Zen for Ten 11: For the Storyteller

[Note: this week’s post takes a brief break from music, to honor the memory of one of my favorite writers.]

British writer Richard Adams, who wrote the international bestseller Watership Down, died this past Christmas Eve. He was 96.

I remember:

Waking up in the middle of the night, in my grandparents’ house, in the back bedroom where my little twin bed – the one with the mattress that sank down in the middle – stood against the wall with the knobbly blue paint. (Knobbly is exactly the word. When you ran your fingertips over the wall, it felt like there were grains of sand trapped under the robin’s-egg-blue surface.) I was ten. That afternoon, sitting in my grandfather’s rocking chair, I had finished reading an amazing book.

In a year that’s already brought a lot of chaos and loss, it’s easy to lose track of a more obscure life: a life that, unlike the ones of the celebrities we’ve also lost this year, went on quietly, behind the scenes. Mr. Adams’s storytelling voice reflected his own character. Gentle. Meticulous. Understated.

I woke up in the middle of the night, in the little back bedroom where the nightlight cast a soft gold light on the walls, and I remembered that Hazel was gone. The hero of the best story I had ever read had…not died, not exactly, but he was no longer in the world I knew. His story had gone on somewhere else, and had left me behind.

If I had to pick just one writer, though, whose work changed my world forever, who helped direct me onto my own writing path and shaped my voice and the causes I care about, it would be Richard Adams. I read Watership Down dozens of times when I was a kid. It was a comfort in rough times, an anchor, and in a concrete and specific way, a home.

Later – not much later – I was back home, at my parents’ house. I remember the green backyard in the summer sun, the hill running up from the house to the neighbors’ back fence. I remember the young beech tree whose branches made a curtain that almost touched the ground. And I remember Hazel.

As an adult, I had actually lost track of Mr. Adams himself, to the point where I had assumed he, like his fellow great British fantasists J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, belonged the past. Only a few months ago I found out he was still with us, and the world felt a little brighter. Now his absence is a fact.

Or is it?

Hazel was part of that summer afternoon. He was there, under the beech tree, in a form I made myself believe I could see, with a voice I could hear. He and all the others, his warren, the brave and loyal group who had made the impossible journey with him and lived to tell the story: all of them were there with me.

Maybe it’s a cliche to say that writers live on through their words after their lives have ended. Cliche or not, I hope it’s true. It’s about as close to immortality as we can get.

A lot of kids have imaginary friends. Mine were different. I was different. Maybe, at age almost-eleven, I was getting too old to lean on my imagination that way, but what does “too old” mean? Hazel and his warren were there when I needed them. When you’re a kid, that’s what counts.

Fiver was fragile and sensitive, the one most like me, who got overwhelmed by the world’s roughness. But there was Hazel too, the wisest and gentlest of leaders; and there was Dandelion, the storyteller; and there was Blackberry, the smart one, who could solve any problem and get out of any fix. And there was Bigwig, tough and strong and totally fearless, never afraid to fight for what mattered. I needed them all.

Mr. Adams created his story as entertainment for his daughters, but the energy for it came out of his deep love of nature and his concern for what humans were doing to the environment. His detailed, careful descriptions of fields and woods, downs and streams, puts you in those places as compellingly as if he has lifted you up and transplanted you there. He shared his words to share that natural beauty with the world, and help to preserve it a little longer.

Eleven can be a tough age. Especially when you’re a lonely, “different” kid, an outsider wherever you are, it’s easy to get lost in the mix. You can get angry and sad and feel cut off from the world. That’s when you need an anchor.

He didn’t write Watership Down with the idea that the story he told his daughters would, more than a decade later, change the life of another girl on the other side of the world. But his words did exactly that.

At my loneliest, saddest, angriest, I had them. Always. My life was better with them in it.

If I had never read Watership Down, maybe I would still be a writer now. Maybe I would still have the same quiet, descriptive writing voice. Things might have been different, or not, if that story hadn’t found me twenty-some years ago.

But I do know that I wouldn’t be the person I am without it. Hazel and Fiver and Bigwig, Dandelion and Blackberry and all the others, were there when I needed them. I will always remember that.

Godspeed, Mr. Adams.


Zen for Ten 10: Finding Hope

This post is a day late…and I’ll start by admitting it’s been a tough week. Like all of us, I try to keep up with what’s happening in the world, but lately it seems like everything is going from bad to worse. There’s chaos and destruction everywhere you look. I don’t know about you, but I start to feel like little actions by little people – like me – can’t make much difference.

I’ll also add that I have depression. I hadn’t really meant to talk about this, but I know a lot of us deal with this condition every day, and it helps all of us to know there’s a community of people who understand what it’s like. Depression makes all the ordinary day-to-day challenges bigger. Depression is the voice in your head that tells you, even on a good day, that what you’re doing isn’t enough. That you have no reason to try. That you’re going to fail and you might as well give up right now.

