Tag Archives: music

Creative Friday: “Willin'” by Little Feat

This week, for Creative Friday, I offer a song.

Many, many years ago, my oldest brother turned me on to Little Feat, and they quickly became my favorite band. While in college, playing with my dear friends Alan Goldberg and Amy Halliday as part of a group we called Free Samples, we included “Willin’,” by Little Feat, in our repertoire.

I kept playing the song after college, of course, and eventually, when Nancy and I had kids and I started playing guitar for them, “Willin’” became one of my younger daughter’s favorites. There are pauses in the song, and for some reason she found them hilarious. The more I dragged them out, the more she laughed. To this day, in her twenties, she still can’t listen to me play the song without giggling.

In short, this song has been a part of my musical life for the better part of forty years. I recorded this version, including a second guitar track for the instrumental break, a couple of years ago, with my daughter in mind.

I hope you enjoy it.

Have a wonderful weekend.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Why Do We Create?

I just reread my first post of the year, when I first discussed my weekly blogging plans, and my goals for the months to come. I closed the post with “Happy 2020. May it be your best year yet.”

How did that work out…?

This is likely my last post of the year, and my final Writing-Tip Wednesday post before I shift Wednesdays to a slightly broader format. It’s also a slightly longer post than usual; I hope you’ll stick with it. I have posted about a vast array of topics over the past fifty-one weeks, and all of them have dealt with creativity in one way or another. At times, the creative elements of my posts have been explicit and obvious; at other times, when discussing the business and the state of the market, the connections have been less clear. But always it comes back to the act of creating, the process of harnessing the imagination in order to produce… something.

Creativity is integral to who I am, to the life I lead. I consider myself fortunate beyond words in this regard. And I’m not just talking about writing. If you follow my blog or my social media, then you know that I am also an avid photographer and a longtime musician, and I’m passionate about all of my creative endeavors. But I do each of these things for different reasons, and I think this speaks to something all writers ought to consider.

Why do we create?

I like to tell people that I wrote my first book when I was six. It wasn’t much of a book — a few sheets of paper on which I had scrawled a story and scribbled illustrations, sandwiched between a couple of pieces of colored construction paper and bound with yellow yarn. But it was, to my mind, as much a book as all the titles on my shelves. All through my childhood, there was nothing I enjoyed more in school than creative writing. Any opportunity we were given to sit quietly and write was, for me, like the most glorious sort of recess.

In junior high, my classmates and I were assigned to keep a creative journal. For an entire semester, we were to write every night — or as close to it as we could manage — and we were free to write whatever we wanted. I still have mine. I did write every night. I wrote short stories and poems and my reflections on the world as I saw it. I LOVED keeping that journal.

All through high school and college, I wrote. I saw the world through a writer’s eyes. Always, my first thought upon seeing a sunset, or enjoying a meal, or even dealing with emotional problems, was “How would I write this?”

My love of storytelling, of the creative alchemy we perform when converting emotion and sensation into words, still drives me, challenges me, fills me with joy and satisfaction (when it’s not frustrating me and making me want to chuck my computer through a window).

But, of course, my writing is also my job, and I have to think about it as such. That’s fine. I am so lucky to be able earn money doing what I love; I can hardly complain. At this point, though, I write to publish. Anything I work on for any amount of time, I expect to sell. If I don’t, then that piece of writing has…failed in some respect. That sounds harsh, I know, but it’s true. It also sounds mercenary, and that, I fear, is unavoidable. I can be passionate about my work, and also want to make money off of it. I make no apologies for that.

I feel quite differently about my photography. I am, I believe, a very good photographer. I have spent years studying photography, teaching myself techniques, making myself see my surroundings with an artist’s eye. I was drawn to photography early in life, in part, I have to admit, out of jealousy. My older brother, Jim, is a renowned and immensely talented painter. He was a bit of prodigy — his talent emerged in his early teens and as passionate as I am about writing, that’s how he continues to be about visual art. I wanted to creative images, too, but I have never been able to draw. Oh, I tried. But I’m terrible. There’s no other way to put it.

