Zen for Ten 26: Fly Away Home

In today’s post, I’m continuing with the mix of reading and music, this time featuring my short story “Fly Away Home,” first published last year in The Bookends Review. This piece also won an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train‘s Short Story Award for New Writers competition.

I chose this particular story in response to the events in Charlottesville this past Saturday. No response feels adequate in the face of such difficult times in our country, when hatred and division so often seem to have the upper hand. I wish words could do more. Like so many of us, I wish I felt sure that beauty, and art, and creative expression, can be valuable tools in our times. Words and music are my tools, though, so I’ll use them as well as I can.

“Fly Away Home” is one of my music-inspired stories, written after listening to works by legendary jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker. He is, of course, the “Bird” referenced in the story. If you’re familiar with his life and work, I apologize for over-simplifying his family relationships; I wanted to highlight his relationship with his stepdaughter Kim, and also to focus on his experiences as a black musician facing the racial prejudice of the 1950s.

Writing a piece like this, which is mostly done through Kim’s point of view but also partially through Parker’s own, brings up the challenge of telling a story that belongs to a person of an entirely different background and set of circumstances than mine. Cultural appropriation is a sensitive issue and a tough one to tangle with. In this piece, I can rightfully claim connection with Kim, a young white girl. Readers might wonder, though, how I feel comfortable writing through Bird’s eyes. This question has come up in some of my other stories, too, when I’m using the viewpoints of characters whose experiences I’ve never had myself.

I feel strongly that writing, storytelling, creating fiction, exists at least in part to build bridges. When I work, I don’t only want to tell stories based on my own experiences or the experiences of people like me. I want to reach across those borders. I think we as writers can also grow as people when we do this. In these times especially, I think that kind of growth is necessary for all of us.

I don’t claim to know what Parker thought and felt. I think, though, that we can all, on some level, relate to loneliness, isolation, and frustration with life’s challenges, sometimes such drastic frustration and isolation that we look for any escape valve we can find. In the end, each person in the world has his or her own story. We can either accept the differences between us as barriers, until we each sit alone in a box, or we can try to reach across and see through someone else’s eyes.

In this week’s video, I’ve paired with “Fly Away Home” with the second movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 14 no. 1. This is a new piece for me, and I’m loving the learning process. I’ve done a strange thing musically, here, by splitting the piece up into three parts. From a musician’s standpoint, it feels weird, but those sections seemed to complement the writing, so I went with it.

As always, thanks so much for visiting the blog. Be sure to check back again in two weeks, for the next words-and-music feature.




Zen for Ten 25: guest post

Storytelling and Sound, with its new words-and-music format, will be back soon! Meanwhile, it was an honor to have this guest post featured at the wonderful book blog The Quivering Pen. Writing about one of my all-time favorite books, and the influence it had on me, was a delight. The post also gave me a chance to share memories of one of my favorite places in the world: the small town of Berwick, Pennsylvania, in the Pocono mountains, where my grandparents lived when I was a child. For many years, Berwick was an enchanted place to me. I didn’t start writing this post with the idea of talking about those memories, but when they made their way onto the page, that was clearly where they belonged.

Many thanks, again, to David Abrams at The Quivering Pen for this feature. As always, thank you for visiting the blog!



Zen for Ten 24: Storytelling and Sound Remix

The blog is back! (For now. 🙂 ) Apologies for my long absence, and thank you for visiting again.

These past few weeks have been super-busy. To Love A Stranger‘s launch party on June 10 was a great success (pix and video coming soon!). The following week, I went to the wonderful Kenyon Review Writers Workshops, as a teaching fellow in fiction.

Kenyon was an amazing experience. I first went to the workshop six years ago, knowing basically nothing about writing, struggling with the first draft of what would become Stranger, and overawed by the talents and achievements of the faculty and fellows. It felt surreal to come back this summer as a fellow myself. Kenyon is the reason Stranger was published, and to be received as a friend and colleague there by writers I respect so much was exhilarating. I came home with more confidence than I’ve had in a long time, and with my next project bubbling in my mind.

One of the best parts of the Kenyon week was getting to bring my music along. Music has shaped my writing so much, and though finding the balance between the two professions has had its challenges, it felt deeply satisfying to be grounded in each of them over the course of the workshop. During the week, I collaborated with fellow writer and Kenyon alumna Taylor Larsen, whose debut novel Stranger, Father, Beloved came out this year to great reviews. Taylor and I gave a storytelling-and-sound event of our own, in which she read excerpts from her novel and I played short pieces in between. The combination of music and words got a great response from the audience: the music created a backdrop and emotional context for the writing, and gave listeners a chance to reflect on the story they heard as it progressed.

With that event as my inspiration, I decided to try something a little different on the blog today. This might or might not be a long-running project, but I’d love to do more to combine written stories with music, and weave the two kinds of storytelling together more actively here.

With that in mind, I created my first combination reading/playing video, using my short story “Absolution” which was published this past March in Sinkhole Magazine. I divided the reading into two parts and alternated those parts with the two movements of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 49 no. 1.

