Open letter to the universe (or one musician who shall remain nameless)


Album art from the 1980 album Waves by singer-songwriter Mike Batt

I started writing this a couple of weeks ago, not necessarily intending to send it (because fan mail is inherently creepy, isn’t it?), but just to get the thoughts on paper. It was literal paper, too. I started with a ballpoint pen and a notebook.

But in the last few days I’ve found myself saying similar words to other people in different contexts — most recently while talking to students at a career mixer at my alma mater. (Sorry, kids, but adulting is strange business.)

I’ll add that it has long been my belief that all love songs are ultimately written to god (I say this as an agnostic who likes the concision of the word “god”); that romantic longings are the pathways to our highest selves.

It might be trite or cliche to tell a musician that their songs meant something to you. I probably should feel at least bit silly about how deeply I’ve gone into your songs lately. How I’ve lived in [insert album title]. But the whole point of creative work is to make connections. Songs, poems, stories, books — they’re all missives loosed into the world in hopes of finding kindred spirits.

Here’s what I think: The soul is an astral traveler. And those of us who make art do so by sending some piece of ourselves into the void, into the world between worlds, to carry back the inspiration. The words, the music, the colors, the shapes. To create is to live in that space — the bardo, the threshold. I know you know about the electrical current in the act of making, the bright flow of it. I believe we go there when we do creative work, but we also go there when we’re open to someone else’s work.

It seems right to me to spend as much time in that space as possible, and every path to that place is correct. I’m drawn there by your songs, and that’s a great joy. I’m not deluded that you feel what I feel — and yet I believe, in a way, we’re together in that place. We’re together in that world between worlds, in that synthesizes of creation and being.30e3a60a9e52e047705baaace2545b33

I hope in some way that’s a comfort to you. It is to me — to think I’m not really so alone. Being human is a lonely existence, but the heart of us, the soul or whatever, also lives beyond the physical, in a place of greater connectivity.

Do you not feel greater than the sum of your parts when a symphony performs your songs? When the strings sweep in, when the brass swells? Hell, I feel greater just to go to the symphony. It’s like swimming in the gulf of Mexico, in that sweet eternity of turquoise water and blue sky. There, I am nothing and everything.

Your songs speak to me of connection, of shared language. Not just the lyrics but the precision of the words. The deftness and slightness, the ways in which image is pared to the bone, and yet it shimmers. The way the instrumentation paints the emotional canvas. The way your voice is close and personal.

These are worlds I can go inside and be at ease, be at home. But they also speak to how I feel — I’ve been alone lately. I have this image of being alone on a boat, adrift on a dark sea. Or, I did feel that way. Then I listened to your albums, one after the other, in and out of days, until the beauty was all-pervasive and the hurt diminished like the shore I’d left behind.

Big news!

I’m astonished, honored, and so excited to announce that my novel, How to Talk to Rockstars is among the 10 semifinalists for the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award. The winner will be announced in November, but I feel like I’m taking home a giant prize just to be included on a list with two of my literary heroes — Ron Rash and Robert Morgan — as well as talented musician and dance caller (and college math professor) Phil Jamison, and fellow Asheville journalist Rob Neufeld.



The bad girl book club: My favorite inappropriate YA reads from my own misspent youth

When I was a kid, young adult literature wasn’t called YA. It was called Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret. Thank god for Judy Blume — I’m pretty sure I read everything she wrote (and, thanks to Deenie, lived in fear of failing the scoliosis test and spending high school in a back brace).
YABut since YA wasn’t a thing, with all the marketing and shiny, neon-colored covers that go along with it, I also read a lot of stuff that might or might not have been written with teens in mind — and certainly hadn’t been vetted (unless you count the town librarian’s withering glare at the check-out desk).

So here are four inappropriate books that I read, and maybe shouldn’t have read, and loved even though they really confused me.

1) Go Ask Alice: The first awesome thing about this novel was that it was supposedly anonymously written. And supposedly “a real diary,” as the book’s cover boasted. This was before Oprah old off James Frey for his fake memoir. The Go Ask Alice author was, in fact, the late Beatrice Sparks, who was born in 1917 and was a Mormon. I suspect, in retrospect, the book was meant as a moralistic after-school special of sorts, but it didn’t have that affect on me. Because it was ALL ABOUT DRUGS! And it was set in the 1960s! I was so all in. I don’t even know how many times I read that book and fantasized about running off the San Francisco and doing god knows what. I was never all that clear on what drugs the nameless character was taking (it’s possible that the author didn’t, either). But I was convinced that drugs were cool and fun.

