The universe won’t read my book

Toward the end of April 2020 as I was trying to scrape together a little book that reconciled me to the universe, I read through what I had written so far and suddenly realized it was done.

“I don’t know how to explain it, I don’t know why, I don’t know how or when it happened, but this is the book I wanted to produce. It’s finished,” I said to myself.

I published it that weekend.

It has a ridiculous name: How to Play a Blue Guitar. I have never been able to put into words why I think it hangs together as a work of art and expression. It is just plainly obvious to me that it does.

The marketplace has told me I was being foolish. No one wants to read it. Was I wrong about this thing?

Every so often I page through it. It’s eccentric and eclectic. It has short essays, poems, fiction, and maybe it doesn’t work, because I seem to be the only person who thinks it does. How to Play a Blue Guitar is exactly the book I wanted it to be.

What does it mean that almost no one in the universe will read or buy what, to date, feels to me like my most real book?

It means a simple, liberating truth: that, as a wise man once wrote, the universe doesn’t give a flying f*ck about me.

You know? When I think about that carefully, it’s downright exhilarating.




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This is the end of my second full year of blogging every day. Thanks for dropping by.

Lists pros and cons

I had an interesting exchange Friday after I posted yesterday’s post (“Joni’s foreground music”) to Facebook. 

One of my closest we-should-be-friend-friends-not-just-Facebook-friends friends, Sam Kujava, responded, “I would say she is my favorite female musician but that is considered sexist now, right?” And added, “I cried happy and sad tears watching her perform here,” talking about the “Joni Jam” at Newport Folk Festival on Sunday.

On the subject of “female musicians,” I said, “I’d been thinking whether Bob Dylan was still our greatest songwriter or if Springsteen had passed him, and then I thought of Joni and thought, ‘Wait just a minute …’”

Then Sam said it all: “They’re all up there near the top spot. Maybe we shouldn’t focus on ‘top spot’ and just enjoy them all.”

I am a sucker for lists. In my digging around after the Joni Jam, I dove into Rolling Stone’s “Top 500 Albums of All Time” (Blue was No. 3), and I’m always wanting to rank stuff like that. But Sam’s right: Maybe we should just enjoy them all. Why try to parse whether “Jungleland” or “River” is the more moving song when they both strike the soul to the core? It’s a fun little exercise, but the bottom line is that both songs tell us something unique about what it means to be human.

I locked in my favorite four movies of all time years ago, and the only change in decades has been what’s No. 5 — It’s a Wonderful Life, The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca, and E.T. — but do I really choke up marginally more at “ZuZu’s petals — THERE THEY ARE!” than at “There’s no place like home”? Does “You always had the power, my dear, you just had to learn it for yourself” really move me slightly more than that last “Here’s looking at you, kid”? Does “Louis, I think this could be the start of a beautiful friendship” really leave me speechless a tad more than E.T. telling Elliot, “I’ll be right here”?

Maybe I shouldn’t focus on “top spot” and just enjoy them all.

As I type this, I’m listening to “The Wolf That Lives in Lindsey,” from Joni Mitchell’s album Mingus, which I thought I had never enjoyed but now I wonder if I ever bothered to listen to it. She is certainly one of our most adventurous songwriters. She could have been content to produce lovely songs like “Both Sides Now” and “The Circle Game” but instead she went out on a limb and explored “The Jungle Line” and “Shadows and Light,” and I dare say that’s why she is immortal.

We are blessed to have multiple works of art that take our breath away, that touch us in ways that random words and melodies can’t. “Best ever” is a totally subjective statement, and if we’re honest, it changes from moment to moment. 

And here I am, days later, still thinking about that priceless hour at Newport where love of Joni Mitchell focused like a laser in thousands of hearts. Wherever if lands on some list, that experience goes on the “Best Ever” pile.

P.S. What was I thinking? Mingus is amazing!

Joni’s foreground music

Newport Folk © Steven Rivieccio |

I stayed up past my bedtime the other night watching videos from the “Joni Jam’ at Newport Folk Festival, where friends surrounded Joni Mitchell and helped her perform some of her most memorable songs. Everyone was crying with happiness to see this 78-year-old woman doing her best to do her best. It was a struggle, but she made the effort and, because it was Joni Fricking Mitchell, everyone was overcome. It was sad because time has taken its toll and it was inspiring because of her determination and the love for the woman and her brilliant music.

There is such a thing as foreground music — music so compelling that it refuses to be in the background, music that forces you to pay attention.

Joni Mitchell recorded such music. It was not just perfect words in combination but the sounds and the tunes all coming together. Her first four, mostly acoustic/folk albums are priceless, but when she ventured further into electronics and new sounds and jazz — at the time she lost me after a while, or I lost her but found her again on further listens.

Of the singer-songwriters of that era, I think she has aged best. Generations sang “A Case of You” and “Both Sides Now” together Sunday on the Newport stage. The words of “Both Sides Now” are so much more poignant sung by a 78-year-old wise woman than by a twentysomething who was just figuring it out.

Joni Mitchell made foreground music for the ages.; tuck it into the background at your peril.

W.B.’s Book Report: Steven Pressfield’s latest

Every so often Steven Pressfield puts together a little pep talk for creative folks. The first was The War of Art, which if you’ve never read then you can’t say you’re serious about the creative life. Sounds harsh, but there it is.

When the new one arrives, I sit down and read the pep talk almost or literally in one sitting. It usually drives me crazy wanting to go out and do the creative thing I’m working on and not stop until it’s out there in the world kicking and screaming.