This new video format is still in the figuring-out stages, but if all goes well, I’d love to continue with this idea as the blog’s main focus. I’ll use more of my own work, but also hope to feature work by other writers. In these two solitary pursuits, collaboration always makes things more fun!

The blog will be taking another hiatus over the next couple of weeks, as I’ll be traveling and getting some much-needed outdoor time, but it’ll be back in August on a regular schedule. As always, thanks so much for checking it out. Enjoy the video!

Featured story:Absolution

Featured music: Sonata in G minor, Op. 49 no. 1, by Ludwig van Beethoven



Zen for Ten 23: What Will You Do?

“There isn’t a way things should be. There’s just what happens, and what we do.” – Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky

This post feels haphazard to me, but I’ve been thinking about it for the past couple of days and wanted to try to put it together. It includes some thoughts about where art fits in the world, and also, in the video below, a short preview of the events for To Love A Stranger coming up next week.

Last week I wrote about launching a novel and what might be next on the road ahead. I’ve been thinking a lot about that question of “what’s next,” especially – always – in light of the things going on in the world. Particularly, last week, the terrible incident in Portland, Oregon, in which two men riding a bus were killed when they tried to stop another man from harassing innocent women.

A couple of days ago, I learned that one of the men who died tried, with what may have been his last words, to “tell everybody on the bus that I love them.” I grieved hard for the life that was lost: that someone who had so much love to share had died so pointlessly. The idea that “we should try to live up to his memory” didn’t offer much comfort. What sense does it make to lose a good person for no good reason? How is that fair?

At the same time, I wondered about the man who had committed the crime. What drives a person to hate so much, and to be so scared, that it makes sense not only to lash out with your hatred, but attack anyone who gets in your way? What kind of life does someone have, what kind of messages is he taught, that lead him to do horrible things? How is that fair?

I was thinking about all of this when I ran across the quote up above, by Terry Pratchett, one of my writing heroes. “There isn’t a way things should be.”

Pratchett himself, a brilliant writer of firework-like creativity, ran into the essential unfairness of life with the onset of his Alzheimer’s disease. He was fifty-nine when he was diagnosed with posterior cortical atrophy (PCA). In his essay “The NHS Is Seriously Injured,” he wrote, “When in Paradise Lost Milton’s Satan stood in the pit of hell and raged at heaven, he was merely a trifle miffed compared to how I felt that day. I felt totally alone, with the world receding from me in every direction, and you could have used my anger to weld steel.”

Pratchett died in 2015, at sixty-seven. As his Alzheimer’s progressed, he never stopped working. The things I admire most about his work, his ability to make us laugh and make us think, his ability to reflect our own world back at us in the disguise of fantasy and change our view of it and ourselves, stayed with him in everything he wrote. His message stayed consistent, and I believe that message kept him going. Things are the way they are. What are we going to do about it?

I’m thinking a lot about my role in a world where, it seems like, bad things happen every time you look around. Good things happen too, but that can be hard to remember, and those good things can sometimes be hard to find. In a time of change in my own life, what am I going to do about what I see around me?

What I have, right now, is art: the music I play, the words I write. I know what I’d like to do with them. I’d like to use them, however and wherever I can, to try to help people connect with each other. The world is full of problems, and we can’t apply the tools we have to everything at once, so we have to choose. I would like to use my tools to build bridges. I would like to use them to cut through shadows cast by fear and hate, and in place of those shadows, spread light.

In the video below, I’ve shared another excerpt of To Love A Stranger, along with one of the pieces of piano music that’s featured in the book. When I made the video, I hadn’t really planned this post out yet, so it maybe seems a little over-cheerful given what I’ve written here. On the other hand, maybe it doesn’t hurt to end on a happier note; in this case, looking ahead to what’s next for To Love A Stranger and what these words, and this music, might do.

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

P.S. For more info about purchasing To Love A Stranger, and on the launch party next week, please visit the book’s page.

Zen for Ten 22: The bend in the road

(Thoughts on a novel launch: how we got here, what it’s all about, and what happens next…)

We have liftoff! To Love A Stranger launched on May 23 and is now available in Kindle and paperback form on Amazon. You can also get it in paperback at Barnes and Noble.

Yesterday, the day after “book birthday,” my husband asked me if I feel different now than I did, say, a week ago. Yes: that part of the answer was easy. It’s harder, though, to define where exactly that difference comes from.

We writers are tough on ourselves. For a lot of us, it’s hard to own the title of “writer.” Over the past seven years or so, ever since I started taking writing seriously, I’ve set a series of hurdles for myself. “If I achieve x, I can call myself a writer.” x comes along, but it’s still not enough: now I need to achieve y. And then z. And then go back to the beginning of the alphabet and start over. There’s always another hill to climb.

It would be easy to say that, yes, publishing a book lets me call myself a writer. I have something substantial out in the world, something that I hope will make a difference to readers. Something that could be a legacy.

To be a writer, though, and own the title, you don’t have to publish a book. You don’t have to publish anything. What matters is that you write. That you care about the craft, and sit down in front of the blank page or blank screen, and hunt for the words that are hard to find. What matters is that you take joy in finding those words, and even when the work leaves you feeling like a wrung-out sponge, you have a deep soul satisfaction in having done it. If you do those things, you are a writer, whether outsiders acknowledge your work or not.

