A Triptych Soundtrack & a Little Writing Music

The world may be split between two kinds of writers: those who can listen to music when they write and those who can’t. I’m one who needs sensory deprivation. Creating (or in my case most often, recreating) the timbre of a voice, the cadence of action, or the tone of a moment requires a vacuum. A clock ticking can be enough to disrupt writing from memory: the phantom process of transporting the body, the senses, into places and moments in the trunks of the mind.

Next to aroma, though, music may be the most transporting medium. A song can be a red plastic pushpin holding a stack of former doubts, images, hopes and relationships together as a world intact. A hymn can bring back not just the slant of light on pine pews at 10:12 am in September, but the texture of those weeks when you knew something was wrong with grandma but no one had yet said, ‘Alzheimer’s.’ With music we can not only access discrete objects from the past, but we can fall into its net, and sometimes pluck the web. Music lets us enter moments as they were rather than as they have come to be. 

There’s a lot of music in Triptych. Much (I hope) in the language itself, and most unmentioned in the text, present as a sort of silent soundtrack. But a few songs were so integral to moments of the story they are named in the pages. I wrote these sections while listening to their tracks on repeat. I wanted the measures of the music to be the measures of the breath, the instrumentation to ooze into the images, the harmonies to shade the scenes.

When copyright slashed through the manuscript, this became more than an exercise in craft. Permissions and fees for lyrics can be impossible— especially for popular music, the likeliest soundtrack for memories– which meant the songs had to be present without their lyrics, somehow palpable with neither their notes nor their words.

The songs most present in Triptych make great studies in tone (which was part of their magnetism). They are distinct and varied, and beyond being useful to my writing, could toss you momentarily into new worlds. If you write or make other art, creating to this playlist could be a 20-minute exercise in virtuosity

We all, though, have an artistic or personal bulletin board full of musical pushpins.

  • What songs capture watershed moments in your life?
  • What music plays when you create?
  • What tunes get you in deep? What tracks lead you out of yourself?



The 100 Days Project



Not sure if I can do it, but in honor of the good of making, here goes. Inspired by The 100 Days Project, I’ll spend the next 100 days writing a daily haiku focused on image and thankfulness. Can’t promise I’ll post all of them here, but I’ll try to do so regularly.

Will you join me? 100 days of something?

Visit the 100 Days Project site for suggestions and inspiration. And, those of you who are former students: This is kind of an assignment. (Here’s to you, Deborah Keenan.)

Day 1:

The same license plates.
Grey day, grey road, grey life, done.
Decide to see light.

Listening: Act IV

One of the problems, I’m realizing, is I listen to consume.

I’m highly intentional with many of my regular routines, but several of those are turning out to be only half good. After school, I ask my children about their days. During dinner, we share highs and lows. While I run, I podcast interviews with diverse thinkers. But in most of these situations, I’m listening to gather information rather than to marinate in some experience outside myself.

No wonder I have trouble praying.

An hour yesterday stuck in the car flipping radio stations confirmed much around me is noise. Partly, I’m uninspired to listen deeply because so little of what surrounds me requires it. Billboards, commercials, sit coms, pop music and most of the internet demand attention but require very little of it. More of my energy is spent managing the competition than considering the content.

As a counterpoint to all the noise, my devotion this week will be to listen to only one song. (In this case, Bach’s Preludio from Partita No. 3 in E)

Might I listen more naturally in conversation or prayer if I exercise deep listening muscles in other dimensions of life? Will constant exposure to something masterful make me more willing to turn off the chatter (around me and coming out of my own mouth)? Can steeping in music teach me something about steeping in the living words of others and in the Living Word?

Listening: Act III

This project is not going particularly well. Or it’s proceeding perfectly.

I am not succeeding in being a good listener, but I am becoming aware of how bad I am at listening. It’s uncomfortable knowledge, but I’d rather know it than not. Maybe this is the kind of thing God was talking about when he told us eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil led to death. Knowing I am not a good listener helps me see where I am doing evil and where I could do good, but this knowledge could easily eat me alive. I’m a gold-star junkie and the fact of my underperforming could commandeer this whole ship. Project Me could become the point all too easily. Which of course would miss the point entirely.

In order to stay the course, I need to get out of my own head a little bit this week. Nature has never failed me in this context: one of its miracles is the ability to authenticate my self through being something other than myself. It’s grounding. In attending nature, I realize both that my feet walk the soil and that I am not the soil.

My devotion this week (in addition to the hard work of observing my serial failure at the previous tasks) is to park in the furthest spot from the door each place that I go.

Will the distance force me to listen to the world (such as it is) around me? Will the inconvenience remind me of the physical challenges through which others engage the world?  Will the extra seconds make me conscious of the attitude in which I enter a space? Will dragging my four year-old from the back of every parking lot finally make me stop dragging her?

In A Thousand Mornings, Mary Oliver also finds a holy challenge in nature’s dispassionate response. This blessing on the work of the week before you:

“I Go Down To The Shore”
by Mary Oliver

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall—
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

Listening: Act II (Encore)

Because it turns out soulcraft is not linear, nor accompanied by guarantees. And because I’m already learning enough from listening to realize humility is far more important than I’d care to acknowledge:

My devotion this week (again) will be to ask at least one question before giving any solution or opinion.

Can continuing this task begin to shift my posture toward others? Am I willing to change conversation from a stage for me to an opportunity for learning? Can I manage to control my selfish broadcasting for a full (mere) 12 hours at a time?

