Teaser

Thanks for visiting, as always! This week I’ve started a new project, and thought I’d post a short teaser from it here. The very short story below is going to be part of a larger collection, all dealing with the experiences and challenges artists face.

Quick explanatory note: Vera is an artist; her discipline is whatever you’d like to imagine, whatever resonates most with you. Twist is one of her three feline-shaped muses.

Hope you enjoy!

**

Vera sighs. For a while now, she’s been walking along her path, carrying her current project. She has carried it sometimes on her back, sometimes in her arms, with the same care and delight she would feel in carrying a child. For a while, her path has been straight and smooth. Sunlight has brightened it every day. The art she carries has seemed to have no weight at all. Having it with her has only filled her with more energy and strength, as if taking care of this precious burden means she can cover any distance and do anything.

Today, though, the path seems steeper. Loose rocks and gravel have turned up underfoot and Vera can feel them, sharp under her shoes. She’s tripped a couple of times on tree roots she didn’t see. The weight in her arms feels much heavier, dragging at her shoulders, but when she tries putting it on her back, it bows her down until she can barely put one foot in front of the other.

Finally she unships it and sets it down on the grass at the edge of the path. She sits down next to it, looking at it as if maybe it will get up and start walking on its own. Maybe it can lug itself along for a little while. Today she doesn’t have a whole lot more to give.

Twist saunters out of the grass. When they’re walking together, Vera is used to him coming and going however he wants. He is always around, but the sameness of the path can bore him when the air is full of scents and sounds.

He rubs his long body against Vera’s knee. “Why are we stopping?” he asks.

“I’m tired,” Vera says. She looks at the art, lying there mute in the grass. “I don’t know, Twist. What am I doing with this, anyway?”

The sun is out again today, but this time its rays come through a bank of cloud, creating a white glare. In the unfriendly light, Vera doesn’t think the art looks as beautiful or appealing as it used to. In fact, in this moment, she can’t really imagine picking it up again. Why should she, when it’s so heavy? What if it’s not worth dragging along anyway?

Twist sidles over to the art and sniffs it. He prods it lightly with a paw. Finally he rubs against it the same way he did with Vera. Mine, the gesture says.

He looks up at her. His eyes are green at the pupil, changing to gold at the edge of the iris, and they’re set wide apart on either side of his broad nose. Their heavy lids often make him look half-sleepy, but there’s no sleepiness in the look he gives her now.

“It’s yours,” he points out.

Vera sighs again. She runs her hand along his back. His fur is soft, but she can feel the texture of the individual hairs.

“I don’t know,” she says again. “It’s not very good, is it?”

Twist sniffs. “Good, not good. Who knows?”

“If I could tell for sure,” Vera says. The harsh sun-through-clouds glare really does make the art look ugly, she thinks. All the time she’s spent carrying it up to now, she never noticed how unattractive it really was. Or how heavy. She probably wasted a lot of effort just getting it this far.

Twist stretches out on the grass beside her. He can get comfortable anywhere, in no time at all. He turns his head to look up at her. From this perspective, his face is upside down.

“How can you tell if it’s good,” he asks, “when it’s not done yet? If I’m chasing a mouse, I don’t know if it’ll taste good until I catch it.”

“Twist!” Vera scolds. “That’s disgusting.” He’s never caught a mouse, and she never wants to see him do it, but he likes her to know he could be a great hunter if he wanted. She believes it. He’s fast and smart.

Twist rolls over onto his back and folds his front paws under his chin. “Sorry.”

Vera can’t help laughing. In one quick movement, Twist is back on his feet, sniffing at the art. “Mice smell good,” he tells her. “This does too.”

Vera laughs again. “Really?”

The green-and-gold eyes find hers. “Yes. I think you should chase your mouse a little more.” Twist stretches, pushing his big white front paws into the grass. “Besides, it’s awfully quiet around here, isn’t it? Let’s go find some excitement.”

Vera doesn’t really want to pick up the art again, but when Twist rubs against her leg, pushier now, she knows she doesn’t have a choice. She gets up and hoists the weight back into her arms.

