From the Basement

December 9, 2010

Writing, Music, & Little Women

Filed under: Grad School,Writing — jeannablue @ 3:35 am
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Over the last few years, I have come to appreciate the role that music has in writing. And not only in creative writing, but critical as well. I’ve had a playlist going for my graduate school applications, composed of rather different tunes:

Siuil a Run – Celtic Woman

The Mystic’s Dream – Loreena McKennitt

Love Game – Lady GaGa

Marry Me – Emilie Autumn

The Highwayman – Loreena McKennitt

The Mummers’ Dance – Loreena McKennitt

Fairytale – Sara Bareilles

Telephone – Glee Cast Version

I recently added Sting’s “Field of Gold” and Loreena McKennitt’s “She Moved through the Fair” and “Annachie Gordon.” I like songs that will soothe in the background as I concentrate intensely on a passage. Others, like “Marry Me,” really articulate the context of the paper I’m writing, and still others  – like Lady GaGa – serve to rev me up when my energy is flagging. I know that Love Game is playfully explicit, but I dare you to not sit up a little straighter when you’re listening to it.

Those songs, however, are not what is so deeply affecting me. Thomas Newman’s soundtrack to the 1994 film Little Women never fails to move me to tears. Someone – bless their heart – has put the entire soundtrack on youtube videos, and I am listening and am just still in a way I haven’t been in a long time. There’s something about that film – and its music especially – that holds a powerful place in my heart. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been watching it since I was six or seven years old… I don’t know if it’s because growing up, I wanted to be Jo the writer who moved away to the big city… who sacrificed a safe marriage to pursue her dreams. She was – is? – one of my heroes. If there is a character in all literature who I adore, it is Jo. Above Elizabeth Bennett, above Anne Eliot, above Elinor Dashwood, there is Josephine March, and hers is the story I will watch on screen over and over again. Honestly, I don’t know that I’ve ever made it through the entirety of the book Little Women – I’m sure I did once upon a time, but when I want to be comforted or encouraged, particularly when writing, I watch this film. It is a powerful sensory experience.

Given that I’m not working on my applications but rather am basking in the glory of the music of one of my all-time favorite stories – in any medium, print or film – I should probably stop listening to the soundtrack. But I can’t just yet. … not quite yet.

November 7, 2010

“Random Acts of Culture”

I love the internet and how it enables people from far and wide to witness “flash” mobs and random acts of culture. I want to join in and be a part of one! Where do I sign up?

Current youtube obsession: the Random Act of Culture performed by the Opera Company of Philadelphia less than two weeks ago. They flash mobbed Macy’s with a beautiful rendition of Handel’s “Messiah.”

And my favorite dance flash mob…

Note: I am far more equipped to do the Sound of Music dance than the opera singing. Just sayin’.

What I love about these is that they bring joy to people. It’s random, unexpected – you don’t expect an opera company or random dancers when you’re shopping or traveling – and that’s what’s so fun about it. Maybe it’s naive and Pollyanna-optimistic, but to me, these events are reminders that there is good in the world, good coming straight to you from random strangers who gathered in a spot to bring light and joy into your life. Random act of culture, sure. But it’s a random act of kindness, too – even to those of us watching from the comfort of our own homes.

September 15, 2010

Taylor Swift & Metal Music: Love Story?

I’m not a huge fan of Taylor Swift. While I can appreciate the reasons for her popularity (and her attempt at maintaining a “wholesome” image, whatever that means), her lyrics often border on the [fill in your adjective of choice].

Given my proclivity for fairy tales, several friends sent the hit song “Love Story” my way. They didn’t know that my ears were already bleeding – I ran a day camp for elementary school kids last summer, and listening to 6-year-old girls sing about Romeo & Juliet and The Scarlet Letter infuriated both the English major and the overprotective teacher in me. There is a generation of girls who are in for a big surprise when they hit high school English class, and I hope to God they don’t want to be Juliet.

In a fairy tale turn, however, my fiancé rescued the song for me. He’s a not-so-closet metalhead, and he sent me a fabulous cover performed by Amongst the Ruin.

Maybe it’s just me, but the juxtaposition of Twu Luv lyrics with metal music casts a deliciously dark and ironic light on the song. Finally, the allusions to depressing literature make sense!

This version is definitely love… twu luv.

