Elliott Smith died ten years ago Monday. This fact means a lot of different things to a lot of different people; for me, it means that it has also been just about ten years since the first time I published a piece of “music writing,” which is not something I used to put quotes around but now increasingly feel the need to do. I had been writing about music and pushing it out into the world through LiveJournal entries and self-made webpages for years and years before October 2003, but there was something about a byline, even just in a tiny liberal arts college’s tiny weekly student newspaper, that changed how I thought about myself—as a writer, as a person. It would not be entirely accurate to say that I was an Elliott Smith fan at the time of his death; I was more familiar with his general belovedness than any of his albums. That week I went to one of my first newspaper staff meetings and when the Arts & Entertainment editor asked if anyone had story ideas I chirped something about Elliott Smith having died and that possibly meriting some kind of tribute. The idea wasn’t to write the story myself, because I didn’t think I deserved to write it myself; it had more to do, probably, with seeming cool (and useful, and smart) to the rest of the staff, these people who I thought were so cool—they were all upperclassmen and knew their way around campus and had long-standing in-jokes and knew how to put together a newspaper, all of these things I was desperate to fathom and have as parts of my own self. I figured they already knew that Elliott Smith had died and that one or more of them had a wrenching, heartfelt ode set to run—but (not that I would have recognized or copped to this at the time) I just wanted them to know that I knew, too. Shockingly, they did not know, not one of them. And so I found myself in the position of having to explain not only that this person had died, but who he was to begin with. I left the meeting with the assignment. What I wound up writing was maybe an ode, at most half heartfelt and probably only wrenching because I had no idea what I was doing but was trying so hard to know. The newspaper was print-only then so it’s not online now, and even though it’s probably sitting in an accordion folder at my house or my parents’ house I haven’t yet felt brave or stupid enough to go dig it out. Having said that, now I guess I have to. Anyway, I am feeling pretty great about not lobbying harder to digitize the newspaper once I crawled my way up to editor a few years later.
It’s not entirely a coincidence that this week, ten years after all that, I sent some emails to a couple friends and a couple editors telling them that I think I am going to take a break from “music writing” for a while. This is not the result of some fit of pique; I’ve been thinking about it for months now. And with all the stuff coming up about the tenth anniversary of Elliott Smith’s death, I was thinking about him and where I was then, and that first “real” thing I wrote, which now seems to have happened on the far side of a vast gulf. Music writing hasn’t been the core of what I “do” for years—not since I was at Paste, really, and even then it was not all I did—but for some time it was the main thing and the thing that, if anyone knew of me, they probably knew me for that. I have been described as “a music writer” more than any other kind of writer, and for some time I thought of myself primarily as one, even when I was writing (as I still do) about many other sorts of things. In part I never felt like shrugging off the title even when it seemed misapplied because it was something I had wanted for so long and for so long never thought I would actually be able to claim.