Adding to My Personal Soundtrack

Quarta gregoriano

Quarta gregoriano (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I don’t talk enough about the musical influences in my life. I know it’s all books-this and writing-that, but I really wouldn’t be the well-rounded individual that I am (ha) without the music in my life.

There are times when music surprises me; a song that I’ve heard many times will suddenly awaken a creative something within me. Since I’m a writer, that “something” is usually a scene in a book I’m writing. Sometimes it’s the “aha!” moment I’ve been waiting for. Other times (like what I posted about most recently), a novel almost gets derailed by a new scene that I never would have imagined, were it not for hearing the right song at the right time.

Then there are other times that music doesn’t necessarily evoke a specific image or scene, yet it fulfills some emotional (and I would go as far as to say spiritual) hole and leaves me pleasantly full and happy, even energized.

What brings all this up? Well, I’m kind of riding a high from attending an evening of uplifting, choral music. A boring way to spend a Friday night, right? Well, not if I got chills during the first song (I did) and can’t stop thinking about the sound and the joy on the faces of the singers (I can’t).

You see, that’s how it is in this relationship I have with music. Many songs or musical events become a part of what I think of as the soundtrack of my life. (Don’t worry, as a writer, I sometimes narrate my life, too, but today it’s all about the music.)

Alanis Morissette

Cover of Alanis Morissette

For instance, any time I hear “The Sign” (Ace of Base), I’m overcome with nostalgia – it’s the title song of my first CD. The same goes for Alanis Morisette’s Jagged Little Pill; I bought that CD in the seventh grade, and so did my husband. It’s part of our middle school soundtrack.

And so it continues: musicals I participated in as a teenager, such as Annie and Fiddler on the Roof; Metallica’s S&M CD (one of the best Christmas presents Thomas ever bought); our first System of a Down CD, which we bought and listened to when we drove to a Gator football game; the mix CD Thomas’s brother burned for us a couple days before we got married, so we listened to it everywhere we drove on our honeymoon. And our wedding itself contained a mini-concert. Some people told me it was a long ceremony because of all the music. But we’re musical people. Thomas’s grandfather was in a band. My mom’s mom and dad’s dad were both organists. It’s in our DNA.

Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So I’m raising my kids right, making them listen to “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Thriller” wherever we go. (Hey, I also downloaded “Let It Go” – don’t worry.) I’m helping them create their own soundtracks.

Most recently, I’ve discovered Rachael Sage; her single “Happiness (Maddie’s Song)” just came out on iTunes. I heard it once and couldn’t stop humming it for a couple days. And then there’s Pentatonix. I love it when someone posts one of their new songs on Facebook – which I’ll watch over and over, to my children’s chagrin. And Bastille – who doesn’t dig a rocker with a cool British accent?

Rachael Sage

Cover of Rachael Sage

Every new song, every concert, is a possible source for inspiration, but it goes deeper than potential best-selling novel ideas (as nice as they are). Songs are little triggers. I can hear one in the grocery store and be transported back to the fourth grade. Or remember the last concert I attended with a friend before she passed away. They’re pieces that may not always seem to go together – discordant, you might say – yet they make up the puzzle of me. And as strange as it may seem to hum classic rock in the store, listen to folk songs in the car, and spend an evening listening to choral music, I totally dig the big picture.

And it just keeps getting bigger. But I wouldn’t call that a bad thing.

The Surprise Lurking in My Playlist

IPod Nano

IPod Nano (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve talked about the different forms of inspiration before (and it applies to me specifically as a writer, but I’m sure it applies to other forms of art as well), and today I especially want to focus on music.

I’m a musical person from a musical family (read more about that here and here), but it wasn’t until this past week that I was reminded again of how much it can influence my writing.

Back when I used to have a fantastical picture of what a full-time writing life would look like, I figured that my house would come equipped with a separate office just for me and all my journals and manuscripts, a computer dedicated to my writing, and of course a custom sound system, through which I could pipe Metallica while I wrote. Yes, Metallica.

I was thrilled one day when I read that Stephen King, my favorite American author at that time, listened to Metallica (among other groups) while he wrote. Of course, I thought that this was prophetic and pointed to the life that I would surely lead.

Fast forward twelve or thirteen years, and there’s no separate office. I type with my MacBook in my lap while my kids watch Disney and vie for my attention. So this certainly doesn’t allow me the seclusion necessary to listen to whatever I want at any volume.

