This Song Smells Like the Color Yellow

I don’t have to tell you that music can be extraordinarily powerful, so I’ll just whisper it quietly. I haven’t met someone who hasn’t connected at least once in their life to some song, somewhere – although if you are such a person, we should chat about how to fix it.

We know that music hits us in ways that nothing else can, but I don’t know how often we recognize the true, gut-wrenching, perspective-changing power. I was thinking about it the other day, when I realized the song that was playing had sent me straight back to the emotional and life place I was in two and a half years ago. It got me thinking,so I’m going to be as honest as I can and take you into some of those memories with me.

1) “Generations” – Sara Groves

When I listen to this song I’m immediately thirteen or fourteen again, laying on the off-white carpet in my top-floor bedroom on a chilly winter evening, watching the sun go down and listening to the cacophony of piano practice, spelling words, and supper cooking below. I can feel that angst again, that classic teenage sense that you are all alone somehow, that nobody can fully understand who you are, the depth of your emotions, and how mixed up you are at the same time as you know everything completely. This was some of my first “adult” music, meaning music that my younger sisters didn’t like, and this song in particular fit well into the solemnity with which I pictured every single thing about life.

2) “Waterfall” – Jon Schmidt

When I listen to this song I think about a small office squeezed as an afterthought onto the second floor of an assisted living building. I started with their life enrichment department as a volunteer, coming in on icy Sunday evenings to play the upright piano while a group of maybe twelve seniors had their weekly hymn sings. After that I was offered a job in the same department, and passed many wonderful hours taking seniors on outings, calling bingo, hosting birthday parties and guitar players, reading crossword puzzles, organizing the library, and much more. I think of their – sometimes brutal – honesty, and the day I showed up with my nose pierced and none of them could figure out what it was or why I had it. I remember a particularly lovely spring afternoon on a paddleboat, traveling all around the lake looking at the impossibly large houses on the shore and discussing the late great entertainers.

3) “Life in Technicolor” – Coldplay

With the first notes of this song, I’m sitting in a strange half-rocking chair in a cinder-blocked dorm room, surrounded by massive books, scattered papers, and notecards with cryptic shorthand scribbled on them. I’m studying by lamplight, sometime around 9:30 or 10 at night, wearing my glasses and sweatpants and sucking coffee to stay awake. The background on my computer is blue and the word document containing my junior thesis is staring tauntingly at me, ordering me to continue with my literature review. If the memory ended there it would be a relatively pleasant recollection of hard work done and honors achieved. Instead, I also remember this song sliding through my headphones, drowning the betrayal I felt as my roommate and one-time best friend and I drifted away from each other as the months went on. I remember distinctly the nights I had to stay in, working on exhaustive papers for my eighteen-credit load while my friends told me I was lame and boring and went out doing things. I remember feeling somehow ashamed.

4) “His Favorite Christmas Story” – Capitol Lights

I’m driving to work at 10:30 pm for an overnight shift I picked up for a coworker. My scrubs are pink, a set my dad bought for me. My sister introduced me to this song, one of the many nights we stayed up until the wee hours of the morning talking about anything and everything we could think of. Her bedroom is so cold at night you can almost see your breath, so she’d been in her bed and me on her trundle bed, both in long sleeves and pants and buried under at least six blankets. My other sister had come in halfway through our conversation and growled at us for all the giggling. There’s a boy….

I’m never out this late and the highway is eerily empty. When I get to work and buzz into the building, it’s very strange not to see people gather in groups to chat, no workers roaming the halls, no food smells coming from the kitchen. The snow is glaringly white under the streetlights outside. When I get to my wing, the evening person looks at me. “It’s too bad you’ve never done a NOC shift before, because four out of the seven residents have the flu…”

5) “God Be Merciful to Me” – Jars of Clay

This song sounds like dark mornings in early summer, so early the stoplights were only blinking. It smells like wet paper and hot machinery, it feels like worn out jeans and aching feet in converse tennis shoes. It’s day after day of ten hours shifts in a factory, time spent with someone who was once a friend and then found better friends and men to flirt with, outdoor lunches and scoping out handsome office workers, and wondering why I was on a factory floor doing backbreaking line work when only three weeks before I’d walked across the stage with a bachelor’s degree in hand. In every note is wondering, now that school is done and I have no “real” job lined up yet, who I am and where I’m going in life.

6) “All In the Serve” – Michael W. Smith

This song is mornings in my first solo apartment, sipping strawberry coffee and watching mist dispel off the marsh out back. It’s the incessant whirring of the elevator beyond my bathroom wall, too-long dress pants, and the adventure of completely new things.