When I was thirteen, I asked for a camera, thinking that perhaps photography would offer me a path to visual artistic expression. My early efforts didn’t amount to much, and eventually I stopped trying. About fifteen years ago, though, I decided to try again. I dedicated myself to learning how to shoot, how to see, how to frame. The results have been deeply satisfying. I have sold a few photos and I’ve had work in local galleries. But while I have been pleased by these moments of public attention, I mostly capture images for myself. Nancy and I recently enlarged and framed several of my best images and they are now gracing the walls of our home. I have also produced a coffee-table photo book that I shared with just a few friends and family members. And my computer’s screen saver is a slide show of my best images.

I get as much joy out of seeing my own images in my house, in that book, on my computer, as I have from any sale of a photo. To be honest, I took nearly as much pride in hanging those images as I have in selling a new novel. I do it for me, and that’s enough.

And I feel still another sort of love and pride for my music. I have been playing guitar for more than forty years. I have always been able to sing, and for a while, in elementary school and junior high, I was content to express that talent in school musicals. But at some point I figured out that playing guitar might attract the notice of girls. (As it turns out, guitars weren’t enough. I also needed charm, height, and good looks, none of which I possessed. But hey, I learned to play guitar.)

I still love to play — for myself, for Nancy, occasionally for and with friends. Playing for my girls when they were young was truly a joy. I’ve never been very good at writing songs. I tried. I wrote a very few decent tunes in college, but I had a couple of friends who wrote amazing music, and my inability to craft songs as good as theirs, and as good as I thought mine should be as well, frustrated me. At some point, I stopped trying. Today, most of my playing is fairly derivative. I hear a song I like and I teach myself to play it. It’s fun. I get to recreate songs I admire, either for a small audience or for me. The truth is, though, I’m not adding much to the world’s music. I’m just another guy learning to play another James Taylor tune.

And so I ask again, why do we create?

I create stories for my livelihood. I create photos that are utterly original, but only for my friends, family, and me. I create music in order to pay homage to something I love, and to entertain myself.

I have tried throughout this year to gear my writing tips to writers of every ability level and every aspiration. Some of you won’t be satisfied with your writing until you’ve published a story, or a novel, or a series, or a bunch of series. I get that.

Some of you write because you want to craft the best story you can, and if you publish it, great. If you don’t, if the only people who read it are your friends and family, that’s okay, too. The process itself is the point. Your goal is to create the best piece you can.

And some of you take great joy in writing fan fiction, in writing homages to characters and storylines that you admire and want to be part of in some way. That’s great, too.

There is no single right answer to “Why do we create?” No matter where you fall on the continuum of creativity I’m describing here, you can learn to be a better writer, you can take satisfaction in the act of creation, and you can engage in that alchemy I mentioned earlier.

Because there is something truly magical in creativity — in the simple act of harnessing the imagination — something that has nothing at all to do with money or reviews.

I wish you joy and inspiration in all your endeavors.

And, of course, keep writing.

Monday Musings: Memories of “New Year’s” Passed

I thought the ball would, you know, drop. As in fall. As in have a bit of velocity. I thought maybe it was made of glass and would shatter. THAT would be cool.

I will confess that I don’t usually enjoy New Year’s Eve. With very few exceptions, my memories of the New Year’s celebrations of my youth are all tinged with disappointment. It’s supposed to be a Big Night, and it rarely actually was. It’s supposed to be romantic — that midnight kiss — and quite often my high school and college hopes for New Year’s romance were thwarted. It’s supposed to be a night to party, to get happy on booze. I was never one to drink to excess, and many of the people I was with who did get drunk wound up regretting doing so.

Even the Time’s Square ball drop was disappointing the first time I saw it. I was just a kid, of course, and I expected it to be dramatic — I thought the ball would, you know, drop. As in fall. As in have a bit of velocity. I thought maybe it was made of glass and would shatter. THAT would be cool. I figured maybe there would be fireworks. Something. ANYTHING.

