Music Is Fun!

When I was at VCCA, I had a conversation with a very fine writer, Randon Billings Noble, about our pasts as musicians and our presents as something other than musicians. Randon  played violin, practiced 6-8 hours a day, and from our conversation I could tell she must have been a very good one, though she was modest about this. We both confessed that though we still play music, and at a level that some nonmusicians might find impressive, we don’t think of ourselves as musicians.

“I’m musical, but I’m not a musician,” Randon said. Neither of us thought of playing music as a hobby, though; so it was something more than an avocation, but not quite our vocation, either.

Last week I was catching up with one of my guitar students, L.C., also a very fine writer. We spoke about the frustration that comes with being a writer, the impossibility of setting down in words the ideas, characters, events, etc., that reside so perfectly in our heads. We talked about the drive to get the work out there, to have it published, read, and appreciated, and how when that doesn’t happen, we feel miserable. I mentioned that once I felt that way about music, but I didn’t anymore, even though I practice (play!) for an hour or so a day. And though I do “perform” for people, for friends and others, it is without the expectation that comes with a professional performance. Now I do because it’s fun.

Writing Is Fun?

And then cinematographer Andy Bowley emailed me a link to David Foster Wallace’s essay, The Nature of Fun,  about perfection and imperfection and the “fun” of writing (or whatever it is one creates), how when we begin as writers, we do it for fun, to get ourselves off. And then we achieve or long for some kind of idea of success and writing becomes something we do to seduce other people, and it becomes less fun. And then, if we’re lucky, we realize this and return to it for that initial sense of fun, and then when we do write it becomes a deeper, more profound kind of fun because we have new knowledge.

Something is in the ether.

For a related post, read Why Do I Keep This in My Wallet? 



“Her Life’s Work” – By Kate Hill Cantrill, Guest Blogger

Kate Hill Cantrill - Walk Back from Monkey School
Walk Back from Monkey School by Kate Hill Cantrill, available now!

I’m reposting Kate Hill Cantrill’s guest stint because her short story collection, Walk Back from Monkey School,  is NOW AVAILABLE, and that’s how we treat our guest bloggers here at A Life’s Work headquarters.

Kate Hill Cantrill’s writing has appeared in literary publications including Story Quarterly,Salt Hill, The Believer, Blackbird, Mississippi Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Swink, and others. She has been awarded fellowships from the Corporation of Yaddo, the Jentel Artists Residency (where we met), the Virginia Center for Creative Arts (where we spent time together), and the James A. Michener Fund. She has taught fiction writing at The University of the Arts, The University of Texas, and the Sackett Street Workshop. She lives in Brooklyn where she curates the Rabbit Tales Reading and Performance Series and is completing a novel. 

I want to write this about my reconnecting with my mother. I can’t write it. There are drums thumping in my backyard and a bum singing in my front; I love both on some occasions, but not all occasions. As hard as this is, as frustrating as this is, this is my life’s work, and I need to find a way to make it happen.

My mother is a brilliant sculptor. She once went depressively insane — full bodied and real — and I stayed with her for my first year after college to keep her from both blowing up herself and blowing up the block on which she lived—Brownstones in Philly tend to link arm and arm and what happens to one might happen to all—just ask Osage Avenue. The Philadelphia Fires. Just Google it.

I told her to leave — not just leave the foot of my bed at 3am when the 3am Crazies happened upon her, but just to leave. I told her to stop crying, to stop threatening death and to allow me to become my own person. She listened (or perhaps she was simply called) and flew to Scotland to an environmental and spiritual community to become at first a maintenance person (and then, I think, a student, a clown, and then the cook) for—give or take—five years.)

For the sake of brevity I will just say this: I mourned my mother and felt full body and soul that I didn’t have one anymore — a mother that is. It felt easier than one might think since she had not been there for real for many years before that. She had always had my awe and admiration, but she had not always been there to be my mother.

Why do I say this here? I know why I say this here. My mother — for the duration of her motherhood — has needed to pursue her Life’s Work. And when I write need, I mean need.

