Ministry. What does that word mean? What, especially, does it mean for a writer?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. As a writer, and a teacher of creative writing, and a musician more than sometimes, what’s the main direction for all of my work? What am I doing in the world? What is my work doing, and what would I like it to do?

I’m thinking about these things during the breaks I manage to take from obsessing over when I might get news about my second novel, currently on submission. Anyone who’s ever sent work out knows this routine. In your head, you carry a schedule. You’re statistically likelier to hear back from the people who are looking at your work – agents, editors, judges, whatever – on a business day, so call it Mondays through Thursdays, because people sometimes take off on Fridays. Mondays feel like a pretty strong possibility, because people are getting back fresh from the weekend and catching up on stuff. And Tuesdays feel likelier still, because now people have had Monday to get caught up, and they can really dig into their correspondence. Wednesdays are also pretty good. Thursdays feel a bit less likely, but still possible.

And you’re probably also likelier to hear from people during business hours, so let’s say nine to five, although the really peak hours are probably more like midday, between the time when people first get settled in at their desks to the point where they start packing up to leave. So call it eleven to four. So between eleven AM and four PM, Mondays through Thursdays, if you’re like me, you check your email over and over, always bracing yourself for the news that may or may not be there. Every time you check it and find nothing, you take a breath of relief. Then, after a while – maybe ten minutes, or fifteen, or if you’re really stubborn and strict with yourself, half an hour – you gear yourself up and check it again.

(By the way, eleven to four, Monday through Thursday, are the “witching hours,” when you obsess freely. But the other part of this, of course, is that you may not hear during business hours. You might get an email at ten o’clock on Thursday night, or noon on Sunday. You just don’t know, so you brace yourself all the time.)

Obsession is the nature of the game: definitely for me, and I think for most of us who have put our work out there for other eyes. It’s easy to send all our energy into the waiting and bracing. Rejection is tough, for all the reasons we know: the way it makes you doubt your work, the way it makes you doubt yourself. Acceptance can be tough too, though: the blast of adrenaline that leaves you reeling, the giddy rush that feels dangerously out of control. And I find it’s toughest of all to hang onto any kind of perspective during this process, any memory of why-I-do-this, why it matters regardless of what news I get, or when it arrives.

waterfall pic

For me, that’s where this question of “ministry” comes in. In my post from a couple of weeks ago, Conversation with the Zhinin, I mentioned some of my struggles with religion. I’ve hesitated to use the word “ministry” to myself, when thinking about my work, both because of its religious connotations and because I get nervous about the self-consciousness or self-importance of the word. It’s become inevitable, though. I have to engage with the question of what my work does in the wider world. How does it shape things? How does it help?

Writing is such an inner process. I sit at my computer and pull the words out of my head and put them on the page, or else I brainstorm and live in my fictional worlds while I’m doing other basic stuff like laundry and cooking. These worlds, these characters, matter deeply to me. But what do they matter to the outside, supposing they get there at all?

In his brilliant book On Writing, Stephen King talks about how we write first drafts “with the door shut,” just for ourselves. Then, when we revise, we hold the door open. We think about how readers might engage with and react to what we’ve put on the page. Imagining that response helps us to re-shape our work to give readers the experience we hope they’ll have.

I’ve thought that, at least for me, writing is something I always do “with the door shut.” These imagined worlds and characters so often feel like they’re just for me. I love them dearly, and working with them – for all its frustrations – gives me profound joy. But when the door does open, when someone else picks up my words and reads them, what happens?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about King’s words another way. In my second novel, my favorite character, the zhinin, is able to reach into other people’s minds and shape their experiences. It’s taken me maybe an absurdly long time to realize and accept the idea that I’m doing the same thing with my work. I don’t have my zhinin’s gift, to take away pain or ease anger or grief in a way that provides instant, almost-magical change, but maybe I do have his ability to open a door. Maybe, when I work, I’m opening the door not just in King’s way, letting myself think about the audience for my work and how I want them to receive it. Maybe I’m also opening a door in the minds I reach.

Ice pic 3

We know that reading fiction lets us escape from our own problems for a while. We also know it can strengthen empathy, as we step into someone else’s life and situation. Maybe this is a door that opens in a couple of directions. Step out of yourself. Put yourself in someone else’s place. Imagine what you would do and how you would feel, and then take those imaginings and bring them back into your own life, and maybe things there will look different.

Ministry. I can’t, won’t, re-shape the whole world through a book or story I write, as much as I might wish I could. I can’t, won’t, make that kind of change even through helping other people tell their own stories, though in that case it’s a little easier to imagine a ripple effect. But I can make small changes, for one person at a time. I can open a door.