Instead, it was about as exciting as watching an elevator go from one floor down to the next.

Not every New Year’s Eve has been bad. Nancy and I tend to have enjoyable, quiet evenings: a movie, a good bottle of wine, maybe a special dinner. Every once in a while, a friend will have a party and we’ll go for a while. Clearly THAT won’t be happening this year…

One year, when I was a junior in high school, several friends and I went to see the Allman Brothers Band on New Year’s Eve. They gave a good show, although they played late and then skipped their final encore, which should have been “Rambling Man.” To this day, I’m a bit salty about that.

Nancy, the girls, and I were visiting my brother and his family for the Y2K New Year. The families had fun together, and my brother Bill, and his partner were with us as well. Bill was pretty freaked out by Y2K. As was his wont, he expected the worst to happen. Every doomsday scenario you can remember from that period, he embraced. He even went so far as to take a bunch of cash out of the bank, in case the ATM machines all crashed. The morning of December 31, he decided he was too worried about what was surely coming, and he needed to go back to his home in western Massachusetts and ride out the impending crisis there. So he left us. That evening, as the first news reports came in from Australia and parts of Asia, it became clear that Y2K would be a non-event. The next morning, Jim and I called Bill to wish him a happy New Year and make sure he was all right. And being the wise-ass I am, I asked him, “Hey, you don’t happen to have any extra cash lying around, do you?” I won’t repeat his response here…

We were living in Australia for New Year’s 2005-06. Down Under, New Year’s is a summer holiday, so, like most Aussies, we spent December 31st at the beach, and then at a fun street fair in Wollongong. That night, we were treated to a terrific fireworks display. The next day, the first of the year, was spectacularly hot. I mean HOT. It got up to 44 degrees Celsius, which is equivalent to about 111 degrees Fahrenheit. It was too hot to do anything at all. At one point, I walked into the kitchen of the house we were renting, and all the spiders that lived in the walls and cabinets — a couple of dozen in total — had emerged from their hiding places and were scattered across the ceiling. Bizarre, and more than a little freaky. The girls put on their bathing suits and spent much of the day playing in the bathtub. Nancy and I did our best not to move. Late in the day, a front moved through, bringing strong winds and cool temperatures. It probably dropped thirty degrees, to the low-80s. To us, at that point, it felt like fall had arrived.

This will be another quiet year, and that’s fine with me. Nancy and I will have our nice wine and yummy dinner. We’ll watch a movie or play Gloomhaven, or [gasp] both. And we will happily, eagerly bid 2020 farewell and welcome 2021.

Wherever your plans for the holiday take you, I hope you have fun, stay safe, and enjoy the company of people you love. I wish you a New Year filled with joy, friendship, laughter, and good health.

See you in January.

Photo Friday: A Video Instead

With the weekend looming, and another difficult week past, I thought I would do something a little different this week. And so I am making available a video I made of me playing my guitar and singing one of my favorite songs, “Angel From Montgomery,” by the late great John Prine.

I’ve been playing guitar for more than forty years, and I’ve been singing…well, forever. Music has been a balm, a joy, a shared pleasure, and a constant in my life. And this song in particular has been part of my repertoire for years. The video is dedicated to my dear, dear friends, Alan Goldberg and Amy Halliday.

You can find the video here:

I hope you enjoy it.

Have a wonderful weekend, stay safe, and be kind to one another.

Monday Musings: How I’m Coping

I’ve written about politics and social issues a lot in recent weeks, and I want desperately to avoid doing so again this week. It’s not that I don’t have more to say. I do. But I feel as though I’d be going over familiar ground, raising the same objections to this Administration, calling attention to new outrages and failings that are simply echoes of the older ones I’ve already criticized. I am weary of outrage, sick to death of this campaign, ready to reclaim the emotional energy and brain space I’ve ceded to it for so many months.