2) Still Life with Woodpecker: This is a book about a terrorist who hooks up with a teenager. It’s racy and fantastic and, honestly, you probably need to be a teenager to really like it. I tried reading Tom Robbins again as I got older and either I’d already gone through his best work, or I just couldn’t relate to it anymore. Still. The colorful bizarreness and surreal characters alluded to a world of reading way more exciting than The Scarlet Letter ** or whatever. There was philosophy and art and sex. Plus, the book cover looked like a pack of Camel cigarettes, so.

3) And I Don’t Want to Live This Life: The subtitle is “A Mother’s Story of Her Daughter’s Murder,” which sounds really horrible, but this is the memoir by Nancy Spungen’s mother, Deborah, about her daughter’s relationship with Sid Vicious of The Sex Pistols. I was obsessed with everything punk. I wore a Sex Pistols t-shirt like, all the time. I inhaled this book, every gorey detail. The drugs, the violence, the skinny black jeans and the Chelsea Hotel. Really, the jeans and the New York City scene of the late 1970s intrigued me far more than heroin, which seemed seedy and painful. But this book sparked my imagination (not necessarily in the best way) such that I’ve worked it into multiple pieces of my own writing.

4) Faith and the Good Thing: And now for something completely different. I read this novel by Charles Johnson in my freshman year of college. Actually, my English teacher read passages of it aloud in class and I was hooked. The writing is strange and otherworldly. It feels like voodoo and danger, but also like a revealing dream in which the dreamer who can cross the woods at night and walk the hot coals will come through cleansed and enhanced with magical vision. It’s about the journey from youth to wisdom, from passing through childhood into some deeper understanding of life. I’ve since given this book as a gift to people I really liked. I’ve never heard from anyone who received it from me that they were as enchanted as I was. Oh well.

**The Scarlet Letter is actually a dark and wonderful book. Just not when being read under duress for 10th grade English class.

Best tips for a bestseller

Best tips for a bestseller

The following TEDx Talk is by Jonny Geller, literary agent and CEO at Curtis Brown. He makes some great points about the importance of knowing what a book is about — sounds simple, but it’s not always so easy for an author. Start at the 11:00 mark for the section I’m quoting here — but there’s tons of fantastic advice throughout.

Sometimes writers themselves don’t know they’ve stumbled on a story that might hit on that chart, which may seem a bit odd because they’ve spent a long time writing 300 pages. But I’ve often sat in my office with young writers and said to them, “What’s your story about?” And they’ve said, “It’s about love and death and marriage and redemption and betrayal.” And you go, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. But what’s the story about? Can you complete the sentence, ‘This is the story about a man or a woman who …’” and they’ll be stumped, because it’s very difficult. To reduce a complex story to one sentence is hard. But I believe it’s absolutely crucial. If a book is to become a big, bestselling book, you have to be able to communicate the core idea easily. Not all narratives lend themselves to that, but I do believe that every great classical narrative can be reduced to a sentence. — Jonny Geller

Appropriation and fiction

This is what I’ve been thinking about lately: appropriation. It’s become a bad word (along with privilege). Racial appropriation, cultural appropriation. The taking of ideas and identities. And I think we can all agree that in an overarching way, it’s a bad thing. White bands not only appropriating the blues, but getting rich on music made by black artists who were never recognized for their work. White kids wearing headdresses to indie-rock shows. (White folks do a lot of appropriating.)

1appropriation_0Recognizing it is good and necessary. Having the conversation is important. But there’s also the issue of art being, to an extent, a byproduct of appropriation. Usually we call it inspiration or influence. It’s cool to be influenced — in fact, it’s pretty lame to huddle down in one’s safe space and only create art from that small corner of knowledge. There’s a criticism directed toward those artists who don’t take enough risks, don’t venture outside of their comfort zones, don’t explore other cultures or bring a diversity of viewpoints in their work.

And, though we writers have all heard the “write what you know” maxim, we all only know so much. Eventually experience has to give way to the unknown — especially in fiction — and that’s when the rich, deep, imaginative work begins. Continue reading