Listening: Act II

As I continue to make a discipline of pausing and watching before asserting myself into others’ experiences, I want to restrain the expansion of my will but also to become more receptive. My devotion this week will be to ask at least one question before giving any solution or opinion.

What will this task reveal about my posture toward others? How pervasive is my tendency to use conversation as a stage for me rather than as an opportunity to learn? How will having the same standard of listening across my roles of home and work make way for greater integrity of my heart?

Create ~ Instructions for the Journey

Instructions for the Journey
by Pat Schneider

The self you leave behind
is only a skin you have outgrown.
Don’t grieve for it.
Look to the wet, raw, unfinished
self, the one you are becoming.
The world, too, sheds its skin:
politicians, cataclysm, ordinary days.
It’s easy to lose this tenderly
unfolding moment. Look for it
as if it were the first green blade
After a long winter. Listen for it
as if it were the first clear tone
in a place where dawn is heralded by bells.

And, if all that fails,
wash your own dishes.
Rinse them.
Stand in your kitchen at your sink.
Let cold water run between your fingers.
Feel it.

What happens when you write instructions for the journey? What are the alternatives? What “if all that fails”? Even if you don’t feel it, what images would you create for yourself that end with the insistence/encouragement/command/exhortation/hope to “Feel it.”

Jewels from Festival of Faith & Writing

The Festival of Faith & Writing was short on tulips this year, but still rich in jewels from writers of many kinds.  Some glints from the riches:

“Make friends with really accomplished dead people.”
“Looking for truth can look like looking for trouble.”
“When you write about what you know, you point to an object– you elevate what you know. Instead, create a scene that provokes a way of knowing.”
Poet Scott Cairns

“Don’t try to write about your faith directly. Live your faith. Then write about your life and your faith will come out authentically.”
Comic book writer Gene Luen Yang

“Books are a military of reason and discourse.”
“I don’t need to spend time remembering my mistakes– other people will do plenty of that for me.”
Author and musician James McBride

“When we give our thinking to petty things, we become small souls.”
Author Richard Foster

“They sit down and get up. They sit down and feel put-upon. They sit down and feel victimized. They sit down and feel superior about feeling victimized. That’s what it’s like for the people whose work you admire– that’s what it’s like for everyone.”
Anne Lamott

“Fidelity to the facts is an aesthetic pleasure.”
Essayist Amy Leach

“Reference to transcendence is not dependent on religious impulse– the impulse toward transcendence is a structural restlessness in human nature.”
“There are culturally-conditioned captivities. We need to listen to our brothers and sisters of other places and eras if we hope to be released from those captivities.”
“The Golden Rule means if I want a right, I have to grant a right.”
“The enemy of Christianity today is not atheism but sentimentality.”
Yale Professor and theologian Miroslav Volf


More art is always better, right?

As a time and resource strapped worker-parent-citizen artist [read: human], I’m engaged to the idea that “more time for more art” is an issue worthy of a movement. (And it is closely related to several existing political conversations including women’s rights.) But George Anderson’s “Too Many Cooks” is making me wonder if this assumption (which it is) is less a creative process issue and more a result of America’s productivity culture.

Do you think it’s possible to create too much art? As an individual or a culture? (Can you make a painting or poem that expresses that?) Does making more art make art more diluted? If culture (people) needs space to absorb great art, what are we supposed to do to create a receptive void– the cultural white space that allows the image? What is art’s relationship to consumerism?

Create ~ A lively ocean

I’m finding lately that some of the work inspiring me most is also an instrument of discouragement. I’m fed by artists whose work is inspiring but whose lives I can’t attain. They have adult children, tenure, a spouse with a stable income. Even some of the mother/writers I (occasionally) read write about the frustrations of split focus or the demands of dinner– but they still manage to accomplish a weekly blog post. I understand technology allows for the appearance of regularity, but even scheduling a post requires time that I often can’t find.

Several times in the last month I’ve considered acknowledging my cyber absences with an excuse note. It would have read something like this:

Gentle Reader,                                                                                                    My sincere apologies for neglecting to post this week. Posting                   something profound or elegant is beyond my capacity at this time.             The demands of my work and my children are keeping me from my          art.

But something about that last line is a false philosophy that I’m no longer willing to sustain. Every time I think of my teaching or my children as “keeping me from my art,” I reinforce that my teaching and my parenting are not part of my art. That’s a dichotomy that I’m beginning to suspect is a remnant of patriarchal culture. Men have often been able to segment work, family and personal endeavors; women seldom so. Political feminism (and, at times, myself) has dealt with this differential by blaming men or society for denying women equal rights to this segmentation. Yes, I would like a room of my own. But at some point that’s just asking for access to the segmenting system. I think I want something more than that. I’d like for another way (a motherly way? a parental way? a holistic way? a Jesus way? a slow-thought way?) to have a valid and respected place– and not a second place.

I didn’t write an essay this week. Or a poem. Or even do a painting or take a long walk. In fact, I feel tired, spent and a little desperate. But I was generative. This week’s (day late) Create is probably as much therapy for me as it is a prompt for you. I’m going to live into respecting my whole life by posting a part of it here as “my art.” This week I made “a lively ocean.”


What was your art today? What would you post if you weren’t afraid someone would label you cute, shallow, naive, unsophisticated, unworldly or somehow less than ironic or cosmopolitan? What was your “lively ocean” this week? What would you post if you believed someone would respect it?