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How Music is Making Me a Better Writer

A few weeks ago, it occurred to me that the bulk of my time was spent on creative writing and academia.  Granted, that’s probably what you’d expect from a creative writer who’s also a teacher and a doctoral student, but it seemed almost overwhelming.  I felt one-dimensional.  I was worried that I had tunnel-vision, and that my creativity would suffer because of it.  Because of all that, I decided that I needed a new recreational activity.  I have a tendency to turn to other art forms for this sort of thing.  In the past, I’ve worked with acting and visual arts.  This time, I was drawn to music.  I happened to watch a movie that featured a theremin, and decided that I might want one.  I did all sorts of online research, became awestruck by Clara Rockmore, and ultimately bought a relatively inexpensive pitch/volume theremin.  I’ve been playing almost every day, and what I love about it is that it doesn’t feel dire.  My writerly and academic pursuits can sometimes feel really weighty because they’re such a big part of my identity.  When I think about not being a writer or not being an academic, I feel like I don’t know who I am. (Psychologically, this is probably not super healthy, but psychological soundness has never been my primary goal in life anyway.)  I’m sure that many people feel this way about their passions.  I cope with this by adding other things into my life.  Maybe these things won’t become the core ingredients of my identity, but sometimes they become the spices.  They become the subtleties that make me feel like I have more than one dimension.  I love playing the theremin, but nothing about that experience is quantified or qualified by performances evaluations and publications.  It unlocks a sort of freedom that translates into the other, more “serious” areas of my life and makes me a more innovative and productive writer, scholar, and teacher.  What artist doesn’t want that sort of growth in their life?  I guess the moral of the story is that taking a break from what you’re serious about can make you better at it.  And if, in the process, you can learn to play spooky, electronic versions of every tv sci-fi theme song from the past twenty years, so much the better for you!

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Writing on the Job

My primary source of income is teaching.  I work at two different colleges, teaching writing and literature courses, etc.  However, I recently had the opportunity to pick up a part time job that basically requires me to be a warm body in a chair.  The boss for this job pitched it to me by telling me I could use the time to do all of my grading and grad school work.  Easy money, AND I can get other stuff done? Sign me up!  However, in addition to bolstering my academic productivity, the large blocks of time spent behind a desk have also allowed me to develop a more regular creative writing routine.

This past semester, I taught six courses and also completed an independent seminar for my doctorate.  I did manage to produce some solid creative material, but my methods were incredibly erratic.  This was a period of time when there were lots of 3AM insomnia poems.  The experience reminded me a lot of my undergraduate years, when my schedule was equally chaotic and unstructured.  There’s an excitement to this kind of process that I genuinely enjoy.  The immediacy of poetry that demands to be frantically documented in the middle of the night is something that makes me feel truly alive. That being said, this type of free-form writing schedule made it really difficult for me to accomplish tasks that required organization, such as submitting to journals, or laying out my next manuscript.  This new, part-time job turned out to be an unexpected gift to my writer-self.  Since I’m virtually chained to a desk for eight hours a week, why NOT use the time to revise poems, submit to journals, and start structuring a collection?  That, my friends, is precisely what I’ve been doing.  Granted, some of these eight-hours are dedicated to grading (and writing!) papers, but I’m still left with plenty of time to work creatively.

When I was working on my MFA, my mentors were adamant that writers needed to prioritize their art, many of them even advocating a daily writing schedule.  This is something that I staunchly adhered to while writing my thesis novel.  I would work from 8-4, go for a run, and then spend an hour or two writing.  However, since I’ve started teaching at the college level, my schedule is much less uniformly structured, and sometimes overstuffed.  For me, this kind of chaos makes the clockwork writing of my MFA days more difficult to achieve.  Strangely enough, taking on yet another job amidst a plethora of other responsibilities seemed to be the magic bullet that propelled me back in the right direction.  Of course, my long-term goal is to figure out how to maintain this kind of motivation and focus, to create a calm, productive space for my artist-self, even when it’s not convenient.  In the mean time, onward…

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Literary Heroes, Continued: James O’Barr

Well, it appears that I’ve once again fallen off the blogging wagon.  My apologies!  There has been quite a bit of excitement lately, starting with an additional teaching job that I picked up at the beginning of November.  I’m also in the process of applying to a couple of Ph.D programs. However, now that I seem to have balanced my work load, I thought I’d pick up where I left off with my list of literary heroes.

James O’Barr was not originally going to be on this list.  It’s not that I don’t adore him, it just didn’t occur to me to include a graphic novelist.  I’m not sure why, considering how much of a comic fiend I am.  Nevertheless, I knew my next blog would have to be about Mr. O’Barr after I read a special edition copy of The Crow that I received as  gift.  This particular version contains an introduction in which James O’Barr reveals that the storyline of the book was partly inspired by the death of an old girlfriend.  Apparently, said girlfriend was run down by a drunk driver on her way to pick him up.  Talk about survivor’s guilt.

This introduction provided a new perspective as I reread one of the most intense and emotionally raw graphic novels I’ve ever come across.  Reading that book makes my guts hurt.  That’s part of why I love it, and part of why I believe it’s well done.  Beyond that, though, I was encouraged by O’Barr’s ability to translate a traumatic experience into such a distinct and brilliant story.  I, too, have dealt with my own survivor’s guilt, and used it to fuel my creativity.  When I was twenty, I was involved in a drowning accident.  Clearly, I survived.  My boyfriend, however, did not.  When I started writing my first novel. I crafted the story around a protagonist whose boyfriend is killed in a car crash.  Although my novel bears little else in common with The Crow, I can relate to the authenticity behind the experiences.  Many things in literature can be deftly recreated with research and field work.  However, in my opinion, death is something that always seems more genuine when it’s based in reality.  Small details, like picking out burial clothes and watching the undertaker crank and latch the casket are details that might escape a writer who hasn’t experienced these things.

Knowing that someone I admire as much as JamesO’Barr was able to build such a beautifully haunting story on a foundation of truth made me feel closer to his work, and allowed me to view my own work from a fresh perspective.  I think that all writers have books that they love with reckless abandon.  The Crow   is one of those books for me.  What are yours?

http://jamesobarr.typepad.com/

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