Archive for November, 2014

Folk, Folk Music!

November 6, 2014

JANE: So, Alan, when we were talking about the music we listen to in our cars, you mentioned you like folk music.  I must admit, I’m not all that knowledgeable about folk music, so none of the groups you listed meant anything to me.

Sing!  Sing a Song!

Sing! Sing a Song!

ALAN: I wasn’t a complete folk music virgin when the folk boom happened. We’d always sung folk songs at school, and the fact that the songs often told a story appealed to me a lot.  Also, as I explored the world of folk music, I found that many of the songs involved the faerie folk, and this too rang bells with my inner Fantasy fan (“…for tonight is Halloween, and the fairy folk ride…”). And, an added bonus, many of the songs were quite bawdy (“…me ‘usband’s got no courage in ‘im…”). Folk music and I seemed to be made for each other.

JANE: The folk music boom was pretty much over by the time I was beginning to listen to music on my own.  Like you, we sang some folk music in school and I always enjoyed that.  The “Family Mass” at my church featured a folk group instead of the organ and choir.  I really enjoyed that, too.

However, even though my early tastes ran to what today would be called “soft” rock and/or “classic” rock (as well as whatever I heard on the radio), I never really got into folk.  Maybe if the songs I had encountered had been more about the Fey Folk, rather than “Puff the Magic Dragon,” I would have been won over.

Tell me about a group you particularly like.

ALAN: A group I go back to time and time again is Fairport Convention. They are a British group who reached the height of their popularity during the folk boom of the 1960s. They are still making records today. I bought one just a few months ago.

When I first came across them, their singer was a lady called Sandy Denny. Something about her voice just made my spine tingle. Her voice was a musical instrument in its own right and she used it beautifully. Probably the best album they ever made was the hugely influential (at the time) Leige and Lief. Every track on it was firmly based on traditional British and perhaps Celtic folk music and not only did it blow me away with the brilliance of its musicality, it also triggered a lifelong obsession with songs that derive from this tradition.

JANE: I love when voice becomes one of the instruments.  However, me and Celtic music…  I may be missing something in my genetic code or something but, although I’ve liked some, on the whole I want to run away.  This was a problem when I was in college because Fordham had a large Irish Catholic population and many of my friends were into groups like The Chieftains, Silly Wizard, and The Clancy Brothers.

Oddly, although I’m neutral toward most Celtic influenced music, one of my favorite Christmas albums is by The Clancy Brothers.  It’s not bawdy, but it has humor and some gorgeous lyrics that merge the pre-Christian traditions into the Christian with an ease few cultures outside of the Irish seem to manage.

ALAN: Oh, there’s a lot of humour in folk music. And a lot of drama and social comment as well.  All these elements have been present in the music for, quite literally, centuries. Modern artists continue to sing the old songs, of course, but the field is by no means static – new songs are constantly being written. A perfect example would be the music of Paul Simon (of Simon and Garfunkel fame). Not only is he a talented musician, he is an extraordinarily accomplished lyricist, and the sheer cleverness of the words of his songs (“…the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls…”) are magnificent.

JANE: I always liked Simon and Garfunkel.  In fact, one of the few live concerts I’ve seen (I don’t really like either crowds or loud noise) was the one they gave in Central Park in New York City.  That was memorable.  The place was packed, but a friend got there pre-dawn and staked out a location for our group.   He marked it with an Irish flag, so we could find it.

If anyone reading this has the album, you can see our flag in the huge crowd photo.  It’s near the middle, as I recall…

ALAN: Oooh! I’ve got the DVD of the concert. I’ll have to play it again and go looking for you.

JANE:  I had brown hair then…  All this silver is a more modern look.

So, tell me more about what draws you to folk music.

ALAN: I’ve always been in love with the written word and in my teens I spent a lot of time exploring Literature (with a capital LIT).  I very quickly became disillusioned with the formlessness and vagueness of contemporary poetry. It seemed to me that the discipline of the strict rhymes and rhythms imposed on the form by musical requirements produced much more valid poetry than that which restricted itself to the written word. I felt then, and I still feel now, that the true lyric poets of the time had actually abandoned the form, and turned to music instead.

JANE: Oh, I’m bouncing up and down in my chair!  You just brought me back in time to when a very serious English major, a junior in college, had just that discussion with her favorite professor – that lyric poetry, in particular, was alive and well in the realm of the better pop music lyrics.  I even brought along various bits so we could compare.

ALAN: Ah! So it’s not just me. That’s good to know.

JANE: We keep finding ways we’re alike, even in areas where you’d think we’d clash.

ALAN: I’m always very pleased when that happens. And it happens a lot!

I think the thing that really cemented the idea that song lyrics could also be poetry for me was a rather high-brow programme on BBC television. A panel of pundits would have fragments of poetry and prose read to them and they had to try and identify what they were listening to and then discuss it a bit. Points were awarded for correct identification. I vividly remember one programme where all the pundits utterly failed to identify a poem. Nevertheless they were hugely impressed by it. Such lyricism! Such emotion and depth of feeling! Such clever use of language!

