Maker’s Day 2

Last week I introduced something new on the blog: Maker’s Day Wednesdays. Each Wednesday I’ll share a small prompt as food for reflection. Maybe you’ll also find it inspires you to make some art.

This week’s prompt is a single word:

mosaic

A couple of supporting visuals (courtesy of Pinterest):

Ancient Roman depiction of water birds

Floral pattern

What might this word and idea conjure up for you? Mosaic as an art form and/or a way to capture history; a group of broken pieces coming together to make something new and striking… I invite you to reflect and maybe, if you’re feeling inspired, create something in response.

You can find all the Maker’s Day prompts together here. If you’d like to receive the prompts weekly, please consider subscribing to the blog. Thanks for visiting!

Music for reflection

I had a different post planned for today, but in light of what happened in Texas two days ago, it feels more appropriate to share this music. We’ve seen far too many of these acts of terrible violence. I don’t know how change is brought about, how we break free of the stranglehold of business-as-usual in this country and start placing greater value on the safety and well-being of our children, the safety of our public spaces, and compassion and empathy for one another. It can’t be impossible.

These are rough recordings I made, that I’d like to share as a space for contemplation. Thank you for listening.

Etude-Tableau in G minor, by Sergei Rachmaninoff

The Maiden’s Song, by William Byrd

The Book Engine

Last week, I finished the first draft of the new novel I’ve been working on since November. Writing a book tends to be an obsessive process for me. Once the story begins to drive itself, at that wonderful locking-into-gear point somewhere in the first thirty pages or so, I don’t want to do much of anything but stay at my computer every day for as long as the words will flow.

With my earlier books, I’ve finished a first draft in three months, give or take. This time, Nicky True (working title) took over half a year. I’m relieved to reach “The End”…but…

When I’m not working, I tend to get mean (as I call it). On an earlier incarnation of this blog, I talked about challenges I’ve had with anxiety and depression; I might revisit those topics over the next few months, as I know many of us have similar challenges. I’m at my best when I’m writing, because the characters and stories fill my head and help muffle the constant doubts. Between projects, it gets a little too quiet, and the internal critic comes through loud and clear.

This is Alafair. She lets me share “her” chair when I’m writing.

Today I got up thinking about Fourteen Stones and all the wonderful joys and stressors of an upcoming book launch. As I think many many writers do, I started to feel scared. The “what ifs” line up in a parade: What if no one likes it? What if it’s too long? What if it’s not long enough? What if nobody gets it? What if, what if… All those things that we as writers have no control over, as we take this product of our imaginations, which by now is also woven tightly into our hearts, and put it in a canoe and send it out on the river to ride the current.

I think it’s especially tricky for introverts – which again, is a lot of writers, or we wouldn’t be so comfortable hanging out for hours at a time with no company but our characters – and for those of us who never were “cool kids.” As a young teenager, I was the uncool poster child. Thirty years later, I still struggle with the idea that the things that fascinate me might interest anyone else.

For me, writing a book is always about love. I have to love the characters, able to see them as whole humans with strengths and flaws and delights and secrets, and I have to want to spend countless hours in their company, letting them tell me their stories. When I’m working, I feel a surge of excitement in the morning, knowing I’m going to sit at my desk that day and see where the ribbons of story will lead. Sometimes I feel a joy so bright it can, at least for a while, shrink all the ordinary obstacles and annoyances of life down to dust-mote-size. Of course, there’s also plenty of frustration, discouragement, writer’s block, and confusion. But at its core, for me, writing a book is about the love of the process.

My books themselves also tend to be about love, one way or another. Not necessarily “love stories,” but stories in which characters have deep loves of their own, for the work they do, for the place they call home, and yes, for one another. At the end of the day, my stories tend to be about how those loves shape people and their actions. To Love A Stranger was like that; Fourteen Stones is too, though in a different way. As I think about it, love seems like a pretty solid basis for a story.

This is Fergus. He signs off on edits.

When my critic starts filling my head with chaos, it can help me to remember why I got into a project in the first place: where that driving love came from. Even if I’m not sure about the words themselves, or if I’m nervous about how they might strike anyone else, the engine behind the work has a song of its own that can quiet the other noise.

