni Mitchell started out small, as we all must. She wrote her first songs (and had some go-to covers) and used them to get on stage in small nightclubs in Saskatchewan. She traveled across western Canada before going back east to busk in Toronto.
She was paying her dues, yes. But more important than that she was doing the work. Logging the miles. Writing the songs. Getting on stage, often for very small crowds. In 1965, she moved to the States and began touring. Then she released her 1971 album Blue. A lot of folks think it is one of the best albums of all time. Rolling Stone rated it #30 on their list of the "500 Greatest Albums of All Time". The New York Times named Blue one of the 25 albums that represented "turning points and pinnacles in 20th-century popular music". That's high praise, and you can read John Corbett's appreciation of Blue over at Lit Hub.
But what if Joni Mitchell would have given up in 1968, three years before Blue was released? All those miles across western Canada. Busking in the streets of Toronto. Trying to find her voice. What if all we knew of Joni Mitchell was a dusty old recording of "Cara's Castle", put on tape in 1967 and quickly forgotten? Had Mitchell given up then, she could look back on her life and honestly say that she tried and just didn't make it. But that isn't what happened. She kept putting gas in the van, writing new songs, playing new clubs.
Slow and steady wins the race. I believe what Richard Bach said: A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit. I think about the myth of the overnight sensation a lot. When popular culture delivers something to our door we don't often see the miles logged that it took to get to us.
The miles you log in obscurity as a writer are important. They allow you to find your voice, your subject, your thick skin. They also provide the kind of emotional range that will deepen your work. So, if you're discouraged or stuck or feel like the work doesn't matter, keep in mind that it does.
When you're an unknown, as Mitchell was as she criss-crossed Canada as an anonymous singer-songwriter, self-doubt looms large. But you do the work that matters to you and you keep going. That is where everyone starts, and that should steel you for the journey.