Then I settle down, put the book away, and go on living my life. WTF is wrong with me?

Put Your Ass (where you heart wants to be) is an expansion of Somerset Maugham’s well-worn thought: “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”

It’s interesting that we treat the day job as an obligation and on a schedule but most of us allow creative work to come and go as it pleases. The successful creatives are the ones who practice, man, practice. They make sure they plant their tail where their heart wants to be on a regular schedule, and sit there until they produce the words or the music or whatever else it is that they create.

I blogged for 15 years on a “whenever I feel like it” basis, and then I decided to treat it like a daily obligation, and here we are two years later with my ass and my heart in the same place. It is sometimes a struggle, but there’s some comfort in knowing I’m here because I decided I had to be, so here I am.

When I reached Chapter 41, I stopped cold. I sat down and copied it word for word in my journal. It’s didn’t take long; When there are 81 chapters in a 138-page book, the chapters are short. It’s nine sentences. Two of the sentences are “This is the day.”

The meat is:

“This is the day. There is no other day. This is the day.”

That’s the whole point of the book in a nutshell. (The Maugham quote is also the whole point in a nutshell.)

Want to be creative? You have now, and nothing more or less.

So put your ass where your heart wants to be, keep moving, finish the work, and ship it. Thousands of books say this very thing, and so many of us still struggle anyway. (Including me — I did say “us,” didn’t I?)

It’s comforting and challenging to know we’re not alone — but the struggle continues anyway. It’s downright silly.

Maugham said it so beautifully. Listen to what he said. Hear what he said.

Set your own 9 a.m., whenever and wherever that may be.

And sit your ass down in that seat.


The cups and the compasses

When we first bought our land, six or seven years before we built the house on it, I envisioned filling our field with native wildflowers. Red has more conventional tastes, but she knows how to encourage both “proper” flower gardens and prairies of wildflowers, so we have developed both.

We visited a nursery that specializes in native plants. I fell in love with cup plants — tall flowers whose leaves are shaped to capture rain water for insects and animals to drink — and bought six small plants, which I planted all in a row near the south driveway into our big field. That was how this all started.

Fifteen-ish years later, they have seeded and spread to create a forest of yellow blossoms at the side of the road every midsummer.

Then there are the compass plants — so called because their leaves supposedly all point north. They gave me a delightful surprise. I bought two and waited for them to do something. For the first two or three years, they just grew their leafy green leaves and were kind of plain, but then one summer one sent a shoot spiraling 10 feet into the air and burst forth with yellow flowers of its own — an amazing slow-motion fireworks show. 

The next year the other one did the same, and we bought a couple more. But again, after a few years we have more than four compass plants making their fireworks way over my head.

I’m sure they serve their purpose for the insects and pollinators that depend on their July-August blooms, but for me their purpose is to add to the beauty and provide a small explosion of joy every summer. What better purpose could there be?

Addicts to addicts, dust to dust

The formula for making “bingeworthy” TV is very similar to what they used to get kids coming back to the Saturday afternoon serials in the 1930s or ’40s. Back then Commander Cody, or whoever the star was, would be wrestling for control of a small plane, say. The episode would end with the plane crashing into the side of a mountain. Heavens! We must see what happens next!!

Next week, the episode would resume with the struggle on the plane. But this time, before the plane crashed, we would see the hero win his fight, grab a parachute and jump off the plane.

The same concept is at work in modern day stories, perhaps with a little more sophistication. One episode ends with a dramatic reveal or our heroes in jeopardy; we look across the room at our partner and say, “Heavens! Shall we go to the next one and see what happens?” A nod, another episode begins, and the binge is on.

In a recent article called “Are You Not Entertained?” Mark Manson writes about how our dramas, our music and even our politics are being designed to be as addictive as possible, based on what will get the most likes and what will keep you watching, listening or otherwise paying attention.

I have always been attracted to the new and unusual and weird, not the standard fare. Back in eighth grade I went nuts over “Yellow Submarine” and “Good Vibrations” precisely because they didn’t sound like anything I had ever heard before.

I don’t know if experimentation in the arts is rewarded anymore, unless it’s an experiment in coaxing people to come back again and again. Where have you gone, Lennon-McCartney, Brian Wilson, Joe DiMaggio and the like? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

and stormy night

 © Hktelleria |

Darkness fell over the land early. A storm was coming. Thunder like distant cannon fire echoed from the sky.

She rolled the generator onto the porch; if the electricity went out, it would power the sump pump and a lamp — or maybe the Wi-Fi router — were all the devices charged?

After she plugged everything ins she picked up her book and continued where she’d left off. Some ancient royal was having his way with one of the ladies while her husband was off to war. A light rain began to fall, and the cat jumped into her lap. She stroked the little beast as she read about the royal tryst.

A sudden, nearby clap of thunder made her start, and the cat meowed and jumped for cover. It was only when the pounding on the front door was repeated did she fully realize that someone had knocked at the same moment as the thunderbolt.

Slowly she slid back the dead bolt and opened the door. A gray-haired man stood in the threshold, slightly taller than she, looking her over with a strange glint in his eyes.

After a moment, he spoke. “Do you believe in the hereafter, lovely lady?”

Her mouth twitched. “Why, yes. Yes, I do.”

He grinned a wicked grin and stepped toward her, raising his hands.

“Then you know what I’m here after.”

Another clap of thunder sounded nearby, and she slapped his hand away.

“Get in here, you idiot,” she said, laughing and pulling him inside. “That joke was old when Rowan and Martin used it in the sixties. Come on, I’ll pour you a drink.”