As always, thank you for visiting the blog. If you’d like to stay updated with book news, writerly thoughts, and other meditations, please consider subscribing. See you next time!

Welcome to Namora

Where’s Namora?

Right now, mostly inside my head. But when my book Fourteen Stones comes out this fall, I hope you’ll pay my favorite little country a visit. It’s a beautiful place.

San Andres de Teixido, Galicia, Spain: part of the real-world setting that inspired Namora.

Fourteen Stones got its start in the summer of 2015, when my husband and I visited the northwestern corner of Spain, traveling in the regions of Galicia, Asturias, and Cantabria. It was my first time on the other side of the Atlantic. Our adventures there, the beautiful places we explored, and above all the incredible sense of history we encountered, inspired me to try writing fantasy. A very rough draft of a novel (then called From the Circle House) came out of that summer. Over the next few years, that project gradually evolved into Fourteen Stones.

While writing, I spent many, many hours in Namora, which I created using the memories of what we’d seen in Spain.

My rough map of Namora: it’s lived on my desk for a few years now.

Fourteen Stones mainly stays in Namora’s eastern region, starting at about the midway point of the mountain range that separates it from its huge neighbor Lassar, and moving north to its coast. For all the time I’ve spent there, getting acquainted with that corner of it, there’s still a lot of the country that I haven’t explored. It’s fun to know it has much more territory to discover.

I’d like to tell you a little about my fictional country, starting with the capital city Sostavi, on the northern coast. Sostavi is an ancient place. Some Namorans believe that their goddess, Kenavi, lived there when she was a mortal woman. In those times, it would have been nothing more than a village, a huddle of small stone houses behind a guarding wall.

The Castros da Barogna, an Iron Age village north of Noia, in Galicia, Spain. This area inspired “ancient Sostavi.”

Modern-day Sostavi, which you can visit in Fourteen Stones, has changed a lot from its origins:

In Namora’s capital city, Sostavi, the Great Circle House rose above the clusters of white-walled buildings that clung like crystals to the high hills. Down below, the deep turquoise of the Vandeni Ocean met the shallower, silver-blue water of the harbor. The summer would see fleets of fishing boats leaving the harbor before dawn to come back in the evening riding low in the water, weighed down with their rich burdens.” – excerpt from Fourteen Stones

In future posts, I’ll share more about Sostavi, its “origin story,” and the real-life city that helped me sketch it. (That city is Cudillero, on Spain’s northern coast, in the Asturias region.) For now, to close today’s post, I’ll tell you a bit about my favorite place in Namora: Lida village, in Kalnu region, right up against the Senai Mountains that form the Namora-Lassar border.

A view of the terrain near Covadonga Lakes, Asturias, Spain. This area helped me picture the foothills of the Senai Mountains.

Lida is a farming village, the kind of place where everyone knows everyone. The calendar year centers on two things: the major observances in honor of the goddess Kenavi, and the planting and harvesting months at the crux of the farming life. Here’s a snapshot of Lida in Derla, the harvest month:

“Lida’s craftspeople and tavern-keepers had their businesses clustered around the village square. Five roads, lined with wooden houses roofed with tiles of gray-blue Namoran clay, came out from the square like the spokes of a wheel. Banks of mint took over the sides of the road beyond the village, and the gravel gave way to dirt track through open fields. […]

The scent of the late-growing mint blended with the dry earthiness of fallen leaves and the cool clear taste you only found in the mountains. Past the outskirts of the village, birds sang and rustled in the tall grass, late insects chattered, and to the east, the gray peaks of the Senai reached up toward the cloudless sky. – excerpt from Fourteen Stones

Lida is also the hometown of my favorite character, a priest named Ribas Silvaikas. I’ll introduce him in a future post.

Meanwhile, I’ll close with a picture of the kind of view you might see from the little farming village:

The River Deva, near Sotres village in Asturias, Spain. The mountains here, the Picos de Europa, are the real-world version of the Senai.

If you’d like to see more posts about my fictional world, its people, and its real-world inspirations, please consider subscribing to the blog. Thanks for visiting!