July 25, 2010

Fighting for Faith

Over the last few weeks, I have been digging into the word, reading wonderful literature (John Piper, C.S. Lewis), and writing (and not writing) the novel. But while the weeks have been full of learning, growth, and challenge, so too have they been full of doubts. The fight for faith, the fight for joy, seems to get harder every day, and some days are better than others. No one can take my joy – this I know. Thing is, sometimes it feels as if I am standing in the way of my own joy.

I’ve been writing and praying a lot, and there several topics that are vying for more detailed attention. These include what I’ve dubbed “Lies I Believe”: that I am too young and inexperienced to be used by God, that my fear stands in the way of being used by God, that I must fully let go to be used by God – all of which culminate in feeling separated from God when I know I am not. (See a pattern?) I’ve also just finished the book of Ecclesiastes – I zipped through it in two days and wow, is it rife with rich material. I would like to write about it, though some themes tie in with youth/inexperience. And the last category is more fully addressing how some notions of “Biblical” femininity are culturally informed (e.g., women shouldn’t work outside the home).

Because I’m digesting a lot right now, including this morning’s wonderful sermon, I’m not really in a place to offer cohesive or cogent thoughts. Rather, I’d like to offer a few quotes and verses. It’s funny: fear and pride have been my daily companions, yet I forget that I’ve posted encouragements for myself in places I visit every day. Namely, the computer desktop and Facebook. So those are the encouragements I’m going to share.

Posted in my “Religious Views” is a quote from John Newton, who wrote the hymn Amazing Grace. Towards the end of his life, Newton wrote:

“I remember two things – that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great savior.”

And in favorite quotes, Romans 8:38-39: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

On the desktop is a verse from my favorite hymn, Be Thou My Vision.

Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise.

Thou my inheritance, now and always.

Thou and thou only, first in my heart.

High king of heaven, my treasure thou art.

And because the last verse is so beautiful —

High king of heaven, my victory won!

May I reach heaven’s joys, oh bright heaven’s son.

Heart of my own heart, whatever befall –

Still be my vision, oh Ruler of all.

July 24, 2010

Lyric Post: How Deep the Father’s Love For Us

Filed under: Faith,Lyric Post — jeannablue @ 4:19 pm
Tags: , , , ,

How deep the Father’s love for us,
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure

How great the pain of searing loss,
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the chosen One,
Bring many sons to glory

Behold the Man upon a cross,
My sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed I hear my mocking voice,
Call out among the scoffers

It was my sin that held Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished

I will not boast in anything
No gifts, no power, no wisdom
But I will boast in Jesus Christ
His death and resurrection

Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom

July 22, 2010

How God used Hilary Duff & the Rascal Flatts to get my attention (again)

Tonight, I was going through CD’s from high school. In between the incredulity (all the rap!) and laughter (Girl All The Bad Guys Want, anyone?), I found inspiration and hope in the last CD I put in… God’s timing, man, God’s timing.

The only quote that seems appropriate to introduce these songs (which are few among many of their kind in my musical history) is something President Lincoln said – “I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.”

“On the Way Down” – Ryan Cabrera

Sick and tired of this world; there’s no more air, trippin’ over myself goin’ nowhere – waiting, suffocating, no direction and I took a dive and –

On the way down, I saw you and you saved me from myself. And I won’t forget the way you loved me. On the way down, I almost fell right through, but I held onto you….

I was so afraid of going under, but now the weight of the world feels like nothing, no, nothing…. And I won’t forget the way you loved me…. All that I wanted, all that I needed…

“So Yesterday” – Hilary Duff (yes, Hilary Duff). The song is about a breakup, but the chorus is so full of hope and release – being able to let it go.

Cause if it’s over, let it go and come tomorrow it will seem so yesterday, so yesterday – I’m just a bird that’s already flown away. Laugh it off, and let it go, and when you wake up it will seem so yesterday, so yesterday – haven’t you heard that I’m gonna be okay?

“Feels Like Today” – Rascal Flatts. This bit is from the first verse:

But I know something is coming. I don’t know what it is, but I know it’s amazing, you save me. My time is coming, and I’ll find my way out of this longest drought…

And hearing that song inspired me to go listen to my favorite Rascal Flatts tune, their cover of “Bless the Broken Road.” Rascal Flatts is a country band that has owned the faith-filled messages in their music. Even though Selah released a “Christian” version of the song that substitutes the word “savior” for “lover” at the end, I prefer lover. For Jesus is the lover of our souls, and his passion for us is overwhelming.