So, for me, having a book out makes a big difference, but it’s not so much about what I call myself. It has more to do with remembering what it took to get to this point, and what this moment means in the light of everything that led up to it.

I gave up on To Love A Stranger many times. It got dozens of rejections, and I kept trying to see the manuscript with fresh eyes and figure out how to “fix” it, and I couldn’t do that. Plenty of times, I wished I could just walk away from it and let it go. The story, though, had its claws in me. Somewhere deep down, I felt sure that it mattered, and that I had to tell it and share it. That fire in the gut – a very uncomfortable and uneasy day-in-and-day-out companion – made me go back to the manuscript again and again. I was never allowed to give up for good.

I remember how hard it was. I remember, very clearly, how devastating those rejections were. Sometimes they felt like the end of the world: if so-and-so didn’t like the book, didn’t want it, then I had no other options. This project meant the world to me, and I couldn’t see it through. I remember times when the hurt, and especially the ugly sense of failure, felt like more than I could live with. Everyone who’s gone through rejection knows what that’s like. How sometimes you can’t stand to be in your own skin, because those feelings could boil you alive.

Seeing Stranger out into the world, then, isn’t just about seeing this one project through. It’s also about recognizing that, for all those times when it would have been so much easier to give up, I was right not to. It often felt like some outside force compelled me to keep working, but to whatever extent I did have the choice to quit, I was right not to take it. That’s a powerful thing, especially for someone like me, who has never had much confidence in her decisions or her right to stick to her guns.

That’s where the idea of the turning point, or the bend in the road, comes in. Publishing Stranger does – at least in my mind – give me a place at the table of writers who have made their mark in the world. I’m way down at the foot, while my heroes are up at the head (and it’s a very long table), but I love the idea that maybe I’ll make a mark of my own. More importantly, though, getting to this point suggests to me that, at least sometimes, I’m right to bank on myself. When something feels that urgent to me, I’m right to stand by it and do whatever it takes to make it work. That’s another big change in the way I think. And it opens up doors for more changes giving me something to hold onto as I look at the road ahead.

What that road looks like now: I’m not sure. (We never know what’s around the next corner. 🙂 ) I know what I hope for: that there will be a next book after Stranger, not quite a sequel but connected (I’ve started working on it, and hope to get down to it in real earnest this summer). And that there will be more books to follow. And that, generally, I will make a writing life from now on, but most of all, that in heading down the next stretch of road, I’ll leave behind some of the baggage I’ve hauled with me for a long time. The you can’ts and the you’re not good enoughs. I hope I can go on along this road with a new, secure sense of who I am: the writer I’ve already been, for a long time.

To celebrate Stranger‘s launch, I’d like to share a brief reading, and an excerpt of one of the pieces featured in the book. Please check out the videos below.

Thanks so much for visiting the blog. See you next time!

To Love A Stranger excerpt, intro:

This is an excerpt from Chapter 7. The main character, Sam, is about to conduct his first concert with the Richmond Symphonic Artists (RSA), a small orchestra that’s fighting for its survival. The RSA’s board of directors has brought Sam in as a last-ditch attempt to turn things around for the group. If he can’t make that happen, this will be the RSA’s last season.

At the beginning of this excerpt, Sam is standing backstage, waiting to go on for the start of the concert. His orchestra manager, Lydia Holland, is waiting with him. Sam is thinking about people in the audience:  Bayard Keating, the chairman of the RSA’s board of directors, who expects Sam to work a miracle; Jeannette Reilly, Sam’s choral accompanist, with whom he’s in a tangled relationship. He’s also thinking about people who aren’t there: his father, Walter, from whom Sam is estranged; and a dear friend, Gil, who has a terminal illness and is in a hospital in Philadelphia. Above all, Sam is wondering if he’s going to be able to do anything for the RSA, before it’s too late.

The excerpt continues into the first piece Sam conducts in the concert, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.


Featured music: Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, second movement (Allegretto)

This is one of my favorite orchestral pieces of all time. This performance of it is given by the Vienna Philharmonic, with Leonard Bernstein conducting.


What Do You Want To Be Known For?

“Listen to the mustn’ts, child. Listen to the don’ts. Listen to the shouldn’ts, the impossibles, the won’ts. Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me: Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.” – Shel Silverstein

This will be my last post before Novel Launch Day, May 23 (and I’m running a little early this week). This past year, leading up to launch, in some ways has been a long transition. For years before that, the idea of getting To Love A Stranger out into the world was one huge “impossible” to me, or even a “mustn’t” and “shouldn’t.” I hadn’t done my work well enough. The book didn’t deserve to be out there…but then, somewhere, things changed. Anything can be.

Blogging, of course, is a public thing, but like many writers, I’m much more comfortable thinking aloud to the safety of a blank page, in a quiet room. It’s funny how writers are always putting their souls out in the world, through their work, when so often we’re very private people. Maybe we need to spend a lot of time quiet and still, in order to be able to share the things we write about.