Somehow it doesn’t seem quite as heavy as it did before. Twist sets off along the path, picking his way between loose stones, his long tail held cheerfully high. Cradling her work, Vera follows.

Fergus not on the table (2)
The original Twist: my writing buddy Fergus
Fergus nap bed
Proper snoozing technique: a demo
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Why Imagine?

This one is for my fellow artists, especially the writers…

A number of years ago now, I read an article by a writer whose name I’m sorry to say I don’t remember. In the article, this writer was talking about the experience of getting her first book published, and all the challenges and setbacks that finally led up to that accomplishment. Specifically, she talked about how it happened a lot later than she’d initially hoped when she was an up-and-coming twenty-something. She’d had an earlier first book, which had landed her an agent, but after the usual period of effort, her agent hadn’t been able to sell that book. This experience sent the writer into a tailspin of despair. The rejections and the loss of hope were so difficult that she had to walk away from writing for six years.

When I read this, I was somewhere in the middle of my own first-book trajectory, trying to figure out what to do with To Love A Stranger and what might ever happen to it. (I still didn’t know a whole lot about the craft, and my efforts from that time would definitely qualify as “sins of my youth.”) My response to this lucky published writer wasn’t very sympathetic. You quit writing for six years? How could you do that?! I decided that anybody who could turn their back on the craft for that length of time just wasn’t very serious about it. I saw that writer’s exodus as a kind of tantrum, an “I didn’t get what I want, so I quit!” fit of bad behavior.

Now, though, with the perspective of a few more years and a lot more rejections, disappointment, and loss of hope of my own, I have to say: I get it, sister. I really do.

irvine field view

We writers and artists give ourselves an uphill task every day. We’re creating work that doesn’t exist until our imaginations yield it up and we weave it into something that holds together, something that captures some fraction of the beauty or message or thrill we hoped for when we started. We do it knowing that no work will ever seem perfect to us, and we often have to struggle against our own inertia and the constant intimidation of that “ideal product” that we know we’ll never create. And for a lot of us, the investment of so much time and energy into something so uncertain – will I ever get a return on this? will people like it? will it (maybe, possibly, ever) sell? – feels like a risk we maybe can’t afford.

I felt this way, profoundly, about my second novel Fourteen Stones. I’ve written elsewhere on the blog about the anxiety that set in after a particularly difficult rejection connected with that book. What I hadn’t expected after the rejection, though, was the experience of starting to attack my own imagination and, quite literally, my ability to write. It was as if my brain decided that I shouldn’t imagine things, shouldn’t write, shouldn’t take pleasure in or even be able to do something that had given me so much satisfaction…when, after all, the great gamble on that novel hadn’t paid off the way I’d hoped it would.

We artists tell ourselves we have to be tough, resilient. We tell ourselves we have to get up and keep fighting every time rejection and setbacks knock us into the dust. What I experienced over this past summer made me question whether – assuming I still could manage to do the work I loved – I should still try. Because, after all, if I let rejection knock me down and hold me down for so long, if I “let myself” feel so terrible about it and “let it” make me unable to imagine, create, or put my ideas on the page: if all those things were true, then maybe I just wasn’t cut out for it. Maybe I wasn’t meant to do this work after all.

That other writer might have experienced exactly this when she walked away from her work for years. Or maybe her experience was a little different, but in any case, I now understand why someone would make the choice she did. I understand how it feels to question the value of your work, question the reason and worth behind investing so much in the products of the imagination. Why dream? Why create?

I continue to struggle with this, months later. Once anxiety gets its claws in, it doesn’t want to let go. Working around it every day, one step at a time, the single biggest thing I’ve learned so far is that I must not give up on the imagination.

prettyboy view

Why do we artists do what we do? Why dream, why create, when there’s so much risk, and when the rewards sometimes seem so few, transient, and so very far between?

Because what we create would not exist without us. Because only we can do the work we do. No one else could write my book. No one else could paint your painting, or compose your music, or tell your part of the story that is an irreplaceable piece of the greater story of the world. And – maybe even more importantly – because no change is possible without imagination. Artists dare to dream about ideals. We dare to see people and the world differently. We dare to believe that the things we think, feel, and create in our work can reach others, and that as we reach out in the way only we can, we can create change in the world.

