Tag Archives: music

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Writing Musically

It will come as no secret to anyone who knows me that I am a huge fan of The West Wing, in particular Seasons 1-4, when series creator Aaron Sorkin was writing nearly every episode, and his creative partner, Thomas Schlamme was directing most of them.

Sorkin talks often about writing musically, about bringing to his dialogue cadence, rhythm, motif, and even melody and refrain. Take a moment to watch this clip from one of the best episodes in the series’ long and storied run, “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen, Part II.” Listen to all of it, but pay particular attention to Ron’s monologue, starting at time stamp 1:15.

Notice not only the gorgeous cadence of all he says, but also the return to two refrains: “It was an act of mad men,” and, from earlier in the scene, “The Secret Service doesn’t comment on procedure.”

Often in these Writing-Tip Wednesday posts, I will offer advice that is concrete and easily implemented. This is not one of those posts.

Thinking musically about our writing is an abstract idea, but, I believe, a helpful and important one. I strive, in my dialogue and my prose, to find a musical cadence, to create a rhythm that carries my narrative along. We all know what it feels like to write a clunky phrase or sentence or paragraph. Hell, I’ve written entire chapters that were clunky. I would imagine some of my less generous reviewers on Amazon would say I have entire books that are.

But of course, it’s easy to say “write musically, think about rhythm and beat as you craft your stories.” It’s another entirely to explain how this is done. And I should pause here to say that simply repeating phrases in our writing doesn’t make us Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin is a master, and this technique works beautifully for him. That doesn’t mean we can repeat a few lines and say, “Hey, look! I’m writing musically!” Learning to write this way comes with years of practice, and even more years of reading. And the process is not easy to describe in concrete terms. The books of Guy Gavriel Kay, my favorite fantasy author, are incredibly musical – like symphonies. But I would be hard-pressed to tell you what specific things he does to achieve this. He just does.

Here, though, are a couple of tips that might help.

Let’s stick with that symphony analogy. Consider a movement from your favorite piece of classical music. No doubt its tempo varies from section to section: it has moments when the pace of the music quickens and others when it slows. Likely the dynamics vary as well, thundering in one passage, softening in another. If you’re not a fan of classical music, think about your favorite rock album. Chances are the rhythms and moods of the songs vary — an upbeat, fast track, followed by a ballad, followed by something moody and tense, followed by another rocker… You get what I mean.

Writing, to my mind, works best when it follows a similar pattern. Some writers like their entire novels to go at one speed — fast, fast, fast. They create one action scene after another, leaving readers breathless and, they hope, eager for more. That is a perfectly legitimate approach, but I don’t like to write that way, and I don’t particularly like to read books of that sort. I prefer to intersperse crescendos of action with quieter moments, pushing the plot forward and then allowing my readers, and my characters, to catch their breath and contemplate the implications of what has just occurred Some scenes must be breakneck and loud — absolutely. Others, though, should be softer, slower. A battle scene, followed by a spoken confrontation, followed by a love scene, followed by hand-to-hand combat, followed by a chase, followed by a key conversation, etc. The narrative flows this whole time — writing musically is not meant as an excuse to insert scenes that don’t advance your story — but sometimes it flows with cymbals crashing and sometimes it flows with the sound of a single violin.

Another way to think musically about writing: Again, think about that symphony or your favorite song. And think about the ways in which melody works. Some phrases end with the perfect note, resolving the musical tension; others end more discordantly, ratcheting up harmonic conflict and propelling the piece in question forward. Storytelling works the same way. I try to vary the narrative energy. I finish some chapters with a resolution of conflict; I end others by heightening tension, by leaving things hanging, by leaving my readers still waiting for that resolving note.

Rhythm and tempo, dynamics and volume, tension and resolution, harmony and discord. I find that these terms work equally well in describing musical performance and the written word. You might find that incorporating these concepts into your narrative will help you find the perfect pace and mood for your current project.

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: A Special Post on Narrative and Creativity

This is a somewhat longer post than usual, but I hope you’ll read through it. It is the text of an address I gave a few years ago at our local high school to mark the Day of the Book (April 23) in 2016. My younger daughter, a junior at the time, was in attendance, which made the occasion that much more special. The talk is about far more than books, as you’ll see. I hope you enjoy it.

