What Music is Supposed to Do – An Inspiring Stories Segment

This is the second in my Inspiring Stories segment. Read the first one here.

This story comes from the Moth Radio Hour and it involves two very unlikely music genres, rap and soft rock, or more personally Darryl “DMC” McDaniels (of Run DMC fame) and Sarah McLachlan.

(How strange that I had mentioned Run DMC on my blog last week and then I hear this story about one of its members a few days later. Sometimes subjects gravitate towards me like that – totally not in my consciousness radar at all, then I see references for the subject everywhere. That’s when I know I should pay attention; usually it’s the universe trying to tell me something important. Other times, it just means Tom Cruise has a new movie coming out.)

So back to the Moth Radio Hour. If you’re not familiar with the format of this particular show, here’s a description:

The Moth Radio Hour features true stories told live on stage without scripts, notes, props or accompaniment.  Moth storytellers stand alone, under a spotlight, with only a microphone and a roomful of strangers.  Each hour mixes humorous, heartbreaking, and poignant tales that captivate, surprise, and delight with their honesty, bravery, and humor. (description from website.)

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Darryl McDaniels telling his story on The Moth Radio Hour

For this episode, Darryl McDaniels steps up to the mike on the empty stage and his voice fills the space with an unexpected story about his struggle with depression in the midst of a successful tour and his yearning to find meaning, to figure out what he’s living for. I listened to him speak while driving in my car. I was mesmerized. When I arrived at my destination, I sat there in awe, still listening to his story. At the end of it, I cried. So beautiful and moving and all about how art can save you. I found it very inspiring and it made me want to write after I heard it.

I recommend you listen for yourself here.

The abbreviated version is that during a very successful overseas tour, McDaniels began feeling suicidal and tried to find reasons not to end his life. He decided that he couldn’t do it right then because it would upset his bandmates. He’d wait till the tour was over. On the drive home after the end of the tour, a song came on the radio that changed his life. It was Angel by Sarah McLachlan. He thought that if something this amazing existed, life was beautiful. He spent the next year listening to every album she ever wrote. Her music saved him. One day, He got the chance to tell her in person. And she said that’s what music’s supposed to do. (Ah! That killed me. What a perfect response. I feel the same way about all different kinds of artistic expression.) He continued to struggle with a feeling emptiness inside, but he kept listening to McLachlan’s music, with a little more hope.

Then, at the age of thirty-five, he found out he was adopted. The void inside made sense. The missing piece was all about where he came from and wondering about whether or not he still had value if his birth parents gave him away?

I’m gonna write a record that’s gonna help that little kid in the foster home or that little adopted kid or the grown up adopted man. Adoption is just my situation. Whatever situation you’re in on this earth, you have a reason.

And with Sarah McLachlan’s help and harmonies he did just that. He worked on a new solo album and one of the tracks was a re-envisioning of Harry Chapin song Cat’s in the Cradle, entitled Just Like Me.

Here’s the video. I hope you find it inspiring.

Inspiring Stories – A New Segment

Sometimes when I’m reading or listening to a news story or looking at a piece of art, I get this overwhelming feeling of inspiration that I can hardly contain and I must drop whatever I’m doing to start writing. I thought sharing some of these moments of inspiration might be a fun element to add to my stable of blog posts, so here’s the first one.

Caroline Shaw recently won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for her piece Partita for 8 Voices.  At 30 years old, she is the youngest composer to win since the inception of the award. She is also one of only a handful of female composers to win this honor. Shaw wrote this piece for the vocal group partita-for-8-voices---shawRoomful of Teeth, “a vocal octet dedicated to re-imagining singing in the 21st century.” (Description from group’s website.) Shaw is also a member of the group.

Sol LeWitt Wall Drawing 305
Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing 305 – Inspiration for Shaw’s piece

What I found most intriguing about this interview on NPR was how modern and avant garde her composition was and that she was inspired by a piece of artwork by Sol LeWitt entitled Wall Drawing 305. I love it when one form of artistic expression inspires another. It happens to me all the time.

This particular art piece is one of a series “in which LeWitt experimented with textual instructions that direct the draftsman to construct shapes on the wall. Called ‘location’ drawings, these works are done in black pencil with geometric figures emphasized in crayon, foregrounding the process of drawing as a problem-solving mechanism.” (excerpt from Mass Mo Ca website).

As to how it inspired Shaw, there’s one moment in her music piece  where the lush harmonies give way to a cacophony of vocal noise, like several people talking at once.

“It’s funny, my first thought was, ‘Wow, that’s what the Internet sounds like!’ When you open your computer and everyone’s talking at you suddenly,” Shaw says. “But I was really wanting to hear the sound of jumbled talking, where you can’t understand what’s going on — and then, suddenly, one beautiful, simple chord.”  (excerpt from A Moment With Pulitzer-Winning Composer Caroline Shaw.)

After hearing the interview and this description of what it sounded like, I had to hear it. I found it surprisingly beautiful and haunting. The spoken voice part blended in so well with the whole composition. Click on this link to hear Partita for 8 Voices for yourself.