I still do like Metallica, though, so that’s something.

Still, when I write, it’s not in the environment that I figured was conducive to creating brilliance. I’ve learned to adapt, and I actually embrace writing in the midst of chaos, but there are those times that I realize there’s something to at least a part of that idealistic setting – the music.

Years ago, while I was in the thick of writing one of the books in my middle grade series, I was driving along, listening to just another song on the latest CD my husband and I had bought. I did not at all expect the scene that suddenly popped into my head, evoked by that particular song.

Part of it had to do with the lyrics, which described what happened in the scene, but there’s also something about the tune. That combination brought this scene fully-formed into my mind. I saw one of my characters going through something that wrenched my heart. I didn’t want it to happen to him. I fought it with all my might, but every time I heard the song, the scene returned. My conclusion: it belonged in my book.

Now, there are other songs that I like because they energize me or put me in a calm mood for a scene that needs a little more finesse. But I can never predict when a song will give me a missing piece of my story puzzle.

It happened again this week. I was driving along, listening to the playlist that my husband put together for me, so it has a quite a few songs that I never would have thought to pick for myself. I suppose that’s why it was so unexpected.

Instead of the music just washing over me, as it had with the last few songs I’d listened to, I suddenly started listening to the lyrics, and the words immediately created a new scene, one I certainly never considered when I formed the loose plot of my series.

This is why I think it’s so important to allow myself freedom within my plot. Sure, I have a rough outline, since I do need to make sure that I introduce important clues at the right time and have a general idea of where the story is going. But I was surprised that, yet again, a key character was facing something unexpected, something I don’t think I ever would have come up with on my own.

Thank you, song, for both disturbing me and enriching my story. It actually kept me up for about an hour-and-a-half that night, as I tried to figure out where my story was going. And I realized that it made perfect sense; it allowed another of my characters to realize her full potential in a way that wouldn’t have been possible if I’d gone according to plan.

Have you experienced any storyline surprises, inspired by something that you thought was completely unrelated? You just never know when it will happen or what will bring it on, but I think that writers live for those moments.

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It Shouldn’t Be a Popularity Contest

Eric Whitacre

Eric Whitacre (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I don’t think anyone would ever call me a rebel. When I hear people talk about all the stupid stuff they did, writing it off as, “Well, I was just a teenager,” I wonder why I never did those same things. The whole balking against my upbringing thing never happened.

But when someone says, “pop culture,” I absolutely cringe. When Titantic was really big in high school (I had friends who had time and money to waste and saw it in the theatre more than ten times), I refused to see it. To this day, it remains one of those movies on my personal “banned” list. It could be a masterpiece, but it seemed popular for all the wrong reasons.

So maybe I’m a pop culture rebel. Well, not entirely. I mean, I did go nuts over the Harry Potter books, and I do have Facebook and Twitter accounts, as well as an iPhone, on which I can check my statuses. But take fashion, for instance. Skinny jeans are in, right? Kids, adults, male, female, skinny people, not-so-skinny people–they all wear skinny jeans. I watched kids getting off a school bus one day, twenty or so. Out of all of them, only one kid wasn’t wearing them. And I just prayed that I wouldn’t be forced into buying them because this girl does not have skinny legs. Yes, I’m small, but the brand jeans that I buy come in “curvy,” and they actually fit. (If you’ve ever been clothes shopping with me, you’ll know how monumental that is.) I’m not going to go out of my way to not buy trendy clothes, but if they don’t look good on me, forget it. If they do look good, however, I’ll continue wearing them long after they’ve gone out of style. (This is a trait I came by honestly. I used to cringe at the skirts that my mom wore, you know, the semi-A-line ones with huge pockets? Yeah, they’re back now. Who knew she was a fashion maven ahead of her time.)

But fashion is just a small part and not really the important part of how pop culture snakes its way into our lives. This popularity business is starting to make us kind of dumb, quite frankly.