So I obsess about when I might get news about my submissions, and I wonder – often – why I’m brainstorming about characters and worlds while I fold towels and cut up veggies for dinner, when those characters and worlds might never see the light of day, and I’m not sure what they’d accomplish anyway if they did. But I try to remember that in however small a way, I can open a door. I try to remember that this act is a ministry, and yes, it matters.

Brevard dawn pic


Photos by Kris Faatz


Experiments in Dream-Space

Riffing off of last week’s “Conversation with the Zhinin”…

You’ve been hanging out with your characters again lately. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, because you’ve finished writing the book they feature in. (At least, you’ve finished it as far as any project is “finished” until publication, when it’s too late to find mistakes.) You were supposed to move on to something new.

You’ve tried to do that. You’ve tried writing scenes and sketches with new characters, going through getting-to-know-you exercises to learn about someone’s current problems and past shadows. You’ve tried to find the spark you know you need in order to invest wholeheartedly in a new story: the spark that will get you through hours upon hours at the keyboard, stretches of joyful satisfaction and deserts of frustration and struggle.

That spark will come eventually. You’ve done this kind of work long enough to know that. Meanwhile, though, in spite of all your best efforts, you find yourself going back again and again – with a persistence that, as Charles Dickens put it, might be “worthier of a much better object” – to those characters you hung out with all last summer and fall.


There’s that one character you love. You loved him from the get-go: he was the motive power behind all four-hundred-and-some pages of your recently finished book. When you got blocked, say in the middle of a scene that didn’t include him, you thought about how if you just pushed through, you’d get back to one of those sections where he featured. Not that the writing necessarily got easier when he showed up in it. Sometimes it’s hardest to write about the characters you love the most. (You don’t want to screw it up, right? And he has to be perfect. Except not too perfect, because goodness knows, you wouldn’t want to spend much time with an insufferable do-gooder and know-it-all.) But every time he came into a scene, even if his presence slowed down your writing pace, you had the deep satisfaction of writing a character you found fascinating, complex, and richly rewarding.

Now, with his book “finished” and another one theoretically in the works, you’re supposed to have finished your time with him. Except that he still captures your imagination, and apparently your heart too: the zhinin you put on the page, the “good man with the bad heart” who embodies the kind of quiet wisdom, and strength under pressure, that always work on you. You find yourself going back to his story, over and over. Not the story you put on the page, but the history that shaped his character and made him into the person he became.

You’re not sure what the point of this exercise might be. Could some other book come out of it? Maybe. His history has plenty of shadows and conflicts, but they’re smaller and quieter, you think, than the ones that went into the book you wrote. You don’t know if those “smaller” problems would interest another reader enough. All you know is that when you spend time playing with those earlier scenes, going back and looking through what you didn’t put on the page, experimenting with ways you might shape and grow that material, you’re happy. Other worries and frustrations don’t matter as much when you’re digging in that sandbox. Sometimes they don’t matter at all.


You like to be in that space. Your times there tend to be rare and short. Happiness, especially simple happiness where outside stressors don’t intrude, isn’t very familiar territory for you. When you do find yourself there, you can feel how it shapes everything else you do and think. Life is easier. You have more energy. Challenges are exciting rather than exhausting.

Sometimes – more often than you’d like to admit – the world gets to be too much. Whether it’s problems on the global scale, or personal frustrations like the nth rejection you just got, or the perfect friend who seems to do everything right and savors successes you can – so far – only imagine, you find yourself running into roadblocks all the time. You work on dealing with them more quickly, picking yourself up and dusting yourself off faster, but the obstacles still drain more of your energy than you know they should. Sometimes they strip all of your power away for a while, and you have to wait until you can function again before you get back on your feet and keep going.

In this dream-space, though, this time of hanging out with your beloved character again and mulling over his past, you don’t notice the roadblocks. If one of them crops up in front of you, you find you barely notice as you dart around it or skim over it. The light and the energy of that simple happiness fill you up and carry you along.

So you don’t know where this exercise might take you, but though you’re a productivity-driven person, for now you put that question aside. It’s enough to feel that light and energy. It’s enough to be where you are.


All photos by Paul Faatz

Conversation with the Zhinin

You go for a walk, alone. Maybe it’s the kind of gray-sky winter day with a breeze that makes you walk faster: a good day to eat up the miles. Maybe it’s the kind of early-spring day when you can feel the season turning, but it hasn’t quite happened yet. Or maybe it’s summer, in the morning, before it gets so breathlessly hot you have to go inside and stay there until the sun goes down again.