7) “I Gotta Feeling”

This is one of the happiest songs I know. It sounds like the first community theatre performance. It sounds like working on set, losing weight quite possibly out of sheer happiness, flirtatious Menards workers and teasing cast mates, it sounds like being told by someone who’s acting I greatly respected that it was an honor to be on stage together. It’s the swelling in my heart at the end, it’s getting to be the one to take the final bow, it’s my entire office coming to see me, bringing flowers and food I’d been too nervous to eat before, and February wind on flaming cheeks. It’s complete delight – one perfect night.

 

We all have these kinds of memories and experiences. What’s true about them? How do they contribute to who you are? What sights, sounds, and emotions did you experience? This is the power that true art harnesses and uses to reach deep into the readers or viewers. Use my memories as a springboard into your own, and see where that power takes you today.

If you have a song that represents something from your life, share it below in the comments!

Five and Go

Five and Go, or alternately, Five Senses, is a game I’ve played with many friends over the years. My cousin who lives in Kentucky could tell me about the sunrise, my friend who lived in Arkansas described the sensations at 3 am on the overnight shift, and a friend in England for a year could help me see through her eyes.

Because I can be a very slow person at times, I didn’t realize until later that, in a way, it was a writing exercise.

The way it works is exactly as it sounds. You take several minutes and write at least one sentence about what you’re experiencing through each of your five senses at the moment. You can write more if you want, but it has to be at least one. You can even wrap it up with a sentence about how you feel emotionally.

Here’s mine as an example:

I can hear cars rushing on the highway and my landlord’s cat crying endlessly upstairs.

I can see early sunlight pools on the grass, the breeze lifting branches, the glow of my lamp.

I can smell cold air, which has a scent that is completely distinct from other air- a kind of sharpness. And my shampoo.

I taste caramel cream slithering through my hot coffee.

I feel the soft couch under me, the keys at my fingers, the damp weight of my hair.

 

This is great for you, as a writer, because it forces you to engage with the world on a basic, sensory level. It keys you in and encourages careful attention. You can also do this on behalf of characters, to get you in touch with what sorts of things they tend to observe. Remember that how we experience the world is largely dependent on who we are and what mental/emotional state we are in.

Last, you can get other people to do these five senses for you- it lets you be a part of a tiny piece of their experience, and gives you character fodder to boot.

 

Give it a try in the comments below!

You Should Never Be Stuck Again: Myths About Writer’s Block

I believe that writer’s block is an Urban Legend of Massive Proportions.

I am allowed to say this, because I myself have had writer’s block – or at least, I thought I did. I now know that it was all my imagination, or rather, it was the same imagining that lead our twelve-year old selves to have the flu the day we had to give a speech in class, or makes us sure we have appendicitis on Mondays.

Don’t be offended by what I’m about to tell you. But you probably have writer’s block because you don’t want to work.

Before you freak out over this, let me explain further: not wanting to work takes many different forms, and is rarely if ever a reason in and of itself. We don’t want to work BECAUSE – BECAUSE our words sound like only one third of our brain is working, or our fingers are sore, or we just got rejected and the world is a dark, howling wasteland, or the story we’re in the midst of is complete garbage…etc.

So how do you give yourself a kick in the pants, essentially, and get back to work?

In no particular order – because order has always been a gift outside of my reach – are some ideas:

For Finding Material:

1) Choose five things: ex. Teapot, tiger, purple, stars, Tallahassee. Write until you’ve found a way to connect them all to each other. Creativity is all about connections, and once you’ve jump started your brain into making some, your next writing will be much easier. Who knows, you might even crank out a short story based on your five things.

2) Set a time limit and browse: Pinterest, blogs, Flickr, anything with lots of images of mysterious, pretty, strange, or otherworldly things. If you find pictures that call to you, or especially ones that relate to your current work, save them on your computer to look at later. When your time is up, write whatever those pictures inspire.

3) Related: Make a pinterest board for your story. Pin pictures that look like the places and people in your head, then find the words to describe them. Set a time limit, lest  you get sucked into the endless void.

4) Take five minutes and run, walk, or bike as hard as you can. Shove everything out of your head except putting forth the absolutely maximum possible physical effort. This will refocus your mind. If you can’t leave the house, you can also try a mini workout, doing two minutes of a plank, two minutes of pushups, two minutes of squats, and two minutes of knee lifts, all at maximum output. You also might spy something while you’re out and about, or make a connection while frantically popping up and down, that will break through for you.

5) Find someone and create their story. Look at personal ads, random Facebook or Twitter pages, strangers in the store – wherever you can locate a few tidbits about someone else, and then start designing a life for them. What do they do? What is their house or apartment or condo like? Who do they love? What do they regret? You can do the same in a different way with news articles or songs.

