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Giving Up on Greatness new essay in New York Spirit magazine

Dear Readers,

Here is my new essay just published in New York Spirit online magazine to inspire and instruct those of you who pursue any passion—even though plagued by perfectionism. Enjoy! And please share.



  Giving Up on Greatness

Brenda Peterson January 29, 2019

Ambition—and its accompanying critic—perfectionism, begins early. In high school I had three passions: gymnastics, the clarinet, and writing. I also had a bold plan—Iʼd support my play on the uneven bars and at the typewriter with a career as a first-chair concert clarinetist. A family member was the first to point out to me, “Thatʼs like supporting your starving, by starving.” Added to this strong disapproval was my unfortunate, though dazzling, leap into space during a Virginia gymnastic tournament, which ended my solo flights on the uneven bars.

Perhaps it was the fall from gymnastics that stunned me into my first artistic epiphany, but I prefer to think it was music itself. During our symphonyʼs performance of a Mozart clarinet concerto, I was playing my third part with the happy abandon that always made my music teacher grimace slightly, her way of reminding me that excitement is not technique.

As Charles Donovan, our revered first-chair clarinetist, moved eloquently into his solo, something strange happened to me: suddenly his music was moving through my body as if I, too, were no more than Charlesʼs instrument. Charlesʼs breath filled my lungs, his beautiful hands trembling against my own resting fingers. Utterly at this boyʼs command, I fell into a reverie akin to first love. But then I saw that he, too, was rapt, his body bowed beneath the authority of music in him.

I knew at that moment that hearing music is not the same as simply listening. There was a difference between playing Mozart and letting Mozart play through me. I clearly saw that Charlesʼs part was to reverberate with the perfect pitch of a tuning fork, a slim and human reed. It was this last understanding that for me stopped the musicʼs flow. I realized: Charles Donovan was a genius, while I sat unworthily three rows away. I was only first chair, third clarinet—as far from the source of the sun as an undiscovered planet.

My chest caved in and I hunched over, clarinet in lap. I could not pick up my part. No matter. The others trooped along without me. For the next month after that performance, I canceled my clarinet lessons and played hooky from my seventh-period symphony. I betrayed music as I felt it had betrayed me—by not tuning in. Not to my sisters and brother on their French horn, oboe, and flute; not from my familyʼs singing or my symphony mates involved in their earnest challenges climbing chair-to-chair. I even gave up writing my weekly mimeographed soap opera of the symphony, distributed like Russian samizdat among my friends. What was the point of all this artistic struggle if one wasnʼt as gifted as Charles?

 At last I even gave up on going to hear my high school symphony perform. How could I sit in an audience and not take my third chair? How listen and not hear my own clarinet part soaring distinct from the whole, from my hands? How could I remain still when my feet tapped out every rest and my fingers played or frayed the program, rolling it into a tiny paper clarinet?

Then there were the faces of my friends in the symphony, familiar and yet transformed as the music pulsed through their bodies. There was not only the ecstasy of Charles Donovan but also my challenge partner, her eyes scanning the notes as if she followed them midflight; there was the first flautist with her silver woodwind trembling at her mouth with her most delicate kisses. There were one hundred upturned faces wide open and vulnerable as newborns, awaiting the conductorʼs baton to begin each movement, each breath. Then the music transfixed every player. They were private, yet as one in prayer and tribal worship.

The audience leaned toward the stage like plants toward light, mirroring

back the meditation—all except me. I was out of sync, in shadow, separate, as ashamed and self-conscious as in that first Fall from grace. Somehow, Iʼd lost myself—not in the music but in that narrow and never-ending labyrinth of my own criticism. After all, we were only a high school symphony; surely in New York or Boston or Salzburg, Mozart was played perfectly. And in that stratosphere, there was even someone more sublime than Charles. I clearly saw: we were young, we were country; we were just people, imperfectly pitched.

I was miserable in my mutiny. But I was also dimly aware that this retreat from music might be important, much the way Iʼd read about those yogis and priests leaving the world to better see and surrender to it. Was the act of abandoning something one loved a spiritual sacrifice, or was it the voice of the inner critic who whispered, “Why love so inadequately? Better to practice silence and self-restraint.” Sadly, I catechized myself, most mystics never come back from their vows of silence, their sacred, aloof hermitage.

And thatʼs how they save the world, if not themselves.

 At the end of that school term, I resolved to sell my clarinet. A symphony friend was only too happy to buy it. I gave her the gleaming case, passing my beloved wooden Buffet to her as I might offer the main course to someone who still had an appetite. Expertly, she fit its lithe black lengths together. As she appreciatively held it up, I was struck by its familiar scent. It smelled like me—my hands, my own skin. This was startling, discovering my own essence in something I believed dead and beyond moving me.

“Please . . .” I begged my friend, “donʼttake it away from me.” Then I burst into tears.

She was a second clarinetist, and kind. Without a word she put my clarinet back into its case and set it on my lap. I held it there for a long time without understanding anything. All I knew at that moment, was that I had to play whatever instrument was mine, body and soul. I had to play, because music was a way I would take in and give back to the world—it was the same as breathing.

 I must have intuited then what I know now: it is the love of this world, moving through however simple or small a gift, that makes us human, that makes us stay. For there is no leaving what we love.

Since that term when I abandoned my instrument, Iʼve often reckoned with the fact that it may well be my fate in my art to be only first chair, third clarinet; that whatever passion I choose may not choose me. But if itʼs a choice between returning to the greater symphony or being forever lonely for a part of myself cast off, simply because mine is not a great gift, then let me keep my little chair, three sections down from the Charles Donovans.

And there let me always hear the holy music; let me play my imperfect part.

 Brenda Peterson is the author of over 20 books, including a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year,” Duck and Cover, and the recent memoir, I Want to Be Left Behind, selected as a “Top Ten Best Non-Fiction Book of the Year,” by the Christian Science Monitor. Her new kidʼs books are WILD ORCA: The Oldest, Wisest Whale in the World and LOBOS: A Wolf Family Returns to the Wild are just out in time for the holidays.






Writing Panel with Nancy Pearl and Your Life is a Book author Brenda Peterson



Our fascinating writing panel, moderatede by uber-librarian Nancy Pearl at Seattle's Rainier Club. Topics:

Writing tips from Your Life is a Book

How to deal with social media

Choosing a scene that explains your whole life

Stay tuned in early January for video clips on writing from Brenda's 30 years of teaching. 



LOBOS: A Wolf Family Returns to the Wild and WILD ORCA published

WATCH LOBOS father wolf teach his new pups how to howl! Celebrating our new kid's book—a true story of rewilding!


Wild Orca our new kid's book available for pre-order!


We are delighted to announce that our new kid's book WILD ORCA is avilable for pre-order and will be published in September. Working with master illustrator, Wendell Minor, has been a joy to bring this true story of Granny, the 105-year-old orca matriarch, to life. Join Mia and her family as they sing to the orca whales in the mysterious San Juane Islands—interspecies singing! Learn about orca pods and these keenly intelligent fellow creatures who have much to teach us about family, lifelong alliances, and empathy.  Lots of audio, video, photos, and more of my writing about orcas on my WILD ORCA website page!


"Wolf Music" in ORION magazine read by the author

Dear Readers,

Here is my audio of the "Wolf Music" excerpt from WOLF NATION. Enjoy!