Song and Story

Welcome! 🙂 I hope the daily music posts here on the blog are giving you a boost, in these strange and unsettling times. If you’re new to the series and would like to check out earlier posts, you’ll find the first one here.

Today’s post features (yet more?) music by Felix Mendelssohn. The first of these two Songs without Words is a new find for me, and a new favorite. It’s solemn and majestic, exploring the rich sound especially in the piano’s bass register. The second of the two Songs has actually been on the blog before (I’m stealing from myself 😉 ). This one, in E Major, is a very old favorite. I’m not positive, but I think it might be the first of the Songs without Words that I ever learned. I first played it when I was ten, the same summer that I first read Richard Adams’s Watership Down. 

Segue into personal sidebar (there is a connection, don’t worry!)… Watership Down was a life-changer for me. I remember reading it over three days, at my grandparents’ house in northeastern Pennsylvania. Total immersive magic. What Adams did with words shaped my own style immeasurably as a writer: I still owe him my love for vivid description, quiet but inexorable pacing, and an overall quality that I can best describe as gentleness: writing that is never aggressive or flashy but finds exactly the turn of words that resonates with the reader. That’s the kind of writer I try to be. Watership Down defined that summer (thirty years ago already?) and has always been linked in my mind to the E Major Song without Words. Back then, when I played that music, it wove together in my imagination with the story I had fallen in love with. It had the same deep expression, the same gentleness, and the same shifting mood between dark and light.

All of that was a very long introduction. Hope you enjoy today’s recordings. 🙂 As always, you’re welcome to share your thoughts and responses to the music in the comments. Make sure to subscribe to the blog if you’d like a daily dose of music, and visit back soon!

P.S. for those on Facebook: tomorrow, Saturday, 4/4, I’ll be giving a short concert via Facebook Live. If you’ve been enjoying the blog, I’d love to have you tune in on my FB page on Saturday at 7 pm, for about half an hour of music by Mendelssohn, Bach, Beethoven, and Gershwin. (Today’s two Songs without Words will make an appearance.)

Buried Meteor

Apologies for the lack of post last week. After Tuesday went by, I thought maybe Wednesday or Thursday I would put up a late one, but then it was the end of the week and I still hadn’t gotten my act together. 😉

But I’m glad I waited, because this week’s post probably needed the extra “mental digestion” time. This week I’m thinking about my creative work: ways I’ve avoided it, and why I’ve had such a hard time getting back to it after a rough summer.

If you’ve been following the blog, you know the summer was very challenging for me, involving lots of anxiety and panic. Naturally, doing creative work under those circumstances gets to be difficult (“I can’t sit down long enough! I can’t concentrate! I can’t…”). With the start of fall, I’d hoped and planned that things would get better. Time had passed since a couple of the events that kicked off the panic. I was on a new med. Surely, I thought, come September I’d be able to turn things around and get back to my “normal” self.

The process of re-normalizing has been a lot slower than I’d hoped. Over the summer, I spent a lot of time avoiding any thoughts of my writing or what I want to do with it. More recently, I’ve been thinking about it again, and sometimes actually getting some words on the page…but it always seems like the anxiety is hovering in the background, ready to knock me down again. You’re trying that? You must be crazy. And then I’ll find something else to do instead: laundry, random errands, unnecessary baking (which has its benefits, I admit), or any other kind of busy work to get away from what scares me.

river 1

Avoidance is normal and part of the artistic life. We all know what it’s like to feel intimidated by that project we want to work on, but aren’t sure we can really do “well enough.” For me, though, it’s gone a little deeper than the usual resistance I know. It’s like when you’re clearing a piece of ground in your yard to put in a garden. You dig down and your shovel hits a stone that doesn’t look like much at first, so you try to find the edge of it so you can flip it out of the hole…but you keep digging, and digging, and your shovel keeps hitting it, and it turns out this thing is huge. It’s as if there’s a buried meteor down there, and you can’t put your garden in on top of it, and you don’t know how you’re going to get it out.

In my case,  the buried meteor – the biggest source of my resistance to digging into my creative work, getting back to that so-important piece of life – is my own view of myself. I’ve always known I had some, let’s call them self-esteem challenges. The past few months have shown me exactly how big they are.

waterfall pic

If you were reading the blog during the summer, you know that in June, I had a string of tough writing-related news that culminated in a rejection of my novel Fourteen Stones by an agent we’ll call Agent X. I’d liked Agent X a lot; they’d spent quite a bit of time with the book, I knew that folks on their team really liked it, and they’d been respectful and communicative throughout the submission and review process. Unfortunately, as can easily happen in this process, the book turned out to be not quite the right fit for them. Instead of saying to myself, “Hey, you got really close with Agent X, they were really nice and they did like the book a lot, so you just need to keep trying and you’ll find the right agent for you,” I let my disappointment turn into crashing shame. All the time I’d spent working on Fourteen Stones suddenly seemed like a total waste. It was no good. I was no good.

