Writespiration: Sleigh Bells at The Metro

Late last year I started a project working-titled Sparklers that crosses post-apocalyptic dystopia with teenage angst. Think Mad Max: Fury Road meets Mean Girls.

I’m still shocked no one has thought of this yet. If you know about something like it out there, let me know in the comments.

Anyway, projects I work on always have a musical element behind them. Most of the time, it’s a set of movie and TV scores — Omaha was written to selections from Westworld, Man of Steel, Penny Dreadful and Interstellar, for example. Currently I’m penning Nobody’s Hero to a mix of A Tribe Called Quest and the Legion series soundtrack (as well as The Heavy’s song, “Nobody’s Hero,” of course).

But Sparklers is the first project I’ve worked on to only one artist: noise-pop powerhouse Sleigh Bells. The attitude and volume of their music fits the demolition diva derby vibe I’m going for with the characters and environment, so they provide perfect audio inspiration.

But then I saw them live.

I’m a concert-going animal, but I usually stay out of the fray. Thanks to getting to Chicago’s Metro early, we had third-row standing spots for the show, which quickly became third- to first-row moshing spots, as the crowd never stood still. (I did capture this video of “Rainmaker.” And this one of “Blue Trash Mattress Fire.”)

Like I said, I usually refrain from getting too up-close-and-personal because I enjoy listening and watching bands more than participating in hand-to-hand combat with those around me. But this show was different, in that the sweat, screams and jumps fit perfectly into the mania of the world that Sleigh Bells’ music has helped me begin to create. You better believe that when the end of the world comes and the majority of survivors are teenage girls, there will be raves like these.

There will be neck-breaking headbanging to “Infinity Guitars.”

There will be group-hug swaying to “Rill Rill.”

And “Rule Number One” will be that pop rocks and coke make your head explode.

Alexis Krauss, lead singer of Sleigh Bells, gets down with the audience at Chicago's Metro on Aug. 17, 2018.

Alexis Krauss, lead singer of Sleigh Bells, gets down with the audience at Chicago’s Metro on Aug. 17, 2018.

Advertisements

Writespiration: “Chord Left” by Agnes Obel

Agnes Obel’s small piano piece, “Chord Left,” has been on my go-to writing playlist since Pandora radio delivered it to my ears years ago. It somehow is both off-putting and calming, classical and modern. And although I’ve heard it thousands of times while typing away, I recently reheard it as background music in HBO’s adaptation of Sharp Objects.

I’ve written about “Dark Horse” by the Shanghai Restoration Project, which I’ve also always connected with Sharp Objects because of how I would listen to it while reading the book. Seems like Gillian Flynn’s exceptional novel is musically stalking me.

Writespiration: Birthing a story

Maybe I heard this somewhere else before and am just stealing it now. If that’s the case, please tell me. If not, read me out:

Writing a story is like giving birth.

I say this having never given birth myself, but knowing several people who have. No birth is the same. Some are somewhat easy — Mom says she practically sneezed my sister out — and others require scalpels and spinal injections. But in the end, writing anything leaves you feeling tired, accomplished and relieved, with a beautiful future of shepherding the work throughout the rest of its (and possibly your) life.

The same goes for writing. Some stories and poems exit fairly smoothly: Not too smoothly. That means they’re not done being told yet: And these premie stories require a lot of nurturing before they can stand on their own. That’s not to say they’re bad or nonviable. Most National Novel Writing Month stories are this way, sliding out tactlessly only to mature on the outside when an editor’s pen goes to them. They’re just deceptively slippery and too anxious to land on a page.

Then there are the 12-hour labors, the stories that leave you sweaty and exhausted but proud when they’re done. They can be reluctant to leave the warmth of the womb-like imagination, grappling at the walls with their little fingernails to stay inside just a little longer, using plot holes and unclear transitions like handholds. But eventually they, too, squeeze themselves onto a page.

And then there are the Cesarean sections of stories — the ones that a writer has to cut themselves open to extract because of a deadline or misguided promise or pressure from readers. I’ve read too many books by authors that took a knife to their brain, ripped it open and plopped the story onto a page without much more care, Sadly, the stitches used to close their brains back up often heal wrong, making it impossible for them to ever write another thing that doesn’t read forced.

If I’m being honest, Omaha was a C-Section of a book because I had a literary agent waiting to read it. But my newest project goes from easy to laborious and back again — completely enjoyable the entire time as I leisurely let it make its way from brain to page.

Writespiration: “An Object of Beauty” and voice

I’m finally getting into the annals of unread books on my shelf. Last week was An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin. It’s a fun read full of details on contemporary art and modern masters, but more interestingly a glimpse into the world of collecting, dealing and appraisal.

There’s one sentence that keeps sticking out to me. It’s on page 120:

“Lacey’s solo entrance into Boston was less important than Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, but not to Lacey.”

I can’t get the sentence structure out of my head. Why write it like that — stating the obvious, then capping it with the payoff — instead of how I would have put it: “To Lacey, her solo entrance into Boston was more important than Christ’s entry into Jerusalem.” Maybe that’s because my stories usually focus on the characters’ perspectives first, then the social norms they’re breaking. Or maybe it’s because I’m not as creative as Steve freakin’ Martin (which I’m totally OK with, by the way).

In the end, I realized it comes down to voice. Martin is famous as a comedian, and as a writer he’s able to translate that sense of humor into stories that aren’t necessarily side-splitting but still carry a sly smirk with every sentence. Although I’ll never list An Object of Beauty as one of my favorite books, I enjoyed getting a wider look at his talent, as well as being forced to examine my own voice as a writer.

We should all be so lucky to write seemingly mundane sentences that make such an impact on others.

Writespiration: Tell the whole truth, or nothing but a little of the truth?