This is one of the most beautiful, humbling praises I’ve ever heard… even if you don’t like country, I exhort you to listen.

We worship a faithful God. In our darkest hours and our loneliest times, in the light of day and in the dead of night, he is there. We can just roll on home into our Lover’s arms – thank you Jesus for the mercy and intimacy, for how you are a refuge for my soul. When this world feels chaotic and hectic and frenzied, you are there in the midst of it. You are for us, therefore no one can be against us. And nothing – not the powers of this earth, not the government, not a difficult economy or crazy job market or concern over using the right words, not fear or pride – nothing can separate us from you and your will for our loves, from the awesome, terrible, awe-inspiring love you hold for us. Nothing can separate us from your love. Nothing can divide us from your purpose. We are in your light, and there cannot be dark where there is light. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

June 18, 2010

Trust Your Characters

It’s a slow process, learning about characters. Sort of like making a new friend – it’s gradual. You can’t force it. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that you can’t force the characters. Force the characters and you risk killing the story. Ah hell, you kill the story.

It’s the same way with deciding which music will keep me going through the story. I write in silence but I listen to music to feed my muse, to put me in the mood, in that place that takes me there. Tonight, there were three songs that came to me for this story’s soundtrack: Beth (originally by Kiss, but I listen to the Glee version), Summer in the City (Regina Spektor), and Red Dirt Girl (Emmylou Harris). Summer in the City is for the piano; when I heard that song (God bless the random option on iTunes), I realized that my main character plays piano. Red Dirt Girl is for her mother. And Beth, I have no idea. Maybe the dad, who isn’t really in the story. Or maybe I just really like the texture of the song.

I cleaned my desk today. Clutter prevents creativeness. So I cleaned my desk, mostly. And I unwrapped a “note block” and started ripping off the small white notes (like Post-Its only without the sticky), and writing things I knew about my protagonist, and taping them onto my wall. I have 12 notes for her. Some are character traits, like that she’s impatient and restless. One is her favorite color (usually not something I think about, so that was weird, but it’s ice blue, in case you’re wondering). Some things come randomly, like the knowledge that she plays piano and her dad is the one who taught her. I know that she orders a Caesar salad with every meal and that she retreats into herself when asked about things she doesn’t want to talk about.

I also know that I have no idea what’s driving the internal conflict. Well, I know that it’s a conflict with her mother. Something happened three years prior to the story (that it was three years ago just got dropped into my lap), and I don’t know what. It’s big. But I don’t know. And I try to stop myself from filling in the gap: was it an abortion or a huge fight or manipulation or knowledge of her father or …? It does no good to fill it in. It’ll fill itself in.

When it comes to writing characters, I’m a firm believer that they should let themselves be discovered. I used to be the 20-step writer – you know, fill in 20 character traits, describe their physicality, decide on a personality, go from there. Now I’m more inclined to the Stephen King method (which actually applies to uncovering story, but I apply it to characters): they are bones that we as writers dig up. They’re already there. We just have to sense them, find them, excavate them carefully, removing one bit of dirt at a time until we get a clearer picture. It takes time, energy, devotion. The story is there. The characters are there. And if you trust yourself to find them, if you trust yourself enough to keep moving the pen, eventually the story and characters will start moving so fast you’ll struggle to keep up. Eventually, the story writes itself and the characters do their own thing.

That’s the point I’m excited to get to. I’m not there yet. I’m only three thousand words in right now. It’ll take a while longer before a picture starts to emerge. But it’s already changed from what I thought it was, and that’s a good thing.

Trust the process. And, to offer one of my favorite quotes on writing, never hope more than you work.

P.S. The reason for the hiatus was an excursion out west to attend the wedding of a dear friend. And then I was tired and took a break from blog writing. And now I’m back, working on a novel, still applying for jobs, and hopefully continuing to blog through the whole process.

June 5, 2010

Daddy’s Songs

These are Daddy’s songs. They’re songs about Daddy, songs I associate with Daddy, songs that will always be his. I realize that this would be a great post to save for Father’s Day, but patience is not one of my virtues. I’m workin’ on that.