You go for a walk, alone. Except you’re a writer, so you’re not alone: your head is always busy with the people and places you create on the page. Right now, you have one of your characters with you. It’s easy to talk to a character.

Especially this one. He’s the kind of character you’ve always found it easy to love. You have a weakness for the “good man type,” the one who has a job to do and gets it done, but who carries the weight of some shadow of weakness or old grief. (Maybe that’s a cliché, but it works for you.) This particular character has both: the guilt of a long-ago loss and the chronic physical pain of heart trouble. A good-hearted man with a bad heart. You like the contradiction.

In the created world you’ve built around him, he is a zhinin, which in your created language means “priest” in the sense of “prophet.” You derived the word from the Lithuanian žyninas, choosing that word over others that meant “pastor” and “minister,” because you like the implications it carries. A prophet has to be honest. He tells the truth no matter who listens or not, or what they think of his message.

You’ve had your struggles with religion, but this man, your character, with his weakness and strength, represents everything you see as right in faith and the act of worship. Telling the truth. Tending to others. Helping his corner of the world, however flawed and troubled, get along from one day to the next.

photo challenge Irises
photo credit: Kris Faatz, 2015

He is easy to talk to. You’re alone, but not alone, and you talk.

On good days, I’m really good. On bad days, I’m awful. Sometimes I go from one to the other, over and over in a single afternoon.

“Good” days: well, those are the ones when I’m energetic, when I feel hopeful, when I feel like I can see who I am and what I need to do, and I know I’m doing what I need to. “Bad” days are the opposite. I’m tired and down. I can’t get anything done. Sometimes it feels like it isn’t worth trying.

You can tell him about the ugliness. You wouldn’t want just anyone to hear about it, but he doesn’t judge. (You’d think he can’t judge you, after all, because you put him on the page, but to be honest, characters go their own way. They can surprise you. But this man has enough “stuff” of his own.) You can tell him about the way you’ll be going along just fine, feeling positive about yourself and what you’re doing, and then you’ll see where some other writer – maybe a friend – got a book contract, or was hired to teach a fantastic class, or got invited to the kind of conference that wouldn’t look twice at a small-potatoes writer like you, and suddenly you find yourself turned upside-down with jealousy and a kind of tight self-directed anger that chews at your gut and tells you that you aren’t enough.

We all get that way, I know. But I wish when I was growing up that I’d learned it was okay not to be the best. I feel like everything depends on accomplishing. Other people have things I don’t, and I feel like there isn’t any room for me. Nothing I do matters, compared to what they’re doing or have done.

colorado sunflowers
photo credit: Paul Faatz, 2010

He asks you to spell out what you want: intentions, plans, and who you feel you are on the “good” days.

What I really want? Well, we all dream about the book that will win the lottery, so we don’t really have to worry about money anymore. But – if we’re talking about “good” days – I do remember that’s not the most important thing. The work matters. Writing stories that reach people: that matters. Helping other people tell the stories that mean something to them: that matters. Helping them make those stories as strong as they can: that matters too.

You tell him you think of this work as a “ministry.” You’re hesitant to use the word, because it sounds self-conscious, and you’ve had those struggles with religion. But, in fact, “ministry” is exactly the word that feels right. You want to know how you can use the gifts you were given. You didn’t ask for those gifts, and sometimes you tried very hard not to use them, but they’ve only gotten stronger and more insistent with time. When you let yourself do what they ask of you, you’re at your most happy. And you want to know how they can make the world better for someone else.

On “good” days, I know they can. I’ve seen how people change when they get excited about a story they want to tell, or a story that wants them to tell it. I’ve seen how much people can grow when they do this kind of work, and when they help each other to do it.

He knows what you mean. He tells you that, in his view, your line of work is much like his. In a different way, you are also a zhinin.

I don’t deserve the title.

In the fictional world he belongs to, it’s not just a job description, but an honorific of sorts. A zhinin doesn’t rank high in politics, maybe doesn’t earn much, but he or she gets in the trenches and does the necessary work. This one, your character, tells you that you do deserve the title. However many bad days you have, the “you” of the good days is always there. Hidden under the surface, maybe, but never lost.

You walk, alone but not alone, through the chilly winter air, or the almost-softness of early spring, or the languid summer heat that will soon turn searing. You hold that word in your head.



Doing the Work

Thinking about challenging times, here on the blog. Last week I wrote about the struggle many artists face as they try to keep doing their work after, maybe, learning when they were young that they were wrong to be “that kind of person.” A lot of us did absorb that message: if we were writers, musicians, painters, actors, sculptors, we ought to abandon those burgeoning dreams in favor of more “practical,” more “valuable” pursuits.

