One word changes everything

A friend read “No mo moping” yesterday and was concerned, I think because it may have sounded like I’m stressing over the dozen or so creative projects that I’ve started over the years and anxious to get them all done all at once.

“You gotta slow down, chief,” he wrote. “At that rate you will slam into the finish wall. Better to gear back, move slowly among the projects and digest all the content that’s flying by. Ease to the end with a full grip on all that envelopes you.”

Sage advice! That’s actually where my attitude has begun to drift.

I replied, “I don’t disagree. The bottom line seems to be I have plenty of ideas to work with along the way.”

I was about to send the reply on its way, but I looked at it one more time and realized, no.

Delete-delete-delete-delete … type-type-type-type.

My revised reply said, “I don’t disagree. The bottom line seems to be I have plenty of ideas to play with along the way.”

THEN I sent the reply.

Did you spot the one word I changed? The one word that changes everything?

Writing is fun. These projects are play, not work. In fact, one reason why progress on creative projects is slow sometimes may be that we don’t prioritize play enough. 

When we work with our ideas, the magic can get lost. When we play with our ideas, the magic grows.

No mo moping

It’s been an odd week. I lay down at 7:30 p.m. Monday — way before my bedtime — figuring I could treat it as an “afternoon nap” and awake refreshed to work on my blog and stuff. The “nap” lasted until 11 o’clock, but I stayed up as planned anyway and ended up filling a dozen journal pages over the next two hours. Part of those thoughts ended up in my Tuesday blog post, “Taking stock,” which I finished around 2 a.m.

The day job has taken up most of my waking hours since then — one of our three-person staff is taken a well-deserved vacation this week — and I’m still trying to digest the notes to myself from which “Taking stock” emerged.

It was quite a meal to digest. I ran through all of my works in progress, assessing and organizing and trying to wrap my mind around it all, perhaps with an unconscious goal of generating some realistic goals for 2024. I concluded that I have nine distinct works in progress at various levels of completion, comprising the beginnings of two to four series — and those are just the novels.

I also have a couple or three ideas for non-fiction books, a collection of short stories, a collection of poems, and a desire to get serious about writing songs again. Doing the Ebenezer podcast has reminded me that I think it would be fun to start making audiobooks, too. Oh yes, and I still have the above-mentioned day job. Is it any wonder that taking stock is a process that takes a few days?

The attitude shift I described in “Taking stock” is a big step. When I got to the bottom of the 12th page that night, I concluded with this advice to myself:

“You are sitting in a modern-day House of Ideas. Stop moping, take the wheel, and enjoy the ride.”

Taking stock

Slowly but (sometimes I realize) surely, I have been chipping away at the block of stone that is my quarry of incomplete fragments of thought and bursts of creativity. I am pleased that I have had a big little victory this fall in shipping Ebenezer: A sequel of sorts to A Christmas Carol out the door, and I am eager to follow that up and find another finish line in my wandering way. 

I know I have to shift my attitude. I have at least 10 unfinished creative projects and often express frustration that I have failed to bring them to a conclusion. The fact is, however, that I have taken steps along the path in every case. They are not my “unfinished novels” — they are my “works in progress.” Do you see the distinction?

Even if I only nibble at the edges of this one or that one, I should be celebrating the newly etched teeth marks rather than bemoaning how much of the elephant I still need to eat. Wow, talk about mixed metaphors — I have meandered from the stone quarry to the undigested elephant in three quick paragraphs.

What am I doing? Where am I going? The eternal questions. It does help to stop along the way, to rest and regenerate, and see where I am and where the journey has delivered me at the moment.

We often ask “What am I doing? Where am I going?” in a tone of despair, but it occurs to me that perhaps that is the wrong tone. Rather than moaning about meandering, we should exclaim, “Look what I’m doing! See where I’m going!” 