*****

I had a dream a couple of weeks ago – I swear this is true – I was being introduced for this talk, and you all just got up and walked out. Even Erin. She saw the rest of you leaving, cast this furtive glance my way, and then hurried to the door. So thank you all for staying. I appreciate it…

I’m delighted to be here to help you mark the Day of the Book. When Ms. R_____ first approached me about giving this talk, she mentioned that this was a particularly significant year for celebrating the written word, in part because this is the Centennial of the Pulitzer Prize. Which is absolutely true. This is the one hundredth year in which the Pulitzer prize has been awarded to some writer who isn’t me. Frankly, it’s not a milestone I’m that eager to celebrate…

As a writer, as someone who makes his living with the written word, I’m drawn to the idea of celebrating the book. But I’m also a musician and a huge fan of music. I’m a dedicated amateur photographer and an admirer of all the visual arts. I’m a fan of the theater, of film, of just about every art form. And so I find the idea of The Day of the Book somewhat odd. We don’t have a day of the song, or the album, a day of the painting or the sculpture. But somehow the Day of the Book is acceptable. It’s strange. And I think it’s worth exploring why this is so.

In a way – and again, I say this as an author – books have always been the peas and carrots of the art world. A long time ago, someone decided that books were good for us. “Someone.” Who am I kidding? It was probably a writer, right? Some young novelist somewhere convinced people that reading books would expand young minds and the next thing you know, parents were haranguing their kids about reading. Instant sales. You never hear parents telling kids they need to spend more time listening to music, or watching movies, or even going to look at paintings. But we hear all that time that we should turn off the TV and read a book.

The real reason I think books occupy a special place in our culture – and this starts to get at the crux of what I want to talk about today – is that narrative and creativity lie at the very core of what it means to be human. Story forms the backbone of our society, our political culture, our religions, our ceremonies and rites of passage. Story defines family and friendships. Sometimes those stories are tales of relatives doing foolish or funny things, sometimes they’re stories of holiday disasters, or unusual interactions among family members that become the stuff of family legend. At other times they’re movies or TV shows or, yes, books, that take on special meaning for the family unit. When Erin and her sister Alex were younger, in addition to all the stories we told about each other and other folks in the family, the Harry Potter books became central to our family life. We all read them, we watched the movies together, we listened to the audio books on long drives – and we took a lot of long drives.

Other families built relationships around other books. I remember when Erin was in kindergarten, her teacher asked parents to come in and read to the class, telling us to choose a book that was special to our kids. I told the teacher I would be glad to come in and read The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. A few days later I mentioned at a gathering that I would be reading to the class, a friend told me that The Lorax was one of her daughter’s favorite books, as well. This little girl’s dad read it to her all the time and did different voices for the characters. So I went to the class and I read the book and all the kids seemed to enjoy it very much. Except for this one poor girl – the daughter of my friend – who, when I was done, looked at me like I had shot her dog. And I understood immediately why: That was her book – hers and her dad’s – and I didn’t read it the way he did; I didn’t read it right, as far as she was concerned. Books – stories – can become very special to us. They can occupy a singular place in our lives.

But it also needs to be said, that not everyone is a book person. We don’t all celebrate the Day of the Book with the same level of enthusiasm. A lot of us, let’s be honest, couldn’t care less about books. And you know what? That’s okay. Because the truth is, we can all still appreciate this day. We don’t all have to be book lovers to find value and inspiration in the notion of creating our own book.

And that’s what I want to talk about today: the ways in which narrative and creativity, the building blocks of story, inform all aspects of life, not just the writing of books, or even the creation of art.

Let me start by telling you in the broadest terms what it is I do for a living. Writing books is like… well, any of number of things. I’ve heard people compare writing a book to building a house, drawing a map, completing a jigsaw puzzle, baking a lasagna, pitching a baseball game, and about a hundred other things. I couldn’t tell you which analogy I think is most apt – I’ve relied on several of them at different times.

When I write a book or a piece of short fiction, I usually start with a storyline, a narrative. I have some idea of where the book is headed; I’ll usually outline what I intend to do. But that outline is always rough. I don’t like to set up my plot in too much detail, because a lot of the creative act happens in the moment. For a 15 page chapter, I might have in my outline two sentences: My lead character meets up with character b. They get into a fight and decide they can no longer work together. That’s it. But when I reach that chapter in the writing process, the fun begins. I don’t know when I begin to write what those characters are going to say to each other. Sometimes I don’t even know what the fight is going to be about. I come up with that as I write, on the spur of the moment. That’s the exciting part, the moment of discovery that makes writing so much fun for me.

I’m telling you this, not to try to convince you to write, but rather to encourage you to look at the things you do in a different light.