Those messages cost many of us a lot of heartache, and maybe a lot of time that feels wasted after we tried to conform to what other people wanted from us. In college, I majored in engineering along with music, and tried to make a go of that first field because it was practical, because “more women should be engineers,” because “you’re so good at math and science; it would be a waste not to use that.” I spent a long time forgetting who I was and what I hoped for, as I tried to re-shape myself according to someone else’s desires and plans. Finally, I couldn’t keep doing it anymore.

Admitting who I was, and changing my direction, in many ways felt like a failure. I was being stubborn. I was being bad. I was wasting my God-given abilities in those male-dominated fields and letting go of my chance to change the world as a groundbreaking female scientist. I was dooming myself to poverty and a life of driveling my time away doing unnecessary things no one would care about. The world doesn’t need artists. The world needs people who do real work.

One of the things professional artists of every stripe have in common is that we don’t do this work just because we happen to feel like it. It’s a tough road, for sure. It demands absolute commitment. Those of us who end up on it get there because it’s not just what we do: it’s who we are. We don’t have the choice to walk away from it, because that means abandoning ourselves.

mississippi river

Those of us who grew up with those “change yourself” messages have to re-learn a lot. We have to remind ourselves, over and over, that art does matter. That we are not “bad” for doing it, and that we don’t have to be ashamed of finding our souls again and letting ourselves build a life that matters to us.

Last week, I also talked about how rejection affects all artists, and especially those of us with internal “programming” like the kind I have. Rejection is way more common in this life than acceptance and success, simply because you have to try and try and try again until you find the right recipient for your work. (Those right people are out there, but there are a lot of people to sift through.) Rejection can sometimes feel like punishment. “See? You shouldn’t be doing this ridiculous thing. You’re being bad.” The pain of rejection can feel like punishment for trying.


Right now, I’m doing all I can to push back against that reflexive thinking. It’s not easy. I’ve learned to brush off rejections when I submit a short story to journals: sure, it’s disappointing, but I’ve gotten so many of those that it really doesn’t sting much anymore. A book is a bigger deal. It’s much more of my life and effort and soul on the page, and considerably higher stakes in terms of eventual publication. It’s hard not to really, really want a certain outcome. When that outcome doesn’t happen, it’s hard not to crash into despair and the self-talk where I believe the universe is crapping on my head for trying to be this crazy thing called a professional writer.

Waiting to hear back about submitted work can feel like being on perpetual high alert. You can’t help imagining that outcome you really, really want, and thinking how happy you’d be if you got it. Unfortunately, that means that if you get bad news, you’re likely to crash. And if you get no news, you’re still likely to crash, because you keep psyching yourself up to deal with whatever outcome presents itself.

It’s exhausting. For that reason, and because I can’t do anything to change the nature of the process, I’m trying to teach myself to let go of control. If I’m willing to believe – often a very big if – that I am right to go after this particular writing life, then I have to believe that rejection doesn’t mean anyone is crapping on me or deliberately trying to hurt and punish me for trying for the things I care about. And then, in turn, I have to trust that the outcomes will be what they need to be. Maybe, right now, I don’t get the exact thing that I want: the thing I can imagine so clearly I can practically touch it. Maybe I get something else instead. Maybe that second thing is better. In my experience, so far, that second thing has always been better.


The point is that I can’t control every outcome, and it’s not healthy to spend all my time on high alert. Yes, I want proof that I’m right to do what I’m doing. But if I look at everything that’s happened, so far, over the past decade or so as I’ve built a writing life, I have to see that a lot of things did work out. Maybe they didn’t look the way I expected, but they were the right things. I have to believe that the right things will keep happening, whether or not they’re what I think I want.

I also have to remember why I’m doing this work. A friend recently sent me an excerpt of Anne Lamott’s book Almost Everything: Notes on Hope, in which Lamott takes a chapter to talk about her experiences as a writer. She’s pretty candid, reminding readers that if we get into writing because we want admiration or validation, we’d be better off doing something else. I needed to hear that message. I needed to remember that I don’t do this because publication – or any other kind of public recognition – is going to fix my life, suddenly give me the self-esteem I’m missing, make everything right.

I do the work because the work matters, and there’s so much more to it than this submission or that submission. There’s the chance to tell the stories that fascinate me, with the characters I fall in love with and who demand my attention until I bring them to life on the page. There’s also the chance to work with other writers, help other people shape their stories, and work day after day with this challenging and fascinating craft. There’s nothing else like it in the world. For me, writing is an act of joy, and also an act of connection. I want to use the gifts I have to help other people use their own gifts. That’s why I do this. The rest of it matters so much less than I sometimes think.

