Day 20: Son is Better and I Wrote a Song!

Amy Cronin diCaprio, plus Hudson

Last day of retreat. I hate when retreats end. I want more time to write, and to listen to these amazing people who somehow find my house and the circle where we share our nascent pieces. I put myself in songwriting jail yesterday afternoon and eked out something that made me and Katryna cry, which is always a good sign. (You know, the good kind of crying, not the kind of crying that comes from despair that Songwriter will ever write anything decent again.) So I have the Bicycle song, plus something on the Hudson song. I need to plunge into this morass every day. It’s not hard work, as Phillip Roth says. Coal mining is hard work. But writing is a nightmare. The trick is to squash the critical voices. They are so so so mean! I wish my judgmental bent could be surgically removed without making me completely non-discerning.

No longer ill, son photobombs writers’ luncheon

My son is well! HE IS WELL!!!! He has gone off to play soccer with his father and sister. Yesterday was puke-free, and his coughing was markedly reduced. He is still on a BRAT diet with not a lot of appetite, though he did beg me for one of writer Megan McDonough’s gluten-free meringue cookies. (I said no.)

The song finally came after reading aloud to the group some encouragement from Toni Morrison and Julia Cameron on doing one’s writing whether one feels like it or not. It’s so frustrating when the writing doesn’t come easily. But it doesn’t mean it’s not coming, and it is absolutely a part of the process. And I always forget that sometimes I think I am writing an irredeemably bad song, but then I play it for someone and they love it. (About a quarter of my songs fit into this category. You may thank Katryna.) We need each other. Writing Groups=good.

Two thoughts: Oprah would not be the worst idea in the world. Like it or not, democracy today is cray-cray, and not really at all what the founding fathers had in mind. Molly Ivins famously said, “The winning candidate for president is always the one who has a little Elvis.” If it’s a media contest, which I believe it is, perhaps the best we can do is get a media star that we pretty much like, who can sway public opinion our way. So I am totally willing to see what O has to say, and her lack of policy experience doesn’t trouble me terribly as long as she surrounds herself with good, experienced people and not Dr. Phil. Or Deepak. She has GREAT eyelashes, too!

(I am obsessed with eyelashes. Roxane Gay has given me permission to be a Bad Feminist, and this is my confession. If I could afford it, time-wise and money-wise, I would get eyelash extensions. But I cannot afford these, plus it may be that I am too old for glam lashes. Plus I now wear glasses, so what’s the point? Still, I ordered some magnetic eyelashes, and if I am not too ashamed, I will take a selfie of me wearing them sometime for this blog. My husband, son, and especially daughter, plus my husband’s nieces, have the best lashes ever. I am so jealous. I try to cheer myself up by focusing on my other qualities, such as willingness to floss, but it doesn’t always work.)

Second thought: when the future apostle Nathanial first heard of Jesus, he joked, “Has anything good ever come out of Nazareth?” Raise your hand if you think calling certain countries  derogatory or expletive-laden names makes you more or less smart? Holy? Kind? Decent? Pragmatic, even? This person holding the highest office in the land exhausts us all. We are in danger of becoming inured to the horror of his utterances. But we cannot let him become like wallpaper. We need to take a deep breath and step up to the mic and explain why he is wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong.

That’s all I have to say.

Except just look at this.

Hudson and his sister Greta

 

 

Day 19: Why Write Songs in the Age of Free Downloads?

My house is full of writers. I am sitting in Couchland North; two others are in Couchland South. Writers are at my dining room table, in my music parlor and in the front room where we gather to read (or sing) at 4pm. There’s a songwriter in my attic studio, and a songwriter in my office. My designated songwriting spot for the weekend is my own bedroom, which works very well for me; I’ve written some of my favorite songs on that bed. Last night’s goal was to find the song muscles, and while I didn’t write something I love or necessarily want to keep working on, I did feel the process start to work me. Results Girl went to bed in despair, but today, with the sun shining in my face and Hudson asleep next to my leg, I have new hope.