So that’s my first “Inspiring Stories” post. Be sure to let me know what you think and feel free to share any inspirations you’ve had.

Digging Deeper with Music

I’ve often heard the debate between writers – music or no music?

While I can respect both sides and I myself can write with both silence and with music, I do prefer to have a soundtrack to my story. Not that I necessarily need a structured song by song, chapter by chapter playlist matching every moment, but I do create a writing playlist and put songs on there that I think my main character might listen to or songs that might inspire a certain mood my character needs to be in at certain parts of the story.

How do I put myself into the right frame of mind when I enter my writing space?

Usually I can get back into my scene by just rereading a few passages from my last writing session. I picture in my head where I want to the story to go next and off I go. Other times it takes a bit more work. I may have just had an enjoyable conversation with a friend or just woken up in a pleasant mood. Not the best time to be writing a heartbreaking sobfest moment, is it?

When I’m writing the toughest, most intense scenes in my manuscript and I need to connect with my characters – how they are feeling when their worlds spin apart, when they’ve been dealt a devastating blow – it helps if I can access those deeper emotions in myself.

What music does for me.

The problem is that these feelings aren’t always easily accessible on my complicated surface – I don’t always wear my heart upon my sleeve. For me, the right music cuts through my over-thinking, defensive layers and lets me tap into those deeper emotions. When I listen to music like Bon Iver’s self-tilted album with tracks like Perth and Wash. and Holocene, the piercing melodies along with Justin Vernon’s haunting harmonies dig inside, deeper than I let anybody else in. They help me access the raw energy and emotions that I need to help me bring my characters to life. Once I feel what one of my characters is feeling – maybe utterly and completely alone in the world – then I can write it. That is hard for me to imagine in an emotionless vacuum  of silence. I must have access to the emotions first.

Here’s Bon Iver’s Wash. video for your enjoyment.

#writemotiovation check in – where did spring break go? or how do you entertain the caged teenager?

Somehow I thought I’d already posted this. I blame the chaotic air of spring break on my scatterbrainedness.

Life can sometimes be unfair for our two children – not only because the lottery draw of life gave them to me and my equally insane husband. No, this week, when they finally got a chance to take a break from school, recharge their batteries, enjoy the lives of sloths and do what they pleased, Mother Nature threw them a curveball; four days of torrential downpours and gloomy, depressing skies. One can only watch so much crappy TV and soak up so much  Twitter and Facebook feeds – with breaks for reading one’s favorite books, of course! – before one’s brain goes numb. Two teens cooped up with only their mother for company? UGH!  And then the unpredictable spurts of energy and hormonal surges can make captivity even more unbearable. Inevitably every few minutes one of them would come pester me – during prime writing time – for something to do. Hard to concentrate under those conditions. Eventually I threw them outside in the rain and let them jump on the trampoline to exorcise their inner teen demons – who cares if they get soaked and the trampoline cuts trenches in the lawn if I can have a few moments of quiet? They came back in shivering and sated, if not just a little bit calmer. There were other moments of pure insanity brought on by the cabin fever that I cannot even mention as my daughter would die of embarrassment if I revealed them.

When I escaped in the middle of the week for my critique group, I pointed at my kids and said to my husband, “You’ve got to do something with them before they blow a gasket. Good luck.” Then I bolted. Hey, sometimes, it’s survival of the fittest, even in the family group. I knew my husband was strong enough, besides, he’d escaped most of the week at work. He’d been around other fairly normal adults and had somewhat intelligent conversations. I NEEDED TO GET OUT, DO YOU HEAR ME?  In the end, he had a brilliant idea of turning the house into a thumping rave party. He wore the kids out by cranking up the stereo and making everyone dance till they dropped. I’m sure the neighbors loved it. Everyone was worn out when I returned, so that’s all that mattered.

Today, all that’s left in our pantry are the last bits of granola bars, aging blueberries, some leftover stir-fry, and the rest of the (eeew!) healthy snacks – everything else was scarfed up days ago; no one wanted to venture out for more provisions. The dogs are getting wary of us. Finally, this morning the rain has stopped, the sun blinding our weak eyes. We are preparing to leave this place that has become too cramped and go anywhere else but here. Just in time. I think we might survive.

Under these conditions, I did not make as much progress toward my goals as I had hoped. Next week should be much more productive, and much more peaceful.

Goals for March:

  • Complete my novel revision – Closing in on the halfway mark at page 149 out of 325. Really need to pick up the pace in the final week! 
  • Post two blog entries each week – Goal met! At least one out of three still made, not ideal, but I’ll take it.
  • Update my journal project and keep it current – Not even close. No progress made on this goal at all. Notes in my head don’t count.

How are you doing on your writing goals?

It Started with a Whisper…Inspiration

Pirate Ship in the Clouds

My ideas for stories come from the most unexpected places; they never seem to arrive in the same way. They all start with a thought teasing my brain drifting out of the ether.

“What if?”