It’s a crazy dream, right? It can feel huge and scary and impossible, but the fact is, our work has power. When someone takes in something we’ve created, they’ll experience something they’ll never find anywhere else. They can’t find it anywhere else, because it could only have come from us. And it starts with the work of our imaginations.

So if this game has knocked you down: believe me, I understand. If you need a break from it for a while, I know exactly how that is. But in the long run, please don’t let it make you quit. Now more than ever, we need to see how things could be. We need the dreams and creations only you can bring to the overarching story of the world.

rocky point view

Keep On Keeping On

Two blogposts, two weeks in a row! Maybe I’m getting better at this… 😉

Last week I wrote about anxiety, as related to the performance I was scheduled to give that afternoon. I’m glad to report that – as was maybe expected – the performance went fine, and my well-seasoned performer training kicked in and did what it needed to do. It felt good to follow a familiar pattern. At the same time, it felt even better to know that no matter how tense or scattered I was, I could think on my feet and tailor my program to the audience the way I always do. All of that helped to reassure my over-reactive hindbrain that I’m still getting through life reasonably well, and it doesn’t need to rush to protect me countless times a day.

When I first started having problems with intense anxiety, over the summer, I’d hoped it might run its course in a couple of weeks, like a bad flu. Little did I know! I certainly never thought that three months later, I’d still be trying to work my way through it. A new medication I started taking about a month ago is helping, but most of all, keeping on with my usual routine and doing the things I have to do makes a big difference. I’ve done a lot of reading about anxiety and different ways of treating it, and one of the wisest pieces of advice I’ve come across is that we have to keep living as if we don’t have anxiety. In other words, is there something I would normally do, enjoy, look forward to? Then I must do that thing, even when my brain tells me I can’t or shouldn’t. Pushing myself to do things “anyway” can feel stressful and exhausting, as if maybe I’ll push too hard and snap, and it can also feel like I’m trying to fake it ’til I make it (which might actually be the case). But I don’t want to hunker down and sideline myself until some indeterminate down-the-road day when I might finally feel better. Life is short. I’d rather not waste the time I’ve got, especially not by giving it up to the paranoid twitchy mess in my own head. 😉

minebank view
Therapeutic view

So this week, I’m thinking more about all the things I want to be doing and working on. Another piece of advice I’ve read is that it’s a good idea to plan out what you’ll do with any given day, promise yourself you’ll do those things, and then stick to it. Today I intend to work on the first brand-new short story I’ve started in months; I haven’t written anything new from scratch since before what I’ve named Super-Anxiety (the anti-superhero). Working with words is now a pretty big trigger for me. In the wake of some rejections of my novel Fourteen Stones, earlier in the summer, I definitely got it into my head that I’m not much of a writer and shouldn’t be doing this work. Anxious hindbrain took care of the rest and does its best to freeze me with panic every time I think about sitting down to write. However, anxious hindbrain and I both need to understand that I am and always will be a writer, rejection doesn’t define my work or me, and I will carry on with wordcraft for as long as I live: hopefully a long while yet. There are so many stories I want to write. (And also, anxious hindbrain, let’s not forget that Fourteen Stones is a damn fine piece of work I am proud of. It was a joy to create, and whatever happens, I can think of no better use of my time and the best of my energy.)

It’s good to focus on getting back to work, and to know – no matter how much I sometimes resist the idea – that I can work, no matter how I feel. If you’re like me and you struggle with anxiety, you know how sometimes you win, and sometimes it wins. I’ve had days where, all day long, without even thinking about it, I successfully avoid doing whatever activity scares me most. I’m trying to get better at noticing those days and when I’m coming up with excuses not to do the scary thing. When I can catch myself in the act of avoidance, I can challenge myself to push back against it. You’re scared to write? Go sit down right now and write a paragraph. Two sentences. One line. Every time I resist the avoidance, I get another piece of myself back from anxiety. Even before Super-Anxiety, I was always good at finding ways to avoid the things that make me uncomfortable (highway driving, anyone?). These past three months have been teaching me that I have to face fear, rather than run from it, and I think they’ll result in some permanent changes. (Silver lining!)