Research has suggested that depression and artistic ability are often linked. That doesn’t seem fair, does it? You’re a musician, or a painter, or an actor, or a writer. You’re already going after one of the toughest careers out there. You have to fight for every opportunity; you have to spend a lot of hours working alone; maybe you have to deal with the worry and even judgment of the people closest to you, who wonder why you’re doing this crazy thing. And always, always, you have to face countless rejections that make you question your own worth, and you have to keep trying anyway. Then, on top of all that, your own brain asks you, day in and day out, why you’re trying so hard for something that doesn’t matter anyway, or something you’re not good enough to have, or something that means you’ll never know where your next dollar is coming from.

This is tough to write about. If you’re a depressive too, maybe it’s also tough to read, or maybe reading it helps. I hope it does. If these words resonate with you, please know I’m sending you a big virtual hug.

Because here’s the thing. Even on the worst days, as hard as it can be to remember, small actions do count. Beauty is still important.

As an artist, I want to add beauty to the world. I want to help people reach each other. My biggest hope for my new novel is that it will do exactly that: it’ll help people who have different beliefs and perspectives to communicate with each other. It’ll help people to see each other, and the world, differently.

I think music can do the same thing: bring us together when words can’t. So let’s talk about music.

Today’s feature: Ludwig van Beethoven, Sonata in E flat Major, Op. 7, first movement

About the music:

Beethoven inspires me on a lot of levels. If I could only pick one favorite composer, he would be it.

For one thing, we’re used to thinking of him as “the deaf genius” – we know he lost his hearing, and we take it for granted that he kept on writing music in spite of that. But let’s think for a minute about what that experience was like.

You’re a musician. It’s the only thing you want to do. (Beethoven actually started out as a concert pianist.) Then, all of a sudden, while you’re still young and still fighting for those opportunities and trying to make a name and career for yourself, your own body starts to let you down.

Beethoven realized he couldn’t hear things other people could. He couldn’t trust his own performing anymore, because he couldn’t hear what he was doing at the piano. He started going to doctors, who tried all kinds of things, like flushing his ears out with strange solutions, and having him take questionable medicines (let’s remember this is during the early 1800s, when remedies could get pretty exotic). Some of those remedies did nothing; others made his hearing even worse. Finally, at around age 30, still a young man, he had to accept the idea that he was going deaf and nothing would stop it.

He went into a period of terrific despair. He even thought, as he wrote to one of his brothers, about ending his life. Ultimately, though, he decided that there was still too much he wanted to do. Maybe he couldn’t perform anymore, but he could still hear in his head how music could sound, and he could still write it down.

He made the commitment to himself and to his music that he would keep composing as long as he could. We know now that he was able to keep writing until the end of his life (in fact, he had a Tenth Symphony and other big-scale pieces in the works when he died), but at the time, he felt he was running a race against time. Any day, he could wake up and realize his gift had been taken away from him forever.

Beethoven’s deafness changed the course of his career, pushing him away from performance and into what we know him best for: composition. Maybe more importantly, though, and certainly more inspiring for me, his deafness changed the way he wrote. When he felt he was fighting against the clock, he became more determined than ever to write truly original work, to create his own musical language. In doing that, he single-handedly changed the course of music history.

This post has already gotten long, so I’ll talk more next time about how exactly he did that. Before I stop, though, I’d like to leave you with two things:

  1. One of the biggest reasons I love Beethoven is the honesty of his music. Throughout his life, he stayed absolutely true to himself and his ideal of what his art should be. That’s the kind of artist I want to be: to have that kind of courage, and to keep finding hope, in spite of everything life can throw at you.
  2. Here’s a passage from To Love A Stranger, taken from Chapter 7, when my main character Sam is about to conduct Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony in concert. It sums up what I see as the power of Beethoven’s writing and what music can do:

“When Sam stood in front of the orchestra with the white light on him and the audience behind, he could not imagine anyone not wanting to give up their whole self, down to the last drop, to this.

Beethoven, the deaf genius, had felt like an outcast because his failing hearing isolated him from the world. He stormed and shouted, raged at God, lived in constant physical pain. Out of that, he wrote this music.

The strings were velvet, and the winds were silver. Their individual lines of melody met and blended at the podium. In the voices of the instruments coming together, Sam heard the voice of the other Maestro, the real one who had written this piece. By the end of his life, Beethoven couldn’t stand up on a podium alone to conduct his own music, or sit at a piano to play in public, because his ears would not tell him what his hands were doing. Sam could imagine that Maestro’s voice in its gravelly roughness. You, boy, it said. What are you going to do?

The best I can, Sam told it. Sir.”

As always, thank you for visiting the blog. See you next week.




Zen for Ten 9: It’s a Book!