Soleri Bronze Bells by Niall David Photography

She returned to the states to care for her own mother in her final days and wanted to drive with me across country where I was to teach for the summer — I won’t even get into the details of it even though I thought at first that these details were the purpose of this essay, because we stopped at Arcosanti and smelled the soil, rang the bells — she just knew that after five years we needed to re-connect. We were both broke — we made rice and beans to have tacos on the way. We feared and therefore avoided the “gators” (the busted-blown truck tires) on the road the best we could. We listened to Moby and Johnny Cash. We slowed down when mean truck drivers got up in our rear. “It’s really great becoming a graying old lady,” she said. “I get away with this kind of thing.”

She became my friend, maybe again, maybe for the first time for real, I don’t know. All I truly know is that I had my mother back, and she had just returned from 5 years of pageantry, puppetry, cooking, and healing. And when she came back she took hold of the carving tools, the patinas, the C-grip clamps, and she went again to pursue — but closer to me this time — her Life’s Work. And I felt holy-hell proud of her for it, and I learned from it, too, once again.

Guest Blogger Jessica Roth: Arcosanti and the Writing Process

[I met today’s guest blogger, Jessica Roth, at the Playa Artist Residency. While there I discovered that she had spent some time at Arcosanti, not as one of the Arcosanti “workshoppers,” but as a different kind of workshopper. I was eager to have her contribute to the blog because of this experience, but she was unsure what to write about. The stars lined up when the Liar’s League of London… well, I’ll let her tell it.]

“Mesquite”: One story’s journey from an Arizona mesa to a London pub

Earlier this month, the Liar’s League of London performed a short story of mine, “Mesquite.” It is always an honor to share my work and a thrill to know that somebody enjoyed a piece well enough to publish it.  But there is something bittersweet about seeing my words fixed on a page, too.  Publication marks a new phase in the life of a piece of writing, where dynamism and evolution are replaced by a certain inertia, or maybe an equilibrium.  The feeling this brings is what I imagine a mild case of empty nest syndrome might be like.  Because that is what I have been feeling lately, I have been thinking a lot about “Mesquite,” where it came from, and how it made its way across the pond.

Mesa across from Arcosanti
Photo by Wolfgang Held

I wrote the first sloppy pages that would someday become “Mesquite” during an especially mild January on the Mogollon Rim. I was a student at Prescott College, enrolled in a month-long creative writing workshop, and panicked because, already a third of the way into the course, I could not write. I told the professor about the long, futile hours spent at my desk and the crumpled pages that had begun to crowd my wastebasket. She suggested that I take a day off. Get outside. Clear my head. Try again. One aim of the workshop was to mimic the experience of a writer’s retreat, so for the duration of the course my classmates and I lived at Arcosanti. In the high desert of central Arizona, Arcosanti is architect Paolo Soleri’s “urban laboratory,” where his goal is to achieve an intersection of architecture and ecology that offers a sustainable alternative to the sprawling model of modern cities. Situated on a mesa beside the Agua Fria River, silt-cast concrete buildings are set against a dynamic, light-and-shadow landscape. It is beautiful, and sometimes eerie.

I took my professor’s advice and went walking. Down to the river lined with mesquite trees, whose winter-bare branches overhung a lush carpet of the greenest grass I had ever seen. Up the face of a basalt cliff to a cave where the histories of long-extinguished fires were written in soot across the walls. Towards the end of the day, I found myself on top of a mesa that rose on the far side of the scrub-choked flat that spread out below the studios. I sat on a ledge where I could watch the last light color the sky above Arcosanti. It was there that I pulled pen and paper from my backpack and felt my writer’s block begin to crumble.

“Mesquite” started as a stream of consciousness free-write. The story seemed to bubble up out of the ground, out of that place. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that “Mesquite” is rooted firmly in the landscape I encountered at Arcosanti. It is a character, in my mind, just as much as the narrator. I am transported back to that mesa every time I reread “Mesquite.” Had I not been exactly there, exactly then; had I not wandered the grounds and let the landscape sink in past my skin; had I not been falling for one of my classmates—a man whose demeanor rather resembled that of Tyler, the object of my narrator’s affection—I’d have never written that particular story.

