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?



Creative Community 101: “What if we…?”


Designer Heidi Kao, who penned the vines and branches, adjusting cover objects in preparation for production photography.

Creativity is hands-on and communal.  My students will tell you I regularly rant that we are essentially embodied and the solitary artist is a destructive myth (this sometimes involves standing on tables, and always includes gargantuan arm gestures). So, as this book contract came together, I was challenged to practice afresh what I preach. How could this new venture honor embodiment and community?

To attempt an answer, I’ve spent the last year beginning conversations with, “So– I’m not sure this would even work– but what if we…?” It’s been scary: my ideas could be stupid, the drafting is public, and I’m asking people to invest themselves in ideas that may fail. We’re in it together; and time, money and reputation (those currencies of the finite) are at stake. But to borrow a friend’s favorite phrase: “Not easy, but worth it.”

One of the earliest “what ifs?” was the idea of crafting a cover by working with students in Bethel University’s Art & Design programs. Thanks to design faculty and a publisher game to experiment, and a group of students willing to begin working for free, we opened the project to advanced design students and offered a contract to the winner.


Reviewing second-round developments from additional designers including Brita MacInnes and Allegra Rose.

Art and community are messy, but, damn, are they rich.

By risking collaboration, I now know the work a dozen more artists, have stronger relationships with my colleagues, have helped emerging designers launch their careers, and better understand my own work.

Talking with Allegra, and Jessie, and Brita, and particularly Emily and Heidi, through their processes has helped me understand better– not just language or my own text– but ideas, and the human mind, heart and spirit: the ways we can connect and include each other, the ways we can probe the world.


Sketchbook iterations from Allegra Rose.

And I’m less lonely. Going public with work (especially memoir) can seem like a project in ego, but publishing is also a writer’s avenue to community. Getting a book out in the world allows me to participate in rich conversations with people who are fascinated and perplexed by some of the same ideas I am. By collaborating on the cover with my embodied community, those provocative, enlightening conversations have already begun– and will be able to last far beyond an evening’s reading.

Emily and Heidi on their design process:

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Our process was anything but glamorous. At our first meeting, we came up with several ideas from using unconventional materials like glass, water, or live plants to attempting new fabrication processes. Looking back, we laugh at how far-fetched those initial ideas were. But we realize now that those early steps in the process fostered the kind of creativity we needed to embody April’s vision.
Later that week, we sat down in the studio and began aimlessly doodling and experimenting with discarded pieces of drywall. We were getting nowhere fast. It wasn’t until we started referring back to April’s words and discussing how her content and style related to who we are as artists that we were able to gain a sense of direction. In playing to our strengths, we decided that Heidi would execute the drawing and Emily would focus on the sculptural and digital editing processes. At the end of the day, we had  several visual compositions in ink and drywall that we were excited about.
During the execution process, our design continued to evolve. Once the drawing and sculptural elements were completed, we were able to experiment with different compositions quickly—which was one major advantage to creating a tactile, analog design. We presented several versions to April and, with her guidance, began working through the final iteration. Once we had a strong foundation, we were able to focus on other important details like typography, use of drywall elements, and overall composition.
The final design was really a product of who we are as designers and who April is as a writer. In the end, we surprised ourselves with what we were able to create. Though it wasn’t always easy, the process of translating our physical work into a thoughtfully designed book cover proved to be an experience that exceeded our expectations.

Heidi and Emily’s two-person show, Architectural Junkyard, begins this week. Opening reception Tuesday, January 14, 4:30 pm. You are cordially invited.


Triptych Cover Unveiled: Evangelical about beauty

As cover design began, Jessica Henderson, the designer and professor who oversaw our unusual process, asked me to describe my aesthetic. I said, “I’m sure this isn’t going to help, but my design aesthetic is gorgeous. So much of what comes out of evangelicalism is ugly– it’s essential to me this book subverts that. I’m, frankly, a little evangelical about it.”

No, I’m not good with jokes. But it’s a testament to their aesthetic, skill and insight that cover designers Heidi Kao and Emily Swanberg got exactly what I was trying to say– that day, and from the pages of Triptych.

The cover is gorgeous. And, as with any beautiful thing, that means it is wise, elegant, carefully crafted and fascinating– what another great, faithful designer, Mike Cina, calls “an object of desire.”

More about the process of designing Triptych will come along soon, but we wanted to recognize the cover in its own right. Emily and Heidi’s work was responsive, but they created an independent work of art that can be admired even without the story behind it.