Piano Thoughts

I’m no expert at blogging (as folks who’ve been following this blog know!). Getting back into the swing of it, I’m following random thoughts that might turn into a post…

Tomorrow I have a performance with the piano trio I joined right before Covid started. In the winter of 2019 (feels like a very long time ago, doesn’t it?), I was dealing with some personal challenges and had decided the best way to keep moving forward was to stay busy. Two friends of mine, a violinist and a cellist, wanted to form a group and perform together. In “saying yes to all the things” mode, I jumped in.

Balancing writing and music can be tricky. When I’m working on a big writing project, like a novel, I often don’t want to do anything but stay at my computer for as long as the words keep coming. Then, when the project ends, I can go for stretches without writing anything. Music needs a much more consistent approach. If I don’t play for a while, my fingers don’t cooperate and I have to build up strength and precision all over again. (Middle age is also a factor there…)

Our trio was ready to start performing in the spring of 2020. We had concerts lined up, and then Covid hit, and it all went away. Suddenly there was no music anywhere.

Like so many of us, I did some professional pivoting. The piano lessons I’d taught pre-Covid had stopped too, but I started teaching writing online, and found out that as much as I love my classroom, Zoom was kind of cool. In the spring of 2020, I gave Fourteen Stones a big overhaul, a joyful process that helped me stay sane. Through the next two years, I swung pretty much 100% over to my writer side.

When things started to open up again last summer, and the trio wanted to get back together, I hesitated a LOT. I didn’t feel “like a pianist” anymore, and I wasn’t sure I could give enough, mentally or physically, to make the music what it deserved to be. But we started playing again, and pretty soon we’d booked a few concerts. Our first one was at the end of March. The concert tomorrow will be our third.

It’s been a challenge. Going into the first concert, I didn’t remember how to get my brain into “performance mode.” For me, a good performance has always involved getting into a specific zone, mentally and physically, where I can get past chronic anxiety and focus on what the music needs and how to bring it to life. That first performance, I fell way short. From the first note to the last, it was a fight just to keep going. I came out of it feeling like I wasn’t a pianist anymore and shouldn’t pretend otherwise.

The second concert was a week later (good thing – if it hadn’t been so soon afterward, I might have faked a sprained wrist to get out of it). Luckily, it went a little more smoothly. I started to think maybe, possibly, the old skills were still there, pretty dusty but waiting to swing into action with the right push.

Yesterday the trio met to rehearse, and a cool thing happened: playing was actually fun. The pieces we’re doing, Beethoven’s “Ghost” Trio (Op. 70) and Mendelssohn’s Trio in D Minor (Op. 49), are tough. The Mendelssohn, especially, has far too many notes, in this struggling musician’s opinion. Yesterday, though, I remembered why it can be fun to have a big, juicy, demanding piano part you can sink into, where you make the instrument sing and roar, and you share the ride and energy with your musical partners. I don’t know if it’ll feel the same tomorrow, but as I told my husband this morning, it would be so great if one performance could also be really, really fun. It can happen. Fingers crossed.

After the past two years, I think we’re all still figuring out how to deal with everything we went through. It doesn’t help that Covid is still such a presence, and we get a taste of normalcy and then take a step or two backwards again. I’m not sure what my new professional balance looks like, how much of a focus music will be now, whether I’m “still a pianist” just for these concerts or for some kind of longer run. For right now, the music is pretty amazing, and I’d like to enjoy the ride of playing it.

To give you a taste of Mendelssohn’s Trio in D Minor, which my friends and I will be playing tomorrow, here’s a video of the brilliant Zukerman Trio performing the first movement of it. This pianist gets far more of the notes than I do, but sometime I might post a video of our trio playing it too, just because. It’s an amazing piece.

Hope you enjoyed the listen! If you can spare some good energy for me and my friends tomorrow, it would be much appreciated. 🙂 Thanks for visiting the blog!

The Templeton Trio: me on the left, with violinist Robert Sorel and cellist Terry Shirley-Quirk.

The Templeton Trio’s namesake. He’s a softie.

Thought Experiment

Thoughts I’m playing around with; hoping to go somewhere with them…

What makes you, you?