This might seem unreasonable if you’re not familiar with the process, and especially if you don’t happen to look at the world through the truth-distorting lens of anxiety and depression. Even I knew it was over the top, but I couldn’t seem to control it. I spent the rest of the summer and well into the fall wondering what was wrong with me, why my head felt so messed up, not knowing how I could ever get myself back to a productive place. Sometimes I got more angry than scared, and sometimes – despite how nice they’d been – I got really pissed at Agent X. More than once I wanted to sit down and write them a furious email about how my whole summer had been ruined, four months of my life I’d never see again, because they just couldn’t give me the answer I wanted and it wasn’t fair!

Of course this isn’t an ideal career move. 😉 More importantly, though, very lately I’ve come to understand something else: really understand it, rather than just being aware of it. Of course it isn’t Agent X’s fault that my book wasn’t the right match for them. And it wasn’t their fault that I had so much trouble with that rejection: that I let it take me into such a bad place, and that I then stayed there. The problem, which I knew in my head but had never internalized, was that I was giving away my power.

Let’s say Agent X had wanted the book. I’d have been thrilled, of course. It would have felt like a huge validation…and that’s exactly the problem. I would have decided that Fourteen Stones had been worth every hour I’d spent on it. Not because I’d created something that never existed before; not because that creation was exciting and beautiful and I was proud of it; not because all those hours of work on it had been filled with delight and joy. Fourteen Stones would have had worth, in my eyes, not because of what knew about it, but only because someone else found it acceptable. 

Dangerous, right? And that’s my buried meteor: the belief, lodged somewhere deep in my hindbrain, that I have no worth until someone else gives it to me. The more I dig at it, the more I understand how that belief has affected everything I do.

Having that deeply-internalized self-image has meant that I’m reluctant to take risks. I’m scared to put my work out there, so even though I do it, I do it in a small and limited way. I’m always waiting for rejection, not because it’s statistically likely in this business – which it is – but because I believe that’s what I deserve. When it comes, I take that as a confirmation of my belief that I’m “not good enough.” I’m scared to start new projects because I’m firmly convinced I can’t succeed. And then I avoid work entirely because I’m scared of being scared.

Agent X’s rejection – though I don’t like to admit it 😉 – was actually a gift. I just turned forty years old a few weeks ago, and I’m finally starting to get a good look at the buried meteor that’s been part of my life for as long as I can remember. I want to build a garden in that spot. I know it can be beautiful, but that rock has to come out first.

It’ll take a lot of work. It’s hard for me to imagine really dragging it out into the light and getting rid of it. I can see it, though, and I know what needs to happen next. That’s a start.

waterfall

 

 

 

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!

Zen for Ten 28: Chopin and To Love A Stranger

Today’s post features an excerpt from Chapter 4 of To Love A Stranger, paired with two short excerpts from Frederic Chopin‘s Nocturne in B flat Minor, Op. 9 no. 1.

The excerpt from Stranger is told from the point of view of Jeannette Reilly, one of my two main characters. Jeannette has just started working as piano accompanist for the Richmond Symphonic Artists and has met their new director, Sam Kraychek. Jeannette is a shy, withdrawn woman who has overcome a lot to find her first “real” gig as a pianist.

She finds herself immediately attracted to Sam, who, like her, is passionately devoted to music. Her sister Veronica encourages her in this attraction, but Jeannette finds it dangerous and unsettling. She’s afraid to trust another person, especially one she barely knows.

Chapter 4 takes place during a break in a rehearsal Jeannette is accompanying for Sam. Right before the rehearsal, Jeannette’s sister Veronica insisted on giving Jeannette a makeover to make her more interesting to “that boy.” At rehearsal, Jeannette finds that Sam has in fact noticed her; he asks her to come early to the next rehearsal so they can play duets beforehand. Jeannette knows she ought to be thrilled about this, but her past experience has taught her how dangerous it can be to stand out and be noticed, and especially to make herself vulnerable by caring about someone.

During the rehearsal break, Jeannette finds a quiet space to get her thoughts together. At the same time, though, she takes in exactly what her sister has done to her looks. Jeannette’s new appearance brings back past shadows that she has tried to escape from, but can never completely leave behind.

Chopin’s B flat Minor Nocturne is a haunting, lyrical piece, less noticeable for the flashy writing Chopin often used than for a gentle, introspective quality that pairs well with this scene from Stranger.

As always, thank you for visiting the blog! Next time, the Storytelling and Sound series will feature work by Louise Marburg, whose debut story collection The Truth About Me launches this week. Until then!

Don’t have your copy of To Love A Stranger? Get it here.

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