If you, like me, struggle with anxiety, what particular thing would you like to do today, or need to do today, that maybe scares you or you feel you can’t really accomplish? Maybe you can promise yourself, right now, that you will do that thing. Write that one sentence. Go for a quick walk. Drive on the highway from one exit to the next one. Show your mind you are okay, and keep on keeping on.

As always, thanks for reading. See you next time!

cat trio sickbed
Therapeutic view 2

Trusting It

Thank you for visiting the blog again. Trying to stay a bit more reliably up and running! 🙂

This afternoon, I’m giving a lecture-performance about my book To Love A Stranger. Before I started having major anxiety struggles this summer, this kind of performance was a little nerve-racking, but mostly no sweat. Today, I’m considerably more nervous than usual. It’s a familiar format, and the kind of gig I’ve done many times before, but I’m having to trust that my performance chops are still there, and will do what they need to do.

It feels like a risk. Part of me wants to run from it, but I’ve learned that the worst thing you can do with anxiety is let it win. When the panic starts telling you that something isn’t safe, or isn’t possible, that’s the time to push back and show it how you know better. Over the summer, when I was really struggling, I had a few days where I let the panic dictate. I canceled my commitments (not many, fortunately) and holed up in bed, listening to music for hours on end. The music was great, but overall, taking this approach to panic was definitely not the right thing to do. It taught me that the only way I could respond to fear was by digging myself a burrow and crawling in.

It’s much harder to push yourself to do things when you’re scared, but it’s also the best way to re-wire your brain and learn that the fear reflex isn’t telling you the truth. Anxiety is an interesting phenomenon. Your hindbrain thinks you’re going into danger, and it wants to protect you, so it kicks in your fight-or-flight response, sometimes so intensely that you feel incapacitated. (If you’ve had the kind of panic attack that involves chest pain, nausea, shaking, dizziness, and the other kinds of symptoms that make you believe you’re in the middle of a heart attack, you know exactly what I mean.) All of this fuss on your hindbrain’s part because it wants to keep you safe from what it sees as danger. Meanwhile, though, its perception of that danger is a little skewed: it doesn’t need to protect you from working, or driving, or staying home alone, or any of the once-ordinary things that might be triggering it. You have to teach it this by doing those things that it doesn’t want you to do.

For me, today’s lecture-performance falls into that category of things. My hindbrain tells me it’s very scary, I won’t be able to get through it, it would be safer not to try. But I know I’ve done exactly this kind of performance before and will do it again, maybe many times. I can get through it, I will get through it, and in so doing, I’ll teach myself and my over-reactive anxiety a valuable lesson. I will trust myself instead of the fear messages.

The video below is a taste of what I’ll be playing this afternoon: the first movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 90. (Apologies for my somewhat out-of-tune piano. Also, yes, that is a Christmas penguin in the background. 😉 ) Beethoven is one of the composers whose music helped inspire To Love A Stranger, and I’ll be reading an excerpt from the book in which his music features, and talking about why he’s perhaps my ultimate musical hero if I could only pick one. As I write this, I tap into the familiar pattern of these performances, and I get a taste back of my own excitement and enjoyment at the idea of giving one. Take that, anxiety. 😉

Hope you enjoy the music. As always, thanks for visiting the blog. See you next time!

How Can I Help?

Apologies for the longer-than-expected silence on the blog. If you’ve been following it, you know it’s been a pretty challenging summer. As the fall routine starts up again, I’m planning to get back to regular posts, as much as possible!

This week’s post will be rather short, and mostly consists of a question (more on that below). This summer, as I’ve been dealing with an (extraordinarily, frustratingly, intensely) annoying amount of anxiety, I’ve been thinking a lot about the experience that artists, in particular, can have with this disorder and with its flip side, depression. Here on the blog, I’ve posted before about how artists, especially those who routinely put their work out on display in the world, encounter a lot of challenges that can trigger and exacerbate any mental health situations we might be dealing with. Criticism (particularly the blanket, non-useful kind) and rejection hit our buttons and can make it hard to continue our work, and sometimes even to get out of bed in the morning. (Been there.)