Kelsey on the cover: Kelsey
Design, develop, and choose a cover that will connect the reader to the story before he or she knows what the story is? No pressure.
The process of cover design presents the challenge of keeping creative and practical concerns in some kind of balance, or at least a helpful tension…or at least a non-hostile coexistence. I’ve also found it to be a surprisingly personal process—not something I was expecting, considering I wasn’t the maker of the text or the cover. The first design meeting I attended included an early proposal of the image that is now the cover, and my gut reaction was “This is it.” I tried to keep that reaction from influencing the way I saw other proposals, but part of me secretly thought the job was done right then and there.
Of course—thankfully—April is much more thorough than that, and “the cover” continued to be a topic of probing and thoughtful conversation for several following weeks. Every opinion required justification and an examination of both the text itself and each designer’s experience of reading the text.
My first attempts to explain  my gut reaction came in terms of opposites:
“I like how it embraces the mystical with the vines, but also the logical geometry in the triangle structure.”
“It really commingles the natural with the crafted.”
“I like that the vines just feel ominous, but also beautiful—and then there’s this solid, almost comforting, structure in the midst of it.”
I could pull out plenty of individual examples from the book to support any of these claims, but I grew frustrated with my inability to verbalize why it was this cover seemed to connect me to the story in a way the other proposals didn’t.
Then one day a friend pointed out that the white color scheme emphasizes the spiritual focus in the book, which sparked a recognition of one of the themes that makes this book so important to me: It doesn’t follow the common spiritual association with the color white—cleansed, pure, etc.; instead, white represents an absence, anticipating a presence.
No third-grader uses the white crayon—on most paper it doesn’t do or show anything. Blank sheets of paper, freshly fallen snow, bridal gowns—all connote the empty and untouched, but an ‘empty’ and ‘untouched’ that is soon to be colored in or filled.
In both spiritual and relational experiences (and the commingling of the two), April and the Triptych readers grapple with absences of desire, satisfaction, clarity, divinity, and the longing for “a relationship with both substance and meaning, truth and presence.”
Suddenly all of those dichotomies felt lit up and projected onto a much larger screen.
Which fills the absence more—the vines or the structure? Or do they both merely divide up the absence in different ways? Where is the presence of God experienced—in the logical or in the mystical? Or do these merely help us cope with the lack? Is God ominous or beautiful, him or her, comforting or wrathful, personal or indifferent—or are these all merely 26 letters rearranged, a grasp at “a puzzle, a flame, a fight”?
My hope is that all of you will somehow connect to this cover. Maybe the connection will be logical, maybe it will be instinctual. Maybe you will fall for the vines or be intrigued by the geometry. Maybe you will hold the book in your hand and speculate for a long time on what the title word could possibly mean.
My hope is that this cover sparks a recognition in you like it did in me, a gut reaction that prompts reflection and, perhaps, revelation.

Contemplative Collaborations Project 1/17/15

This January, I’m one of twenty artists participating in the Contemplative Collaboration Project– where a musician, visual artist and writer collaborated to create work that contemplates some aspect of God or the spiritual journey.

The pieces have been rotating through gallery space at Woodland Hills Church each weekend this month. The entire show will be exhibited Friday, January 30 at 7:00 p.m. where you can experience all the collaborations together and hear from some of the artists.

Take a peek at the video for more information (and for proof that I’m much more comfortable on paper than on film).

I’d love you see you there–

Rhythms for the Preservation of Life

“You and I are creatures of the earth made by a God who established rhythms for the preservation of life. Evening and morning. Summer and winter. Cross and resurrection. These are rhythms in nature and in history, rhythms both physical and spiritual, of plenty and of scarcity. In light of these rhythms, I submit that God has created us to experience the artistic rhythms of festal muchness and cleansing simplicity. Like so much in our [lives], our artistic health is a movement across a spectrum, from the maximal to the minimal, back and forth, each playing an important role in our maturation as disciples.” W. David O. Taylor, in For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts

Bon Anniversaire

I tend to get nostalgic around birthdays. Actually, that’s not true. Even after living in the writing craft for years, it amazes me how often the first words we write (the easy ones) are lies. It turns out to be incredibly taxing to tell the truth. Not because the morality is burdensome but because all the things we’ve heard before slip right out, there’s not a moment of labor in their birth. Nearly a decade into trying to live as some kind of writer, I still find myself compulsively asking before a blank page, “What can I write?” instead of “What do I think?” The assigned essay dies hard.

The milestone at hand is not my own birthday (though that was recent), but the one year anniversary of this site. Last summer I set a goal of starting a public site for my writing and 52 weeks later, here we are. I think it’s been a worthy experiment. Thank you for joining me in it.

The ways you’ve joined me have been surprising. I’ve been surprised at both the relative lack of comments on the site itself and at the number of times these posts spring up in face-to-face conversation. Each time I’ve assumed the site silence meant little here was making connection, some conversation suggested otherwise. I’ve been honored by revelations that people I admire and respect allow my words into their time, lives and minds. Thank you.

I’ve also been humbled by the additional evidence that fame is unlikely. I’m not particularly interested in fame. (Not at all, actually.) But I’ve struggled recently to justify the sacrifices of time, self and energy (especially on my children’s behalf) that regular, crafted writing requires. If my work is not out in the world– doing something for somebody– it’s difficult to consider it less than selfish. Given the time I’ve already devoted to learning this craft and the cost of my studying it, the possibility that I’m writing only for myself is both crushingly disappointing and massively unethical. A year of blogging has not revealed my shining brilliance to the otherwise dim world (surprise, surprise), but knowing you few kind people out there read and consider this work has been a consistent buoy against discouragement.

The real truth of birthdays is that they make me conscious of the future. I set goals on birthdays: This year I want to end each day with a fresh memory of my children’s eyes. This year I want to buy all my clothing used to unvote for crushed and suffocated Indian textile workers. This year I want to pause three seconds— even just three seconds— before I start talking.

On this particular anniversary, I’ve been challenged by both the practical and philosophical. I can’t sustain weekly posting—even if I allow myself quotes and questions. Posting weekly in this season of my life leaves too little time for long or complex projects. I also haven’t yet found the sweet spot between “deadline inspires” and “frequency dilutes.” I’m not willing to waste anybody’s time by continuing that experiment publically.

Philosophically, I’m still working out the details but I’m pestered by George Anderson’s claim that more art isn’t always better. I’m not sure how this works on the personal scale, but I can see a case for considering the implications of the quantity of public display. I’d rather publish less but have each public piece carry more meaning. Since I’m never going to make an economic living by writing, I at least want to be sure my writing makes some kind of living (for myself and others).

So, I hope to see you (even in your virtual silence) in the year to come. You’ll hear from me less, but when I show up at your door I’ll skip the Boone’s Farm and try to bring Bordeaux every time. I hope we’ll have the chance, one way or another, to chat about the bouquet. Joyeaux anniversaire, mes amis.


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?