The universe doesn’t punish us for being who we are. As artists, we need to trust that we have our gifts for a reason. Trust that our work is good. Trust that things will work out the way they need to: because, at core, we are meant to do this work. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t have the drive and hunger and joy in it. People’s lives are better because we are out there doing the work that needs us. We can’t let anything hold us back.
rose of sharon


Photos by Kris Faatz

Being Loved “Because”

The blog reawakens after a long sleep… Hoping this is a return to some regular posts. Today’s post falls under the header of Random Thoughts and Reflections for 2019. If you’re like me, an artist who needs some encouragement in going about your work, I hope this helps.

As artists and creative people, some of us were lucky to grow up in supportive, understanding families who embraced our abilities and encouraged us to dive into the kind of work we loved. An environment like that would teach us to value our gifts, and know that, if we wanted to be professional artists, we would have things to figure out (money!), but we would probably believe we could work through problems and find solutions. We’d believe in our own worth.

Others of us grew up in very different environments. We had families who didn’t understand what we did, didn’t support it, and/or bought fully into the “starving artist” model that says that art simply isn’t useful, and professional artists are doomed to empty bank accounts and lapsed rent payments. We were taught that art wasn’t viable. Maybe it was fun as a pastime, but we should never consider doing it professionally. If we did, we were doomed to fail: and in doing so, we would disappoint, shame, and disgust the people we most wanted to have love and accept us.

ocean view 2

Those of us who grew up in that second kind of environment, and who became artists anyway, go into our work under heavy handicaps. All artists know the pain – sometimes excruciating – of putting our work “out there” and facing rejection. The story that the journal sends back, the book that the agent doesn’t want, the piece of creative work that gets nowhere in the competition: for every artist, everywhere, all of those incidents are small but potent doses of heartbreak. We deal with them the way we have to. We pick ourselves up and try again, knowing that rejection is part of this work and we have to face it.

We do this work because we can’t do any other and still be true to ourselves. But for those of us who grew up in homes where we got the message that being an artist is wrong, those “failures” confirm our view that we are wrong to be who we are. We ought to change. Remake ourselves. Be something practical. Fit in.

That is where the dangerous thinking starts. Over the past couple of years, I’ve come to understand exactly how deep this kind of thinking runs in my own mind. Whether I’m consciously aware of it or not, every rejection makes me question my right to be myself. It’s not just about the work. However much I tell myself none of these incidents are personal, the people deciding to take my work or pass on it don’t even know me, there’s a part of me that still believes that the universe itself might be passing judgment on me for being what I am. Maybe I’m being told, by the powers-that-be, that the messages I took in years ago were right. I am wrong to be an artist. I am bad. Therefore, I will be punished. Failing at the things I try, being denied the things I hope for, getting those doses of heartbreak we all know too well, is part of that punishment. Those things are meant to force me to change who I am and become something else.

Sometimes I’ve tried to change who I am. It’s never worked and has only deepened depression and lowered productivity. So instead, I’m trying to teach myself to think a different way.

For all of us who knew what it was like to be told we were wrong to be artists, and who work under that handicap every day, here’s something to think about:

If you were anything like me, the best you could hope for was to be left alone to practice your art. You didn’t expect support or affirmation. When push came to shove, you were in it on your own, and you knew those around you didn’t like what you were doing. Sometimes you ached at how lonely that was, how hard it was to keep doing the work with no one to cheer for you, but you could do it.

ocean view 3

And maybe, sometimes, you got the impression that yes, people cared about you, maybe they even loved you, but they did it in spite of who you were. “Okay, you’re this thing we don’t understand, we wish you were something different, a different kind of person, but we can overlook that failing.” (At least most of the time.) “We’ll pretend it’s not true, and we’ll love you anyway.”

[For now, we’ll put aside the question of whether that really counts as love. People do the best they can, another thing I’m coming to realize.]

BUT. What if, here and now, you and I and all other artists dealing with that history could imagine a life in which we are not ignored, not loved “in spite of,” but loved because of what we do? If those very things that make us different – our creativity, our flashes of inspiration, our odd schedules, the fact that we aren’t pegs that fit into the world’s predictable holes – sit at the core of our value?

I’ve come to realize how deeply I believed in that judgment-from-the-universe I mentioned earlier. Now I’m training myself to at least consider the what if. What if, as a writer and musician, as this artist who doesn’t fit any predictable mold and is stubborn enough to insist on doing things her own way, I am exactly who I need to be? What if I am occupying exactly the place I am supposed to hold in the universe, and the powers-that-be both need and want me to be there?

ocean view 1

If you experiment with this kind of thinking, it leads to different conclusions. If I believe that I am exactly who I am supposed to be, and that in fact I am valuable because of all of these things that make me different and unusual and the artist I am, then I can believe that the roadblocks and heartbreaks aren’t punishment. I can believe that I’m not being told to stop trying; in fact, I can believe in a power that sympathizes with the hurt and cheers for me when I pick myself up and keep going. The doses of pain will still show up: it’s in the nature of the work, but they really aren’t personal. They’re the same part of the process we all face.

