A song is a very short story

Creativity is endlessly enthralling. And frustrating. And difficult to quantify. And that’s why I think it’s worth looking to the many artistic genres outside of writing for ideas on how to become a better novelist. I recently attended a songwriters panel discussion and took away from excellent quotes to serve as inspiration.

Originally published at Mountainx.com:

CaroMia Tiller performing with Goldie & the Screamers.

CaroMia Tiller performing with Goldie & the Screamers.

Asheville Music Professionals teamed up with the Grammy-affiliated Recording Academy for a panel discussion on songwriting, followed by a songwriters-in-the-round performance.

The dual events, held at The Altamont Theatre on Monday, June 22, featured songwriters Gretchen Peters (a Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee; has written for Etta James and Bonnie Raitt among others), Tift Merritt (a North Carolina native and Grammy nominee for country album of the year), Jim Lauderdale (has recorded 26 albums and won two Grammys), Dave Berg (named Billboard country songwriter of the year, has written for Keith Urban, Blake Shelton and others) and Erika Wollam Nichols, general manager of The Bluebird Café in Nashville. Local recording artist and three-time Grammy-winner Steven Heller moderated.

The panelists shared their thoughts on process, inspiration and craft and took questions from the audience as well as answering previously-submitted queries. From humorous to inspired, here are some highlights:

On when to write

Gretchen Peters: I try to avoid writing. Writing is more difficult for writers than for other people.

Jim Lauderdale: Morning writing is good when I’m co-writing, but I like to write alone at night.

Dave Berg: The older I get, the less I get up [when an idea comes to me in bed] to write it down. Sometimes I decide I need sleep more than this idea.

Jim Lauderdale: I have to plan writing trips or clear the day. Otherwise the day is gone and I haven’t had time to write anything.

A full house at The Atlamont Theatre for the songwriters panel.

A full house at The Atlamont Theatre for the songwriters panel.

On writing while on tour

Dave Berg: I don’t travel much. I always dreamed of making it as a songwriter so that I can never leave my house.

Tift Merritt: I’ve always found that when I’m touring, I only write really bad things. … I love having a writing routine. I always have a notebook and write down prompts or conversations I hear.

Gretchen Peters: Touring is all about putting out energy. Writing is about getting quiet. … I think of myself as a magpie — I find shiny things and bring them back to the nest. When I find time, I go on a binge of finishing.

On tradition versus innovation

Tift Merritt: There’s a tradition of songwriting and a love of that tradition that you’re carrying on. There are artists who come along and explode their form, but I’ve never felt like that was my job.

Dave Berg: When you can say more with less, it’s a lot harder, but it’s more satisfying.

On editing

Gretchen Peters: Record what you’ve written and get as far away from it as you can. What helps me to rewrite is to listen back.

Tift Merritt: To me, [editing] is a conversation with myself, and not letting myself off the hook.

On testing new material in front of an audience

Gretchen Peters: I’m OK with judging if I’ve done a good job with the recording, but what happens when you get out into the world is almost a continuation of the writing process. It’s a continuation of the life of the song.

Tift Merritt: [Playing live] is the real test. It’s easy to be in your self-contained I-think-that-works world.

Jim Lauderdale: It’s fun to have a song you’ve almost finished, to try it out. You can tell [as you’re playing it] whether it’s working or not.

On influences

Tift Merritt: I always looked up to Eudora Welty. Her fiction is so potent and she lived such a unique life.

The Anti-Theme Song

This post was originally published by UnabridgedAndra:

Spaceman at Greyhounds show

Spaceman at Greyhounds show

Usually I’m not a fan of reality TV — I’m a storyteller so I like a good story. But with the launch of my novel, How to Talk to Rockstars, I’ve been watching “The Voice” this season. I’m attracted to the spectacle of rockstars-in-the-making, and one part of this process that unfolds in semi-realtime is song selection. I’d argue that once a song makes its way to the mainstream arena of a singing competition, it loses a significant portion of its mystery and innate cool. But then Kimberly Nichole, one of the contestants, sang “Creep” by Radiohead — a songs whose very premise is the polar opposite of cool — and it gave me pause.

Here’s the thing. I don’t really like the song “Creep.” It hits too close. I wasn’t popular in high school; I wore my outsiderness like a badge. And there are lines in that song that shake the soul of any outsider: “I want you to notice / When I’m not around / … But I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo / What the hell am I doing here?” That, and it’s kind of a favorite cover song of geeks-turned-indie-rockers — people who can sing “I’m a weirdo” because the sting of that sentiment is distant but not forgotten.

I get the truth in it. How to Talk to Rockstars plumbs the depths of that poignancy. Main character Bryn, a music writer, is not an outcast but she certainly is a loner. It’s in music that she finds community, though even then her community is largely virtual or temporary. A roomful of strangers with whom she shares a concert; the faceless readers for whom she pens reviews and interviews; the rockstars she talks to over the phone — intensely intimate for the length of the conversation and then strangers again. When Bryn finds (or at least imagines that she finds) a kindred spirit in Jude Archer, one of the rockstars she writes about, she dares herself to pursue a real-life friendship with him. Still, much of their interaction is in her imagination, those squirmy, self-conscious conversations underscored by the suspicion, “I’m a weirdo.”