A thought experiment: Imagine that we each have something beautiful and unique in us that doesn’t fade or disappear with time. Take this idea and apply it to yourself. Sit with the idea that you have something beautiful that is part of you, that sits at the core of who you are and can’t be taken away.

Imagine this beautiful thing as an actual object. Think of it as small enough to hold in one hand. Maybe it’s a candle: a source of light. Maybe it’s more like a seed: potential waiting to be tapped. Maybe it’s like a crystal: bright and gleaming.

When you’ve decided what object feels true for you, picture it in detail. If it’s a candle, what does the flame look like? If it’s a seed, what can you imagine it flowering into? If it’s a crystal, think about color and shape and facets, and what it might do with light. If it’s something else entirely, draw it fully in your mind.

Now imagine that every person you meet, or see, or hear about, has an object like yours. A small, unique, and beautiful thing that can’t be taken away. And imagine that you can see their objects, and they can see yours.

What would happen if we could recognize all these things in one another? Given that view of each other, how strong might we be, and what kind of world could we create?

Shadow Music

In last week’s post, I shared a tune by jazz composer Charles Mingus, and the short story I wrote in response to it. As I’m thinking about what to do with the blog (again), I’m continuing to play around with combinations of music and words.

One of the things I love about my dual career as a writer and pianist is how those two sides often complement and inspire each other. While these days I’m more focused on writing, and writing-related stuff, I always go back to music to “fill the well” and help dig into my creativity.

Today I thought I’d just share some music, in hopes that maybe it’ll inspire some words, or other creativity, for you. This is one of my favorite pieces, an etude-tableau by Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943(. I first learned this piece when I was about fifteen. A few months ago, I found myself thinking about it again, and decided to see if I could still play it. It’s a work in progress, but I think this recording will give you a feel for it.

I love this piece because it’s shadowy and evocative, sad but lovely. Like “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” last week, it strikes me as an appropriate feeling for these times.

Thanks for stopping by. Please visit again soon!

Next Morning Art

After the chaos of yesterday, it feels like a good time to restart the blog. I’m not sure what to do with it in the longer run, but today, it makes sense to share some art.

The music in the link below is a tune called “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” by American jazz bassist, pianist, and composer Charles Mingus. Mingus wrote it after the death of saxophonist Lester Young, a force of the jazz scene, who struggled with mental health and substance use challenges after his service in World War II.

The first time I heard this piece, something about it caught me. It called up images for me: a dark street, a thin misty rain, a single lonely streetlight.

It was so powerful that I wanted to capture my response to it in words. A sketch quickly turned into the short story I’ve included below the link.

The mood of this music felt appropriate today. Maybe it’ll inspire something for you too.

GOODBYE PORK PIE HAT (first published in The Monarch Review)

When the man died, he took it all with him. He took the throaty coffee-and-cream sound of his tenor horn and the blackstrap molasses flow of his clarinet. Those were from the great years. He took the breathy rasp of that same horn and the fragile squeak of that same clarinet. Those were from the last years. He took the breath he couldn’t catch anymore and the legs that wouldn’t hold him up and the last sour whiff of the liquor he drank. And he took the muscles in his hands and the slow steady beat of his heart, and he took every last one of the tunes that slipped through his head and wrapped together like the strands of hair in a girl’s braids.

You never knew the man. Not to talk to. You never unpacked your gear with him, wedged in with the rest of the band like sardines in the green room at some club. You didn’t bum smokes or lights or hits or swigs off him. You didn’t listen with him to the roar outside like a train in the distance, or smell the blend of a hundred or so different cigarettes and two hundred glasses of alcohol. You didn’t walk behind him up the stage steps and get smacked in the eyes by the glare of lights and rolled over by the train roar, two hundred pairs of hands clapping and two hundred voices yelling his name. You didn’t step into the light next to him and move your music stand over a fraction of an inch on the scuffed parquet floor and hook your horn onto the strap around your neck at the same time he hooked his. And when the music started and everything else disappeared, and the coffee-cream sound or the blackstrap molasses sound poured out and wound around, so clean and strong you could taste it in the back of your throat, you didn’t shut your eyes there on the stage and forget where you were while you rode those notes down like beads on the most perfect string.