My brother is a professional visual artist – a painter, and a very good one. He will often begin a painting with a vision, an outline of what he wants to be in the image. He’ll draw it in an open impressionistic way on a canvas. Just the broadest contours of what he intends to paint. Then, once that’s done, he’ll start to fill it in with color, with shading, with the brush strokes and texture and all the other artistic elements that bring a canvas to life. That should sound familiar. That broadly drawn, bare-bones drawing with which he begins is his narrative. The addition of color and the rest, that’s the creative part. The finished painting is his book.

I mentioned before that I’m a pretty dedicated photographer. And long ago, when I was teaching myself how to do the sort of photography in which I was interested, I read something that has stayed with me ever since, not just because it’s helpful for photography, but also because it’s helpful for writing. Every picture, this book I was reading said, is about something. The longer it takes you to explain what the photo is about, the less successful the photo is going to be. Or put another way, the easier it is to distill a photograph down to its most basic narrative, the better the photo. And, I would say the same is true of books and stories.

But part of what stuck with me, when I got behind the camera again, was the idea of applying narrative to photography. We can pick out something we see that we want to capture with the camera – a sunset, a building, a group of friends, something abstract, for instance the play of light and shadow on the façade of a church. That subject matter is the narrative, the story we’re trying to tell. The creativity comes when we search for the perfect way to compose that image, when we decide what details to highlight and which ones to play down or omit entirely. We make a hundred different choices when we take that photograph. But in the end, we’re blending narrative and creativity. And again, the result is a sort of book.

What about music? As I said before, I’m not only a huge fan of all sorts of music, I’m also a musician. Maybe those of you who write your own music have a chord progression and melody for a piece you’re working on, but haven’t yet come up with the words. That musical structure is your narrative; the creativity might come when you assign lyrics to that structure. Or maybe it works just the opposite way. You have your lyrics, maybe a poem that you want to set to music. In which case THAT’S your narrative, and the creativity comes when you blend it with melody and rhythm. Maybe you’re a drummer or a guitarist, a fiddle player or a saxophonist. You don’t write songs, but you improvise solos when you play with your fellow musicians. Chord progression and beat are your narratives. The solos you play are the essence of creation. Whatever your approach, the finished piece is your book.

Somewhere in this room is Cinderella [the school had done the play Cinderella that spring; the title role was played by one of my daughter’s closest friends]. Somewhere in this room, is her evil, rhymes-with-witch of a step-mom [played by my daughter]. The script and song lyrics provide the narrative for a theatrical production, but each actor brings to the stage her or his own flair for performance, his or her own interpretation of the role or the lines, of the emotion. Narrative and creativity. A book. The same can be said of dance – choreography is your plot, but every dancer is different, and is inspired to move in her or his own way. Another book.

But what if art isn’t your thing. We can apply this model to painting and sculpture, theater and dance, music and photography. But not everyone is an artist at heart. And that’s all right. Because narrative and creativity aren’t exclusive to the artistic world.

Erin’s mom is a biologist. And several of the people in this auditorium who have been Erin’s friends since they were toddlers have scientists or mathematicians for parents as well. This is a little harder for me to discuss intelligently, because I kind of suck at science and math – there’s a reason I write fantasy novels for a living. But I have a Ph.D. in history and I used to think of myself as a professional historian, which isn’t all that different. In fact we share this mountain with a University that is filled with scholars in a whole host of disciplines.

All of them do research. All of them have protocols and formats they have to follow – narratives that guide their work. But all of them also have to think creatively to make their personal mark on their scholarship. Whether it’s finding a new way to work an equation, or designing new experiments to explain scientific phenomena, or developing new theories to explain political or social behavior, the basis of learning and research is intellectual creativity.

And so is the basis of teaching. Teachers are often the most creative people we know, because it’s not easy finding innovative and engaging ways to present material that as a teacher you know backwards and forwards already. The act of creating a lesson plan, of developing a course – that’s a creative act, and yet that’s just the narrative part. Because a hundred times every day, teachers have to supplement that narrative, or stray from it, in order to reach a student who might not yet understand, or to engage an entire class that pulls the material in a direction no teacher could have anticipated. Narrative. Creativity. This time, maybe think of each class meeting as a chapter, the finished course as the book.