In the leadup to launch, I’ve been tangling with marketing and publicity. Those are tough for me, as for a lot of writers. It feels unnatural to go after attention, even though we know we have to do it if our work is going to succeed. But it means thinking about how we present ourselves, who and what our prospective audience will see when they look at us, and whether or not we’re saying/doing/writing things they’ll find interesting. Many stories start in some deep, private place in a writer’s heart. We decide, in our solitude, that something is important enough to write about, and we work and refine, and scrap and try new things, again and again until the piece is as finished as we can make it. And when it’s finally ready, we face the whole new game of sharing it. That’s where we find out if what matters to us also matters to those people out there.

Marketing and publicity can be a maelstrom, and can be especially tough for those of us with anxiety, depression, and insecurities of different kinds (or some combination of all of the above). It’s awfully easy to feel like you’re not doing enough. It’s awfully easy to compare your Twitter following with someone else’s, and suddenly a number you were proud of seems tiny. It’s easy to feel like one insignificant voice that’s going to be drowned in the sea of much bigger, much louder voices coming from everywhere, all the time. Above all, it’s easy to lose track of why you started doing this thing in the first place, and what you hope will happen because you did it.

A couple of weeks ago, I heard a speaker ask an audience, “What do you want to be known for?” I’ve carried her question in my head since then, as an anchor. What do I want to be known for? What do I want to do through my work and my words? What do I want to do through the stories – To Love A Stranger and others – that have mattered and will matter to me?

For instance, would I like to be famous? Would I like to be known for selling gazillions of books? The easy answer is, of course! Funnily enough, though, that isn’t totally true.

If a writer is famous, lots of people, in lots of places, must be reading that writer’s work. Sure, at first that sounds fantastic. But if you take it a little farther, that’s also a pretty serious responsibility. What is that writer putting out? How are his or her words affecting other people? Are those words making the world brighter, or darker? Are they deadening people’s senses, or are they waking people up?

Lately, I’ve kept running into the idea that “we get what we ask for.” If we’re holding out one hand, asking for something – yes, please, let people notice my work! – but at the same time, pushing that thing away with the other hand – actually, it’s nice and safe here in my burrow, I’d rather stay hidden – it’s hard to get anything at all. And when you’re hustling, trying to get people to notice you, and that hustling meanwhile feels pretty uncomfortable and (sometimes) unpleasant, it’s easy to get lost.

Terry Pratchett and J. K. Rowling are two of my writing heroes. The Harry Potter books are one of the best short-term depression cures I know. When I’m going through a down period, they never fail to wake me up and make me believe, again, in the power of courage, determination, and authenticity. They also never fail to make me laugh. Pratchett’s Discworld books, too, always make me laugh, but I also admire Pratchett’s work because he tells terrific stories that take us into a totally different world, and at the same time, make us think about our own world and see something new about it.

In some ways, that’s exactly the kind of work I’d like to do. And in some ways, I’d like to reach as many people, and minds, as writers like Rowling and Pratchett. If that kind of fame ever happens for me, though, it’ll be a very long time from now. Meanwhile, there’s this first book. One step on a lifelong journey.

What do I want to be known for?

Sometimes I’ve thought that if I were a different kind of person, more confident, not so shy and withdrawn, I’d be better at hustling. I’d be able to build a bigger audience, faster. Sometimes that has seemed extremely important, and I’ve been frustrated with myself for being the way I am.

On the other hand…

Introverts aren’t usually fond of small talk, and we’re often very uncomfortable in crowds, but we love to have in-depth conversations with people we feel connected to. I like to connect with one person at a time. That’s more my speed.

Recently, I shared the trailer video for To Love A Stranger, which I’ve also included in this post, with a friend and fellow piano teacher. She in turn shared it with one of her students. The student told my friend how excited she was to know about a book that reflected her own experience. She’d been looking for books like that, but had never found any. Just knowing that Stranger existed made a difference to her.

That’s what I want my work to do. I want it to give people something that will help them in some way. Something that will make them smile, or think, or something that will tell them it’s okay to be who they are, or something that will help them look at things through new eyes. If that happens for one person at a time, maybe, eventually, it can spread pretty far. But it needs to happen for one person at a time.

It’s easy to get lost in appearances and the idea that we have to make lots of noise if we want to make a difference in the world. At the same time, though, maybe the best way to make any kind of impact is to stay true to ourselves, and do our own thing, our own way. Maybe, if we do that, it’s absolutely true that anything can be.

In closing, I’d like to ask you the same questions I’ve been asking myself: What do you want to be known for? And how will you make that happen?

As always, thank you for visiting the blog. See you on Launch Day.

To Love A Stranger‘s trailer video:


Zen for Ten 21: For the Wild Places

This morning, on my way home from a doctor’s appointment, I stopped at a park about a mile from my house. I’ve been there a lot: it’s a big parcel of farmland that also, at one point in its history, housed a row of kilns used to produce agricultural lime. These days, as you walk along the little stream that runs through the park, it’s hard to imagine the smoke and noise, heat and smell that must have been nonstop during the peak lime-production years. Instead, you only hear faint traffic noise from the road on the other side of the parkland, and the sound of the stream running over the rocks, and the calls of birds.