Writers’ feet + dog

One of the stumbling blocks is this: always before, when I’ve been in this drought, we’ve had a new album to create. As I’ve said before, we’ve seen our work, historically, as akin for that of an organic farmer. There are seasons to our work: the writing of the songs; then the recording of the songs; then the marketing, placing, ordering, shaping–what is this record about? Then the touring. A short dormant season, and then back to writing the next record. We have made 18 records. 19 if you count our greatest hits collection, which I don’t.

But in the age of Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora and the like; more to the point, in the age of singles, of playlists rather than albums, of no-CD players-in-new-cars, why go through the mishigas of making a 12-song album? DJs play singles. Do newspapers review singles, or only albums? Would more people play our music if we had a new album? Would we get more bookings? I don’t really know the answers to these questions. I don’t know if anyone does. We have three new songs that feel of a piece so far, in terms of theme: “Tyrants Always Fall,” “Gonna Build a Boat” and our version of “America the Beautiful.” The ideas I have for new songs fit into the theme well enough. Do I really want to write 9 more songs, though? Aren’t there enough songs out there in the world? I think I’ve written at least 180 songs that have been published in some form or another. Isn’t that enough?

But this morning, I had a new thought, which emanated from last night’s experience trying to write a song. If I were writing a play/musical, or a soundtrack to a movie, I would not have any issue with songwriting. I just wrote a song I love for my dad’s 75th birthday. I do have the muscles. If I were writing songs for the characters in my novel The Big Idea, I would not have a problem. I am not saying the songs would come easily as if I were taking dictation from God, but I would have a focus, and I would write, and eventually the song would be good. That’s my experience, and I have no reason to doubt it.

So what if, instead of thinking, “I need to write another Nields album,” I thought,

“I am going to write a song to sing at West Cummington Church.”

“I am going to write a song for The Big Idea, because one day it will be a movie, or a Broadway musical, and it’s always great to have extra songs in the hopper for directors to chose from.”

“I am going to write a song for the chorus I want to start.”

“I am going to write a song for a YA novel I haven’t yet written.”

“I am going to write a song for the Nields. Maybe it will be a single. Maybe we will record an album.”

As I approach February Album Writing Month, I am going to think differently. I am going to dedicate that time every day for songwriting, but I am not going to rush to finish anything. I don’t think that’s the recipe for the best songs. I’ll let some ideas marinate, as Sarah McLaughlin says.

And now, I am going to try to write Katryna’s bicycle song.

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Update on J: He is still coughing to the point of vomiting up the food he eats. He is fine, no fever, for long stretches of time within each day, and he appears perfectly healthy. Then at some point, usually 45 minutes after a meal, he coughs and coughs and coughs till he pukes. This can’t be normal. He has asthma, which we have been treating, of course, and he has had this reaction before, but never this long-lasting.

Also, point of order. Can people weigh in on whether or not small boys with asthma should be allowed to go outside on days when it’s flash-freezing wearing shorts and sneakers? I need allies, here, people. I know there is a school of thought that says being cold doesn’t cause colds and viruses, but what about common sense??????

Update on Little Blue: It’s beautiful, and I wish it were finished and that we were back there now. The guys couldn’t work on Friday because of the deluge, but I think they will be back to framing next week!

Little Blue’s western side. Framing the bedroom and bathroom!

 

A Puppy is the Solution to Pretty Much Everything

Somehow, getting this new puppy has lifted my depression and made me optimistic about the future. I can’t tell if this is just delusion, or a real lifting of the veil. It’s very difficult to be in that anxious, wheels-spinning place I have lived since last spring (as Drumpf seemed more and more likely to be the Republican nominee) when one has a little fur-ball of unconditional love on one’s lap, or on the carpet chasing his tiny curly tail, or barking at invisible squirrels on the ceiling. Animals live in the present moment. There might be some body memories they carry–certainly I have known dogs who were clearly traumatized by some man in a uniform––but they certainly don’t have a fear of the future. Not this little guy, anyway.