There is more to life than this. I know there is, and recently, as I have pulled back from political websites and social media, I have been taking pleasure in the small things that I enjoy most. Here’s how I’m coping:

Music: Making music and listening to it. The former has been particularly rewarding because for a time earlier this year, a shoulder issue — terribly painful, basically untreatable except for physical therapy, but not truly serious — kept me from being able to play my guitars. I am happy to report that my shoulder, while not 100%, is much better. I’m playing again, learning new songs, building up strength in my arm and hand. Again, I’m not all the way there, but I’m playing again, and that gives me such pleasure.

I’m also listening a lot, mostly to old rock, even when I’m working. In the past, some of you know, I have strictly limited my work-time listening to instrumental music — jazz and bluegrass mostly. But somehow, right now, with all that’s going on in my head, I am able to work and listen to rock at the same time. I honestly don’t know why, but I’m not complaining.

Work: I’m getting work done on several projects, which is gratifying. I have been working on a pair of trunk novels, one that needed editing, and its sequel, which needed editing and an ending. I’m making good progress on those, but I am not pushing myself too hard, and that seems to be a good thing. I’m the first to admit that I am not at my best right now. So rather than beat myself up for not being efficient, I am accepting the limitations imposed by my current emotional state. I work when I can, and when the work doesn’t flow, I take care of other things, be they work-related or house-related or whatever.

I also have a novel that my agent and I are trying to sell and a set of Thieftaker novellas that are in production. And I have other projects at various stages of completion and readiness. On the one hand, I’m impatient for forward motion on all of them. At the same time, I understand that I can only do so much, and that the publishing world is moving even more slowly than usual. I am doing my best to be patient, something that doesn’t come naturally to me.

Getting outside: Fall has been brilliant this year here on the Cumberland Plateau. Shimmering, clear days, cool nights, stunning mornings. I have been birdwatching, savoring my morning walks, taking extra hikes later in the day, taking photos, and generally forcing myself to get away from my computer. Idle moments at my desk lead me to bad habits — social media, political sites, etc. In short, all the stuff I’m trying to avoid. To the extent possible, when the siren call of the web grows too strong, I escape it by going outside and doing something else.

Comfort food for the brain: Throughout the pandemic, I have found it hard to read. Except for political journalism, which, of course, I want no part of right now. The exception is old favorite novels by authors I love. So I’ve been re-reading the works of Guy Gavriel Kay, and have it in mind to read some other old works after that. They are comforting and comfortable, which I really need right now.

Along the same lines, I have been enjoying the television shows of Aaron Sorkin. Most of you probably know about The West Wing and The Newsroom, and I’ve been watching plenty of West Wing, happily retreating to a world in which Jed Bartlet is President. I have also been watching Sports Night, a short-lived half-hour comedy/drama that aired for two years before being cancelled. It was a terrific show about a sports show along the lines of ESPN’s Sportscenter. It was funny and poignant and smart, like all of Sorkin’s work. The network never knew what to do with the show. They tried a laugh track with it for a while, but that didn’t work. And by the time they figured out that they just needed to leave it alone, the show had been mired in a ratings slump for too long to be saved. If you can find the disks, I recommend it highly, particularly season 1.

Nancy: The one constant for me during this pandemic is that Nancy and I have enjoyed our time together. We have been cooking a lot, taking walks together, sipping whisky on the front porch as the sun goes down, and generally counting ourselves so very fortunate to have each other. There’s really not much more to say about this, but as I struggle to maintain my emotional health, I have to acknowledged that I would have broken a long time ago if not for her.

I know how lucky I am — lucky to play guitar, to have music at my disposal, to have a job I love, to have books to read and old DVDs to watch, to live in a place that is beautiful and that offers easy access to wilderness, to have a happy marriage. Please believe that I take none of this for granted. That wasn’t always the case, but this year has shown me the folly of doing so. I won’t fall prey to that particular mistake again.

I wish you health — emotional and physical — and I hope you have a wonderful week. See you Wednesday.

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.