They’re here! This past Friday, the advance reader copies of my novel arrived. A moment nine years in the making! 🙂



To celebrate, today’s blog post includes a reading from the book, along with more of Maurice Ravel’s suite Ma Mere L’Oye, which I introduced in last week’s post. This week’s excerpt is the fourth movement, “Conversations of Beauty and the Beast.”

A side note, before the music: please stay tuned over the coming weeks, as I’ll be introducing the 10 x 10 x 10 Society (a special pre-pre-order offer, for our first print run) and the exciting plan that Blue Moon Publishers is working on to help support the Human Rights Campaign with To Love A Stranger‘s sales. I’m thrilled that my publisher is working to partner with the Human Rights Campaign. One of the driving forces behind Stranger was my hope that the story could bring people together: that was one big reason why I kept working on it in spite of all the times I wanted to give up. Now more than ever, as we as a country face such challenges and uncertainty about the future, I would love for my work to help make a difference in the world.

Today’s feature: reading from To Love A Stranger; excerpt from Ma Mere L’Oye: “Conversations of Beauty and the Beast.”

This movement gets the biggest feature in To Love A Stranger. My two main characters, Sam and Jeannette, play the duet together at a turning point in their relationship. For Sam, the music acts as a catalyst that inspires him to make a drastic change in both his and Jeannette’s lives.

0:00 – 5:15: intro comments

5:15 – 8:30: reading from Stranger; the narrative alternates between Sam’s thoughts, as he and Jeannette play the duet together, and parts of the “Beauty and the Beast” fairy tale itself

8:30-12:40: music

If you liked this post, please feel free to SHARE and help get the news about Stranger out.

See you next week! 🙂

Blog Subscriber Bonus! When you subscribe to the blog and join our email list, you’ll receive a PDF of my flash-fiction story “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” which I wrote in response to Charles Mingus’s jazz tune of the same name. Subscribe (using the black button on the right), read the story, and then listen here to the music that inspired it.


Zen for Ten 8: Telling the Story

The ARCs are coming!

My novel’s advance reader copies are making their way from Toronto to Baltimore. Soon, I’ll get to see and hold my first book. Can’t wait!! 🙂 To celebrate that, today’s blog post features some of the music that worked its way into To Love A Stranger.

Today’s feature: Excerpts from Ma Mere L’Oye (Mother Goose Suite) by Maurice Ravel (solo piano reduction): “Sleeping Beauty’s Pavane” and “Tom Thumb”

About the music:

French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) is one of the great figures of the Impressionist period, which started in the late Romantic era and went into the early 20th century. In the same way that Impressionist painters like Monet experimented with creating washes of color, rather than sharp realistic images, Impressionist composers liked to create washes of sound. In piano music, that translates to unusual harmonies and, often, lots of pedal to blend different harmonies together.

Ravel’s Ma Mere L’Oye is a collection of five short pieces, each one inspired by a fairy tale:

Mvt. 1: Sleeping Beauty’s Pavane

Mvt. 2: Tom Thumb

Mvt. 3: Laideronette, Empress of the Pagodas

Mvt. 4: Conversations of Beauty and the Beast

Mvt. 5: The Fairy Garden

By telling us exactly what each movement is supposed to represent, Ravel has written program music: music meant to tell a specific story. Program music became very popular in the 19th century. One early example of it is Beethoven’s Symphony no. 6, “Pastoral.” At the beginning of each movement, Beethoven tells the performers and listeners what the action is – a peasants’ dance, a thunderstorm, etc. – so we can follow the story easily.

When I was working on To Love A Stranger, early on in the process, one of my writing teachers said that since both my main characters were pianists, maybe I should have them play duets together. Ma Mere L’Oye was the first duet I thought of. I didn’t put it in the story for any other particular reason, but as I started writing about it, I saw how the gentleness and intimacy of this specific music could bring my characters together. I also saw how the way my characters felt about playing it could say a lot about each of them. It’s fascinating when you think something is going to be a minor detail in a story, but it ends up shaping everything.

The fourth movement, “Conversations of Beauty and the Beast,” gets a big feature in Stranger. Until I started working it in, I hadn’t realized how perfectly one piece of music could dovetail with everything the book was about, and especially with my main character Sam’s struggle with himself. In a later post (closer to launch!) I’ll feature that movement and say more about how it helped shape the novel’s plot.

Ma Mere L’Oye is tied with some of my own favorite childhood memories. It was a joy to write about it, and I’m so glad it stayed tightly woven into the story.

Thought exercise:

In the video, I talk a little about the “sound effects” especially in the second movement of the Ravel. Now that you’ve heard the first two movements, listen to the third, performed here by the piano duo Arte Animi. What kind of sound effects do you notice? What story or image do they bring to mind?

Blog Subscriber Bonus! When you subscribe to the blog and join our email list, you’ll receive a PDF of my flash-fiction story “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” which I wrote in response to Charles Mingus’s jazz tune of the same name. Subscribe (using the black button on the right), read the story, and then listen here to the music that inspired it.