For some of you, this healthier kind of thinking might seem natural and obvious. I hope someday it will seem that way to me too. It’s not easy for me to accept a different view of things; sometimes it even feels safer to hold onto my old thought patterns, because then hurt and failure are no more than I expect. I can see, though, that doing my work fully, and making the life I want to have, can be immeasurably easier if I can imagine myself valuable and beloved because, not in spite.

If you have the same thought patterns I do, let’s both agree to try imagining something else. Today, you are enough. You are exactly who you need to be. You are valued and loved for being the person, and the artist, you are.


All photos by Paul Faatz


Zen for Ten 36: Beethoven and Lamb

Welcome back to the blog! This week’s post is a little different. I love featuring the work of my literary-fiction colleagues, and look forward to going back to that for our next post, but this week we’re taking a step into comic fantasy.


Along with Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, Christopher Moore is one of my go-to writers. His books are breathtakingly bizarre, funny, complex, and potent in the best ways. I love writers who can make me laugh and make me think. With Moore, the “thinking” part often comes as an unexpected punch in the gut after you’ve spent a page or so cracking up. It’s a masterful balancing act and I love it.

Lamb, which I’m featuring in this week’s post, is probably my single favorite Moore book (if I had to pick one). When I first ran across it, I wasn’t sure if I should take a look. It’s a retelling of the story of Jesus of Nazareth from the perspective of “Levi who is called Biff,” the apostle whose voice got left out of the Gospels, and who introduces himself as “Joshua’s” (Christ’s) best friend. I was baptized Catholic, grew up Presbyterian, and currently work as a church choir director. Religion and I have had a rather complex relationship over the years, but when I first picked up Lamb, I wasn’t at all sure what I’d think of an irreverent retelling of the Bible stories I grew up with.

The experience turned out to be surprising. Lamb is full of the humor that characterizes Moore, but in spite of – and often because of – the many laughs in it, it’s powerful, often beautiful, and startlingly resonant. Joshua of Nazareth emerges as an authentic, compelling, conflicted character. When I was growing up, I heard the Passion story countless times, but Moore’s retelling of it hit me viscerally, in a way I’d never experienced before.

Lamb is my current inspiration- and encouragement-source as I (try to) dig into a fantasy project of my own. The excerpts in the video below are taken from Part IV, in which Joshua and Biff have gone to India to meet Melchior, one of the magi who followed the star to Bethlehem. Joshua is looking for guidance on how to be the Messiah, and Biff (who is a lot less spiritually minded) is trying not to get in the way too much. I love this part for the dialogues between Joshua and Biff and for that particular mix of humor and wisdom that makes this book what it is.

I’ve paired the reading with the second movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 10 No. 1. The structure of the music complements the structure of the dialogues, and Beethoven’s mood here is gentle and serious but not too solemn. I’d thought it might be hard to pick a musical pairing for this particular writing, but the words and music ended up dovetailing perfectly. (I also thought that Beethoven, who had a sense of humor of his own, would have appreciated it.)

Please enjoy the video. As always, thank you for visiting the blog!


beethoven lamb
sighted on my piano


Writers! Would you like to contribute your work for the Storytelling and Sound series? (You provide the words, I provide the live reading and the music.) Email me at for info.

Readers! Like what you see here? Be sure to subscribe and never miss a post.

Storytelling and Sound fans: if you haven’t done it yet, don’t forget to check out music-inspired To Love A Stranger!

Zen for Ten 35: Tuesday After Lunch

Welcome back to the blog! I promise I’m working on a more regular post schedule; life has been happening lately with unusual speed. But I’m glad to be back, and I’m delighted that today’s post features the work of my friend Meredith Doench, novelist and writer of short fiction.

Meredith and I met several years ago at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshops. When I heard her work, I was struck right away by her confident writing voice and warm, engaging style. Her flash fiction story featured today, “Tuesday After Lunch,” showcases these qualities, along with beautiful emotional depth and balance.

“Tuesday After Lunch” was first published in Spillway Review in 2006, as the feature for the journal’s Valentine’s Day issue. It was later reprinted in American Athenaeum,  Winter 2013. Meredith sent it to me for the blog with the note that it had always felt musical to her, a feeling I totally agreed with when I read it. While I thought about musical pairings for it, I read and re-read it, and found it richer and more compelling every time.