But maybe that’s not your thing either. Maybe you’re an athlete. And yes, people create in sports all the time. Coaches draw up game plans – passing routes and running plays in football, set pieces in soccer, shifts in volleyball, wrestling moves, pitch patterns and defensive alignments in baseball. Those are narratives. They’re patterns of action, preconceived and taught to us until they become second nature. But it’s impossible to anticipate every game situation. Which is where creativity comes in. No two plays in any game in any sport are exactly the same. Circumstances on the field, gridiron, mat, pitch, court are always changing. How you respond, drawing upon the narrative you’ve practiced, and bringing to bear your ability and your imagination – well, that’s a book, too, isn’t it?

I could go on. There are lots of ways in which the book analogy works. It works really well with cooking – recipes are your narrative, but we also bring creative flair in the way we season or add our own secret ingredients. Earlier in this talk I compared writing a book to building a house, but you can flip that around as well. People who work from blueprints and house plans – their narratives – also make creative decisions every day, bringing their personalities and inspirations to the work they do. As I say, I could apply this to pretty much any profession or hobby you can imagine. I won’t, because I’m supposed to end this sometime before lunch.

I will say this once again: the book analogy works so well because narrative and imagination, story and creativity, lie at the heart of who and what we are.

But so what? All that may be true, but why does it matter, except as a rationalization for designating this day as the Day of the Book?

I would argue that it matters for two reasons:

First, it matters because in a world filled with labels, a society that seems too often to look for ways to divide us, to put us in cubbyholes, the notion of identity becomes one more criteria, one more way to split us into our little tribes. We see it in young adult literature all the time. Harry Potter and his cohort are sorted into their houses, each of which has a personality, each of which carries implications for those placed in them. Many of you may be familiar with Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, a dystopian, futuristic series that begins with young people – people your age – being split into social groups – Abnegation, Erudite, Dauntless, Amity, and Candor – to which they’re supposed to remain loyal for the rest of their lives.

I’m not going to tell you that we live in a dystopia, though I know it sometimes feels that way. But I do think that we’re too quick to force ourselves into categories of that sort. We’re science nerds, or we’re literary types; we’re theater people, or we’re artistic; we’re jocks, or maybe we’re fantasy geeks.

Now I’m not trying to say that identity is a bad thing, or that finding a community of like-minded people is a mistake. It can be fun and comfortable and rewarding to form that bond with teammates or the cast of a play or a band.

But I think there’s tremendous value in recognizing that we share important qualities across all those boundaries we set up. When we acknowledge that there’s creativity in science as well as in writing, in sports as well as in acting, we break down those divisions just a little bit. We remember that before we became Gryffindor or Dauntless or geek or artsy, we were people, just like the folks sitting next to us. This common experience, this ability we all share, ties us to one another, and I hope, allows those of us in groups that are seemingly far apart, to recognize a bit of ourselves, in what others are doing.

The second reason the book analogy matters is that there’s one more realm in which it works. And actually, this is the one where it works best, even though it’s also the one in which it might seem least likely to fit: relationships.

I can tell you that the most creative thing I have ever done, the most creative thing I still do, is parent my kids. But the idea of narrative and creativity is also an apt analogy for friendships, for romantic relationships, for the way we deal with siblings and parents. How? Well, think of narrative as the expectations we bring to those interactions. Those expectations are the guideposts, the rules, if you will, that we believe those relationships ought to follow. And I don’t just mean society’s rules for what a parent or sibling should be and should do. I mean our personal expectations, based on what we know about the people with whom we interact. We can anticipate certain things in the ways our friendships and families work.

But we can’t anticipate all. Creativity and imagination come into play all the time, because we’re human, and we don’t always meet expectations, be they our own, or those of the people we love. Sometimes we fall short of them; sometimes we exceed them. But as a Dad, a husband, a son, a brother, and a friend, I can tell you that in every one of my relationships there come times when I have to be creative, when I have to think in the moment and use my imagination. And I would bet everything I have that the same is true for you. Maybe it will be to rescue an awkward moment, or help a friend who’s in trouble, or advise a person you love on some problem you couldn’t possibly have foreseen.

In those moments, you’ll find that creativity is the greatest asset you’ve got. And those relationships are the most important books you’ll ever write.

Monday Musings: Musical Favorites — A List Post

Okay, I am tired of Covid posts, of contemplating the meaning of life in the time of plague and all that. Today’s Musings are of an entirely frivolous sort. I have been listening to A LOT of music. Oldish music. Boomer music. Dad music. The music I have listened to and loved since I was a kid being turned on to 60s and 70s rock by my older siblings. (I wrote about this in the context of another music post earlier this year.)