More and more, the election seems a bad dream from which we must, eventually, awaken. When? I don’t know. But I have lived long enough to know that what goes up must come down. How is it that we have this repugnant person as our president-elect? Do you know his approval rating is at 37%, the lowest of any incoming president in history? How can he govern that other 63%, those folks who don’t like him? He can’t. We will be ungovernable, as my friend Jo says. What keeps coming to mind is that image of the Berlin Wall coming down. Hundreds of people scaled it, hurled their bodies over. Apartheid ended in South Africa. The British left India. At some point, the 99% will join together and overthrow the 1%. The Drumpf voters will have buyer’s remorse. The question is: when.

For the first time in years, I do not have a project to work on. My novel is with my agency, my poetry book is published, I am between records. I have some song ideas, but they seem far away, not urgent as they do when they are about to be born. I am reading autobiographies of musicians: Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Keith Richards, Patti Smith. Part of me thinks, “Why should I write another album? We have enough albums.” What does anyone want to hear me say, anyway? I am said-out. Someone else can have a turn. I want to sit back and play with my dog. I felt this way when I first became a mother. I have a deep desire to turn inward, keep house, play pieces on the piano that have nothing to do with my repertoire. Listen to my kids make their own music.

Time will tell what comes next, and I don’t feel worried about it. My guess is that this is a winter of creativity, a season not unlike the one we are all experiencing–in between administrations. Creativity ebbs and flows, as do social movements. But it is an odd feeling to come to the page empty. Someone at my retreat today said, “Passion needs developing.” This is my experience. I need to do the footwork to put myself in the stream of creativity in order for it to awaken in me. I need to pick up my guitar, sit down at the piano, and start by writing some bad songs. Bad songs lead to good songs lead to great songs. I have to give myself permission to be a beginner again. A puppy is a good model for this, both as itself–a newcomer to Planet Earth–and as its puppy mama–a not-inexperienced dog owner who still could learn a few new tricks.

Here is what does not help:

-interrupting my sanctioned writing time by checking my email to see if my agent has written me back
-interrupting my writing time by checking the polls to see if Drumpf’s unfavorables have dropped even more
-comparing myself to Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen or Patti Smith (OK to compare self to Keith Richards, though.)

Here is what helps:

-Showing up.
-showing up to the piano every day
-writing morning pages and really doing it–3 pages, hand doesn’t leave page.
-read whatever interests me–I call this the Hansel and Gretl effect. The trail of breadcrumbs leads, inevitably, to inspiration. So whatever seems shiny  and sparkly seems that way for a reason.
-cuddling dog
-cuddling kids
-cuddling husband
-getting enough sleep
-refusing to listen to the bad voices
-remaining fiercely on my own side.

Update on Day 2

I have a little more of the song. It’s all potential now, which is the best. So far, it’s an idea in my head, and it’s perfect. I just have to go slowly. if I write it too fast, I will kill it. But actually writing the song…well, I always forget this until I am doing it. There is nothing more wonderful that just being in the flow of new life. I have my Martin 018, a computer that works, my songwriting notebook and my little gold puppy. At this moment, I feel completely content.

 

Summer and the Swing

…Death kept following, tracking us down
At least I heard your bluebird sing
Now somebody’s got to show their hand
Time is an enemy
I know you’re long gone; I guess it’s gonna be up to me.

-Dylan, 1974

There have been an unforgivable number of deaths this summer. Maybe it was all the deaths. Maybe it was the drought. Maybe it was the relentless drumbeat of Trumpism. But the cumulative effect for me was that when people ask me how my summer was, I have to force a smile and say, truthfully, “It had a good ending. How was yours?”

