Maker’s Day 6

Each Wednesday on the blog, I’ll share a small prompt as food for reflection. Maybe you’ll also find it inspires you to make some art.

Today’s prompt segues out of last week’s “color green.” This is a short piece of music, “All in a Garden Green,” by English Renaissance composer William Byrd (1540-1623). Apologies for my less-than-perfect recording; this piece is a recent study for me. 🙂

What does the music inspire or evoke for you? If you’d like, please feel free to share thoughts and responses in the comments. On Facebook, I’ve also started a “Maker’s Day Sharing Group” where we can talk about the prompts and support each other’s creativity. New members are always welcome!

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!


News and Updates

I don’t often do blogposts like this, but realized today that I have a bunch of things coming up, so today’s post is a Preview of Coming Attractions. 🙂

First, I’m very excited about two classes I’ll be teaching soon. Next Monday, 7/11/22, I’m starting a six-week session of Writing with Musical Inspiration, an online class offered in partnership with Tiferet Journal. This is a generative class where we use music as a prompt for storytelling and as a basis to talk writing craft. It’s fun, different, and inspirational; folks who have taken it have told me how it’s gotten them writing in ways they never expected. You can find out more and sign up here. Space is limited, so check it out!

A taste of the music: one of the pieces we listen and write to in Writing with Musical Inspiration.

Second, on Saturday 7/16/22, I’m co-teaching Magic and Transformation in Poetry and Prose with my wonderful friend and colleague, poet Tina Marie Johnson. This is a single-shot online workshop where we’ll experiment with one of my favorite things: using magical twists in storytelling. We’ll look at how other writers “sell” readers on their wild and surreal ideas, and play around with using fantasy elements of our own in real-world stories and poems. Whether you’re like me and love to write fantasy, or whether this is new for you, you’ll find ideas and inspiration here. To learn more or sign up, check out this link.

Third, and speaking of storytelling with a magical twist, my story “Coreopsis” is online now at The Los Angeles Review. If you’re in the mood for a short surreal WWI-era read, please have a look!

Coreopsis: the flower behind the story

More updates will also be coming soon on the release of Fourteen Stones. Our crowdfunder for the launch will begin in August.

Tomorrow there will be a new prompt up for Maker’s Day. You can find all of the weekly Maker’s Day prompts compiled here. Check back tomorrow for some creative inspiration.

As always, thank you for visiting the blog!

Music for Meditation

Today is a bit of a down day. There’s a lot going on in the world (right now, especially here in the US) that’s dark and nerve-racking. I’m definitely having one of those days where I wonder about making art, what it’s good for, and what I’m hoping to accomplish with it.

I’m trying to hold onto the idea that how I feel is always temporary. I might feel down, but that doesn’t mean I am down; that would imply that the feelings don’t change. I’m also holding onto the fact that there are still, always, lovely things out there to admire. We have a nest of wrens in the backyard. Our bee balm is in bloom this morning (I didn’t even know it had flowers!). The goldfinches are back for the summer and making themselves at home.

Bee balm flowers. Who knew?

In the spirit of looking for and sharing beauty, I thought I’d share a little more music this week. These are two recordings I made a couple of years ago. The composer, William Byrd (1540-1623), is one of my favorites, though you don’t hear his keyboard music played much. Byrd was one of the greats of the English Renaissance and is mainly known for his vocal music, especially liturgical pieces.

These two pieces are both Byrd’s arrangements of folk songs that were popular in his time: “Will You Walk the Woods so Wild” and “The Maiden’s Song.” Each piece is a theme and variations. You’ll hear the main tune presented first, simply, and then changed up and ornamented in a series of variations.

Both pieces are meditative and lovely. I really enjoy playing them, and hope you’ll enjoy listening.

William Byrd, “Will You Walk the Woods so Wild”
William Byrd, “The Maiden’s Song”

Tomorrow is Wednesday, which means a new Maker’s Day prompt. Please stop by and check it out, and meanwhile, if you like what you see here on the blog, please consider subscribing. As always, thank you for visiting!

Musical Motivation

If you’re a writer, do you like to listen to music while you work? For me, that used to be a hard no. I love music, but I used to need all the quiet I could get when I was writing, to get myself into the right head space.

