Day 23: Architecture and the Novel

Grassless, desolate yard

My Tuesday writing group is scribbling away in the front room, while Hudson and I sit back in Couchland, gazing at the new building. The guys are taking a break today because of the rain. This morning, our son said, “Dada, when are we going to plant some grass back there?”

It’s hard to imagine spring, or grass, or that the building will ever be finished. It’s pretty desolate. But I am less concerned about the spacial issues than I was last week. My contractor suggested I make some blank floor plans and print out copies, cut and paste some furniture models and move them around on the blanks. Kind of like Legos for grown ups. The whole process feels less daunting. And the act of moving the pieces, considering the possibilities, is very like the process of writing. You move some scenes, you cut a character, you re-write.

Last year at this time, I became obsessed with two things at once. One was the puzzle of my novel. My agent had just sent me back my manuscript with a giant plan for revision. I had to take apart the entire manuscript, re-write huge swaths from different points of view, and rework the ending and frame. The first thing that came to mind was that in order to do this, I needed a new office, and specifically, a huge flat empty desk.

This dovetailed into my second obsession: the problem of my house. Don’t get me wrong, my house is magical, as I have written. But after 14 years of living here, and having added a husband, two kids and a puppy, it was no longer the spacious funhouse it once had been. No more did I have an entire room to use as a wardrobe. Instead, we were wading through clutter, and the kids were cooped up in the winter, in dire need of a playroom. My guitar students were knocking elbows with each other in the music room. My family was infringing on my writing groups, and my writers were pushing my family out of their downstairs.

To solve the first problem, I escaped to the attic, where I fashioned a desk out of a big door. Every morning at 5am, I crept up and wrote, laying the scenes out on the desk, or the floor, or the wall, so I could get a visual on what went where. As I worked out the architecture of the novel, I was also puzzling over the architecture of my home. I needed more space to teach. The kids needed more space to play. Tom needed less clutter. Should we take a wall down between the writing room and the music room downstairs? Should we make what is now a kind of glorified hallway into a bonafide office by bumping out the dining room wing of the house? Should we finish the attic and put a playroom and bathroom up there? But in order to do so, we discovered after much research, we’d have to structurally engineer the whole house up. Eventually, we decided to build Little Blue. But my confusion about the layout  of Big Yellow remained. When would we get clarity on what we should do?

Jay’s pneumonia is getting better, but not healed completely. In January 2018, as of today, he has gone to school for only 6 days. We were desperate to leave no stone unturned, we hypothesized that perhaps he was too cold in his bedroom. His bedroom, which was once the master bedroom, is for reasons unknown the coldest room in the house. Elle’s room is unusually hot. So one day last week when she had run up to the attic to talk on the phone with her bestie, I had the thought: what if I gave her my attic lair?

She jumped at the chance to move rooms. And Jay was happy to move to hers. I hired 4 Guys and  Truck, and on Friday, we made the big switcheroo. As is often the case, the moving uncovered years of clutter. We gave away and threw away much. (Not 80%, but a good effort!) Cleaning, tidying, decluttering creates a powerful energy of its own. Today I sorted through years of papers and memorabilia and created a new filing system. My house has never been so organized. Also, thanks to your comments, I did not sell my treadmill desk! I moved it to what was recently J’s room (the cold room, now the guest room/workout room) and have even walked on it for 15 minutes as I poked at my iPhone. (This is my favorite form of exercise, by the way–poking at iPhone while walking slowly uphill. I could win the Olympics event of this.) Elle loves her new upstairs space, Jay loves his warm room, and I now have my flat door desk in the glorified hallway. It feels as though the plan is settling into place.

We couldn’t have figured this out any other way than by just living into it. So often, the solutions don’t become clear until time passes. My draft may or not be finished, but the only way I could solve its problems was to just. keep. writing. Eventually, with enough time and slog, clarity arrived.

The other profound wisdom which has now passed through my bloodstream is that no expensive renovation or even new home can give the profound peace and satisfaction that a clean, organized, uncluttered space can give. We are not 100% there yet, and I will never be That Person who has gone all Marie Kendo, but my whole nervous system sighs with relief when I walk into any of the rooms in my home now.

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.

****

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.”