We’re lucky to live in a time when mental health care and resources are available, although many mental health conditions are still improperly understood and all-too-often stigmatized. It can be hard to admit that you have a chronic condition that makes life harder than you’d like. You can feel that you’re just not trying enough, or you’re not being positive enough, or you really don’t want anyone to know how you actually feel because it seems unreasonable, silly, paranoid…the list goes on. (One thing I’ve learned this summer, in a far more up-close-and-personal way than I would have liked, is exactly how paranoid anxiety can make you, and what kinds of wildly irrational fears it can convince you to believe in.) Long and short, even though resources and help are out there, it can be hard, sometimes, to reach out for them, and to find the right match for our needs.

Templeton hug
Hugs can help, as Templeton demonstrates.

This is where my question comes in, the focus of this post. I’d like to create my own small resource specifically geared toward artists who deal with depression and anxiety. It would come out of my own experience, and I see it as addressing and sharing that experience, and maybe also offering some affirmations, particularly for the times when we face things like rejection and destructive criticism. I also see cat pictures being involved, because why not?

What I’d like to know, though, is if you are an artist who has these challenges, what would be most helpful for you. What kind of resource would best encourage you, maybe offer a perspective you haven’t seen before or seen enough, or help you feel supported in your own work? What has been missing from the resources you have?

Making art can be a lonely process; doubly lonely, sometimes, for those of us who also feel isolated by mental health challenges. That’s where I’d like to help most. If you have thoughts about what you’d like to see, what might best give you some extra inspiration and support, please feel free to leave a comment here or write to me at kfaatz925@gmail.com.

More on the blog soon. Meanwhile, as always, thank you for reading!

Fergus therapist
Another therapy cat: Fergus.

Musical Meditations Launch!

Following up on the very short post of a couple of weeks ago: today marks the launch of a project I’ve had in mind for a long time. 😊

Musical Meditations is a new, fully self-guided course on my website. It combines three elements: musical inspiration and space for journaling; features on four major composers and periods in music history; and writing prompts based on the music. (If you’re not a “serious” writer, don’t worry: you can still have fun with the prompts, and see where they might take you creatively.)

How it works:

The course is set up to be completed over four weeks. Each week features a different composer: Johann Sebastian Bach in Week 1, Johannes Brahms in Week 2, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Week 3, and George Gershwin in Week 4.

Each week, you’ll first listen to a recording I’ve made of some of the composer’s piano music. While you listen, you’ll journal or free-write, letting the music guide what you put on the page. This is a chance to give yourself space and get in touch with your own thoughts. Music is a great catalyst for this kind of self-expression.

After listening and journaling, you’ll read some background on the composer and the music you’ve heard, learning about that composer’s life, the time period the work belongs to, and some particular features of the pieces. Finally, you’ll be given a writing prompt that draws on the music in some way: something about its structure, or why the composer wrote it, or the time period it belongs to. You can work on the prompt at your own pace and see where it leads you.

Four weeks is the suggested pace, but you can work at your own speed. Once you’ve taken the course, you’ll always have access to the material, so you can go back to it whenever you’d like. As a special bonus offer for writers, if any of the prompts lead you to write creative work that you’d like to share with me for feedback and guidance, participants in this course receive a discount on my one-on-one manuscript consulting rate ($35 per hour instead of $50).

Sound good?

If you’d like to take the course, you can submit payment through PayPal. The suggested cost is $45, but pay what you can. I’m excited to offer this and can’t wait to see how it works for everyone! 😊

Once you submit payment, you’ll receive an email including a password, which will let you access the course page. (Please note that this process is not yet automated. I’ll be sending you the email personally, which may mean a slight delay, but you should receive it within 24 hours.)

Click here to submit payment. When you do, please be sure to include, in the “note” field, the best email to reach you.

If you have any questions or comments, please email me at kfaatz925@gmail.com. And if you take the course, please send me feedback any time. I’d love to hear what you think!