Today is a hot one in Chicago — the kind of wet electric blanket heat that flash-steams your lungs and makes a hot yoga studio more comfortable than out on the street. Plus, at least you know every vinyasa is toning your triceps and there’s no self-consciousness because everyone around you is sweating, too.

Well, almost everyone.

While most of us were risking our lives doing crow pose and Warrior II in puddles of our own making, the woman next to me didn’t let a single drop of sweat fall from her skin. She was perspiring, but instead of leaving it all literally on the mat, she was coated in a glossy sheen that made her look like she had the same perfectly golden skin as a roasted chicken.*

*I hadn’t eaten anything in 16 hours when I went to class, in case you were wondering.

And then I remembered something my friend Aya said — or maybe it was something I said to her, or maybe it’s something I thought I should say to her:

“Never trust anyone who doesn’t sweat in a yoga class.”

Right now I’m working on a book that’s going to have a couple twists and oh-shit moments, and even though I know where they are in the plot, I have no idea how I’m going to get there. When I thought of that line of dialogue this morning — whether spoken in my real life or not — I figured out an important piece of that journey. Never trust anyone who doesn’t sweat in a yoga class: And it just so happens this one character never comes out of the studio looking damper than she did when she went in. It’s the clue the main character needs to crack the mystery wide open.

 

Funny, how adapting small quotes or details from life seems to be a lot easier for me than actually writing a full story of something going on in my life.

A week ago I started mentally writing the intro for a non-fiction book that I want to write one day. It describes meeting someone who’s now a large part of my life, and if all parties involved give me permission, maybe I’ll publish it on this blog. It’s the first time as an adult that I’ve written about a relationship in my life without disguising the names or weaving it into a story about characters that only exist in my head.

The writing part was easy because I’ve told the full story to enough people verbally that I’ve had time to perfect the language, pace the plot, time the jokes and edit out the parts my “audience” finds boring. It’s like I’ve been working on an invisible draft of the story for months before even putting pen to paper.

But the actual act of committing the story to a page with the intention of someone else reading it? That takes moxie — and a bit of monstrosity, according to Anthony Bourdain:

“If you’re a writer or a storyteller of any kind, there is something already kind of monstrously wrong with you. Let’s face it — it is an unreasonable attitude to look in the mirror the morning and think, ‘You know, there are people out there who would really like to hear my story.'”

And I think that’s what it is. I don’t like putting stories from my life down on paper because it feels like my ego is getting in the way of my judgment of what makes a good story. I’m comfortable thinking “That line about not trusting people who don’t sweat at yoga is great for a book,” but not comfortable thinking “That journey about how I hated all forms of physical activity until I found yoga at 19 would make a great nonfiction piece.” Everyone has a story like that, and I guarantee more than one person has written it down — and well, too.

But I think I’ve found a story worth telling now. And so we’ll see how going from “fiction with a smattering of truth” to “truth that reads like conventional rom-com fiction” goes. I think I might be ready to sweat it.

Writespiration: “Worst Poetry” by Sarah Kay

Sarah Kay is my favorite living modern poet, full stop. I could listen to her all day. “Mrs. Ribeiro” contains stunning imagery and emotion. I gave my mom a hardback copy of “Point B” for Christmas and watched tears well in her eyes as she read it right there under the tree.

But there has always been “Worst Poetry,” one of the first poems I heard her read. At the time it was cute but not my favorite. But as I’ve grown up a bit and experienced new people and relationships, I understand it better.

Her poem deals a lot with love and relationships, but it also points out that there’s a distinct difference between a muse and a supporter: The person she describes in the poem doesn’t make her work better, but they do make her life better. Now is there a strict mutual exclusivity between who inspires you and who encourages you? I’m still figuring that out. Maybe another blog post is coming on that.

But for now, let me say this: Muses can be dangerous. Support is forever beneficial.

Find someone who makes you want to work on your art. Who wants to be there while you work on it but knows art takes solitude sometimes. Who is is open to examining your art but doesn’t ask to see it. Who’s patient when you say you think it’s crap but knows better than to say “It isn’t!” even when they haven’t read it.

And get rid of the mofos who take pride in causing your writer’s block. I’ve known those people before. They suck, and we no longer talk.

Writespiration: Love thy characters (via @angiecthomas)

I should be editing the full manuscript of my book, Omaha, before sending it out to my beta reader book club, but I’m not. At first I thought my procrastination was out of exhaustion — I dedicated the entire month of November and first week of December 2017 to it, and since then have burned out on it. It happens.

But then I read this tweet from The Hate U Give author Angie Thomas:

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

This was the second time I had seen her refer to the love she has for Bri — even going so far as to say she likes her more than The Hate U Give‘s main character, Starr. I remember feeling that way about some of the characters I wrote back when I was penning books while pretending to be taking notes in freshman year of high school. But with Omaha, I can’t say the same.

The fact is, none of my characters evoke my love. Or any feeling, for that matter. Omaha, Plunder, Varsity and Flax are like the people I hung out with in middle school: Now that the obligation to stick with them is over, they bore me and I have little to say to them (or make them say to each other, as the case of writing has it). It’s not a tangible feeling like hate or dislike, but one of indifference, which is possibly even worse because it means I have to build emotion from scratch instead of just tweak it from one thing to another. Unlike when I used to write in high school, no amount of dream casting has helped — though I’ll admit it’s a nice diversion envisioning Samira Wiley, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephanie Beatriz and Lin-Manuel Miranda armed to the teeth with skill-enhancing microchips in their brains and running around post-exodus Chicago streets.

So thanks to Thomas, I’m going back to my draft to see where I became numb to these characters and figure out ways to fall back in terrible, conflicted love with them. How can I expect readers to feel something for them if their own creator is indifferent?