I went to the park for a quick dose of quiet green space. My head has been thought-clogged lately; the closer we get to my novel’s launch, the more my brain runs around in circles. (“Is it going to be okay? I’m not very good at promotion; did I at least try pretty hard? Are people going to like it? Is it going to be okay??“) This is one of those stretches of time that I know I’ll like better in retrospect. Later, say in July or August, these final pre-launch weeks will be a memory of happy excitement. Right now, I have more of a “could we just fast-forward three weeks, please?” feeling.

This morning, I didn’t have time for much of a walk, so I went straight down to the stream. It’s a narrow stream with a rocky bed and shelves of exposed pebbles. If you take some time and study the stones, as my husband and I often do, you’ll see a wide variety of colors and shapes, and some relics of the lime-kiln years: worn pieces of brick, old fragments of iron long smoothed down by the water, tiny bits of bright glass. Some of the rocks are as smooth as eggs and others are still skin-scrapingly rough. Colors range from white through rose and gold to red, brown, and black.

Today I went along the bank until I saw a convenient branch to sit on and watch the water. On my way to it, I disturbed a cloud of tiny blue butterflies. They swirled up from the ground and danced around me as I sat down. Against the brown soil, their blue looked surprisingly vivid, and they were so close I could make out the delicate dark edging on their wings.

Another critter made an appearance as soon as I took my seat: a long slim snake, undulating through the water. I like to give snakes a respectful distance, but they’re fun to watch, so smooth and quick and graceful. I watched this one maneuver around and through a tangle of tree roots that dipped down into the water, and then go along on his way.

It was a clear, sunny morning, the first one we’ve had after a few days of rain. I listened to the stream and took long breaths of fresh air. It smelled green. Those few minutes were a much-needed escape.

I’d already planned to link today’s post with Earth Day, observed this past Saturday, and to mention a little promo effort I started in honor of Earth Day week (more on that below). This has become more urgent to me after the reminder of this morning, and especially in light of what’s going on with our government and America’s wild places.

Many of us have been watching, this week, as our current presidential administration talks about a “review” of some of the national monuments – our wild lands – which were set aside and preserved from development by earlier administrations. We know what this might mean: the sale of those lands and the use (and abuse) of the natural resources they contain. A lot of us feel strongly about this issue: it’s one of many issues we’ve been trying to wrap our heads around, and figure out how to respond to, over the past few months.

That’s why, in this post and during this Earth Week, I’d like to make a particular plea for our wild places. In this blog, I’ve talked other times about feeling that it’s important to try to use whatever gifts I have to make a difference in the world. Sometimes it’s hard to know what to focus on at any given moment; so much is always happening, and so many problems and concerns call for our attention. We each have our priorities. For me, the arts are a big one, and social justice is another. Without question, though, the way we treat our world is one of the great factors that decides who we are as a people. And at the same time that we have to consider what kind of world our children and grandchildren will inherit, we should also think about what we might want for ourselves: those open places, that green space, the sound of water and the calls of birds. Room to breathe.

That’s why, this particular week, I’d like to use my writing to send some help to our wilderness areas. To do that, I’m making one of my favorite short stories, a piece called “Ivory-Bill Sighting,” available free to anyone who makes a donation to an environmental group. I’ve included a list of links below to some of my favorite groups, but you can also choose any other I might have missed. “Ivory-Bill Sighting” itself is also a shout-out to woods, and trails, and the unexpected beauty we can find even in places we think we know well. Here’s a short teaser:

IBS graf FB

Also in honor of Earth Day, and what I saw on my stream-watch this morning, I’d like to re-post the piano video from my last entry. If you didn’t get a chance to listen to Robert Schumann’s “Papillons” (“Butterflies”), you can check it out this week.

Please take a look at the links below and consider supporting your environmental group of choice. I’ve also included an article with more information on the review of our national monuments. If you decide to make a donation, and would like to claim your free PDF of “Ivory-Bill Sighting,” please send me an email at kris@krisfaatz.com, or connect with me on Facebook or Twitter.

Thank you for visiting the blog. See you next time!


LA Times article on the national monuments subject to review


Sierra Club

Defenders of Wildlife


The Nature Conservancy


Friends of the Earth


Zen for Ten 20: Flying Slips of Paper

This week’s post is all about the music. The recording is longish, so I’ll keep the words short. 🙂 I’d like to share one of my favorite “storytelling and sound” pieces, Robert Schumann’s Papillons Op. 2.

Schumann belongs to the Romantic era in music history (about 1825 to 1900). He’s one of the composers in the generation after Beethoven, the generation that had to decide what to do with all the new ideas Beethoven explored. Schumann himself had a rough life. He was a pianist, but lost the ability to perform after some of the exercises he used to strengthen his hands backfired and damaged his muscles. He struggled with depression for most of his life; his mental health deteriorated more as he got older.

Papillons is an early work for Schumann. It belongs to a time when it was easier for him to tap into energy and enthusiasm, and we can tell from the notes he left about this particular piece that he loved writing it. The title translates literally from the French as “butterflies,” but Schumann himself translated it as “flying slips of paper.” When he was working on the piece, he said later, the ideas came so fast he could barely keep up. Pieces of paper flew around his workroom as he scribbled ideas, tossed pages aside when they were full, snatched fresh paper, and scribbled some more. I know a lot of writers would love to have that kind of process!