And because I’m bored, and having trouble focusing on the work at hand, and also a huge fan of the movie High Fidelity, I started making lists in my head. What sort of lists? I am SO glad you asked….

[And before I go on, this is my list of MY favorites. I know they may not be “the best.” I’m sure that we could survey one hundred of you and wind up with a hundred different answers for all of these. I did this for fun, and because I thought you might find it entertaining. I am not looking for a fight and will not engage in arguments about any of this. Okay?]

My Favorite Musical Performer: This is a no-brainer, and it is a sentimental choice. My very first real album (not something put out by Hanna-Barbera) was James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James, which I was given when I was seven years old. Ever since, James Taylor has been my favorite, the artist I go to when I need cheering up, when I seek solace or comfort. His music has literally been the soundtrack of my life; his various albums are signposts that help me date certain key moments of my personal history. I know he’s not the best musician or the best songwriter, but he is the one I love most. Also, he and I share a birthday. For what that’s worth.

My Favorite Band: Little Feat. A little bit rock, a little bit country, with elements of funk and R and B and Creole thrown in. I was turned on to Little Feat by my oldest brother, Bill, who was my guru for all things Rock ‘n Roll. Their live album, Waiting for Columbus, is, in my view, the greatest live album ever made. And I say that as a huge fan of the Allman Brothers’ Live at Fillmore East. Sacrilege, I know. But this is my blog. So there. For a sample of their sound listen to the live version of “Dixie Chicken” or any version of “Rock ‘n Roll Doctor.”

My Favorite Songwriter: There are a lot of wonderful songwriters out there, including James, Jackson Browne, Dylan, Lennon and McCartney, and, the one who was very nearly my top choice, Paul Simon. Among newer artists I think Adam Duritz and, yes, Taylor Swift are both remarkable writers. But to my mind the finest songwriter of the last half century is Joni Mitchell. And I think if she was a guy, it wouldn’t be a controversial choice. Her lyrics are simply brilliant – emotional, unexpected, evocative. Listen to “A Case of You” or “Song For Sharon.” I know some don’t like her voice. Sometimes I don’t either. This is about the songs and lyrics themselves.

My Favorite Musicians: Okay, this is a tricky one – I’m kind of thinking about this the way I might an all-star team: putting together my favorites by instrument. I’m not necessarily looking at creating the perfect band. Some of my choices don’t go together so well. But… well… this is my game and these are the rules by which I’m playing.

Lead Vocals, Male: So many great voices to choose from – Roger Daltry, Bob Seeger, David Crosby (a personal favorite). But I think my favorite guy’s rock voice might be Phil Collins. Honorable mention: Adam Duritz of Counting Crows fame. And Michael McDonald from his Doobie Brother days.

Lead Vocals, Female: Again, so many great voices. I was never a Heart fan, but Ann and Nancy Wilson could sing. That said, I have to go with Melissa Etheridge. LOVE her voice. Bluesy, gravelly, powerful. She’s also a remarkable songwriter and has been a courageous voice for social justice. And I could listen to her sing all day long. Honorable mention: Bonnie Raitt, Christine McVie, and Susan Tedeschi.

Lead Guitar: David Gilmour of Pink Floyd. His solos have a blend of edginess and elegance that I just love. Listen to the guitar work on “Comfortably Numb.” Mind-blowing. Honorable mention to about a thousand people, among them: Dickey Betts, Stephen Stills, Patrick Simmons, Jerry Garcia, Mick Taylor as well as the giants, Clapton and Hendrix.

Rhythm Guitar: Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. Yeah, I know he also plays lead, but I think that while he is a very good lead guitarist, he is a masterful rhythm guitarist. That’s just me, but it’s how I feel. Honorable Mention: Bobby Weir.

Slide Guitar: I include this because it’s probably my favorite instrument to listen to. And it’s a chance for me to mention Lowell George, the creative force behind Little Feat, and the best slide guitarist I’ve ever heard. Honorable mention: Bonnie Raitt, Duane Allman, Jon Pousette-Dart, and Derek Trucks.

Keyboards: I will admit that I know far less about keyboards than I ought to. I love Elton John, and so does my wife. But I’m not sure how he fits with this list. Among my favorites are also two from the same band, which is a little unusual. Gregg Allman played organ and piano for the Allman Brothers Band and was very good at both. And Chuck Leavell’s piano solo on the song “Jessica” is one of the most joyous passages of rock ever recorded. So they will share top billing for me, with honorable mention going to Billy Payne and Billy Powell.