“Mesquite” evolved differently from other pieces I had written up until that point. It developed slowly. It made me wait. Four years took place between first draft and published draft, with countless other drafts in between. It has had three separate titles and at least that many beginnings and endings.  “Mesquite” was the first piece to sell me on the process of long revision, of laying my hands on something over and over again. It demanded that I meet my work on its own time and commit to a larger process. I resisted this at first, because I am nothing if not stubborn and, at times, a little impatient. But I have since found tremendous value in this way of working. It has encouraged me to explore longer forms (including a novel-in-progress that, at the rate it’s going, I might finish before I retire from this earth), and it has allowed me to go deeper into the stories and essays that I write. These have been important lessons, and I hope that they translate into a more meaningful experience for the folks who read my work.

You can watch the performance and read “Mesquite” here.

Jessica Roth writes stories that should be poems and poems that should be stories, instead of working on her first novel. Her words have appeared in Alligator Juniper and CT Review
Would you like to be a guest blogger? Drop me a line and let’s make it happen.

Book Review on the Filmmaker Magazine Blog

Photo by Alan Greenberg

In 1976 Werner Herzog hypnotized his cast of actors and directed one of the strangest narrative films in the history of cinema, Heart of Glass. Alan Greenberg, then a young writer, aspiring filmmaker, and Herzog disciple, was on the set, and thirty-odd years later he, and Herzog, would like to tell you all about it. Hence, Every Night the Trees Disappear: Werner Herzog and the Making of Heart of Glass (Chicago Review Press).

To the read the rest of the review, visit the Filmmaker Magazine blog.

If you’d like the chance to win this book, all you have to do is subscribe to the blog before June 1, 2012. On June 2, I will choose one lucky winner by opening up the digital file that contains a list of subscribers and throwing a dart at my monitor.

So enter your email address in the field above the “Subscribe” button right there on the left. You’ll receive an email asking you to confirm your subscription (check your spam folder). Click the link in the email and shazam! you’re a subscriber.

And I’ll never give out your email address or spam you.

Bad Math

There’s a saying I’m fond of: Don’t do the math. What math? The bad math that tells you how much time and money you spend on your art in relation to how much money you earn from your art. The math that reveals your acceptance to rejection ratio and the hours of suffering to hours of elation ratio. For most everyone, the results are grim.

Recently, I discovered another math not to do: the number of drafts. The excruciatingly talented writer John Yearley hipped me to a nice little psychological trick: name your drafts with the date and not a draft number. So instead of MyStoryVer193.doc try MyStory031812.doc. Of course you could just count those 193 drafts, but it’s less in your face this way.

But there are times when doing the math isn’t bad. There is, as I discovered at the Playa artist residency, a good math. About two weeks into my residency at Playa I decided to write 1,000 words a day for thirty days. These thousand words had to be part of new stories, a couple of which I had in mind before I arrived. That would theoretically yield 30,000 words. That’s about 100 pages. For me, that would be a colossal output.

I inherited from my father a fondness for numbers.
I stuck to it, and from February 1 until March 4, I wrote 1,000 or more words. (I took three days off and one day I wrote about 500 words). The result was a total of 31,416 words and 12 new stories generated. The 1,000 words forced me to come up with new narratives. At the end of 30 days, I was cooked, but happy.

I know that 90% of these words are crap, and the stories little more than sketches. Some of them will be developed, some of them will merged, others discarded. But the point is I now have a giant chunk of marble to work with, to chip away at, to carve and polish. For the first time this collection feels and looks like a book.

So what next? I need to get back to A Life’s Work, trying to find money to hire an editor and complete the film. And while I do that, work on that giant chunk of marble. I’ll also be trying to avoid the bad math and trying to embrace that good math.

Process: Some Writing

I’m very pleased to announce that a flash fiction piece I wrote, The Wolf Is in the Kitchen, was recently published in Sole Literary Journal.

When Sole notified me they were taking it, I decided to look back at how this piece transformed draft by draft. And since I’m wearing my writer hat at this residency, I thought I might share some writerly process stuff.

The Wolf Is in the Kitchen is based on an experience I had as a child. This event happened at the age when I was realizing that I was an individual. As an adult I recognize it as a key moment in my awareness of my identity as an Italian hyphen American.