Now, I know I’m about to sound old and preachy, but this issue is close to my heart. About twenty years ago, I fell in love with my school’s media center and checked out every book I could, from Ramona to Greek mythology to Little Women. Some of my best memories from that time center around those books or time in the library. Of the six guys I used to hang out with, the bigger the book you read, the cooler you were. And no, they weren’t nerds with pocket protectors (although all of them made the honor roll). They played baseball and football, took piano and violin lessons, sang in our choir, took Tae Kwon Do, drew amazing cartoon-like illustrations in the margins of their homework, had rock collections and pet reptiles. In other words, they were well-rounded guys, not pigeon-holed into one particular sport or other area of interest. And though I fit in well enough with them, I didn’t feel nearly as cool. I was not athletically-oriented at all, and although I started taking piano lessons younger than just about anyone else I knew, I was no good. So what could I do? Read. And the two-to-three hundred page books I routinely read just didn’t cut it anymore. That’s when I found Little Women, a five hundred-pager. To this day, the longer the book, the happier I am to read it. Series? Even better.

Today, my son goes to the same school, and I volunteer in the media center. There is now a computer program that assigns reading levels to books, and when kids read them, they receive a certain number of points, according to whichever level it is. One day, my job was to look up each book and find out the level and how many points each book was worth. The books were all new to me, either too advanced for my five-year-old to read yet or too young for me to read for my own pleasure. I asked the media specialist how high the reading levels went, and she said about the eighth grade. The next thing I asked: Did they still have Little Women? Yes, but kids don’t read it all that often (and it’s one of those eighth graders). I waxed eloquent about the books I used to read and asked if she’d noticed a decline in literacy. (She started working at the school my last year there, so she’s seen the entire progression.) Her answer saddened but did not surprise me. Kids these days are more interested in graphic novels, which are fine, but instead of just attracting kids who, otherwise, wouldn’t ever touch a book, they’ve lowered the standard for everyone else.

And then there’s music. My dad raised me on Styx, Alan Parsons, Blue Oyster Cult, Tchaikovsky, and Saint-Saens. I grew up singing in choirs and participated in a few musicals as a teenager. I still love all of the above, plus Sweeney Todd, Mumford and Sons, System of a Down (yes, I know), Metallica, and current British composer extraordinaire John Rutter. When people talk about Usher and Adele, I’m kind of lost because I don’t listen to any of that kind of thing, unless I catch it in a commercial or movie. And people my age look at me like I’m crazy. Just like I shouldn’t wear flare jeans (they were so ten years ago), I should get with the times, right? My poor kids won’t ever know what’s popular, unless they hear it with someone else. The music we listen to in the car is either from the above mentioned groups and composers, or one of Peter’s faves of late is the sixth movement from Brahms’s A German Requiem. I actually got the bug to write this particular post as I listened to him singing his heart out, going right along with the tenor line, then asking for me to play it again. Now, you can’t tell me that that “dead white guy’s” music didn’t connect with him.

I was moved and encouraged recently when my mom showed me Eric Whitacre on TED Talks. This is a long video, but if you’re familiar with TED, you know it’s worth it. If you need some arm-twisting, Eric is a tech-savvy, good-looking, youngish, self-proclaimed classical composer. And he created a virtual choir in 2011 that comprised over 2000 people from around the world—young, old, black, white, male, female, nerds, cool people—every kind of person imaginable. So that tells me that there’s hope after all, if only we can open enough minds to thinking outside the so-called popularity box. People will learn to connect with music like this if they’re taught that it’s okay, if they think they won’t be teased. And some people like me will love it anyway, not really caring what others think.

I’m not trying to create a new kind of popularity, just open people up to more possibilities than what typically top the charts and grace the covers of the magazines at the check-out lines. For parents or teachers who have already given up because their kids just don’t like to read, or who don’t like classical music themselves so never played it for their babies, what kind of message are we sending by this lack of effort? I think it’s unacceptable to give up and say that if we can’t beat them, we might as well join them. Progress isn’t worth it if it plows right over and buries the good along with the out-moded VHS tapes, legwarmers, and suitcase-size mobile phones. Don’t lose the things you love; share them, and watch the wonder and growth at these new-old discoveries.

Apparently There’s an Award for Blogs with ADD

The Versatile Blogger Award

I was pleased and surprised last week to receive a message from fellow blogger, Christi Gerstle of Novel Conclusions, awarding me the Versatile Blogger Award. That’s awesome–there’s a blog for people like me, who can’t seem to stay on topic. I appreciate Christi for enjoying my blog enough to think of me. In return, please click on her link, and you can read her blog, too.

There are a few requirements for this award. First, display the award certificate on your website. Then, announce your win with a post and a link to whoever presented your award. In return, present this award to fifteen deserving bloggers, and drop them a comment to tip them off after you’ve linked them in the post. Lastly, post seven interesting things about yourself.