Sometimes that thought comes from a dream fragment or after I’ve read a newspaper article (like the 1958 “Kissing Case” where two black boys, ages 7 and 9, were arrested for letting a young white girl kiss them on the cheek) or while my brain is exploring a childhood fantasy (“What if you lived upside-down and your feet stuck to the ceiling?”). Maybe it surfaces while I’m zoning out in the shower, contemplating a fascinating work of art, staring up at the clouds (is that a pirate ship?), or listening to some music that touches me emotionally. I never know what will inspire a new idea. I write down every crazy idea and file it away until its time comes.

The other day I was driving in the car listening to the Mumford and Sons song  Awake My Soul. Near the end, when the the song builds to a crescendo with instruments and vocals tearing off in musical abandon, I felt myself being transported elsewhere. I wasn’t driving down a dreary winter street, I was racing barefoot along a mossy forest floor, with warm sunbeams streaking through the breaks in the trees. I was leaping and chasing the music. A wild creature with no worries or commitments, totally free…then the vision changed into the thought of what would a character like that do when interacting with others? How would she affect them? I was so into this idea, thinking about storylines that I barely remembered where I was going, trusting my muscle memories to keep me on course when my daughter, sitting in the passenger seat, broke the spell:

“You look like one of those bobbleheads – no offense.”

The dreamscape disappeared instantly. I just had to laugh and then make even more exaggerated bobblehead movements to entertain/embarrass my daughter. I was still grooving out to the music, still in my car, navigating through traffic, but now I had a thread of  an idea for a story forming. Would it be a good idea worth pursuing? Maybe. Maybe not. I wrote it down anyway.

My latest YA novel, for example, came to me because I kept thinking about some of the young girls I had worked with at a private psychiatric hospital as a mental health tech, and one in particular. I was pursuing a degree in psychology at the time. Working at the psych hospital was the one of the most emotionally challenging and most rewarding experiences of my life. I’d always wanted to tell a story giving a voice to what the lives of the kids in treatment were like, but I wasn’t sure exactly how to go about it. I couldn’t tell their actual individual stories, of course, but I hoped to capture some of the emotions their stories inspired. Then an idea was whispered into my ear, or rather shouted into it.

I was hard at work revising a completely different manuscript when I was constantly interrupted by a girl’s voice yelling in my head, “I don’t need to be here!” She became rather insistent that I turn my attention away from the story I was working on and start writing hers instead, or actually a very fictionalized version of hers.  This girl wasn’t a conduct problem and she hadn’t seemed like an addict. She had run away from home, but that didn’t seem reason enough to warrant admission. To me, she appeared to be a rebellious teenager with wealthy parents. I started thinking “what if” someone put their child into treatment when they didn’t need to be there and what would cause them to do that. I couldn’t stop thinking about this idea. It became so persistent that I stopped working on the other story and started writing Institutionalized.

One of my writing mentors always says, “You have to feed your artist’s soul.” I truly believe that. The more you open yourself up to experiences and to influences outside of yourself – music, art, theatre, bobbleheads –  the more ways you will find inspiration.

What inspires you?

#writemotivation Check In

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Here are my goals for March:

  • Complete my novel revision
  • Post two blog entries each week
  • Update my journal project and keep it current

One week in on this challenge and I’m fairly wobbly on the balancing act of actual writing versus platform growth and maintenance. I keep picturing Janelle Monae performing Tightrope in my head. I did manage to post at least two blog entries and to work through fifty pages of revision on my latest project, Institutionalized: I’m not Crazy. It’s a young adult (YA) novel about a young girl who is put away in a psych hospital as an out of control alcoholic runaway after she witnesses something she shouldn’t. She struggles with the abrupt changes in her reality brought about by what she witnessed, and how to convince someone – anyone – that she’s not crazy.

Now I only have 240+ pages to go. I just have to make sure I’m revising at least eighty pages a week for the rest of the month. Next month, it’s submission time. *gulp*

I didn’t even touch my journal project. I have been thinking about doing some kind of project/book dealing with autism for a long time, but I haven’t been ready – it’s just too close to the surface, the emotions, for me to write anything good. People are always curious about what life is like with a child autism and it’s difficult to explain in general terms, sometimes. One friend recently asked me if he would ever drive a car. I had to explain that even if he could ever get over his coordination issues, he could never get past his attention issues. Children with autism have difficulty filtering out stimuli and so can easily get overstimulated. Not good for rush hour traffic. Even if an airplane flew overhead – CRASH! So I came up with the idea of journaling my life with my son Trevor for one year. Maybe that could help me show what life with autism is really like and vent all of those emotions at the same time. Trevor turns eighteen next January. All kinds of things will start to change with this birthday. It’s a good year to try it.

Even when I don’t make daily entries, I make brief notes on my calendar and I’m just really behind on putting them down in the actual journal format. That’s the goal for this week for the journal- to get those entries caught up.

How are you doing with your writing goals? I’ll leave you with this motivational song to help you keep the balance going as you try to reach your writing goals as well: