A Nyquil-loaded writer’s review of 2018

A fairly healthy 2018 has decided to bid adieu by deploying a nasty cold in its final days, so I’ve been spending the last 72 ours valiantly fighting it back in hopes that it raises the white Kleenex flag in time for my darling friend Hannah to arrive in Chicago tomorrow afternoon.

On the upside, this gives me plenty of time to write. 

On the downside, this also gives me a great excuse to rewatch seasons 3-5 of Archer because “I need rest.”

So forgive however this year-end recap turns out, as it is a product of Nyquil, procrastination and self-disappointment at said procrastination.

Last year I published several listicles highlighting my favorite 2017 write-spirations. Although this year came with an equal amount of creativity fodder, I grew so tired of reading other “best of 2018” recaps that I decided not to scream into the already loud fray. Yes, we all loved Killing Eve, and Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer was revelatory, as was her live tour. You don’t need yet another person telling you this. (Though really, Killing Eve is marvelous and available on Hulu).

Instead, I thought I’d compose a list that’s probably less SEO-friendly and certainly less replicable, unless everyone commits to selling out Sleigh Bells’ next tour and gets to stand up as a grooms-maid at a friend’s wedding. So here it is, a list of experiences I had this year that contributed to my writing:

1. This year came with a few steps closer to being a published novelist. I had a short story printed in Z Publishing’s Emerging Illinois Writers collection, which I remind myself is how Chuck Palahniuk started — having Chapter 6 of Fight Club appear in an anthology of Oregonian writers. 

I also got signed with TZLA shortly after that because one of their agents liked a tweet I sent out about my then-work-in-progress, Omaha. He has since started submitting it to publishing hoses and recently assured me that “2019 will be a great year!) I’m holding him to that, but I’m not slowing down. 

2. The Man with Time on His Arm, full stop. His creative sense of humor, patience with my complaints about writers’ block and generosity of ear (and input) to my half-cooked story ideas is worthy of a Booker Prize in itself. When I told him Omaha was going to be represented by TZLA, he hugged me and said he was proud of me, and honestly it meant more to me than if he had said “I love you.”*

*Sub-item: I built on my wealth of material for a romantic dramedy by saying “I love you” during the intermission of Dita Von Teese’s Chicago House of Blues burlesque show on May 18. I was very drunk on vodka. The timing was wrong, but the sentiment was not.

3. In June I spent ten days in Barcelona and Rome, and talk about inspiration. Not only did I see the palace that belonged to Livia — the wife of the Roman Emperor Augustus and poisoner of probably a hundred different people, all in the name of becoming a goddess (can you say diva, queen and legend all at once?) — but I also walked the streets where artistic revolutionaries like Botticelli, Salvador Dali and Ernest Hemingway once walked. It sounds cliche, but you can’t escape the hope that some of their brilliance might come home with you on the soles of your fashionable Guess walking sandals. 

4. I was part of my friend Ryan’s wedding party and stood (though things got shaky for a minute there) in Louboutin heels and a tuxedo among some people he’s known far longer and better than me. More potential romantic dramedy material: however: I once was in a (weird, long-distance) relationship with the officiant, so naturally….everything was fine, and the lack of memoir-worthy hijinx was the only complaint I could make about the whole event, unless you count introducing a Missouri-bred bachelor party to Malort early enough in the evening so they would really remember it. 

Unfortunately, being this fresh off the Keelers’ nuptuals has led me to shelve my short story, “The Wedding,” due to an entire plot premise that could be terribly misconstrued for a reimagining of the ceremony and events leading up to it. Stay tuned in 2020, if not later.

5. Despite losing a toenail and being slightly bruised the next morning, I had the time of my post-apocalyptic life in the mosh pit at Sleigh Bells’ Chicago show. But I already wrote about that. Other life-changing musical events included seeing Elton John in the flesh and being just a tackle’s distance away from Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, as he sprinted past me on the main floor of his stadium show. The man knows how to wear thin linen pants. 

I was going to continue this post with a list of 2019 goals, but the Nyquil is really kicking in now, and the letters are starting to look a little wobbily. Remembering how my roommate in college posted four solid tweets of nonsense under the influence of the miracle flu-drug, I think I’ll sign off now while I stay coherent.

Foot.

Teddy bear.

Suitcase.

Four-poster bed.

Trigonometry.

Auld lang syne.

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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.

Writespiration: Best Writing Music of 2017

With all the year-end lists of best musical contributions made in 2017, here’s one specially geared toward writers looking for that symphonic oomph that makes fights, chases, discoveries, deceptions, romance and deaths materialize on the page. Note that this list doesn’t include all my favorites of the year — Kendrick Lamar’s Damn. is a work of art, but not necessarily writing music for this creative (yet) — but covers the best inspiration found pumping through my speakers.

Best Vocal Album:

cropped album cover from "Trip" by Jhene Aiko

“Trip” by Jhene Aiko

Trip by Jhene Aiko: This 22-track album easily tops the list as the best album for getting writing done. As the hip-hop and R&B artist takes her listener on a journey of self-discovery, drug-induced experiences (including euphoria, erotica and terror), maturity and love, the beats are deep enough to drown in and subtle enough to disappear when the writing starts to flow. Notable tracks include: “Jukai,” “Overstimulated,” “Oblivion (Creation),” “Psilocybin (Love in Full Effect).”

Honorable mention:

Synthesis by Evanescence: Not a new album per se but a reimagining of the band’s past work using orchestral and electronic arrangements, mostly for better and sometimes for worse. Forgettable B-sides from The Open Door and their 2012 self-titled album become dramatic character themes that are tinged with beautiful agony thanks to Amy Lee’s undying vocals. Notable tracks include “Never Go Back,” “Hi-Lo” and “The End of the Dream.”

Best Vocal Track:

photo illustration based on the "Wonderful Wonderful" cover art from The Killers

“Wonderful Wonderful” by The Killers

“Wonderful Wonderful” by The Killers: Blend the right amount of echo, deep drumbeats and Jefferson Airplane mysticism, and you’ve got the titular track of The Killers’ 2017 track that fits the titular character of the project I spent the most time on this year.

Honorable mentions:

“Drew Barrymore” by SZA: Everything from the opening line “Why is it so hard to accept the party is over?” to the refrain “Am I woman enough for you?” sums up the kind of relationship I wrote about most this year.

“Young and Menace” by Fall Out Boy: Forget everything you know about the “Dance, Dance” alternative band of the aught-2000s. Beat drops, high energy, strobe lights you can practically hear: Everything about this track screams superhero/mutant fight with a teen-emo bend steeped in acid.

Best Movie Score:

"Wonder Woman (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)" by Rupert Gregson-Williams

“Wonder Woman (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)” by Rupert Gregson-Williams

Wonder Woman by Rupert Gregson-Williams: Since Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL debuted the Amazonian warrior’s theme in “Is She with You?” from 2016’s Batman vs. Superman score, I’ve been impatiently waiting for it to extend to an entire album. Gregson-Williams doesn’t disappoint and tinsels his own take on the score with just enough of Zimmer and Junkie’s guitar shreds. Notable tracks: “No Man’s Land,” “Hell Hath No Fury” and “Action Reaction.”

Honorable mention:

Blade Runner 2049 by Hans Zimmer: Zimmer stays true to the tone of the original film as well as director Denis Villeneuve’s sequel with a soundtrack full of sustained tones, eerie key shifts and futuristic synthesizers. Notable tracks: “2049,” “Sea Wall” and “Tears in the Rain.”

Best Movie/TV Score Track:

"Supermarine" from Hans Zimmer's "Dunkirk" score

“Supermarine” from Hans Zimmer’s “Dunkirk” score

“Supermarine” by Hans Zimmer: If there’s one thing the German composer does well (and there are millions of things he does well — trust me, I saw him perform live in August), it’s instilling a sense of urgency into his music. Dunkirk’s key track does just this by syncing listeners’ pulses to the quickening beat that acts as a perfect backdrop to a time’s-running-out situation.

Honorable mentions:

“Fauxlero” by Jeff Russo: Technically this is an older piece, “Bolero” by Maurice Ravel, that was reimagined for FX’s series Legion, but the electronic arrangement makes it feel new and much scarier than the fairytale-esque piece from 1928. Maybe it has something to do with Aubrey Plaza appearing in her best Tim Burton attire and squeezing a man to death with her mind.

Favorite Discoveries:

Sometimes it’s worth looking backward. These albums and tracks were released before 2017 but added to my collection this year:

“The Beast” by Johann Johannson: The doom-filled droning of Sicario’s key soundtrack theme picks the heart up and slams it to the floor with every beat.

Penny Dreadful: The Complete Series Soundtrack by Abel Korzeniowski: There’s a reason Korzeniowski, whose work also includes the soundtrack for Nocturnal Animals, W.E. and A Single Man, is one of my favorite artist discoveries of this year. Not only was the Showtime series practically made for writers who love universe crossovers, but the soundtrack shifts from simplistic (“Street. Horse. Smell. Candle.”) to the dramatic (“Joan Clayton”) — something for every scene imaginable.

“Think” by Kaleida: Shallow and soulful all at the same time, Kaleida’s track plays ironic backup to one of the bloodiest scenes in John Wick and provides the same quiet but sinister word-per-beat promise of “Think on me; I’ll never break your heart” to any investigation montage or illicit affair scene.

Treats by Sleigh Bells: Here’s some loud chainsaw music that wrecks headphones and amps alike and is the base soundtrack for writing Mad Max: Fury Road meets Mean Girls.