Then the chairman revealed the source of the poem. It was a Beatles lyric – actually She’s Leaving Home, from the Sergeant Pepper album. Not surprisingly, the pundits changed their attitude when they found out what it was. Crude construction! Invalid rhythms! Pop music!

But I felt vindicated. Music really was more than just a catchy tune. It was the words that made the song stand out. Lyrics could indeed be poetry in every sense of the word.

JANE: As I said, I’m with you all the way…  And, darn it, I qualify as one of those literary experts, I have the letters after my name and everything.  (I even know the secret handshake.)

I’d like to return to folk music itself more specifically.  One thing I do know is that there are many, many forms, so that talking about “folk music” is a little like talking about “SF.”  Maybe we could take a look at some of the different flavors next time.

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Whether You Live to Write or Write to Live

November 5, 2014

As I mentioned last week, Wanderings on Writing is now completed.  It’s available as an e-book in mobi and e-pub files on Amazon and Barnes and Noble’s websites.  I’ll let you know when it’s available as a POD.  We had a little trouble with the formatting, but that’s being straightened out even as you read this.

 The cover art is an original watercolor by my friend, Tori Hansen.  One of the most fun parts of this project was watching the art work evolve, including one memorable afternoon when Tori painted in the middle of my living room floor, assisted by cats who were sure they should be “painting,” too.

Cover: Back and Front

Cover: Back and Front

 So, what is Wanderings on Writing?  Well, the first thing I want to say is that it’s not a “how to write book” – or maybe I should say, it’s not only a “how to write” book.  It’s also a window into how one writer (me) has managed to deal with the complexities of both creating fiction and being a professional author.

 Although I’ve been a full-time writer since mid-1994, when I chucked a reliable job as an assistant professor of English to move to New Mexico, there was a time when I had to juggle both fiction writing and a demanding job.  Some of the tricks I learned then have served me well throughout my career.  I’ll share those tricks, some of which I adapted from what I heard other writers say they did.  Hopefully, you’ll be able to adapt some of these for yourself.

 A few words about the genesis of this book.  Back in 2010, I knuckled under to the increased pressure that a writer must have some sort of on-line presence (beyond the required webpage).  Since I wanted to make sure I had time to write fiction, I made some rules.  I would blog once a week.  (By the way, I hate the word “blog,” but it seems to have become firmly rooted in the language.)  My once-a-week entry would have some substance.  I wouldn’t write about my socks or my dinner plans or whatever.  And I promised myself that I wouldn’t feel required to write about writing.

 A funny thing happened along the way…  I discovered that even when I didn’t mean to do so, I often found myself writing about writing.  I don’t think I realized until I began writing the Wednesday Wanderings just how firmly creating stories is intertwined into just about everything I do.

 Eventually, people started saying to me, “You really should collect some of your pieces on writing.  They’re really interesting and you have a different perspective on a lot of things.”  Two friends, Bobbi Wolf and Paul Dellinger, were particularly persistent.  When I tentatively mentioned the possibility to my husband, Jim, he encouraged me.

 Although many of these pieces have their origins in my Wednesday Wanderings, I’ve frequently adapted the original essay, providing examples or further discussion of a point.  I’ve omitted specific references to the blog and comments.  (If you want to read these, they’re still available.)  However, critical readers may discern the shadows.

 One thing I did not omit were references to my own work at the time when the piece was written because, in many cases, doing so would have gutted the piece.  Although there is a sort of general organization, these pieces do not need to be read in order.  Instead, I encourage you to dip in here and there.  If a piece is dependent on another, that will be noted.  Even where I have several pieces on a related topic, I’ve chosen to keep them separate.  Feel free to read a little, digest the material, then come back for more.

 Finally, I will offer a warning.  There is no Golden Key to becoming a writer, no secret password, no arcane knowledge that will get you into the inner sanctum.  Why do I feel a need to say this?

 Years ago (I think it was 1996?), when I received my first invitation to speak at a writer’s conference, I consulted another professional writer who was speaking at the same event.

 “They’ve asked me to suggest a topic,” I said.  “I know how to teach, but I don’t really understand what the audience wants.”  My friend smiled cynically.  “They want the Golden Key.  They’re sure there’s one and they’ve paid this workshop a huge fee in the hope that we will reveal it.  All we can do is tell them there isn’t any such thing, that writing is hard work, and then share some thoughts about how we go about it.”

 I don’t quite agree with my friend.  There is a Golden Key.  However, no one can give the Golden Key to you.  You need to forge it yourself.  That doesn’t mean you need to start from nothing.  Pieces like the ones in this book can become your raw material.  They might save you from building your fire too hot or making your mold from inferior clay.

 However, in the end, you need to craft your own Golden Key.  One reason I’ve left the personal anecdotes in here is to show you how I met the challenge.

 (By the way, this was adapted from “No Golden Key,” the introduction to Wanderings on Writing.)