Bass: “Do not be deceived by nor take lightly this bit of musicianship that one describes simply as ‘bass.’” Kenny Gradney of Little Feat. Just a remarkably expressive and creative bass player. Honorable mention: Tina Weymouth and Phil Lesh.

And finally Drums: This one, to my mind, is not even close. There are drummers, and then there is Keith Moon, of The Who. His work was mesmerizing, surprising, powerful – just terrific stuff. Honorable mention to Steve Gadd and Charlie Watts.

Anyway, hope you enjoyed this. Maybe next week I’ll do movies and movie stars…

Have a great week!

Monday Musings: In Defense of the Grateful Dead

Hi, my name is David, and I used to be a Deadhead.

Yep. I saw them some twenty-five or thirty times in my youth. I slept outside, on line in front of arenas, in order to get the best possible tickets to shows. I traveled to different venues during tours to see them multiple times. I learned to play lots and lots of their songs on guitar, and I knew which were Jerry tunes and which were Bobby tunes. (That was a thing. It related to who sang lead and, often, who wrote the song. Really, you don’t want to know.)

I was not as devoted a fan as many I knew, but I was pretty devoted. I had t-shirts, bandanas, lots and lots of records, even more tapes of live performances. It is possible – possible – that I got stoned a lot and listened to tape after tape after tape.

Gradually, during my graduate school days, my ardor for the group diminished. Eventually, I stopped listening to them almost entirely, my tastes shifting in a number of different directions. One or two of their studio albums remained in my listening rotation, but otherwise, I let them go.

When my oldest brother died a few years ago, he left behind a massive music collection that included several Dead disks, including some in what’s known as the “Dick’s Picks” collection. These are CD versions of those old concert tapes I listened to in college (curated by a guy named Dick Latvala). At least I think I listened to them. Did I mention that I might – might – have been stoned? Anyway, my other brother didn’t want the disks, and neither did Bill’s widow, so I took them. For more than two years they sat on my CD rack gathering dust, but finally, a few days ago, I took them out again and gave them a listen.

Here’s what I found:

Let’s start with the bad, because where the Dead are concerned, people often do. Yes, the vocals are shaky. Squeaky harmonies, flat melodies, the occasional forgotten lyric. Then again, the vocals are no worse than Dylan’s, or, frankly, Mick Jagger’s later live efforts. Not everyone can sound like the Eagles. And yes, the musicianship is sloppy at times. The Dead played a huge number of shows – well over two thousand. They rarely had hit records. They only broke into the top forty once, and that came late in their run, only a few years before Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995. So they made their money by touring. And there were nights when, let’s say, their attention wandered. The spacey jams that were their hallmark sometimes spilled over into tunes that had no business being spacey. Guitar solos spiraled out of melodic control, band members went off in separate directions mid-song, and, on occasion, they fell into the trap of playing the same songs – especially encores – night after night, leaving the songs punchless and at best ordinary.

But there was good as well. Great even. At a time when most rock bands played the same songs – the same setlists – night in and night out, the Dead were remarkably eclectic. Part of the reason Deadheads like me went to so many shows and listened to all those concert tapes was that nearly every concert was different. We never knew what they would play, or what song might seque into another. Deadheads used to compare setlists the way naturalists compare wildlife sightings. Hearing a rare song, like finding a rare bird, was a true thrill.

And despite the aforementioned sloppiness, their musicianship could be truly stunning. The band’s sound revolved around Garcia’s guitar work which was, at times, spectacular. Jerry Garcia played with some of the world’s greatest musicians, appearing on not just rock albums, but also bluegrass, jazz, and country recordings. His pedal steel guitar work on Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s “Teach Your Children” remains some of my favorite guitar playing of all time. His live solos, when he was on, were innovative, powerful, even mesmerizing. He did way too many drugs, and later in his life and career his health suffered, as did his performances. But if you’re interested in hearing what he was capable of doing, I would encourage you to listen to this (beware — the graphic spins slowly). And to this. The man could play.

Yes, the Dead were an acquired taste. But there was a reason they inspired such devotion and passion from their fans. They were imperfect – some nights they simply couldn’t be bothered to play a decent note. On other nights, though, they were utterly inspired. And at all times they were unlike any other band that has ever been. I’m glad to have their music back in my life.

Have a great week!

Monday Musings: Music and Memory

Last week, I wrote about the musical biographies and autobiographies I’ve been reading, and I wanted to stay on the theme of music this week.

