Friday, October 19, 2012

E-girl reviews rock music

One of the joys of being a parent has been witnessing how my children respond to music.

When he was in-utero, I-guy would kick so much when a Dylan song came on that I had to sit down (or turn it off). Once—and only once—in the midst of dinner, when he was about three, he very seriously began to sing "Hard Times" by Ray Charles—all the way through, without stopping. ("My mother told me/ 'Fore she passed away/Said son when I'm gone/Don't forget to pray..."). Now he likes ska music and the Smithereens, among other things, continuing to find his own musical paths.

E-girl hated to be in the car as a baby and would start to scream about five minutes in. I found the only thing that would calm her down was if I sang "Hello Dolly" in an Ethel Merman voice. (The other day she started to sing that song and then said, "How do I know these words?") I have no idea how we came up with this antidote to her discomfort. Later she gravitated toward classical music and begged to hear it in the car when we drove anywhere together.

This long intro is really just an excuse to share some of E-girl's recent musical opinions. I try to keep my kids off my blog, at least in any exploitative way. Even if blogs had been much around when they were toddlers, I very much doubt if I would have publicly proclaimed their toilet training successes and failures. And I try not to brag about them widely, or live through them in any way, because I want them to have their privacy, and private, not-publicly-shared histories. (I think this also strengthens my own sense of identity). My biggest justification for doing this right now is that I want to park her quotes where I won't as easily lose them. And, I think, they're unique.

Keep in mind that E-girl's current favorite pop/rock group is Cold Play and her favorite album is the soundtrack from "Once."

  • The B-52s: Those girls sound so good and then this guy just keeps trying to talk over them.
  • Rihanna: Her voice is all auto-tuning.
  • Janis Joplin: She has a certain style.
  • Neil Young: His voice is soft and soothing, like running your hands in lotion, except with your ears. I think he could sing in a Muppet movie. 
  • Grateful Dead: They suck.
  • Taylor Swift: All her songs sound the same.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The plot thins

For all my good ideas over the years, I have failed to produce more than a handful of short stories, only two or three of them published (in addition to a couple of novels that need heavy revising). Instead, I have dozens of notebooks filled with descriptions of experience and emotion, which I have sometimes turned into essays, but rarely into any kind of cohesive story.

It wasn't until after I attended a lecture by Pam Smallcomb last year, on how to write children's picture books, that I began to realize I don't know how to write a good plot—or any plot, really. Plot is so essential to fiction, I don't know how I missed its absence.

I like poetic prose and deep insight, which is why I tend to read literary fiction rather than genre fiction. But those books rarely keep me up at night—unlike the Harry Potter books, whose pages I continued to turn long after my bedtime, until I had read the whole series. It was those little hooks along the way that kept me interested, which I've mostly ignored in my own fiction.

I never felt this way about poetry, perhaps because writing good poetry—especially form poetry—is a learning experience. I didn't assume that I knew what I was doing just because I could put down words and make rhymes. I understood that there is cadence and form, and building toward some kind of epiphany, all within a few lines. A massive, humbling undertaking if done well. And so I felt no embarrassment in consulting guides like The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics as I wrote poems.

But plot? I didn't think I needed to study it. Wasn't the telling of the story the same thing as plot?

Now I am reading, as Pam suggested in her lecture, 20 Master Plots (And How to Build Them). They include variations on the two essential plots that have been described over the years: a stranger comes to town, a journey is taken. But I'm finding it helpful to break down books I know and love into their mechanical parts, using this book as guide. Next, I will apply it to my own fiction; it's hard to admit that I am still a beginner at all this, but I'm never going to be a better writer unless I acknowledge my current limitations.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The saddest songs ever (Melancholy music redux)

In the midst of my seasonal melancholy a couple of years ago, I wrote a few blog posts about the music I use to heighten my misery, which concluded with a short list of sad songs.

Now Adam Brent Houghtaling has taken the list many steps further, cataloging the saddest songs of all time in his book This Will End in Tears: The Miserabilist Guide to Music (Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" is number one on his list of top 100 sad songs, which is why the video is embedded above). Houghtaling said he began writing the book after he realized that the soundtrack of his life was composed of artists with a defining attribute, of "having an uncommon understanding of the varying shades of sorrow."

As the days grow shorter and darker, my soundtrack gets a little gloomier each day, until it reaches a delicious dismalness just before the Winter Solstice. So, of course, I am putting Houghtaling's book on my Christmas Wish List.