In the video, I’ve paired it with the second movement of Maurice Ravel’s Sonatine. (Ravel gets a lot of features on this blog!) “Tuesday After Lunch” demanded music of a very specific flavor: sensual and poetic, with exactly the right blend of light and darkness. As an Impressionist composer, Ravel often explores exactly that combination of sounds, with his lush harmonies and alternation between consonance and dissonance. The second movement of the Sonatine had all the characteristics I wanted to accompany Meredith’s story.

Please enjoy the video, and learn more below about Meredith and her work. As always, thank you for visiting the blog!


About Meredith:

Meredith Doench headshot

Meredith Doench is the author of the Luce Hansen Thriller series from Bold Strokes Books. Crossed, the first in the series, won Silver in the 2015 IndieFab Awards (Mystery). In 2017, Crossed was awarded the Mary Dasher Award for fiction (College English Association of Ohio). The second novel in the series, Forsaken Trust, was published in 2017.  Doench’s works of short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in literary journals such as Hayden’s Ferry ReviewWomen’s Studies QuarterlyLumina, and Gertrude.   Doench currently resides in Dayton, Ohio where she teaches writing and literature at the University of Dayton. Visit her online at http://www.


Writers! Would you like to contribute your work for the Storytelling and Sound series? (You provide the words, I provide the live reading and the music.) Email me at for info.

Readers! Like what you see here? Be sure to subscribe and never miss a post.

Storytelling and Sound fans: if you haven’t done it yet, don’t forget to check out music-inspired To Love A Stranger!

Zen for Ten 34: The Coaster

Hope everyone is having a wonderful holiday season! Here’s some new listening to help usher in the New Year. For today’s post, I’m delighted to welcome my friend and colleague Susan Ingram. Susan is a fellow Baltimore writer; she and I studied together in the Johns Hopkins MA program in fiction, and she is a short-story writer, novelist, and memoirist.

“The Coaster,” her story featured in this post, is a beautiful short piece about the passage of time and the challenges of letting go of the past. Susan writes, “This story came to me with one line and an image. I woke up one morning with the line ‘Animals weren’t allowed on the coaster,’ and the image of a little dog’s face clear in my mind.” Out of this, she created a piece about “the parallel melancholy feelings of how the end of summer felt as a kid, when it was time to go back to school, and the feelings as I age of that carefree/discovery/exciting time of life being gone.

I’ve paired “The Coaster” with two movements of Maurice Ravel’s Ma Mere L’Oye, Mother Goose Suite, which folks who’ve followed this blog know is one of my favorite pieces (and inspired my novel To Love A Stranger). I’ve used the first movement, “Sleeping Beauty’s Pavane,” and the third, “Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas.”

Susan’s writing, with its gentle and poetic repetition of certain key lines, and its vivid imagery and evocation of childhood, needed music with a similar poetic flavor. I felt that the simplicity and rich colors of Ravel’s music, along with the tribute to childhood in Ma Mere L’Oye, made it a terrific pairing for “The Coaster.”
Enjoy the video and learn more below about Susan and her writing. As always, thank you for visiting the blog!
About Susan:
Susan Ingram headshot
Susan Ingram has a background as a long-time film industry camera assistant and subsequently a long-time weekly news journalist. Stories from her novel The Troubled Times, which draws on her experiences in the journalism world, have been honored as finalists in Glimmer Train literary magazine’s competitions. Her short story “Three Little Things,” an excerpt from her memoir-in-progress Film/Addict, was a Glimmer Train Top 25 awardee. A longer selection from the memoir was published recently in So To Speak literary journal of George Mason University. Susan’s fiction has been published in Dime Show Review, Sick Lit, Jersey Devil Press and Seltzerzine.  She holds an MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University and lives near Baltimore. Visit her online at and on Twitter at @newzcook.

Writers! Would you like to contribute your work for the Storytelling and Sound series? (You provide the words, I provide the live reading and the music.) Email me at for info.

Readers! Like what you see here? Be sure to subscribe and never miss a post.

Storytelling and Sound fans: if you haven’t done it yet, don’t forget to check out music-inspired To Love A Stranger!

Zen for Ten 33: The Hit

After a longer-than-expected hiatus, Storytelling and Sound is back! Today’s guest is my friend and colleague Tom Andes, with whom I was in workshop twice at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshops. Tom is an outstanding writer and workshop mate, and I’m delighted to feature his work today.