I am the youngest of four kids, and all of my siblings are (were) much older than I am. The oldest was nearly fifteen years older, the other two twelve and six years respectively. When I was young, all three of them delighted in turning me on to their favorite musicians. This was particularly true of my oldest brother, Bill, who we lost a couple of years ago. I was born in the early 1960s, which meant that my siblings were children of the 60s, and they listened to some pretty amazing music. I was given my first rock/pop record when I was all of seven years old – James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James. By the time I was ten or so, I had a record collection (yes, records. LPs. Kids, ask your parents…) that included four James Taylor albums, three Carole King records (including the remarkable Tapestry), Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s eponymous debut album as well as CSN&Y’s Déjà Vu, a couple of records by Simon and Garfunkel, several by the Beatles, Loggins and Messina’s Sittin’ In – a terrific and underrated album — Don McLean’s American Pie, and other titles that I’m blocking on right now.

I don’t mean this as a humble brag. It wasn’t about MY taste – it was theirs, seeping into my musical consciousness. But the benefit of it was that they served as gatekeepers for me, filtering out the crap and passing along the good stuff. (Mostly. Don McLean really was the prototypical one-hit wonder. “American Pie” is an incredible song, and “Vincent” was pretty good. The rest of the album is forgettable at best. And I also had other albums that I haven’t listened to in years: America’s first album, a couple by Seals and Crofts, and others I’m too ashamed to admit to. [Small voice] I’m pretty sure there was a Helen Reddy album in there…)

My tastes have expanded of course – rock, jazz, bluegrass, classical. But to this day, the music to which they introduced me remains at the core of my listening habits. Which means that when I listen to music, I am often flooded with memories of my childhood and adolescence and reminded of interactions with one sibling or another. As you might guess, this has become bittersweet in the years since Bill died.

Yet, I wouldn’t have it any other way. In fact, I have a mix on my phone that is named for Bill and that is collected from albums he first played for me, artists we talked about and argued about, albums I introduced him to when I grew old enough to make our musical interactions two-way. The list includes literally hundreds of songs.

Music, like a familiar aroma, has the power to transport us, to carry us through time to emotions that feel as fresh as oven-warmed bread. That is the joy of it, and yes, the sorrow as well.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this. This blog feature is called Monday Musings for a reason. I have no agenda. I’m listening to music, missing my brother, thinking of calling my other brother, just to tell him that I love him. And so I leave you with a thought and a question:

The thought: When we gift music, we do more than give a disk or a tape or an LP or an iTunes gift card. We give memory, emotion, a piece of ourselves. Over the years, my brothers and I gave each other music all the time, and even years later, those particular gifts are more dear to me than I can say.

And the question: What was some of the earliest music that found its way into your life, and what sort of memories does it carry?

Feel free to answer me on Facebook or Twitter.

Wishing you a great week.

Monday Musings — Lessons in Rock and Roll

Artistic careers are hard. We all doubt ourselves; we all suffer setbacks. In many respects, diligence and persistence are at least as important as raw talent…

I’m sharing this with you because, though I say these things on convention panels and in workshops all the time, I need to be reminded of them. All. The. Time.

As this is the first of my Monday Musings blog posts for 2020, I feel that I should explain that not all of my musings will be about writing. There are plenty of other topics out there, and I intend to explore a good many of them before the year is through.

For today, though, I am thinking about the craft of writing, and in a broader sense, about toiling in the arts.

I read every morning while I work out, sitting on my stationary bike, sweating away, a book in hand. And I mostly read fiction – generally speaking, I prefer novels to non-fiction books. In the past few months, however, for reasons I can’t really explain, I have been reading biographies and autobiographies of some of my rock and roll heroes. I started with Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, Born to Run, not because he is a particular favorite of mine – I like him fine, but I’m no fanatic – but because the book came highly recommended. I then moved to Graham Nash’s Wild Tales. I am currently reading Sheila Weller’s Girls Like Us, a fascinating three-way biography of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon, and next up in the queue is Timothy White’s biography of James Taylor, Long Ago and Far Away. I also recently read a magazine profile of Rod Stewart, who this year will turn 115. No, I’m sorry, that’s supposed to read 75…

Perhaps not surprisingly, I have found shared patterns in the career paths of the artists in question, and analogous progressions in my own career. All of these artists suffered through periods of self-doubt early in their careers. Several of them dealt with what you and I might call imposter syndrome. Springsteen and Stewart in particular speak of it explicitly. (And let’s be honest: Rod Stewart and Bruce Springsteen are not guys we generally associate with failures of confidence…)

All of them enjoyed moments of stunning, even unexpected success fairly early in their professional lives (the phenomenon that was “Born To Run,” the amazing response to the first Crosby, Stills, and Nash album, the chart-topping rise of Carole King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”) and then all of them, after building for a while on these successes, suffered setbacks that forced them to reevaluate their art. Some of these setbacks were personal, some were self-inflicted. And some were commercial – a few of them had as much to do with changes in their industry as with something the artist him or herself did wrong. But all of them can point to moments when the public response to the work they did fell well short of their expectations and hopes.