The weight of those words is a fist to the gut, a bruise continually pressed.

Whoooo you calling a weirdo?

Whoooo you calling a weirdo?

But when Kimberly Nichole, a powerhouse vocalist, sang “Creep” on network TV, the song morphed. The hot shame of it, the chilly loneliness it, was held up to the all-seeing eye of nine million viewers. Instead of being shunned as any self-professed creep would, Kimberly was voted onto the next round. That version of the song was ranked No. 12 on iTunes and viewed 68,687 times on YouTube during the week it aired. That’s not exactly outcast territory.

So what does it mean when a song like “Creep” is embraced by a huge audience? Is it possible that we share, in the deepest recesses of our hearts, a secret conviction that the song was written about us? Or is there pleasure in having that cache of self-doubt excavated? Does “Creep” prevail — 23 years after it was released as Radiohead’s debut single — because it’s such a masterful rock song … or because it’s such an exacting audit of the human psyche?

I do find hope in the iTunes/YouTube mass-embrace of “Creep.” Yes, the song has been covered by Amanda Palmer (a poster child for a being a bit of a creep, and not giving a damn) but also by the cast of “Glee.” Macy Gray performed it on the “Late Show with David Letterman;” it’s been featured in the “Stalker” series and on the film trailer for The Social Network. “Creep,” it seems, now bridges the hinterlands and the cozy suburbs.

But ultimately, even if an outlier song becomes a school dance staple, the kernel of anxiety and vulnerability lives on at its heart. You can take “Creep” out of the weird-dancing, nervy-dark Radiohead catalog, but not Muzak nor Broadway nor “American Idol” can take the stuttering, sweaty-palmed weirdo out of “Creep.” And it’s exactly that staying power, that soul-deep ache and fathomless echo of universal doubt, that I reach for on the page. Successfully? My inner misfit says no. Not yet. Maybe someday. Maybe, hopefully, fingers crossed, soon.

Bio-based fiction

This essay was originally published at BrewingPassion.com:

Instruments by Steve Miller, from the exhibit "Buncombe Built" at Asheville Area Arts Council

Instruments by Steve Miller, from the exhibit “Buncombe Built” at Asheville Area Arts Council

Since publishing How to Talk to Rockstars, a novel inspired by my work as an arts and entertainment reporter at The Mountain Xpress, I’ve been answering a lot of questions about how much of the book comes from real life.

It’s a reasonable question. Even though the novel is fiction (the producer/Roxy Music star Brian Eno makes a cameo, but all of the other characters are from my imagination), it does dovetail neatly with my day job. In fact, without the experience of countless hours logged on the phone (and occasionally in person) with touring musicians, I wouldn’t have had a story to write.

I live in Asheville, N.C., home of Thomas Wolfe who famously wrote Look Homeward Angel and infamously filled it with thinly veiled characters drawn from people from his hometown. While the book is, today, part of the literary cannon, in 1929 the people of Asheville didn’t take it so well. Wolfe barely returned to town after the publication of his magnum opus.

That’s not what I wanted for Rockstars. I did want to book to pay homage to the artists, albums and venues that have meant so much to me, but I didn’t want to make anyone feel weird or uncomfortable. It’s possible that I erred too far on the side of caution as even those characters who borrowed the most from Asheville-based musicians have yet to be identified by my friends who’ve read the novel.

Blake Burris aka Shake It Like a Caveman, onstage at Jack of the Wood

Blake Burris aka Shake It Like a Caveman, onstage at Jack of the Wood

For that I’m actually glad, but not because I feel bad about creating fiction from real-life inspiration. In fact, I think it’s an important literary tool and an inroad to rich fiction. In Rockstars, main character Bryn — a shy music journalist who learns to navigate the very extroverted world of bands, concerts and stages despite her own very introverted tendencies — originally gets into music writing because a guy in a band treats her badly. We’ve all been there (if not with a guy in a band then the cool artist, aloof poet, star soccer player, etc.) and one balm to the sting of rejection is a revenge plot. Not to carry out revenge, of course. But to think about it. The perfect retort, the steady-handed delivery of justice.

That’s where fiction comes in. While real-life revenge is kind of sociopathic, revenge on the page is (for the most part) a healthy outlet. Especially when it transcends pettiness and leads to greater creativity. Bryn’s plan is to become a music journalist so when Preston Schotte, the burgeoning rockstar who blew her off, finally releases an album, she can pan it. But she quickly finds that music opens a whole world to her that is much richer and more interesting than simple pay back.