In many ways, my summer was great. It included what seemed a family smorgasbord of travel, violin, soccer, theatre camps, Adirondack hikes and a certain kid finally learning to swim competently, thanks to the ministrations of a family friend. Professionally, too, it was pretty sweet, with our two 25th anniversary concerts at the Iron Horse, which included performances by all four of our kids and our dear friends Ben Demerath and Kalliope Jones. Tom and I got to see Hamilton (with the original cast!) which was life-changing and inspiring. I had the privilege of running and participating in two fantastic retreats, one in the ADKs and one at home in Northampton, learning so much from my participants as I always do. And then in late July, Katryna and Dave Chalfant and I started work on the soundtrack to go along with my novel The Big Idea. With the help of our longtime drummer Dave Hower, Dave C breathed passion and life and youth into songs I’d written as long ago as 2002, as well as songs I wrote this past June. I now see a whole different aspect of the characters I’ve been living with for fifteen years. Dave found angles I’d never considered, brought the songs to life in full color animation. At summer’s end, Dar drove up with her daughter Taya and was my character Liv First, singing my new song “The Shame Wars” with her trademark generosity, love and vulnerability. The next day, all three of our daughters sang backgrounds on a new version of “As Cool As I Am” which will be released as part of her Return to Mortal City tour. Afterwards, we had dinner on my porch and watched the kids play soccer in the back yard, caught up and talked about her book on small towns and cities, community building and music, and I felt so deeply grateful for our long, sweet, sustaining friendship. These moments, like luminous pearls on a necklace, are the point. They are the Big Idea.

IMG_5576 IMG_5579

But the deaths. The news. The grass turned to straw. I had to scratch and claw my way out of a dark place that had threatened to obliterate these moments, keeping me trapped in my head instead of enjoying my blessed, precious life. I find myself in this place often––I always assume it’s part of the package of being an artist––but it usually doesn’t last so long. This summer, it seemed so interminable I was considering setting up furniture inside the trap. At times like these, I experience others around me joking, bantering, enjoying each other, using words to make connections, and it as if I am in the audience watching a play. I know I am supposed to be up there on stage, but I have forgotten my lines.

Three things usually save me: prayer, honesty and music. For two of the three, I depend on other people. For all of them, I need some element of the Divine. But none appeared to be working by the time I got to the main stage at Falcon Ridge, where I was still in the trap, unable to connect to the music or my bandmates in the way I usually could. We played, my bandmates were incredible as usual, and we tore down, hugged each other, and this time packed up for our next show at the Workshop Stage, an hour plus with one of our favorite other bands, The Slambovian Circus of Dreams. On that stage, electrified by the energy of that wonderful band, and my own drummer, bass player, guitarist and sweet amazing sister, rocked by the rhythms and urgency of “For What It’s Worth,” buoyed by the audience, I came back. I remembered my lines.

FRFF_2016_9

It’s been better since then. I’ve been sleeping more, waking more slowly, being gentle with my creative process, savoring my kids. Up until this morning, I took a long summer break from my 5am writing sessions, trading inspiration and the hit of productivity for sleep. Perhaps I “discipline” over my feelings the way some people eat, drink, screw or shop over theirs. But I have committed to myself and a bunch of other people that I will finish this book, hoping to get the draft to my agent by December. In order to do that, I am going to have to go back to the disciplined lifestyle from which I’ve been blissfully vacationing.

I still haven’t figured out how to live as a creative artist with a family. It seems I’m either courting my muse, in which case my family is mad at me and I am stuck in the dark place, or I am refuting it, in which case I am in the play with my family, saying my lines. But something is missing, then. I don’t feel like myself if part of me is not lost in my head, spinning the scene, writing the song, planning the tour. I seem to go from one extreme of the pendulum to the other, and when I hit the extreme, I go “bonk, bonk” against whatever it is you hit when you go extreme. But now that school has started, and I am back in my routine, up at 5 (OK, 5:45. Let’s start easy…) I’m thinking it’s not so bad. What’s wrong with swinging? Tom says, “You know, I have known this about you since we met. You just have to let me get mad at you and keep doing your art.”