You were too young to meet the man. He never saw you or knew your name. You unpack your gear in the backstage closet in some club and listen to the thin sound of a dozen voices in the dark. You smell the smoke from a handful of cigarettes and the fumes from a dozen or so glasses of alcohol. When you walk onstage, no train rolls over you.

The man took it all with him. This is what you have: a hole-in-the-wall club with a scuffed-up drinks counter and a few falling-apart chairs and a blue glow-worm light that barely makes a dot on the throat of your horn. You have a bare-walled apartment with a sagging mattress and a record player, and three LPs with the grooves wearing out from all the times you played them. You have the black-and-white photos from those LP covers. They are good photos. You can look at them and not see how, at the end, the man’s cheeks went slack and his eyes sank into his head.

In the blue glow-worm light, you set up your music and tune your horn. You don’t see the drinks counter or the falling-apart chairs. Instead you see what is only in your head: a long, sleek black car pulling up to a sidewalk in thin drizzly rain. On the car’s back door, the yellow bulb of a street lamp makes a splash like the moon on water. In your head, you stand on the sidewalk in the rain and watch that door open.

The man’s trench coat could have come straight off the rack. Drops of rain fall on his black porkpie hat. In the yellow light they glitter like diamonds. Strong square fingers grip the handle of his horn case. Behind him, the club door stands open. White light gushes out onto the sidewalk, along with the blend of smoke from a hundred or so different cigarettes.

His cheeks are smooth and his eyes are young. He looks at you and smiles.

You stand in the blue glow-worm light and the thin hum of a dozen voices. In the back of your throat, this is what you have: the smoothness of coffee and cream, the rich tang of blackstrap molasses.

Tunes wind together for you like the strands of hair in a girl’s braids. Your horn sounds like strong, sweet, black coffee. You close your eyes and ride those notes down like beads on the most perfect string.

Common Space

A different kind of post today, responding to the injustices faced by Christian Cooper and George Floyd.

Last year, I started teaching with Baltimore Bridges, a program for students in the city. Starting in sixth grade, kids are paired with mentors and get extracurricular support with academics, gearing toward applying for college in senior year. The high schoolers also have once-a-month full days in which they work on application and interview skills, and take electives. I teach the creative writing elective.

This past fall, when I arrived for my first day, my first class was with a group of three young black men: Jason, Adrian, and Jerard, all high school juniors. In the moment of meeting them, I had two realizations. One: as a white woman, if I’d met any one of these young men or all three together while walking down the street, I’d have crossed to the other side. Two: I was afraid (and pretty sure) I was about to have a big teaching fail. In teaching writing especially, sharing stories, the sense of connection and safety is important. I didn’t know if I could get past my prejudice enough to create the right kind of classroom space.

We went into the classroom and spent an hour and a half writing and sharing work. Adrian was smart and motivated, eager to work for positive change in his community. Jason was quiet and thoughtful, creative with his writing. Jerard was also thoughtful and creative. His work went into dark places that he explored candidly and openly.

My “white woman prejudice” was called out that day, again, with these young men I’d have been afraid to pass on the street. In that class, as in every class I’ve taught with Bridges, I’ve seen how it is in fact possible for us to find connections with each other. It happens when we agree that no stories are wrong, they all deserve to be told and shared, and we will listen to one another with openness and acceptance.

In the classroom, that starts with the teacher. In society, it starts with those of us, like me, who are used to taking our right to share our stories for granted. We have to close our mouths, open our ears and minds, and listen to the voices we have drowned out before.

It’s so easy to look for differences and reasons to turn away from “the other.” I do it all the time. I want to do better.

Let Me Take Your Hands, part 7

Welcome! This blog features short piano pieces I’ve recorded at home. It began as a project for the quarantine, a mental break during these tough times.

This month, I’m switching things up a bit in honor of Short Story Month. Each post features an installment of my short story “Let Me Take Your Hands,” originally published in The Woven Tale Press as a prizewinner in WTP’s 2017 literary competition. Today’s installment is the ending (we made it! 🙂 ). Find the first installment here and follow the story forward up to the current post.

This is a favorite story of mine. Each installment is be paired with a piece of piano music I’ve recorded.