I am really going to break the rules here and only award three bloggers the Versatile Blogger Award. It’s not that others don’t deserve it, just that I don’t get to invest as much time as I would like reading other blogs, so I feel unqualified in choosing one over another. But the following bloggers, I promise, deserve it and are worth checking out.

1. Amy Quincy’s Writerly Musings

Do yourself a favor, and check out Amy’s blog, if you don’t look at any others. I knew Amy before she became disabled. I admired her then, as a writer and a woman, and since she became wheelchair bound a few years ago, she’s only grown in my eyes as a human being. I am inspired every time I read her blog, and I usually end up giggling quite a bit, too.

2. The Oregon Pilgrim, Danielle Harris

I look forward to reading Danielle’s posts. She is extremely thoughtful and a busy mom, just like me. (I think she’s actually busier—wow.) This year, she’s striving toward simplicity, and I really appreciate following her weekly progress, even if I don’t strive quite as well as she does.

3. Ari and his Ari Files

Friend, fellow writer, and musician, Mark Ari (only don’t call him Mark because he probably won’t know who you’re talking to) helped me to become the writer I am today. I don’t know how to thank this guy enough. He is awesomeness on a stick, and I also credit him with founding the University of North Florida’s literary journal, Fiction Fix.

Okay, so the seven things about me:

1. As much as I love to write, music is just as important to me, even though I don’t talk about it much here. (I guess because writing about music doesn’t do it justice; it’s very experiential and subjective.) I get it honestly, with two grandparents who were church organists and a father who was very close to going into the music ministry. If I were to list everyone in my family who is musical and all the things we do, this would turn into an e-book. Let’s leave it at this: I cannot imagine my life without song.

2. I used to hate to read. In fact, when I had to do summer reading as a kid, I would pull all my Dr. Seuss books out and go through them as quickly as possible, just so I could fill all the blanks on the sheet that my teacher sent home. (It never occurred to me to cheat.) I loved it when my mom read to me, but otherwise, I didn’t want to waste my time. And the really unfortunate part is that I can’t remember the title of the book that changed it all. It was a book my mom loved as a kid, which she encouraged me to read. I can picture the pastel blue and pink cover art, but the title escapes both her and me. (I think “Sally” was part of it? Maybe?) Oh well. I think I was about ten or so when she coaxed me into reading it, and I’ve been an avid reader ever since.

3. I used to collect teddy bears. Every Christmas until I was in my mid-twenties, my parents gave me a bear, and I still have most of them (along with a number of other stuffed animals).

4. My first car blew a gasket on the way to school one day, filled the whole thing with smoke—and on the expressway, too. It was my first semester in college, about a week before finals. Ah, good times.

5. I am a cat person. I guess my parents and I were the crazy cat people, always attracting strays to our porch. We finally adopted two newborn kittens when their mother was killed by a neighbor’s dogs. I had to beg my parents because they didn’t want to deal with bottle feeding and raising kittens. But I succeeded, and those two boys, Greysox and Cuddlebug were a part of the family for the next sixteen and seventeen years, respectively. My parents no longer have any pets, but my husband and I adopted our fat cat, Willow, when she was about three months old, and she’ll be seven in March.

6. My favorite movie is Aliens. Not Alien, Aliens plural. There’s nothing wrong with the first one; it’s just not as awesome as the second. (I like to ignore that the other sequels even exist, although I thought Prometheus, a prequel of sorts, was pretty cool.)

7. I thought about talking about my favorite author, but it’s too hard to choose, and besides, I’d rather talk about my three favorite boys. They are my husband of going-on nine years, Thomas, and our sons, Peter and Ian. Thomas and I enjoy nothing more than spending time with our little guys, watching them learn, grow, and play together. We also really love going to Disney World! (Yes, Mama and Daddy are big kids, too.)

My Story As Told by Music Part II

My husband and kids are used to it by now—me walking around the house and singing like I’m starring in my own personal musical. I won’t even realize I’m doing it, and my husband will comment that it’s been a long time since he’s heard that particular song. Music energizes me, inspires me to write, and gives me a creative outlet that I can share with others. I have been in one kind of chorus or another since I was in the first grade, when I started singing with my church’s children’s choir. Church, school, community chorale—the longest I’ve gone without singing in a group was the first year I homeschooled, but even then I tagged along with my parents to the Don Thompson Chorale’s rehearsals every Monday night. The members eventually got tired of seeing me sitting there and allowed me to rehearse with them. A year later, I made it to full-fledged performer, my first concert being the weekend of my fifteenth birthday.