Hamilton, Ambition, Perfection

IMG_4976“What is to give light must endure burning.”
-Viktor Frankl

If, on the night of June 2nd, you heard a bloodcurdling scream coming from a neighborhood in Northampton, that would have been me on learning that, for my birthday, my incredibly generous parents (via the urging of my hugely thoughtful and loving sister Katryna) had bought Tom and me tickets to go see Hamilton the Musical. On June 28. Two weeks before the Tony-awarded cast’s contracts were up. I was going to get to see the original Broadway cast. In person. I screamed for a full 10 seconds. More on that below, but first I have to say that I was going to post that picture of me surrounded by my new Hamiltome (a huge, beautiful libretto with photos, notes and essays on the production), my soundtrack and my copy of the Ron Chernow biography. But Katryna said, “You can’t tell people about this! They will kill you! Plus, it’s rude.” So I didn’t say anything until we actually went. That was still probably rude. But I could not keep quiet.

I am in the Adirondacks right now, writing with my retreatants at my parents’ house. Up on the wall of the kitchen is a snapshot that captures a moment of pure perfection, taken about 4 years ago, of my two kids when they were still in footie pajamas. They are sitting, side by side, at the foot of the stairs, waiting for their grandparents to come down. The morning light shines in on their brown heads, and they are both turned slightly to look at the photographer. One of them has an eager look on her face; she knows the glories that will come when her grandparents descend. The other is along for the ride, because he knows his sister usually has a good plan. They are alert, attentive, on the cusp, sitting up straight and tall, criss-cross-applesauce legs. They are snuggly and delicious, and when I see that picture, I melt. I want to scoop them up and hug them. I regret ever having done anything other than scoop them up and hug them, hold them to my chest and savor this rare period of time. Why, in the face of such wonderfulness, would a person do anything else? And yet I know that during that time, my mind wandered, just as it did (a very little bit) as I sat in the equally perfect production of Hamilton I was lucky enough to see.

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Like most folks who have heard the soundtrack more than once, I am a huge Hamilton fan. I love pretty much everything about it:
-the incredible songwriting (which I think is even better than Sondheim’s because it has so much heart and pathos)
-the fact that Lin-Manuel Miranda got the idea from reading that big fat historical biography of Alexander Hamilton
-the amazing history lesson our kids are getting (mine are obsessed and know every word, ask me unanswerable questions about John Adams and Lafayette, are furious about Washington and Jefferson owning slaves)
-the politics (how much have things not changed???)
-the humor (King Louis’ head)
-the cast that looks more authentically like today’s America than any play I’ve seen
-the cast, the cast, the cast, oh my GOD, the cast!!!!
-the incredible study of ambition that we get in comparing Hamilton and Burr
-the awareness of privilege and class that we see as Alexander rises up from his origins in the West Indies
-the vast scope of the musical’s ambition
-The beautiful, inspiring love story
-the fact that it is the first musical I have been interested in since I was in high school
-the fact that it has made me fall in love with live theatre again
-the way in which L-MM composed the “mixtape” on Logic (what is Logic? How the heck can I learn it??? Can someone help me? please?)
-the references to the Beatles (of course)…

We arrived at the theatre at 3pm, and I was so nervous I was trembling. I was stuttering. I couldn’t believe I was at the Richard Rodgers theatre and that I was about to see my new musical heroes and heroines. I have listened to the soundtrack *nonstop* since my nephew William introduced me to it in April, and I have come to love the cast members the way I loved the Fab Four. I feel like I know them. I can’t imagine seeing Jefferson played by anyone other than Daveed Diggs. Or a different George Washington; who can possibly fill Chris Jackson’s shoes? So I was trying hard to pre-emptively lower my expectations on the experience, since there would surely be at least one understudy taking the place of one of my beloved leads. But when we got there, there were signs up everywhere warning the ticket holders that this production would be filmed.

And. Jonathan Groff, who had played the role of King George III onstage and on the soundtrack, and who had left the show in April, was coming back (*he’ll be back…*) for this performance.

GAH!!!!!!!!! ON TOP OF EVERYTHING, THERE ARE DELICIOUS BEATLES REFERENCES!!! IN THE AFTERMATH OF BREXIT!!! (which I loathe, but anyway, it’s interesting…)

Speaking of the Beatles, I have to say that I haven’t been this blown away and deeply inspired since 1977 when my friend Leila Corcoran introduced me to the Fab Four. But this brings something else up.