Lake Sable writing
Find your favorite place for meditative creative work!

Stay Tuned…

Today’s very short post is only to share that something new is coming soon to the website. A project for writers, music enthusiasts, and anyone looking for inspiration for their creative work, or simply something new to relax and open the mind, will be live most likely within the next week. This project has been a long time in planning, and I’m excited to share it. Stay tuned! 🙂

Growing Pains

If you’ve been following the blog over the past few weeks, you know that one of the big things I’ve been writing about is recent experiences with anxiety. While panic attacks are familiar territory for me, the higher level of pretty-much-constant anxiety I’ve been living under is a new and highly unwelcome situation. I know I’m not the only one to go through something like this, though, and it’s been helpful for me to spend some time looking at causes and sitting with the feelings, rather than always trying to push back against them. If you’re a fellow struggler in these particular trenches, maybe some of these thoughts will help you too.

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about how a lot of what I’m currently experiencing started immediately after I made a promise to myself to take my work as a writer seriously. I was making the commitment to stand by my second novel until I find the right path to publication for it, and I was making the commitment to honor my work as a teacher and editor, and to remember that those skills are valuable and I should never doubt that fact. When I made that promise, I knew I’d get some level of pushback from depression, that longtime inhabitant of my brain. I didn’t know how strong the pushback was going to be.

ocean view 3

I’ve posted before about what my particular experience over the past few weeks has been like: the intense discomfort, the worry that I can’t trust what my mind is doing, the cycles of concern I go through. (“What if I can’t function? Okay, I can function, but what if I can’t do this specific thing? Okay, I can do that thing, but what if I can’t do this other thing? OMG, I almost put the milk away in the pantry instead of the fridge; I knew I was losing it!” and on, and on…). Along with worries about basic functionality, I’ve been afraid to trust my imagination. Of course that’s the most fundamental aspect of writing fiction: being willing and able to create imagined worlds and people, to take small threads of reality and spin them into a new and unique fabric woven from the mind. Sometimes I’ve worried that I’ll suddenly lose all my skills in that area. Other times I’ve worried that maybe I shouldn’t imagine things so much, in case someday I have problems figuring out what’s real and what isn’t.

It’s taken me a while to realize that much of this really is the pushback from my old nemesis, as I honor the promise I made to myself. Writing is more than a thing I do: it’s a huge piece of who I am. It’s a delight, a challenge, an obsession. I’ve always been deeply reluctant to accept myself as a writer, and to give my work and myself the respect they deserve. The depressive part of my brain still doesn’t want me to do that. It’s trying to stop me in whatever way it thinks will work, and it fights as dirty as it knows how.

But I’m stronger than it is. Over the past few weeks, I’ve found that in spite of all the things I’ve worried about, yes, I can still function. (Surprise! 😉 ) I’ve driven long distances, run errands, made meals and desserts, played the piano, taught writing workshops, done housework and yard work, and often have actually been more productive than usual, out of a need to keep busy. Ideas for my third novel have been percolating, in spite of my worries about using and trusting my imagination. I’ve read good books and laughed at episodes of Good Omens (speaking of books, if you haven’t read that one, you must). Life has gone on. Looking at it from the outside, it’s been fine.

ocean view 1

Most recently, over the past couple of days, I’ve been able to think again about “what comes next.” I’d put that aside for a while, since getting along from one day to the next – and sometimes from one hour to the next – has been enough of a challenge. Now, though, I’m thinking about the workshops I want to do, the next book I want to write, the way my schedule will look in the fall. I’m finding myself honestly believing that in spite of everything that’s been going on, good things are on their way.

The other piece of this is that I know I’ll come out of all this stronger than I’ve ever been. I’m used to being scared of a lot of things. Now, though, I know what real fear feels like, and other fears seem a lot smaller. I’ve always been scared of driving on highways, but last week I did it every day without a twinge. Pretty much any challenge I can imagine feels like a problem that has a solution, rather than an unscalable wall. In a brutal, backhanded way, the past few weeks have given me a gift: perspective.