We will see that we are traveling along a glorious path through a wilderness, exploring our way on everyday paths that wind this-way-and-that in newly discovered directions all the time, if we would just lift our heads and see what surrounds us. The sun rises and sets every day, but the swirls of weather and billions of interactions around the planet make each a different day, a kaleidoscope of experience.

By shifting the focus from “unfinished” to “in progress,” I cease moping about not having “enough” of my projects done (what does “enough” mean anyway?), take the wheel and start enjoying the ride.

I think Ebenezer turned out nicely, if I say so myself. I’m looking forward to what comes next.

Early-morning musings on art and censorship

Is it “writing” when you stare at the page for a full minute, looking at the leaves the dogs sprawled on the floor, the bits of leaves they’ve tracked in from outside, and the toys, and wondering if you should be vacuuming instead of sitting with a pen grasped between your fingers?

I have Folk Alley in the background this morning. Music is an improvement over predawn silence or the litany of woes, tribulation, evil and unhappiness in the TV news.

We choose every day whether to dwell on death or to dwell on life. Both forces roam the earth in equal portions, but only life offers hope and redemption and a tomorrow.

The musicians explore beauty and the rhythms of life — sometimes they experiment with discord, but even then they are seeking patterns and beauty in odd nooks and crannies. There is an order to things, and artists shine lights on that order in new and surprising ways, and also old and familiar ways. 

Art — poetry, music, imagery — is a uniquely human thing, arranging sounds and images in delightful ways to bring a smile and a surge of emotion.

“I didn’t mean to make you cry” — Oh, but I did, the purging relief of tears, the exhalation of laughter, the emotion of it all, the awe and the joy — I was hoping to bottle it for you to relive and rediscover in the times when you need it again.

And so this is art — an attempt to capture a feeling to be tapped as needed over and over, the past reassuring the future that a time came when all was well, and it can be again.

(“For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her” came across the Folk Alley feed just then, two minutes of sheer beauty and exactly the reassurance I was writing about.)

The words and music relay ancient emotions snatched from the heart of yes, reassurance, peace, and hope for a better future.

Why would someone want to remove such aspirations from anyone? Tyrants are puzzling creatures: Once they were children with innocent questions and open minds and hearts, and along the way they found answers in oppressing and leashing their neighbors. 

I wonder how they reached those conclusions. I wonder if they realize they are tyrants. Don’t each of us aspire to the best in us? How do you find the best by chaining us? Only by flying free do you discover the view from the sky.

Tidings of Comfort & Joy

“God rest ye, merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay,” I hummed to myself Sunday night. “Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day to save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray — Oh! Tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy …”

I don’t have any problem with Christmas carols before Thanksgiving. Heck, like Scrooge I wish we all would keep Christmas in our hearts year-round.

But my mind took a different turn while my mind was on the phrase — Comfort & Joy is the name of the detective agency I stumbled across while trying to conceive a novel a few years back. In fact the first chapter was one of the more well-received bits of fiction I’ve splashed onto the blog pages in recent years.

I made a go at doing a Comfort & Joy novel during my one serious attempt at NaNoWriMo back then, but the train crashed about seven chapters in. But I still think now and then about Adam Comfort, underachieving son of the famous detective team of Adam and Inara Comfort, and Adam’s partner, Joy Emerson, a six-and-a-half-foot-tall pookha in the form of a skunk.

My mind drifted back to the story Steven Pressfield tells of finishing his first novel, running excitedly to his mentor to proclaim his victory, and having the mentor grunt and say, “Good job, kid. Now start on the next one.”

And my mind’s turn completed the connection with a new resolve — Not only will I finish my long-delayed novel Jeep Thompson and the Lost Prince of Venus by the end of this year, but I’m going to start in on the next one. And as long as I’m seven chapters into it already, I may as well make the next one that Comfort & Joy murder mystery.

Jeep by New Year’s Eve and Comfort & Joy by the first day of spring? I’ve heard crazier goals.