As inspired as I am by Hamilton, I am also daunted by it. I am almost defeated by its perfection. I am obsessed by its genius pacing. How did he figure out which parts of that huge book/huge life to include in the 3 hour story, and which parts to cut? He brilliantly tells the first 19 years of AH’s life in a masterful opening number:

How can any songwriter ever lift her quill again in the face of this? How can I even begin to approach my 850 page novel The Big Idea when I have in my head the perfection I witnessed on Tuesday night? My book is not as good as Hamilton. So why bother.

I told my friend this the other day. OK, my therapist. She looked at me and shook her head, as she often does. “Whaaat? You must be out of your GODDAMNED MIND….” No, just kidding. She said, “Um, why are you comparing a novel to a musical? And what does your novel have to do with Hamilton? Who, besides you, would even make a comparison of you to Lin-Manuel Miranda?”

I don’t know. It’s arrogant (*bastard*) to compare oneself to the likes of L-MM; one doesn’t usually compare oneself to Shakespeare or Mozart or even Lennon/McCartney. One just sighs and knows that there are some who achieve a kind of immortality, while most artists, even wildly successful ones, are content to get paid and to bask in the contained era of their fame.

How was the show? I was on the edge of my seat for the full 3 hours. I trembled throughout the first act. I wept all through the second (except when I was laughing). And yet, there was a way in which getting EXACTLY WHAT I WANTED left me feeling a bit…off. I know that sounds horrible and ungrateful. But what I mean is that it’s a strange thing to be fully satisfied,just as I was fully satisfied when I was cuddling my small children in their footie pajamas. And this is itself one of the themes of the play. “You will never be satisfied,” sings Angelica to herself and to Hamilton. These two characters have almost everything in the moment when she sings these words: wealth, success, beauty, love, family (though Angelica is lacking something very particular, of course….) Still, it’s a very difficult thing, even in the very very best of times, to remain fully and completely present. Even in the face of perfection––and an absolutely perfect entertainment experience––my mind sometimes went somewhere outside the Richard Rodgers theatre. (To my novel. To my children. To my concern about driving home after the show in the rain.) Also, and I am deeply ashamed to admit this, a part of me was convinced that this incredible good fortune (of getting to see the show, of getting to see the entire original cast) would not go unnoticed by the gods, and surely I would be smote somehow. So what is that about?

I need to add here that, besides the price of the tickets, there was a pretty significant cost to my birthday night. I sort of smote myself. My bloodcurdling scream seriously wrecked my voice. At the retreat yesterday, I had intended to do way too many things. Among them were to record a demo of Liv First’s song “The Shame Wars” for my friend Dar Williams, who will be singing it for the soundtrack that will accompany The Big Idea. It’s been a month since I screamed that bloodcurdling scream, but I still don’t have the full range of my voice back. I can’t cleanly sing the D above middle C, which used to be an easy note for me. I warmed up and warmed up, but the note is still not there. And I have in the back of my mind, “Payback. For all your good fortune. For getting to see Hamilton.”

I ended up macguyvering my little Casio keyboard (the song is played on piano) to make it a half step lower, and then I was able to sing the song. I sent it off to Dar, and I sent other songs off to the band. The experience of seeing that beautiful work of art last Tuesday stays with me. The songs are in me, the images and the dances too. Certain gestures I got to witness feel intrinsic now to my whole life. Just as the experience of witnessing my two children grow from babies to footie-pajama’d youngsters to the mountain-climbing violin-playing soccer-ball-kicking infuriatingly rule-breaking wonders they are today is woven into my blood and bones. Just as Hamilton and Burr wove themselves into each others’ blood and bones, so that by the end of Hamilton’s life, he has a bit of Burr’s hesitancy and judiciousness, while Burr has some of Hamilton’s go-for-it ambition. Time will tell if I get my D back. I will go and warm up my voice again today and see. If not, I’m willing to *wait for it.*