How many drafts?


Drafts one (May 2, 2010) through five were written from the point of view of an adult remembering an event in his childhood. The narrator then recounts the different paths the two main characters traveled after the event. I worked on these drafts for 10 days that May. I thought I had completed it with draft five and sent it to a few places. No takers. I put it aside.

October 2010 I was visiting a friend in North Carolina and something about the change of scenery inspired me to revisit the story. After reading it, I decided to make a big change. I kept the first person narrator, but now the event is being told from the point of view of the nine-year-old boy. The story shifted its focus; it had become about knowledge gained and innocence lost. I sent it to a couple of places November 2010. No takers. I put it away. Honestly, at that time, I lost faith in it as a story.

I opened it again one day in October 2011. I liked the story this time. I recast a sentence and decided to send it out. On November 11, 2011 I sent it to Sole.

The first draft is 678 words, the final draft is 576 words. The longest draft was 859 words.
The first sentence changed seven times.
The last sentence changed eight times.
The two most significant edits: changing the narrator from adult to child and adding a semicolon in the final paragraph (draft 12).

When you get down to it, it’s all about making decisions, from start (is this event something I want to transform into a work of fiction) to finish (semicolon or no semicolon).

Directing a film is all about making decisions, too.

I suspect so too are writing and directing one’s life.

On Rejection

Recently I posted on Facebook an email rejection I received for a work of nonfiction —

Thank you for sending us “[title withheld by me].” The editors had a lengthy discussion about your work. Unfortunately, we are not able to publish it in our forthcoming issue; however, we certainly encourage you to submit other work to us in the future, as your piece had its fans.

This is called a “scrawl” and writers will tell you that as rejections go, this is about the best you could ask for. It is much more encouraging than a form email, such as —

Thank you for the opportunity to read your work. We’re sorry to say that after careful consideration, we have decided not to publish this submission. We do wish you the best of luck placing it elsewhere, and with all your writing endeavors.

Still, it is a rejection, and it stung. It’s easy to take rejection personally when you pour so much of your life into the thing that’s being rejected. My friend Roberta Guthrie Kowald commented on my post —

The best advice I ever got was from the late Aussie poet John Hanrahan. John told me years ago that it is never the “best” work that wins the prizes, or gets published, or makes it past the editors. “Sweetheart,” he said “The winner is just the one they could all agree on.”

This is something I know, but need to be reminded of now and again. So thank you, Roberta, for sharing. I share it here with the hope that it may remind someone in need.

Finally, reading rejections the giants received sometimes puts things in perspective —

There certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice.

Someone sent that to Sylvia Plath.

[cross posted on]

Ask the Filmmaker and He Asks the Magic 8 Ball

Dear Filmmaker,

Do you know what your next project will be?

Curious in Caldwell.

Dear Curious,

Yes, I do.

Thanks for asking.

David in New York City.

Okay, I don’t usually reveal future projects but I consulted my Magic 8 Ball. “Should I spill the beans?” I asked. Its reply was unequivocal. “My sources say no.” But I will say this: it involves a bike, Italy, the written word and the visual image. I think.

Do you have a question for the filmmaker? Leave it as comment on any post or shoot me an e-mail and I’ll try to answer it. Any and all questions, no matter how bizarre or how unfilm-related, will be fielded in some way or another.

Yet Another Fave and Another Plea

Photo by me. Taken at VCCA.

Right, so I’ve revealed my favorite piece of music and my favorite scene in a film. As a writer-filmmaker who plays classical guitar, it seems the logical next favorite to reveal would be something written. How about my favorite short story in the English Language? I know, you’re dying to find out what it is, but before you click the link, remember, you can nominate this blog for a Weblog award.

It’s easy peasy. There are numerous categories, but this blog seems to fit best into the “topical,” “secret,” and “writing” categories. You can nominate it in one of those or all three. You will need to nominate at least three different blogs total. (It looks much more overwhelming than it is. You don’t need to fill in all the fields, just choose three blogs you like and nominate them in the appropriate category. If you need suggestions, I can point you to some great ones.)

Now go read a great short story.