– – –

P.S. Did I mention that you can now pre-order Ebenezer: A sequel of sorts to A Christmas Carol as an ebook, paperback or hardcover? No? Well, I should have. Click here for details.

Me and this old guitar

Herbie was stolen in Michigan City, Indiana, somewhere around 1978. (I don’t remember why I named my first guitar Herbie.) I left him in the Firebird, along with my leather coat and some other items, when we stopped at a motel overnight, and in the morning Herbie and the coat and I-don’t-remember-what-else were gone. I think of Herbie from time to time, and I have four or five cassettes full of songs I composed and multi-tracked with that nylon string guitar, as well as three or four others where he shared duties with the 12-string I bought in the summer of 1975.

One of my sweetest memories is not long after the theft, when I was visiting my best old New Jersey friend and sharing his nylon-string guitar. He finished playing, looked at the guitar and then at me, and held it out to me and said, “This is yours.” Or maybe he didn’t say a word and the look and the gesture told me he was giving it to me. Come to think of it, I remember it the second way. It’s one of the best gifts I ever received and one I still use to this day.

Friday morning I did something I have not done in literally 13 years: I hooked up a microphone, picked up this guitar, and recorded songs. I marked the files “demo” so I wouldn’t be tempted to share them in this form and to remind myself that I want to create more polished recordings of the songs. I have only recently started playing the guitar again — I have not even raised callouses on my fingertips yet — so these recordings feature only the most rudimentary strumming and thus do not represent the best possible versions of the songs. The main purpose, other than to recapture the fun of recording music, was to preserve the songs and a snapshot of the morning of Nov. 17, 2023.

In case this session someday becomes legendary (my goodness, I have an overblown vision of myself), let the record show that the songs were “Song for My Daughter” and “Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” the first two songs I’ve written in a decade; “Alcohol Alcohol” and “Cozi Won Chu,” two songs I wrote in 1985 during an especially fertile and feral time; and a cover of “Sweet Cherry Wine,” which I consider one of Tommy James’ most underappreciated compositions.

These five are the first nominees for a new album I’m beginning, working title “Songs for My Daughter.” Songwriting has always been a hobby of mine, and I always enjoyed piecing albums together with multi-tracking — 20 distinct albums between 1973 and 2010, which I inflicted on family and friends who patted me on the shoulder and said, gently, “That’s nice.” But I had fun, so I kept on doing it until one day I realized I would never be a star singer-songwriter, which is the silliest reason to stop having fun.

I imagine myself throwing a few dozen new recordings against the wall to find 10 to 14 that stick, which will form my 21st album — w.p. bluhm’s “Hackney Diamonds,” don’t you see. For today, I enjoyed my make-believe recording session, I was pleased that my singing voice still can occasionally hit the right note, and I made a recording of my new songs for posterity in case of the unexpected — I am still arrogant enough to believe posterity would care, believe it or not.

Listening: Mysteries of the Macabre

People say we monkey around, but we’re too busy singing to put anybody down.

For what is music if not releasing the pressure valve to let out the joy?

And in the end, the love you take et cetera et cetera et cetera.

There’s a point to be made here, but I’m too busy singing.

The other day I blundered across a Facebook forum about the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey and found myself wondering why I, a lover of weird music, never explored the likes of György Ligeti in more depth.

Ligeti’s “Atmospheres,” the Kyrie from “Requiem,” and “Lux Aeterna” play key roles in the 2001 soundtrack, and they are wonderfully weird. Ligeti appeals to the same gene in me that loves “Revolution 9,” or Joni Mitchell’s “The Jungle Line,” or Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman.”

One of the forum denizens posted a link to this performance of a Ligeti piece called “Mysteries of the Macabre,” and I became a fan of mezzo soprano Barbara Hannigan. People will say it’s monkeying around, but the last three minutes of this video is a thunderous ovation, so I’m not alone in thinking it genius.