Song of the Week: I’ve Got the Blues

I grew up in a blues household. I’m pretty sure “Hit the Road Jack” was the first song I knew all the words to. Family-room walls featured New Orleans Jazz Fest posters from ’79 and ’80. I semi-seriously planned on walking down the aisle to R-E-S-P-E-C-T (a plan that, sadly, did not come to fruition).

But you know — we all go through phases. Without rhyme or reason, I stopped listening to the blues. I mean, it’s not like I stopped liking the blues. It just wasn’t in the rotation. I started listening to more rock, hip-hop, “alternative” (whatever that genre is supposed to mean).

Then Byron — my darling NPR nerd — started listening to this Sunday night program that exclusively plays the blues. And damn but it is good. I had kind of forgotten how it feels to listen to a really great blues song — how it starts out slow and builds, you kind of lean into it, and before you know it BAM!

The blues have been on heavy rotation at work this week, but the number one spot has probably gone to this oldie-but-goodie:

Dr. Feelgood, man. It starts out unassuming and then just hits you like a ton of bricks. And let’s face it — Aretha is the Queen of Soul for a reason. Forget the voice, do you SEE THAT DRESS?? That is Grade-A Diva dress and it is amazing.

So if you need a Friday pick-me-up, I prescribe the good doctor. He’ll get us to the weekend.

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Sentences That Stick

Cold it was, and dark, when the vision came to her, for in the far north daylight was a gray dim time in the middle of the day that came, and went, and came again: an interlude between darknesses. — Neil Gaiman, American Gods

My friend Hannah and I were talking the other day about sentences — perfectly crafted sentences. The ones that make you fall in love with the author on the spot, regardless of the rest of the book. The rest of the writing could be crap, the author could be a total jerk — but you’ll always remember that one, breath-catching sentence.

(Side note: this makes me think of Hemingway’s relationship with Fitzgerald. A Moveable Feast has a long chapter depicting how annoying Hemingway first found Fitzgerald when they met. Then Fitzgerald gives him a copy of The Great Gatsby: “When I had finished the book I knew that no matter what Scott did, nor how he behaved, I must know it was like a sickness and be of any help I could to him and try to be a good friend.” Good writing, man — you’ll forgive a lot.)

Now, it’s one thing to be in awe of a sentence. But of course, as a writer, I want to study the Why. I want to know what makes that sentence tick and how to emulate it. Dissect it, name its components, do it myself.

The other writers are probably chuckling right now, because the fact of the matter is, it doesn’t always work that way. You can’t always pinpoint exactly why a sentence transcends its basic mechanics and works on a higher level. It speaks to you at the right place, at the right time. There’s the nutshell.

That Neil Gaiman quote — from American Gods, which I just re-read in anticipation of a Neil Gaiman talk tonight (!!!) — is one that’s hard to pinpoint. When I came upon it, I stopped and re-read it three times. Something about it is just beautiful to me. But when I sit down and try to analyze it — it all falls apart. Yes, it has a nice rhythm (“far north daylight” and “gray dim time” sync up nicely), but there’s nothing totally out of the ordinary there. Maybe it’s because I live somewhat north, and know what those long grey days are like. But that doesn’t really explain my gut reaction to it, either. No, if I try to break it down too much, it loses its magic. Better to just read and appreciate.

So how about you? Are there sentences that have ensnared you, that stick with you, that you read over and over again? Let’s share. I’m always greedy for more.

Song of the Week: Girl Power Edition

Growing up, my best friend’s family had the “Song of the Week.” That song played on repeat, ad nauseum, for (you guessed it) one week. The chosen one was blasted through the house’s speaker system, and there were a LOT of dance parties in the kitchen. There wasn’t a cutoff date or anything — one week just seemed to be the lifespan of any given song. And the song was never “officially” selected. It came about naturally, an aural contagion that took hold and spread to the other members of the household.