This is all still a work in progress. It’s easier, though, when I understand that what I’m experiencing is the growing pains associated with keeping my promise to myself. My depression doesn’t like it, but I’m doing it anyway, and everything is going to be better on the other side.

If you’re dealing with challenges like these, keep the faith. Good things are coming.

harbor

 

Photos by Paul Faatz

Musical Meditation

The blog is late again this week: it’s been a very busy teaching week, which has helped with my need to keep my mind busy. 😊 I’ve been leading a summer writing workshop with Writopia Lab in Washington DC. Writopia is a terrific organization that works with young writers, ages 7 through high school, and I’ve been having a great time with a group of very smart and creative teens. It’s fun to see how the next generation of storytellers is shaping up!

This week, I wanted to depart a bit from the subject of the past couple of weeks, though what I’d like to share today is still connected with the larger topic of mental health. I’m putting this out partly as a teaser, and partly as a way to motivate myself to follow through on a plan I’ve had for a long time.

As both a writer and a musician, I’m always interested in the ways in which these two art forms can dovetail, feed, and support one another. For several months now, I’ve been planning an online course which I’ll run through my website. Called “Musical Meditations,” this course is meant to support writers in particular, but also artists in general, and anyone who would find some music-inspired creative work helpful to their mindset and well-being.

In today’s post, I’m offering a sample of what the course is meant to do. It’s designed as a group of four sessions which will take place over four weeks, though participants can work at their own speed.

Each session will begin with a recording of selected piano music. Each recording will include multiple pieces, but they will all be by the same composer. Participants will first be asked to listen to the music and free-write, or journal, any response they have to it, or anything it brings to mind. This is the meditative part of the exercise: freeing the mind by letting it go wherever the music leads.

After the free-writing exercise, participants will be given information about the music they just heard. Each of the four course sessions will feature a different composer, belonging to a specific period in musical history and writing in distinctive ways. Participants will learn about the composers’ lives, the stylistic choices they made in their music, and why they wrote the types of works they did.

Participants will then be given a specific writing prompt based on the music they heard. This prompt will in some way tie into the historical period the featured music belongs to, events in the life of the composer, and/or the construction or style of the music. For writers, this prompt may help create a new idea for a story, poem, or essay. For other artists, playing around with the ideas might support work in another art form. For all participants, the prompts are meant as a fun mental exercise to stimulate creativity.

Below, I’ve included a recording of a work by Claude Debussy. Debussy (1862-1918) is a French composer belonging to the Impressionist era in music history, which covers the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Impressionist composers loved to create washes of color in their music by using rich and often dissonant harmonies, and fully exploring the ranges and capabilities of the instruments they wrote for. Their fascination with musical color parallels the interests of Impressionist painters like Monet, who worked during the same time period. Like their colleagues in music, Impressionist painters wanted to create rich palettes in their work, fully exploring the potential of colors and how they could blend in new ways.

In the Debussy recording presented here, you can hear how the composer uses the full range of the piano, and how he creates a lush palette of sound that explores beautiful and startling dissonance. This piece, “Pagodes,” is the first movement of Debussy’s three-movement suite Estampes. The title of the whole work translates literally as “woodcuts” or “etchings,” and in each of the three movements, the composer intends to evoke a specific place, as one might create an image for a picture postcard. The first movement, “Pagodes” (“Pagodas”), evokes an Eastern flavor with the sounds of chimes and gongs.

If you’d like, I invite you to listen to “Pagodes” and, either while listening or afterward, free-write or journal in response to it, letting your mind travel wherever the music leads. I often find this is very helpful for calming and centering the mind, especially in times of stress or agitation. Then I’d invite you to consider the following prompt:

Debussy creates an image of a place he loves, through the use of particular harmonies and musical sounds. Consider a place you know well and can visit in your mind. Evoke it as vividly as you can on paper, using all details that make this place special: not only what you might see or hear there, but what you might taste, touch, or smell. Describe all of this to bring this place to life. [And for writers, the following additional prompt: does this setting suggest any sketch or lead to a story or other piece of written work?]

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be putting together the full course on my website, and will post an update or two as it’s getting ready. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoyed today’s sample!