The inspiration for Papillons came from a story Schumann had read that featured a costume ball. The piece itself is a series of twelve very short pieces, mostly waltzes. Schumann wanted to put the pianist, and in turn, the listener, in the ballroom he imagined. We’re meant to admire the spectacle, the lights and costumes, the dancers whirling around the room, the excitement and laughter. Schumann is giving us a musical kaleidoscope.

Papillons is a great example of program music: music written to tell a specific story. Another, earlier, example is Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the “Pastoral,” in which Beethoven gives us a series of scenes including a brook in the countryside, a thunderstorm, and a country dance. A later, super-iconic example is Modest Mussorgsky’s amazing “Pictures from an Exhibition,” a tour de force and rite of passage for a lot of pianists. In “Pictures,” each movement is a musical “translation” of a specific painting or drawing. Program music was a relatively new idea in Beethoven’s time, but became very popular during the Romantic era.

I decided to record Papillons and share it on the blog on the spur of the moment. Making recordings is still pretty challenging for me, on the nervousness front, and with a long piece like this, it’s an extra challenge. This recording isn’t always as clean as it might be, but I love this music and hope you’ll like listening to it.

As you listen, I’d invite you to close your eyes and imagine the ballroom scene. Schumann tells us a little about the characters he had in mind, particularly a pair of star-crossed lovers, but the music might suggest different characters to you. At the beginning of the piece, you’ll hear a short theme: a scale of ascending notes. The same lilting, ascending scale comes back in the last movement. Also in the last movement, you’ll hear a single high repeated note, cutting through the rest of the musical texture. That’s the clock striking, telling us that the party is over. The final measures of the piece feature a chord where the pianist lets go of one note at a time, so that the sound fades away. After all the drama, we end with a charming, funny whisper.

Thanks as always for visiting the blog. See you next time!

Featured music: Papillons, Op. 2, by Robert Schumann



Zen for Ten 19: Let the Light Out

There’s something about spring. Even after as mild a winter as we’ve had here in Maryland, you feel a change in the air when the season officially turns. New energy, new light; a kind of optimism that gets in your blood with every breath you take of clean, fresh air. No wonder we talk about spring fever. As the first new green comes out on the trees – nothing is quite as magical as that first green – everything seems possible.

Spring is a terrific time for beginnings. I’m standing at one of my own, with the launch of my novel in seven weeks and three days (not that I’m counting 🙂 ). But spring can be a challenging time too.

Today, we’re getting a slow, soaking rain. Another spring truism, about those April showers and May flowers, is all well and good, but if you’re like me, the weather can mess with your mood. Two days ago, when we had lots of sunshine, I felt pumped and happy. Today, I’d like to crawl back in bed and wait for the gray weather to go somewhere else.

For me, changeable spring weather is a great metaphor for new beginnings. They can be rollercoasters. You don’t know how things are going to go, how you’re going to feel once the dust settles and you can take stock of the new adventure you’ve embarked on. Will you keep hurrying forward, eager to see what’s coming next? Or will you backtrack, wishing you’d never left the safe, flat-but-familiar place you came from?

As I write this, I find myself thinking about a poem from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring:

The road goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began. Now far ahead the road has gone, and I must follow if I can: pursuing it with eager feet, until it joins some larger way where many paths and errands meet. And whither then? I cannot say.

In the story, Tolkien gives this song to a couple of different characters. One of them, optimistic adventurer Bilbo Baggins, sings it with the words I used here. Another, the strong but heavily burdened Frodo, makes one small change: instead of “eager” feet, his are “weary.” To me, that’s exactly the contrast of new beginnings, especially when you have a tricky brain, like mine, that likes to undercut what you’re trying to do. As much as I’d like to have a Bilbo-mindset about adventures, much more often I find myself identifying with Frodo.

So this brings me around to this question of letting the light out. As my current adventure gets underway, I’m making a bargain with myself.

Like many depressives, I find it much easier to curl up in my safe place. Putting myself out there, in any way, is dangerous, and change is often terrifying. The status quo might have its problems, but at least I know how to deal with it.

You can’t fight adventures, though. Change will happen whether we want it to or not. I’ve learned from my own experience that struggling against change, or setting up walls against it, is exhausting. In the end, it only makes the depression heavier.

My current bargain with myself goes something like this. You’re used to keeping your light hidden, but it’s not time to do that anymore. You need to let it out.

Reaching for inspiration can help. Today’s musical feature is by my single favorite composer, if I could only choose one: Ludwig van Beethoven. Below the video, I’ll talk a little about this particular piece and why it’s so significant for me. Feel free to skip down and read first, but make sure to come back and listen.

Today’s feature: First movement of Symphony no. 3, “Eroica,” by Ludwig van Beethoven (performed by the Vienna Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein conducting)

So, why this particular piece? Because this is the one that changed history.

Beethoven stands at a crossroads in music history. He comes from the Classical era (about 1750-1825), and was trained by one of the greatest names of the Classical period, Franz Josef Haydn. Beethoven learned from Haydn about how music was “supposed” to sound: elegant, polite, cleanly structured, restrained.