I apparently never ditched the “song of the week” habit, because I still tend to choose one or two songs during the workweek and listen to them over, and over, and over. When you’re sitting at a desk for 8 hours, you need something to keep you going.

A lot of people prefer soothing background music while writing — not me. I want something with a bit of drive, something that keeps me animated and bouncing and write write writing.

Now, this week, it wasn’t the song of the week — it was the SONGS of the week. Two tunes kept vying for space in my head. And it soon became apparent that they had a common theme: girl power. Not something I intended, but perhaps it’s what I subconsciously needed this week.

So if you want some jams to power you through Friday, might I recommend…

Janelle Monáe is one of my long-time faves, and her new single “QUEEN” does NOT disappoint. Not only does it make you want to get up and dance (or, you know, dance in your work chair) — listen to those lyrics. Kick-ass feminist anthem? YES, PLEASE. (If this convinces you to check out some of her other work, get yourself Metropolis.)

My BFF Mary introduced me to Icona Pop. This song apparently plays over the opening credits of some Jersey Shore spin-off? Which at first made me a liiiiittle ashamed to include it here, but then thought, I DON’T CARE, I LOVE IT. This song makes me grin big. It’s loud and unapologetic and fun. It makes me want get in a car and drive down the highway on a sunny day, arm out the open window. And sometimes, you need a daydream like that.

What’s your song of the day? Let’s turn this Friday into one big dance party.

Let’s Geek Out with David Sedaris

Today’s a pretty good day. I’m going to be able to touch an owl in a couple hours.

David Sedaris on Fresh Air

There are many authors whom I adore and would rightly place on my “favorite authors” shelf. But David Sedaris is the author I geek out about. Maybe it’s his literary rock-star status, or his mesmerizing lilt, or his propensity for turning everyday events into small adventures, but I am a total fangirl.

A signed copy of Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris.
One of my prized possessions, which my sister got for me when Sedaris spoke at Pomona College.

We saw him speak in Seattle last year, and when he asked if there were any questions, I thought, “THIS IS IT! THIS IS MY CHANCE! I AM GOING TO ASK SOMETHING INSIGHTFUL AND BRILLIANT AND WITTY AND DAVID SEDARIS IS GOING TO NOTICE ME AND WE WILL BE BEST FRIENDS FOR LIFE”….and then proceeded to clam up. The thought of asking him anything intimidated me like whoa. But I continued to grin like an idiot, because he continued to be witty and intelligent and talk about how animals are assholes. I mean, what’s NOT to love?

(It’s pretty silly that I didn’t raise my hand to ask a question, because one of the reasons why I love him is he seems like a genuinely decent guy. The kind of person who is interested in people — really interested — and curious about the world. I can dig that.)

He has a new book out — Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls — and so has a new interview on NPR’s Fresh Air (thank God my husband is an NPR geek so I know about these things). The interview is charming and informative and…just go listen to it, ok?

If you’re too busy/lazy/ambivalent to listen right now, here are some highlights (but please, do yourself a favor and listen to the whole thing):

I was never the person who thought that having a job during the daytime meant that you were any less of a writer. I never thought, “Well, when I can quit my job, that’s when I’ll be a real writer.”

Isn’t that refreshing, to have a ridiculously famous author like Sedaris tell us we don’t have to quit the day jobs to be “real” writers?

You know, it used to be like I had to do my laundry every Sunday at six o’clock, and if I didn’t do my laundry at six o’clock the world was just going to fall apart. [….] Like somebody inviting me out for dinner on Saturday or inviting me Saturday, it just wasn’t going to happen because I had to clean my house. I had to do my laundry. I had to do these things on schedule at the exact same time at the exact same place, and I had to be sitting down at my desk and I had to be drinking by nine o’clock, and I had to be lighting the bong, you know, by 11:30.

And now I can do things. I can go out. I can – every night can be different, you know? And I think it’s – and I think that’s been great for me, you know, to be able to – to be able to have adventures in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to have adventures before.