That particular situation is not culled from my own life. There was no Preston Schotte. There was, however, a Dex Danson (not his real name). Here’s a passage from How to Talk to Rockstars based on a real-life experience with getting stood up for an interview:

The interview time came and went, and Bryn sat alone by her silent phone. An hour passed, though she knew by fifteen minutes in. He wouldn’t call. Eventually the publicist called, said Dex Dansen wasn’t available after all. He couldn’t do the interview, and he wouldn’t be able to do it later, either.

Bryn sat for awhile longer with her notes in front of her. She read over them again and scratched out a couple of unfortunate word choices. She felt sort of like a blind date left sitting in a restaurant, picking her way through the bread basket and watching the ice melt in her water glass.

The blind date knew, almost immediately, that she was being stood up. There’s a sense. The first five minutes, she chides herself for being cynical. Ten minutes in she takes a different tact. I hope he isn’t hurt. I hope nothing bad happened. At fifteen minutes, she gets angry. When he shows up, I’ll let him know he should have called. Being late is one thing but not to call? And finally, at twenty minutes, she begins to accept what’s happening. It’s just a matter of how much longer she needs to sit so that, when she leaves, she’ll know she was, indeed, stood up. She won’t be left wondering if she’d just given it ten more minutes…

But no.

And then all the lead up, all the one-sided conversations, all the what- ifs, all the projections of happily-ever-afters—all of that has to be unraveled.There was never to be a happily-ever-after with Dex Dansen. All he denied Bryn was an interview. A story that she alone would get, and then not get. But he also denied the place she’d set for him at the table.

It happened, though. Rockstars, by nature, were required to turn down a certain number of interviews. And reviewers, by nature, were required to not really care. So Bryn learned to play her role, keeping a backup plan at the ready, trying find the balance between not doing enough research and over-investing herself.

She learned to draw a line between respect and admiration, and actual love. Love was for real people. Flesh-and-blood people. People who called. People who showed up for coffee and for movie dates. People who were there after work and on the weekends. People who were not rockstars.

Pondering the muse

Now that my blog tour through Goddess Fish Promotions (highly recommended, BTW) has come to a close, I’m going to share a few of my favorite guest posts here. This one was originally published at Long and Short Reviews.

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Andrew Scotchie & The River Rats perform at Highland Brewing Co.

Andrew Scotchie & The River Rats perform at Highland Brewing Co.

I have this distinct memory of being in my car, coming home from the gym, and hearing the Counting Crows song “Rain King.” I’ve never been a fan of that band, but the line, “I belong in the service of the Queen / I belong anywhere but in between” struck me as an exact statement of how I felt about writing at that moment. Replace “queen” with “muse” and there you have it. That simple sentiment gave me the push I needed to write my just-published novel, How to Talk to Rockstars: It wasn’t just a hobby or a test of my own stamina. It was a mission.

Rockstars is a totally muse-driven book, a creative impetus that took on a life of its own. So much so that I would hear the voice of my main character, Bryn — a music journalist — speaking to me and telling her story, even when I wasn’t writing. Sometimes Bryn would narrate my walk home at the end of the day. Her character has such a raw and poetic way of describing her world, that some of the passages in the book were actually taken from those narrated walks.

I think most writers have that experience to some extent. I interviewed author Khaled Hosseini after his novel A Thousand Splendid Suns was published and he talked about missing his characters after he finished a book. Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants and At the Water’s Edge, told me that one thing she liked about going on book tour was that it gave her a chance to revisit her characters.

But what is it that makes those characters so real, so personable and imbued with their own personalities and agendas? Real enough that we miss them when we’re no longer transcribing their dialog? To call that “the muse” seems too easy and detracts from the considerable effort of the writer. I’ve never actually channeled anything — I know I used the word transcribing two sentences back, but that was mostly to be fancy — and I don’t know what it feels like. I do know that writing a novel is, at turns, thrilling, exasperating, exciting, devastating, energizing and exhausting. It’s an emotional roller coaster, a volatile relationship with little more than a laptop and a half-hatched idea.

"Mystic" by Karl Mullen, on display at American Folk Art & Framing

“Mystic” by Karl Mullen, on display at American Folk Art & Framing

But something — someone — has to drive the roller coaster. Maybe that’s the muse. Or maybe the muse is the one who waits in the quiet place where the words come from. The muse is the one with whom every writer is in community; the greater power to whom we answer.

How to Talk to Rockstars deals a lot with loneliness. Bryn is a loner. Much of her work has to do with talking to touring musicians who are isolated by being on the road for long stretches of time, or by a contrived stage persona, or by the strange trappings of fame. But what Bryn learns is that — even though professionalism prevents her from turning into a fan or trying to be friends with the musicians she interviews — the minutes she spends talking to a rockstar is absolute intimacy. It’s an encapsulated moment that might be awkward, might be strained, might not go according to plan. But it might also be pure magic.

Writing is kind of like that. It requires a lot of trust, and a willingness to get through the awkward moments to find the magic. I suspect the muse doesn’t judge between the two; the muse just asks us to show up and listen and do the work. It’s hard work. But it’s the best work.