Make sure to subscribe to the blog if you’d like a regular dose of music, and visit back soon!

~~

“Let Me Take Your Hands” part 7

The lawyer had said it would be difficult, and indeed, it was far from easy. There were calls to law offices in Mexico in the frantic search for Consuelo’s birth certificate. There were arguments through the bulletproof glass at San Miguel, after Antonio explained to Consuelo their one desperate chance. “But Señor Antonio,” she said, still addressing him formally after so many years, “this is not right. You should not have to do this.” She assumed he could not want to, but he brushed that aside. Personal wants did not matter. There was the rapid filing of paperwork in a race against time and the legal system. Then, finally, there was Antonio’s signature, and then Consuelo’s own, on the marriage license, signed in the presence of San Miguel’s notary.

As the wife of an American citizen, with her newly issued green card, Consuelo could safely remain in the country she had chosen. Antonio promised himself that he would make sure she got full citizenship next. Once she did, the marriage, which was only a legal arrangement, could end. Consuelo could have her freedom.

The day after her release from prison, Antonio brought Consuelo and her daughter to his studio. He also brought a pair of folding chairs, so Tess could use the room’s only stool.

She sat at the wheel. After Antonio cut the clay for her, she shaped it into a ball with quick, practiced motions. Then she threw it, centering it squarely. It had taken her only a few tries to learn how.

Consuelo had never seen her daughter do this before. Antonio had found time every day, during Consuelo’s time in prison, in between arguing with a lawyer in Mexico, and carrying papers to and from San Miguel, to bring Tess here and teach her his work. He understood the kind of peace it gave her. Now Consuelo watched as Tess started the wheel spinning, wet her hands, and pressed them against the clay.

Antonio had already taught her the two basic shapes: cylinder and bowl. After her first frustration, she had quickly learned a kind of patience and meticulousness that even he, after all his years at the wheel, had never achieved. He still didn’t know how her mind worked, but he imagined her calculating how the clay should move, how to apply pressure to make the shapes she wanted. If she chose, Antonio felt sure that one day she could be an extraordinary potter. Now he watched as she pressed the clay gently out, beginning to shape a bowl.

He didn’t need to keep an eye on her. She knew what she was doing. Instead he watched Consuelo, who sat with her eyes fixed on her daughter’s confident and steady hands.

Tess made the bowl quickly. When she stopped the wheel, she looked around at Antonio. This was their signal. She didn’t yet cut the clay herself: the wire tended to twist between her fingers and he didn’t want her to hurt herself or damage the work in progress. He sliced the bowl free, set it on the drying board, and cut her another piece of fresh clay.

When he sat down again, Consuelo moved her chair closer to him. She brushed her face, as if smoothing hair away, but he saw she was crying.

She motioned at Tess. In Spanish, she whispered, “I never thought she could do something like this.”

Antonio saw the gold band gleaming on her finger. His wife. It wasn’t true, not really, only a legal convenience, but for some reason his throat hurt and he had to swallow before he answered. “She has a gift.”

Another tear ran down Consuelo’s cheek. This time, she didn’t wipe it away. No one would have told her such a thing about her daughter before. She said, “The Virgin heard my prayers. She gave you to us.”

Antonio’s face flushed. When had he and God last had anything to do with each other? If Consuelo had stayed in Mexico, if she could have had a life other than the hardscrabble one she had known, she would have gotten married in a Catholic church full of incense and flowers. Her family would have given her a feast, with drinking and dancing long into the night. Instead she was here, a barely-redeemed criminal, bound – at least for now – to an old man. What did God have to say about that? What did He ever do about the world’s injustice?

Consuelo reached out. Her fingers closed around his. “Thank you, Antonio.”

Not señor this time. Antonio found himself taking her hand in his.

She let her head rest against his shoulder. The two of them sat, listening to the hum of the wheel, watching Tess shape something new.

~end~

Musical pairing: Felix Mendelssohn, Song without Words in E Major

Tip Jar (no pressure!):

If you’re enjoying the blog and would like to help support it, please consider clicking on the link below to leave me a tip. You’ll choose your own payment amount and pay securely through PayPal’s platform. As always, thanks for visiting!