You Learn – Alanis Morisette

My memory of Daddy and this song is driving along that backway highway we’d take home from Waterloo, driving back from the Blacks building where Daddy had his office, my 8-year-old self belting out I recommend walkin’ around naked in your living ro-oo-oom while Daddy chuckled.

My dad loved (loves) Alanis’s Jagged Little Pill album. There’s this strange dichotomy to his musical taste: on the one hand, he loves classic rock. He was literally there for the KISS concerts, the mania surrounding the Rolling Stones and all those other bands. My sister inherited those genetics; she’s not even 20-years-old and knows more about classic rock than most Baby Boomers. (She also has a mildly dangerous obsession with Bruce Springsteen.)

On the other hand, though, my dad loves Alanis Morisette, Natalie Merchant, Pat Benatar, Amy MacDonald, the Indigo Girls, Jewel. Alternative female rockers, singer/songwriters. That’s the gene I got. And I think that the JLP album started it all.

On a side note,. I re-discovered JLP in Dad’s collection as a 14 or 15-year-old, and was totally shocked when I listened to “You Oughta Know.” It was then when I realized that Dad did indeed censor the music he let his girls listen to.

My Own Prison – Creed

The last time my boyfriend and I were driving back from his parents’ house, we were listening to Creed (the compromise between my alternative singer/songwriters and his heavy metal). When this song finished playing, he asked me why exactly it’s my favorite Creed song, since even with the biblical imagery, it’s pretty dark. And it’s true – friends who know me would not think this was one of my favorite songs.

It’s simple, really– it’s Daddy’s song. This is one of his favorite Creed tracks, and even though it applies a lot more to him than it does to me, it’s become one of mine.

Omaha – Counting Crows

August & Everything After is an album that I’ve reclaimed from my childhood in that it has a place in my present, not only in my past. But this song – Omaha – always takes me back to our years in Iowa, a time when there was fried chicken for lunch every Sunday, when I didn’t know how hard my parents had it. We lived on an acreage that butted up against a narrow highway no one took if they could help it. There were beautiful sunsets over the corn and soybean fields every night, and even though this song is named after a city in Nebraska, the texture of it, for me, is all Iowa.

Hammer Down – Ted Nugent

This was our before-bed song growing up. Daddy changed the lyrics to be: jammies jammies jammies, jammies on! Jammies on! Jammies on! – And so my younger sister and I would race as fast as we could to get our jammies on.

Time of Your Life – Green Day

August 1998. I can’t remember which day. We were driving back home after going to the Iowa State Fair when we got the call from my dad’s sister that my grandpa had died. At that point in my life, I’d never seen my dad cry like that. Mom volunteered to drive. He refused. And he drove us all the way home, the grief palpable even to two little girls in the backseat who didn’t really know about death and dying.

This was the song that was playing on the radio when we got the call.

Hotel California – Eagles

So this is a song that rock radio stations feels compelled to play at least six times a day. It annoys the shit out of me, because people, it’s been over thirty years.

That aside.

I am listing this song because Dad loves the drum solo and every time we listen to it we’re either in his work vehicle or in the kitchen drinking beer. And he does the drum solo with his hands no matter where we are. Most people love the guitar riff which, while awesome, has nothing on Don Henley. Doing the Hotel California drum solo in the car is an art, one which I am slowly perfecting.

People Are Crazy – Billy Currington

This is a country song, but Dad loves it and recently informed me (and my boyfriend, and one of my best friends, and anyone else who visits him) that he wants it played at his funeral. The chorus is pretty much his life philosophy: God is great, beer is good, and people are crazy. … Yup.

Sweet Suzanne – John Mellencamp, et al.

This song is from the soundtrack to the film Falling From Grace, a terrible movie (I’ve heard) which got virtually no attention. It was only by chance that Dad heard a song from the soundtrack, and he fell in love with it. This song was our dancing song – his, my sister’s, mine. We’d twirl and twirl and twirl to it. “I just wanted to say goodnight, Suzanne/I just wanted to say good night/I just wanted to see if everything’s all right/I just wanted to say goodnight, Suzanne.”

The one thing I always knew about my wedding (if I had one), was that at the reception (if I had one), this would be the father/daughter dance.

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