Music to write by

Everyone has their favorites, but I prefer music that stays in the background. Soundtracks can be excellent, because they are composed to play under the action.

If you are working in a reflective mood, the lovely melancholy of the soundtrack to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford can be a friendly accompaniment. I love it that the people who made this movie gave it such a long name, as if they needed every one of those ten words to make their point.

It is a lovely, melancholy movie, by the way—just like its score. You can find the entire soundtrack on YouTube.

However, my go-to music right now is by Helen Jane Long. Repetitious in a chant-like way, with a core like a diamond. Every time I hear “Out of It All” or “The Aviators,” I smile.

(Today WordPress refuses to allow me to insert live YouTube links, or maybe the problem is YouTube. I don’t know. More time, that is, more life, lost forever down the great maw of Software That Doesn’t Work Right.)

Here is a link to The Aviators.

We’ve all got our music. What’s yours?

The Artist’s Way: Update July 2104

I never put Julia Cameron’s book away, not in more than a year. The Artist’s Way is where books do not belong, on the floor near the chaise that doubles as a small couch in the living room.

It continues to be a source of comfort and inspiration. Back in the winter of 2012-1013, it was more than that.

The 12-week course contained in the book  helped me turn my creative life around. Also clean my house. I went through a mania of house cleaning and decluttering halfway through. It did me good. Physical clutter and mental clutter have things in common.

The Artist’s Way  is about creativity, which can be defined in many ways.

Deborah Meyler, author of  the novel The Bookstore, has this to say about creativity as it applies to writing:

It’s like carving a sculpture—the idea is there before you pick up your tools, as the angel is in the marble, but the idea has no real being until you form itwith words, and then shape it, planing it here, polishing it there.

Speculative fiction writer Susan Kaye Quinn gets right to the heart of the matter:

Now I belt out Let It Go every time before I write (or, you know, do it in my head if the kids are home).
Find a routine that works for you and use it, consciously, to open those subconscious floodgates and produce your best work.

In The Artist’s Way course, you write three pages  in longhand every day, the first thing in the morning. The subject is whatever. The purpose is to open the subconscious floodgates, and keep them open.

To me, the morning pages amounted to talk therapy without the talking. (See my blog Annie on the Couch.) I don’t do them every day now, just when I feel like doing them, such as after a vivid dream or when the writing is stalled.

The line that lingers from The Artist’s Way is a quote from film director John Cassavettes:

To catch the ball, you have to want to catch the ball.

The Artist’s Way week 5: fasten your seat belts

Last week I blogged about doing the twelve-week course in  Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.  That was week 4: reading deprivation. This is week 5.

The topic

This week’s overall topic is barriers: self-sabotage/things you do to keep yourself stuck. Seriously working on week 5 results in a bumpy flight. (And why would you do the work of this course if you DIDN’T take it seriously? What a waste of time that would be.)

The tantrum

On Monday night around midnight, I was in the kitchen, tired and hungry and unable to sleep, making some hot milk with honey, and the honey bottle slipping out of my hand and knocking over the sugar bowl, which hit the floor and shattered.

Sugar is a lot like sand, on the floor.

I slammed the honey bottle down on the counter—WAY more angry than the situation required. The top to the bottle broke, something I did not realize until I tried to squeeze some honey into the hot milk and got about a cupful of honey to a half-cup of milk.

Honey is sticky, especially when it is everywhere.

What was strange about that situation was that I was angry at my inner artist. I blamed her for the broken sugar bowl, the spilled honey. I wasn’t just cursing myself for being careless; I blamed her.

What was THAT about? Was I just tired and frustrated? Was the artist grabbing for sweetness?  Whatever the motive, I’ve been calmer and more balanced since. Kinder.

The lesson

A task this week was to draw a cartoon that  illustrates “your favorite creative block.” Although I can’t draw, I drew a picture of someone standing next to a table on which was a cake. She was looking away from cake while reaching toward it. The caption was “I want this. No I don’t.”

Halfway effort is waste of time. It leaves you both satisfied and unsatisfied. Better things ahead.

The Artist’s Way Week 4: Reading deprivation

For Christmas a friend gave me a copy of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.  In a vague intuitive way,  I thought  “something good is about to come from this.” It has. It will.

I had the mistaken impression that The Artist’s Way was one of those feel-good books for creative types, to be read once in cozy circumstances and then relegated to a bookshelf, to be removed when you need to feel good again.

Not so. The Artist’s Way is a twelve-week course in recovering creativity and focus in daily life. It is intensive. It brings up hidden things. Julia Cameron also links creativity to spirituality (a nonnegotiable point for her), and any time you venture into that country with an open mind, you embark on an adventure around every corner of which may be something you did not expect.

The tasks vary from week to week. The primary task of week 4 is Reading Deprivation. That means to stop idle-time reading. Cameron might have meant to stop reading entirely, but on a practical level this was impossible, not to mention undesirable. So I set two conditions:

  1. Social media (Facebook, Twitter) 1X/day.
  2. No reading in the evening. AT ALL.

Wait—ONCE a day?

I was an early adopter of social media.  I’ve been using these sites in one iteration or another since the late 1990s. They are about connection. Also  they are about hiding out from work, about being bored with work, and about nothing more than habit.

Here’s what I learned: the number of times I used to check into Facebook was too many, but once a day is not enough. Not for me. I am spending a half hour there every morning rather than the usual 5-6 minutes. I miss half of what I would otherwise have seen and barely respond to anything because that half hour is agenda driven. It is not fun. It is like skimming through 8,000 emails to see if there is anything important.