All of them had to reinvent themselves in some way. All of them struggled at times to maintain commercial standing in the face of difficult developments in their private lives. None of their careers – NONE – followed a perfectly linear upward trajectory. Yet all of them persevered, fighting through the down times to achieve a second (and third and fourth…) artistic and commercial success. Because in the end, they loved their music. They couldn’t imagine themselves doing anything but writing and singing and playing songs.

I suppose none of this is too unexpected. And I don’t expect that you need to have the lessons spelled out for you. Artistic careers are hard. We all doubt ourselves; we all suffer setbacks. In many respects, diligence and persistence are at least as important as raw talent. There. I spelled them out for you anyway.

I’m sharing this with you because, though I say these things on convention panels and in workshops all the time, I need to be reminded of them. All. The. Time. It’s easy to look at the superstars we admire – in any art – and marvel at their amazing careers, ignoring the flops, the ventures that went nowhere. It’s easy to gloss over the ups and downs and assume that if they’re rich and famous, they never have to cope with doubt. And it’s easy to separate ourselves from the big stars, to tell ourselves that because we’re not rich and famous ourselves, we have nothing in common with those who are.

Thing is, none of it is true. They DID have flops. They DO grapple with doubt. And our pursuit of our art ISN’T all that different from their pursuit of theirs. We might not be as well known or as wealthy, but we have something to say, and we owe it to ourselves to keep speaking, to persist through the hard times, and to make ourselves heard. Not because it might make us millions or get us on the cover of Rolling Stone. But because, like our heroes, we love what we do.

Quick-Tip Tuesday Post on Music and Writing

I usually write with a good deal of structure in my process, and so I thrive on relatively unstructured music to inspire my creative process. So, I thought, what if with this project, to which I’ve taken a relatively unstructured approach, I listen to classical music and use that high level of musical structure to impose some order on my writing?

My apologies for this going up so late. I’m on the road and didn’t have access to the internet for much of the day. But today’s Quick-Tip Tuesday post at Magical Words is now up and ready for viewing. It’s about a couple of lessons I learned last week while attending a phenomenal concert. One concerns sharing works-in-progress with audiences. The other focuses on the ways in which the music we listen to as we write can influence our creative process. You can find the post here. I hope you enjoy it.

Keep writing!!

Guitar in the Evening

So, I’ve started giving guitar lessons to my younger daughter. She loves music, she sings beautifully, and she’s a talented writer and poet. I think that if she can learn guitar, she’ll start writing songs, which will give her an outlet for dealing with some of the stuff that comes with being 15.

We only started this week, and she’s just learning basic chords, while at the same time nursing sore finger tips on her fret hand. But we work on it a little bit each night before she goes off to sleep, and I have to say that it has been a wonderful way to end these past few days. Looking forward to tonight’s lesson.

Little Things

Sometimes it’s the little things that get us through a rough day — a warm exchange of messages with our teenage kid, time to chat with dear friends at a slow signing, the sound of a guitar with brand new strings on it, a lovely sunset out the office window, plans for a quiet dinner with our sweetie.

Today didn’t go the way I wanted it to. On several levels. But life is good, and really, those little things matter a lot more than the other stuff. I’m thankful today for friends and family, music and books, shining horizons and golden light on bare tree limbs. Have a good evening, all.

One of Those Posts . . .

This is one of those posts. And by one of those posts I mean a post that is going up for the sake of keeping alive a promise I’ve made to myself to try to blog about something every day.

Thing is, I don’t have a lot to say. I worked today. I got out for a walk and saw a few birds (a beautiful Red-shouldered Hawk and a small flock of Swamp Sparrows, which happen to be among my favorite winter residents). I watched a little football. When I’m done with this I plan to play a little music. A relaxing, quiet day, of which I have had way too few recently. And I don’t see too many more such days in my immediate future.

So I’m going to enjoy this one. Forgive the brief, pointless post. See you tomorrow.