As a creature who gets deeply ingrained in her habits — this is rather humbling and inspiring. A reminder that, no matter how stuck we may seem, we can change, we can grow. Everyday can be an adventure.

Do you have an author you totally geek out over? Tell me who, tell me who. (That was a tiny bit of an owl joke to end us on there. You’re welcome.)

When Movies Beat Words

I’ve always been a visual learner. Try to explain something to me audibly, and chances are I’ll say, “Can you write that down?” I need to see something in order to get it.

My stories play out the same way. Before I write them, I typically “see” them in my head. And, ok — IT’S NOT THAT WEIRD. I’m gonna guess it’s actually pretty common (fellow writers, yes?). I see the characters, see the lighting, feel the mood, figure out how the scene plays out. And only after that do I figure out how to describe that scene in words.

In this way, movies are sometimes — sometimes — the better storytelling format. Some scenes you can’t effectively put into words. Hell, some scenes are most effective without words. And, you know, if you’re writing? That’s a conundrum.

Oddly enough, these scenes are the ones that stick with me, that inspire me to be a better storyteller. I want to dissect them and figure out exactly why they’re so effective. They’re the ones my brain returns to again and again for inspiration.

Three scenes in particular come to mind, ones that I always press “rewind” to watch again and study. And yes, haters to the left — two of them are Wes Anderson.

This one comes from The Royal Tenenbaums (probably my favorite movie of all time). I love the lighting. I love the slow-motion silence as Margot Tenenbaum steps off the Green Line. I love the row of uniformed sailors behind Richie, stepping in time to the music. I love that you immediately know — without any words said — that these two characters are intensely, hopelessly in love.

500 Days of Summer is a GREAT movie for any writer to study. The way the timeline jumps around could have been hoaky but ends up 100% making the movie. A good example of how to mix up an otherwise pretty straightforward story.

But enough about the movie on the whole — we’re talkin’ THIS SCENE. Which I love. It so perfectly captures that feeling of being on top of the world, when everything is going your way and nothing, no one can stop you. Could this emotion be captured in words? Sure. But I don’t think as well (although if anyone has an example, I’d love to see it).

Oh what’s that? ANOTHER Royal Tenenbaums clip? I warned you, it’s my favorite. And this scene, THIS scene is my favorite scene from any movie, ever:

I don’t even know if I can count how many times I’ve watched this bit. And ok, yes — I realize it’s super depressing. But it’s also amazingly beautiful. The meticulous way Richie cuts his beard. The moody blue lighting interrupted by red. And the music — I mean, let’s face it.  The music makes this scene what it is.

That’s really the one thing these scenes have in common — great music. That’s one area where books can’t compete — there’s no soundtrack. Although I DO think this could be changing. The spring 2013 edition of Kinfolk magazine featured a story with a bar code. Using your phone to scan the bar scode, you could download a song specially written to be played while you read that story. I’ve gotta say, it was pretty damn cool and makes me excited for how we tell stories in the future.

Are there any particular movie scenes that inspire you? Which ones, and why?

“I Am In Love with the World”

It’s been an odd, bloated sort of week. Not bad, per se. Tepid. I’ve had a major case of space-cadet, my head firmly stuck in the fog. But I want to end the week on a good note.

In 2011, Terry Gross interviewed Maurice Sendak on the radio program “Fresh Air.” Christoph Niemann, an illustrator for The New York Times, heard it while driving and later turned it into this short little video.

This interview makes my heart swell. It is happy and melancholy and heartfelt and joyful. I listen to it and feel the need to go out and be. To appreciate all that is around. It is a tribute to the beauty in the world, the goodness — and the sad bits, too. Every time I listen to it, it makes me remember the loved ones we’ve lost — and it makes me sad, having lost them, but leaves me grateful at the end for having known them.

It’s a fitting way to end an off-kilter week. Remembering all we have to be grateful for, and heading into the weekend with Sendak’s words:

“Live your life, live your life, live your life.”