Even as a young man, Beethoven didn’t have much patience with “polite” and “restrained.” He started getting fed up with Haydn’s lessons early on; the teacher-student relationship was, let’s say, interesting. And then the real change happened.

Beethoven was about thirty years old, taking Vienna by storm with his brilliance as a concert pianist. Then his hearing started to fail.

We’re used to thinking of him as “the deaf genius,” as if his life couldn’t have gone any other way. Take a second, though, and think about what this would have meant for a musician. What it would have meant for a performer, who depended on his ears to tell him what his hands were doing when he performed on the piano. What it meant for a composer, who depended on his hearing to allow him to write the music he heard in his head.

In 1801, when Beethoven was only thirty-one, he knew that no doctor could reverse his increasing deafness. Suddenly the life he had built became a huge question mark. All he wanted to do was make music. He couldn’t imagine, and hadn’t prepared for, any other kind of life. What was he going to do now?

In a famous letter from the time, the Heiligenstadt Testament, he admits that he became so despairing that he thought about ending his life. But, he wrote, “Art stayed my hand.” He still had music he wanted to write. He didn’t know how long he would be able to keep working, or whether, once the deafness became complete, he would have to give up the one thing he loved most. While he still could, though, he would keep making his art.

We know the rest of the story. Beethoven kept working until the day he died. Out of his deafness and isolation, out of his frustration and constant physical pain, he created art that changed the world.

Be embraced, you millions! This kiss is for the whole world! Beethoven set that line of Goethe’s poetry to music in his Ninth Symphony. When I had the chance to sing in a performance of the Ninth, in college, that line made me cry. So much beauty, out of such a dark time at the end of Beethoven’s life. The size of his soul couldn’t have been clearer.

The Ninth Symphony was Beethoven’s last, but the Third Symphony was the first piece to come out of his new resolve to keep working despite what was happening to his body. The piece was premiered in 1802. When Beethoven sent it to his publisher, he wrote that this music was written in a totally new style, that it would do things no composer had ever done before.

Audiences at the time didn’t know what to think. Some people loved it. Others said it was vulgar, overblown, just plain bad. Without question, though, Beethoven had done something new. After that, music would never be the same.

That’s why I chose this piece, when thinking about how important it is to let the light out. Beethoven did that, in spite of everything he faced. His light reached uncounted millions of people, and still does, almost two hundred years after his death.

If you’re like me, and if you struggle with change and adventures, I encourage you to listen to the Eroica (maybe the whole symphony!), and think about letting the world see your light. I’ve also been doing an exercise that helps: I visualize an actual candle, hidden under a basket, and then I visualize taking the basket away. When you let them, how far do those rays reach?

This spring, I invite you to embrace your adventure. Let us see your light.

Thanks so much for visiting the blog. See you next time!

Zen for Ten 18: Rubber meets Road

(Note: the blog will be on break next week.)

A couple of weeks ago, my novel reached a new milestone on its road to release. At the same time that the Kindle pre-order went live on Amazon, the e-version also went up on the online service NetGalley, where you can download a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

For small presses, like my indie Blue Moon Publishers, NetGalley is an essential resource. The traditional way to get reviews is to mail advance copies (ARCs) to potentially interested readers, and hope for a good response, but small presses usually don’t have the money for too many copies. Reviews are important to get buzz started about a new book, especially one by an unknown writer.

I knew this was going to be an important step. I had a handful of early reviews, all good, all written by people who know me and have a stake in the book (a couple of them are big reasons why Stranger exists at all). It’s wonderful to get support from the people who have watched you develop as a writer. It’s a different step, though, to get feedback from someone who has no previous familiarity with you or your book, who takes it at face value, and who can say exactly what they think with no fear of hurt feelings (or, for that matter, mature responses like, Oh yeah? Well, just wait ’til you want a review from ME, pal! 🙂 ).

To be honest, I was terrified about how new people, outsiders, would respond to Stranger. I thought a lot about how we’re getting to the point where the rubber meets the road: where my publisher finds out if their investment in me will pay off; where I find out what the upshot of the years of work and love, tears and joy, is going to be. There’s my book, that huge piece of myself, out on display for anyone to look at.

Complicating this, there’s the issue so many of us artists deal with: shaky self-image. Sometimes, especially when I’m deep in a new project, or when I’m at the piano, I feel like my feet are firmly planted. I know who I am, and I like that person. The problem is, though, that it seems like the world is always there, ready to hold up a mirror showing me how I ought to be instead. We all take in a barrage of messages, every day, about how we should dress, eat, look, and act; how we should spend our time; how we should spend our money. I’m not too worried about appearances, but the “what is your worth?” question is a big one for me. How do I measure it? If my life was a balance sheet (which I’d rather it wasn’t, but it’s an easy trap to fall into), what would the total look like? Would it be respectable, or would I be found wanting?

Holding onto self-confidence often feels, for me, like trying to listen to a song on a badly-tuned radio. The signal cuts in and out. Sometimes it’s clear and strong: that’s when I’m firmly planted in myself. Other times, a lot more often than I’d like, the signal fades or turns into static.