To Get Work Done:

1) Stickers. Stickers are magic, people – at least if you’re anywhere near as maturity-delayed as I am. I give myself a sticker for every 1000 words, a bigger sticker for 2k, and an owl sticker if I get 3k in a day (that’s a major amount of writing for the kind of schedule I have, so it’s a special-occaision thing). I’ve been doing it for a week and a half, and haven’t missed a single day of writing yet, even on Migraine Thursday. I want my darn sticker!

2) Create some deadlines. If you’re not yet published, like me, you have absolutely no obligation to get anything to anyone, and that can be a dangerous trap of ever-shifting deadlines. So start committing to some things. Enter some contests, get connected with some guest posting on other blogs, anything you can find to jump into. Create yourself a schedule that requires output, and you’ll be surprised what you can produce under the pressure.

3) Give up. No, not forever, but honestly…sometimes it’s just not the time. If you can’t get the to-do list out of your head, knock some things off of it. If all you want to do is rip your hair out, go take a nap, or a shower, or cook something complicated enough that you have to concentrate on what you’re doing. Play the piano, buy some new shoes, bake cupcakes – whatever will refill your life-tank. You are not God and can’t produce something out of nothing. Get some somethings, and you’ll have a much better chance of making new things.

Wishing you all the Making of Things you could desire!

This Day’s Work

If you’re anything like me, you love to have a good plan. You like setting up goals for yourself and dreaming about the kinds of things you want to accomplish. You have big ideas about the possibilities of your future.

This can be a great thing. We should push outside of our comfort zones, challenge ourselves, and refuse to accept mediocrity. We need goals, we need to have achievements, and we should be purposeful in how we spend our time, our days, and our lives.

But there is a such a thing as too much. And sometimes, by always focusing on the future, and doing everything we can at every second of the day to reach a lofty future goal, we drain ourselves dry and forget everything we ever knew about enjoyment and peace.

I had one of those moments recently. I received the syllabi for both classes, and was immediately confronted with the overwhelming amount of reading and the massive papers required every week. This followed an evening where I had sat down to plan out my writing goals: what I wanted to achieve, the myriad steps I would take to finish various things, revise others, and send still others out on submission. In addition to this, I’m trying to get back into regular exercise, and was incorporating some big goals about what I was going to do, and what things I wanted to participate in and be capable of at certain times down the road. And it was altogether too much.

I read a quote recently that someone posted on Twitter, which said essentially that there will always be more and bigger things, so the best thing to do is simply buckle down and focus on that day’s work. Just that day, then the next, and then the next. Each thing in it’s time and season.

It’s easy to say, and much more difficult to do. We, especially as writers, tend to be dreamers and schemers. It’s part and parcel of being creative, that desire to do and have and be everything all at once, to embrace the world in its entirety. But it will wear you out. And you will become overwhelmed and discouraged, and perhaps been dissuaded from chasing after your goals.

Long-range goals are an excellent place to begin. It isn’t always a great idea to meander round aimlessly for too long- if you don’t go in any particular direction, you probably won’t get to any particular place. But I encourage you, after you establish those goals, to break them down by the month, then the week, then the day. Take a glance at where you are and a glance at where you’re going. Then buckle down, lower your head, and do the work that is closest to you. Complete that task. Celebrate it! Enjoy each achievement, be proud of what you do each day- those words and sentences don’t always come that easy!

Take time to enjoy the process, without wishing you were further along. Each season of a project has its own way of teaching you and helping you grow. Do this enough days, and at some point you’ll lift your head and realize that that massive goal, once very far away, is much closer than you would have dreamed. And you’ll enjoy the journey there to boot.

Saturday Sidenote

So- I am really a terrible blogger. And I’d promise to get better, only we all know that may or may not happen, depending on my discipline and my average daily caffeine levels.

So, to catch you up to the present, allow me to make a few notes:

1) I have started classes again. I am now officially just one school year away from my masters degree…with the sad news being that I once again have loads of academic reading and lots of papers due.

2) I am also interning for a publishing company, reading in their submissions department! I haven’t been doing it long, but have already enjoyed the experience. If you are looking to learn more about what constitutes great writing from a stranger’s perspective, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Plus, you get to read some super cool stories!

3) I am participating in the Dark Carnival. If you haven’t heard of it and/or signed up, you definitely should! I’ve got a rough draft of my story done and have been following updates by other participants- it promises to be shivery fun!

4) I’m working on a couple short stories right now, trying to polish them up to start submitting. I’m not a natural short story writer, but I think it’s just as important to tell a well-developed short story as it is to write a powerful novel, and it’s a good exercise in the value of words. Besides that I’m revising- a topic for a whole other post- my novel, and drafting another in fits and starts.

 

And that’s really about it. Between work, internship one, internship two, class, homework, volunteering, and writing, I keep pretty well-occupied. It’s all about finding that elusive balance, which I still seek. Tell me, what do you have going on these days? In what ways do you balance the many demands on your time and attention?