Centering

My new post is a little late this week: it took an extra day for me to gear up and put some thoughts in order. These past couple of weeks, but this past week in particular, have been incredibly challenging. I’m writing about it as a shout-out to all artists who deal with depression and anxiety. Solidarity, folks!

Last week I posted about traveling and some anxiety that came out of that. What I said less about, I think, was that right toward the end of the trip, I gave myself a “pep talk” about what I needed to do once we got home. Those of you who’ve been following the blog know that for the past six months or so, I’ve been looking for an agent for my novel Fourteen Stones. You also know that I’ve been trying out some new things, professionally, and generally working on building a writing career through a few different angles.

Toward the end of the trip, as I looked at getting back into “real life,” I tried to gear myself up for the next round of efforts. I knew I was likely to hear back fairly soon from at least one agent, and I had a couple of other important irons in the fire. On the blog, I’ve talked before about the effects that rejection and (perceived) failure can have on artists who deal with depression and anxiety. They can be annihilating experiences, making us call everything about our work and ourselves into question. Before the trip ended, I tried to impress on myself the importance of holding onto an ironclad belief in my work. After all, if I stop believing in it, who’s going to fight for it? I promised myself that no matter what, I would hang tough, always keep trying, and never forget the value of what I do as a writer and teacher.

Brevard dawn pic

And then I got home. Within the first couple of days, a handful of failures and rejections came in, one from the agent who so far has been most interested in Fourteen Stones. It was a very nice rejection, stressing the things that the agent had liked about the book, and the fact that the whole process is so subjective and that overall my work is very strong. But that, along with some other unwelcome news, created what turned into a perfect storm of panic.

For those of you who’ve dealt with severe anxiety, you know how disorienting it can be. You’re in constant fight-or-flight mode, unable to relax, burning through gallons of adrenaline a day, and maybe feeling like you can’t even totally trust your own brain. This is how I felt. While on the outside, I was functioning absolutely fine, on the inside I felt like I was hanging onto my sanity by my fingernails. Every day was exhausting.

For readers wondering if I knew to get help: don’t worry, I did. I spoke with a doctor and therapist, making sure things were okay, and finding effective ways to counter the surges of panic. Mindfulness practice is new to me, but even my first introduction to it was very helpful, letting me separate out my objective experience from the messages the panic was giving me. I took anti-anxiety remedies, got extra exercise, found constructive things to focus on – to break the cycle of “worrying about the worry” – and gave myself space to rest as much as possible. The whole experience has been tough, though. I’d expected to go into a depressive cycle after bad news. This different reaction scared me exactly because it was different.

What I realize, though, is that it’s all part of the same mental challenges I’ve always had. It’s a different and, for me, scarier side of my depression, but it ties back to all the same issues I work with every day. Putting myself and my work on the line, putting my words and ideas out into the world, is always hard for me. Now I know that my reaction to those stressors can take a couple of different forms.

waterfall pic

This experience has shown me what kind of work I still have to do, to stay centered and grounded no matter what happens on the outside. It’s shown me that hanging onto self-belief might be even more important than I thought. At least part of the panic I experienced, I think, came from deciding that if my work “wasn’t viable” (because of rejection) then maybe I “wasn’t viable” either as a productive or functional person. Again, that message is nothing new; it just took a different form this time.

Coming out on the other side of that very difficult week, I’m feeling better. Ideas and enthusiasms are reawakening. I’m feeling like I might just be able to follow through on some plans I made before all this started, plans that got forcibly put on hold when life became such a day-to-day fight. I’m waking up again. And yes, I’m going to go back to work on the next steps in my writing career, including finding the right agent for Fourteen Stones and for my books going forward. There’s so much I want to do. Depression and anxiety aren’t going to keep me from doing it.

If you, like me, have dealt with feelings like these, you’re not alone. It gets better. Panic is a horrible experience, but there’s help available. You are strong. You are okay. You can get through this.

I’ll close this post with some good music. The Temptations had a different message with their lyrics, but right now they sum up how I’m feeling, doing better and getting back to work. “Get ready, ‘cause here I come…”