Tom’s writing blends crime fiction with a rich, descriptive literary style that gets the reader inside his characters’ minds and immerses us in the settings he creates. Today’s post features an excerpt of his short story “The Hit,” which first appeared in Xavier Review and was reprinted in Best American Mystery Stories 2012 and Great Jones Street.

“The Hit” gave me a bit of a challenge in terms of finding the right musical pairing. I went into video-making mode with one soundtrack in mind, and decided within a couple of minutes that my idea wasn’t going to work. The music had to have the right quality of tension and darkness to fit with Tom’s writing, but at the same time, it had to allow for give-and-take with the story and had to match the lyricism as well as the forward drive of the narrative.

Ultimately, I settled on two preludes by Dmitri Shostakovich, a twentieth-century composer with a fascinating story of his own. Shostakovich spent his life in Soviet Russia, under Stalin’s rule. He was held up by the government as an iconic representative of Soviet art and culture, but at the same time, was considered suspect and potentially dangerous throughout his career. Artists and intellectuals were believed to be dangerously “Western” in their ideas, and their ability to connect with large numbers of people, and therefore potentially initiate rebellion, made them frightening to Stalin’s paranoid mind. Shostakovich lived in an atmosphere of impending danger, always half-expecting to be arrested, and had a packed suitcase ready in case he had to run.

The two preludes in the video, No. 14 in E flat minor and No. 10 in C sharp minor, both exemplify the darkness and uneasiness in which Shostakovich lived. In both, though, there are also moments of great lyricism and beauty. This mix of light and shadow made them, I felt, a perfect musical pairing for Tom’s work.

Enjoy the video and learn more below about Tom and his writing. To read the complete “The Hit,” which I highly recommend, visit Great Jones Street and sign up for an account. As always, thank you for visiting the blog!


About Tom:

Tom Andes headshot

Tom Andes’ writing has recently appeared in Great Jones StreetFree State Review, and Guernica: A Magazine of Global Arts and Politics, and was anthologized in Best American Mystery Stories 2012. Reviews and interviews with writers and musicians have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of BooksThe Rumpus, and elsewhere. He lives in New Orleans, where he makes a living as a freelance writer and editor, plays music, and teaches for the New Orleans Writers Workshop, which he co-founded. You can find more at


Writers! Would you like to contribute your work for the Storytelling and Sound series? (You provide the words, I provide the live reading and the music.) Email me at for info.

Readers! Like what you see here? Be sure to subscribe and never miss a post.

Storytelling and Sound fans: if you haven’t done it yet, don’t forget to check out music-inspired To Love A Stranger!


Zen for Ten 32: dear Petrov

Today’s guest on the Storytelling and Sound series is award-winning, internationally published poet, fiction writer, and essayist Susan Tepper. I’m delighted to have the chance to feature six of Susan’s beautiful prose poems in today’s post.

When I read these pieces, I fell in love with them immediately. The lyrical, rhythmic language, the evocative imagery, and the deeply felt emotions captivated me. The poems previously appeared in 2015, in the first volume of the poetry collection Aeolian Harp Anthology, published by Glass Lyre Press, and are part of Susan’s collection dear Petrov. 

They are set in nineteenth-century Russia during a time of war. I’ve paired them here with excerpts from Sergei Prokofiev‘s Tales of the Old Grandmother, not only because it seemed right to go to Russian music, but also because Prokofiev’s blend of darkness and lyricism partners beautifully with the writing. I first learned the Tales when I was in high school. Over the past several years, the suite has become one of my favorite pieces. Much of Prokofiev’s piano repertoire is flashy and technically demanding, but the Tales are gentle, introspective miniatures that ask for a different kind of skill from the performer.

I’m especially excited to feature Susan’s work today because her new story collection, Monte Carlo Days and Nights, is forthcoming next week from Rain Mountain Press. Enjoy the video, learn more below about Susan and her work, and check out the link to her newest collection. As always, thank you for visiting the blog!

About Susan:

Susan Tepper headshot

Susan Tepper is a twenty year writer and the author of six published books of fiction and poetry. Her seventh book, a collection of linked stories titled ‘Monte Carlo Days & Nights’ will be released by Rain Mountain Press, NYC, in November 2017.  Tepper is an award-winning writer with hundreds of stories, poems, interviews and essays published worldwide.  Her author/book interview series ‘Live at the Algonquin’ NYC, features the best of the Indie books and their authors.  For more please visit the author’s website at


Writers! Would you like to contribute your work for the Storytelling and Sound series? (You provide the words, I provide the live reading and the music.) Email me at for info.

Readers! Like what you see here? Be sure to subscribe and never miss a post.

Storytelling and Sound fans: if you haven’t done it yet, don’t forget to check out music-inspired To Love A Stranger!