Things have changed a little over the last couple of years. When I started working on my big rewrite of Fourteen Stones, in the spring of 2020 right as Covid was turning things upside down, I needed some help to “stop thinking so hard” and get past some creative blocks. Last week I posted about how writing in general was pretty hard for me then. I wanted to do it, but my mental health was a big challenge. It didn’t work too well to sit in silence at my computer and try to will myself into the world of the story; that was overwhelming and scary, and I would give up pretty fast. Instead, I tried something new: making a playlist of songs I thought would help me get out of my head.

I’m a classical musician. Listening to and playing classical music has been a huge help to my mental health, especially when I’m having high anxiety. To help me get back into Fourteen Stones, though, I found myself thinking about other kinds of music, mostly favorite pop tunes going back to when I was in junior high. The playlist I eventually came up with was pretty eclectic, with everything from the Temptations and Genesis to Vance Joy and Maroon 5. (You can definitely laugh at some of my song choices; so do I. 😉 ) Since Fourteen Stones is set in a fictional world, in a time period that doesn’t parallel our 20th or 21st century, my playlist wasn’t meant as a real soundtrack for the story. (My husband, who’s a composer, has been working on a real soundtrack for it, which I hope to share as we get closer to launch!) Instead, the songs I picked each had some kind of emotional resonance or energy that got me headed in the right direction.

Today I thought I’d share three of the ones I listened to when I was working through that rewrite. They helped cut through my anxiety and resistance, and made it much easier to dive back into my created world and get to know my characters again.

Oldest first: “Follow You, Follow Me,” by Genesis. This was maybe my first-ever favorite song; I fell in love with it when I was in sixth grade. Revisiting it was a kind of personal anchor. Fourteen Stones also has a love-story angle that this song fit with well (at least in my head).

Another favorite was “Exes and Ohs,” by Elle King. Very different energy. 😉 This was on the radio a lot a few years ago, when I was writing the very first drafts of what would become Fourteen Stones. I usually listen to the radio when I drive, and when this song came on, I’d turn it up for an energy boost.

And finally for this sampler, “Sorrow and Joy,” by Indigo Girls. This was a tougher one. In the summer of 2019, a friend of mine passed away very suddenly. I first heard this song a few months later, and found it hard to listen to, but at the same time, it had a lot of resonance.

The revision-playlist trick was so helpful that, when I started writing a new book this past fall, I made up another playlist to help push me through the first draft. That book, Nicky True, is set in 1945, but my playlist mostly taps music from the ’60s and ’70s. I found that, again, it was less about the time period or making a “soundtrack” for the story than about finding songs that had the right kind of energy for me. I’m using the same playlist again as I dig into revisions of that draft.

If you’re a writer or another kind of creative artist, what supports your process? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

As always, thanks for visiting the blog. If you could use a little creative inspiration, please stop back tomorrow for our weekly Maker’s Day prompt!

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

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.

New in 2022!

Relaunching the blog after a very long time. Hope everyone is hanging in and staying safe and well!

My second novel, Fourteen Stones, is forthcoming this fall from The Patchwork Raven, a brilliant indie press in New Zealand. I’m thrilled that this book will be out in the world; it was a project of love that got started in the summer of 2015, when my husband and I went to Spain, and our adventures inspired me to write fantasy for the first time. Here on the blog, I’ll share a little about the story and my process writing it, my inspirations for it, and the characters and the world they live in. It’s still pretty surreal to me that this beloved project is going to be a real thing, alive in the world. I can’t wait to share it with you.

Also on the blog, I’ll share other writerly/readerly stuff, and some musical stuff, and – crucially – cat pictures. Some of you know I’m mom (staff?) to three cats, who pretty much run the house, and of whom I take far too many pictures:

This is Fergus. He sits…even if he doesn’t exactly fits.
Philosopher pose.

I’ll close today’s “preview of coming attractions” with a short musical selection for your Tuesday afternoon. This is a recording I made of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Bagatelle in G Major, Op. 126. Beethoven is one of my favorite composers, for many reasons I’m likely to write about in future posts, and this miniature piece (about two minutes long) is a delight to play.

If you’ve enjoyed today’s post and would like more cats, music, and writing, please consider subscribing. Thanks for your visit!

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.