Many important events in my life have been marked by music, from the day my husband and I started dating (which happened on a chorus trip) to our wedding five and half years later (the Don Thompson Chorale sang five pieces at our wedding) to the births of our two sons (I sang a requiem the day the first was due, although he didn’t grace us with his presence for another eight days, and I performed in a concert exactly one week before the second one was born).

Some of my favorite performances were in grand settings with mass choirs. I sang three times at Epcot in Disney World. My high school chorus performed in district and state festivals every spring, which allowed me to sing, among other places, at both the University of Florida and Florida State. With the Don Thompson Chorale, I have performed in the Florida Theatre and the Times-Union Center. My most memorable performance was in Carnegie Hall, but before you get all impressed, I was one of at least two hundred people. Even better than the setting, our conductor was John Rutter, the composer of the Requiem we performed (that’ll mean something to you if you’re a choral buff).

And now for my shameless plug—I have yet another opportunity to make wonderful memories in my near future. The Don Thompson Chorale, which has performed one hundred fifty concerts to date, is giving a free concert at the Jacoby Symphony Hall at the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts on September first. Our previous performances there were with other choirs. This will be the first time we’ve done it on our own. And this concert is particularly special because we are celebrating our Director Emeritus Don Thompson’s seventy-fifth birthday. Students from his college directing days are joining with former and current Chorale members to provide an evening of choral fun in the River City (click here to listen to us). Oh, and by the way, it’s FREE! Check out the graphic below for details, and I hope to sing for you there.

My Story As Told by Music Part I

I get it honest, even if I don’t have a lot of it. Musical talent, that is. My maternal grandfather was a percussionist and wrote snare drum cadences that were used for years in solo percussion competitions. My maternal grandmother was an organist, my paternal grandfather an organist and elementary school music teacher. Both of my parents’ sisters were/are singers and instrumentalists. My dad’s younger sister gave me piano lessons for almost thirteen years (poor thing). She taught my cousin fifteen years, and now he’s the worship director at his church.

But it’s what my parents did with their musical talents that matters most to me. My mother was in high school chorus, and I suppose if my dad had started singing back then, they would have met sooner. Instead, he was in the marching band, playing bass drum, or in the orchestra playing bassoon. He earned a full scholarship to FSU for his musical talents, but thank goodness he decided he wanted to go on a European tour instead.

Mama and Daddy in Leningrad, 1975

It was well-known in 1974 that the Florida Junior College (now Florida State College at Jacksonville) had a chorale whose director liked to take his students overseas every other year. My mother sang with him for the first tour in 1973. By the fall of 1974, she should have moved on to an upper school like the University of North Florida, but something made her stick around—that something being the upcoming trip to the then-Soviet Union and Austria. It was this same trip that attracted Daddy away from the band and to a chorus, where he met my mother, fell head-over-heels for her, and they’re still together today.

I grew up singing in my church’s children’s choir, and I was always in a chorus in school. High school proved a challenge because I chose to homeschool my last four years. Year one found me a chubby, reclusive couch potato, and my cousin (the worship director) suggested I join the summer musical program at his school, where they were performing Annie. I did, kind of kicking and screaming in my non-violent way. The male lead, it turned out, was my future brother-in-law. Despite myself, I loved every minute and was allowed to join the school’s chorus and musical theatre program, and that’s where I met my husband. Not as enthusiastic a musician as I was, still, he was involved so he could spend time with his elder brother and cousin before they graduated. He quite literally swept me off my feet as my dance partner in my second musical, Once Upon a Mattress.

So thank you, music, for bringing my parents and my husband and me together. In fact, the four of us (with several other aforementioned family members) sing together every Monday night with a volunteer choral group. . . the choral group that formed from the original chorale from my parents’ college days. It’s called the Don Thompson Chorale, and they even performed at our wedding in 2004.

The Don Thompson Chorale at our wedding, June 12, 2004 (photo credit: Joe Parker)

Stay tuned for a post about the Don Thompson Chorale’s free concert at the Times Union Center for the Performing Arts on September first.