When the purpose is connection, all kinds of things can be important, including trivia. Sometimes especially trivia.

So when the week is up, I’ll give myself 3X/day and see how that goes.

Not surfing the Internet to waste time (as opposed to doing research) turned out to be surprisingly easy. That does tell me how little the purposeless surfing added to my day. It did nothing, basically.

My oldest habit—broken

I always read in the evenings. Even before I learned to read, books were part of the night, because I was read to. Going cold turkey on this particular habit was a major change.

The first thing reading deprivation did was to produce a flurry of housecleaning. The place now has better-looking kitchen cabinets and a number of other improvements. I stopped short of rearranging office furniture, but I did do a lot of throwing out and sorting.

There was something of the “new broom” about this cleaning. Reading deprivation is a big enough deal that it felt like a harbinger of change.

I was halfway through a new book when reading deprivation week came around and have been looking at it wistfully. A purchase from Abebooks arrived yesterday and I did not open it.

I have rediscovered the music on my seven-year-old iPod. I went through a Gregorian chant phase a few years ago. That’s nice music to get sleepy to.

An odd discovery: when I look at photos in a catalog and do not read the accompanying text, the photos look different. Imagination provides the stories rather than the sales pitch I am not reading. It’s nice.

When I lived in Washington, DC, I bought a beautiful art book from the National Gallery on the 17th century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer. That was a fine thing to rediscover. Look at his paintings.

To waste time (I knew I’d find a way), I discovered an addictive little computer game called Balloon Pop. If you know someone whose organizational skills and productivity have always annoyed you, Balloon Pop will derail them. It is part of a sweet and charming animation called Circus. It costs two dollars, and you can give it as a gift.

Just saying . . .

Sequel in bloom

The sequel to my high-tech science fiction novel Cel & Anna is both fairly far along and overdue—how overdue makes me want to cry—and its tardiness is due to two things:

  • My failure to get up every day in the early morning and write, and my failure to spend every weekend writing, and my will to spend evenings away from the computer.
  • This story is exploding in every direction. It is blooming like a garden in a riot.

It doesn’t help that the sequel takes place in two locations: earthworld, that place with blood and bones and hardware, and networld, where a new race of beings called Infimi are being fruitful and multiplying.

Beltzhoover the Vast and others

In networld there is a creature called Beltzhoover the Vast, who presides over an empire. Naturally, when you think of a name like “Beltzhoover the Vast” you are bound to shoehorn him into the story. You can’t waste a  name like that.

A tribe of Infimi called The Dreadful Night are in the game. They have big mouths and dangerous intentions, and call humans “wetware.”

Inexplicable music in a house of ghosts

A character hears a tune on a soundbox that transports her to place of joy she has never known and does not understand. At the time, she is engaged in some ghost-busting for money, and is in a room full of people who hear the same tune but are unaffected by it. Then she is attacked, violently, by a ghost that wanted in on the extraordinary, inexplicable experience she had just had.

She has to keep her cool till she can get out of that house and go home.

“Great,” I said to my muse. “You want me to describe that?” My muse, which has the demeanor and attitude of Edward Gorey’s Osbick Bird, did not bother to answer.

My muse

Some other stuff

  • The hapless flight of newly unemployed Outsiders Lucky Lucheron and Trielia Nice-Rust, who wonder whether love can sustain them in spite of having very silly names.
  • The happy birth into unhappy circumstances of a baby girl named Shiloh.
  • And how it all shakes out at the end.

I lean on the words Neil Gaiman, a writer I admire:

The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written.

The Zone: an update

In 2009 I tried writing about the Zone. This blog is another try.

The Zone is that place where the road is wide open, and all the lights are green. Time fades out and doubt disappears. Anyone wholly absorbed in a task can find themselves in the Zone.

Color of money

In the 1986 Martin Scorsese movie The Color of Money, Tom Cruise plays Vincent Lauria, a kid with a gift for playing pool. Paul Newman plays Fast Eddie Felson, who is trying to teach Vincent to be a pool hustler.

One night Vincent rebels against Fast Eddie’s lessons and starts playing the way he knows he can. For about 3 minutes, The Color of Money is about being in the Zone.


Shirley Jackson must have been in the Zone when she wrote The Lottery.

She conceived the story one spring morning while pushing her toddler daughter uphill in a stroller also laden with groceries. She was pregnant with her third child. After she put away the groceries and settled her daughter in the playpen, she started writing. By the time her oldest child came home from kindergarten, she had finished her masterpiece.

She describes the experience in “Biography of a Story”:

I found that it went quickly and easily, moving from beginning to end without pause. . . . The story I finally typed up and sent off to my agent the next day was almost word for word the original draft. This, as any writer of stories can tell you, is not a usual thing. All I know is that when I came to read the story over I felt strongly that I didn’t want to fuss with it. I didn’t think it was perfect, but I didn’t want to fuss with it.

Her agent didn’t like “The Lottery” but sold it to The New Yorker, which didn’t like it either but published it to a firestorm of controversy in 1948.

She often was asked how she came up with the stark, shocking plot. “It was a warm morning and the hill was steep,” she said unhelpfully.

As Jackson’s comment proves, the Zone can be hard to explain. For some reason, listening to John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change” helps me get to it while writing. No idea why.

The other day I heard “Wild Night” by Van Morrison: “Everything looks so complete / When you’re walking out on the street / And the wind will catch your feet / And send you flying.”

“Zone,” I thought.

When have you been working on something and found yourself in the Zone?

What movies, books, art, or music come to mind?