As we’re moving toward the actual release of Stranger, it’s been more and more important to me to think about its roots. What got me started with this book. Why, for so many years, it was so important. What drove me to dive into – and stick with – a project when I had no idea how to do it, how long it would take, or how hard it would be.

One thing I’ve loved doing over the past year or so, ever since I signed the contract with Blue Moon, has been going back to some of the music I listened to when I started Stranger. Novels, of course, change while we’re writing them, and the novel in my head at the beginning wasn’t the one that ultimately ended up on the page. When I started mine, I thought it was going to be set in a different decade than the one it ended up in (it changed by a solid fifteen or twenty years), and because I hadn’t actually lived through my target decade, I thought the best way to get a feel for the time was to listen to its music.

That was how I first learned about Bob Dylan. You can say a lot of things about him: about his voice, his harmonica playing, his chameleon musicianship and the styles he experimented with over the years, his lyrics. At first, I couldn’t understand anything I listened to. I didn’t like his voice, couldn’t follow the words, couldn’t get into the free-form style of his early folk music, where phrases change length at random and seem to wander around at will. I didn’t understand why this man had become an icon.

It took a while, but somewhere along the line, something reached me. I first noticed it when I watched footage of Dylan singing “Mr. Tambourine Man” at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival. This fresh-faced young man, with his guitar and harmonica, sang a song which – even if I couldn’t really follow it – haunted me somehow. Forget about today until tomorrow: I liked that. I watched him, and the audience that his music enthralled, and started to see how he had become the voice of a generation. His music let me reach into the past and touch a time very different from my own. For a little while, I felt as if I had been there too.

Then there was the album Blood on the Tracks. During the first few months when I was writing the book that became Stranger – months in which I still hadn’t realized that I didn’t have the first clue how to write a book – I practically wore out that CD. My favorite track on it was “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.” I’d hoped to find a video of Dylan performing that song, to include in this post, but all I could find was covers. So here are the lyrics:

I’ve seen love go by my door
It’s never been this close before
Never been so easy or so slow
I’ve been shooting in the dark too long
When somethin’s not right it’s wrong
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go

Dragon clouds so high above
I’ve only known careless love
It’s always hit me from below
This time around it’s more correct
Right on target, so direct
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go

Purple clover, Queen Anne lace
Crimson hair across your face
You could make me cry if you don’t know
Can’t remember what I was thinkin’ of
You might be spoilin’ me too much, love
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go

Flowers on the hillside, bloomin’ crazy
Crickets talkin’ back and forth in rhyme
Blue river runnin’ slow and lazy
I could stay with you forever
And never realize the time

Situations have ended sad
Relationships have all been bad
Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud
But there’s no way I can compare
All those scenes to this affair
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go

You’re gonna make me wonder what I’m doin’
Stayin’ far behind without you
You’re gonna make me wonder what I’m sayin’
You’re gonna make me give myself a good talkin’ to

I’ll look for you in old Honolul-a
San Francisco, Ashtabula
You’re gonna have to leave me now, I know
But I’ll see you in the sky above
In the tall grass, in the ones I love
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go

This particular track hit me in the gut. By that point, in trying to plot my novel, I knew my main character was going to lose someone he cared about very much, someone who had been an anchor in his life, because of a choice he later regretted profoundly. I listened to this song many times, and that relationship fleshed itself out for me. I heard it not from my main character’s perspective, but from the perspective of his loved one, the one “left behind.” It was so real that I remember driving home from work one afternoon and sobbing as I listened to the track. I’ll see you in the sky above, in the tall grass, in the ones I love…

A lot of my first ideas changed as I wrote the book (and rewrote it, and rewrote it), but that particular relationship stayed. That song stayed in my head too, and was one of my anchors over the years of work. It reminded me why I had started working. That particular piece of the story was so clear and so moving to me; a driving force.

Which brings me back to the question of reviews, especially reviews from people who don’t know any of Stranger‘s history. When I started working, I imagined a book that would move other people as deeply as my image of it had moved me, something that might even change the way people thought and felt. I imagined reviews that would have words like “searing” and “breathtaking.”

It turned out that my style tends more toward the “quiet” and “gentle,” something I couldn’t change even though I tried. But when my first NetGalley review did come in last week, and my publisher sent it along to me even though I was afraid to see it, I learned that wasn’t necessarily a problem.

Reviewer Sara Marsden gave Stranger five out of five stars. When I read the first line of her response, my jaw dropped. An incredibly moving and beautiful piece of literature. A couple of lines further down: A lyrical masterpiece that punches you right in the gut. And finally, I look forward to future work from Faatz.

The book didn’t turn out the way I’d initially expected, or necessarily hoped, but this was the kind of review I imagined ten years ago. I don’t know how other people will feel about Stranger, if they’ll agree with Ms. Marsden or wonder what on earth she saw in my work, but her words give me a huge piece of encouragement. I did at least some of what I set out to do.

If you’ve never listened to Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, give it a try. It’s an incredible album. Meanwhile, this is the video of “Mr. Tambourine Man” that first inspired me.

If you’d like to pre-order the print version of Stranger, and also help support the Human Rights Campaign, please visit the 10 x 10 x 10 Society page. As always, thanks so much for visiting the blog. See you next time.