The One Thing Wrong With Your Writing

September 8, 2011

Hello, all! Mr. Brian Wasko, founder of WriteAtHome.com, ran my essay as a guest post on his blog today! If you’re interested, please check it out at:

http://blog.writeathome.com/

(If there’s a new post up by the time you get there, just scroll back until you find me.) This will also give you a look at the company I’ve started working for. They provide writing instruction and encouragement to (primarily) homeschooled students. Brian does an incredible job of updating his blog nearly every day. He discusses all sorts of interesting issues related to writing and the use of English — well worth following, even if I weren’t a guest there!

Pittsburgh: New Office of the Blog

August 24, 2011

Hey, everybody! The blog will continue right here, but I wanted to let you know that my web site is under new and exciting construction! Take a look at what’s happening so far at: www.fredericsdurbin.com.

I have landed a job with WriteAtHome.com, a company that corrects and comments on papers (essays, stories, research papers, etc.) written by (mostly) homeschooled students. I think it will be a perfect fit for me, but it’s not a full-time livelihood. I’m also gearing up for the school year as a freelance teacher of creative writing, making professional visits to schools and libraries. I’ll be serving as an enthusiastic supporter of Cricket Magazine and doing all I can to help young people discover the joy and excitement of setting their own words purposefully on paper. Hopefully with this two-pronged approach, I’ll make it through the winter! I loved how one Cricket editor described my effort as a “Johnny Appleseed” approach: walking from school to school “planting” Cricket and the celebration of good writing. I’ve had fantastic support from friends — excellent advice, designing skills, endorsements, and encouragement. Thanks to all! You know who you are! It takes a village — a subterranean, haunted village.

So I’m here in Pittsburgh, the city of bridges and wandering stairways . . . the city of three rivers. I won’t try to tell you about the city itself yet; rather, I’ll start on a personal level and let pictures introduce you to my new place. Ready? Here we go:

My new place on Broadway Avenue

Broadway Avenue is a great address, eh? That sounds like where the blog offices should be. Since I’ll be writing at my desk, I’d like you all to know that I’ll be working on Broadway. Yeah, I’m doing some creative stuff on Broadway. You know. I’m up on the third floor. No one lives below me yet. But I’m hoping that nice people will move in, and that they’ll use a lot of heat in the winter, which will rise through their ceilings . . .

My entranceway

My access is in the back. Very Pittsburghy: at the rear, the ground is higher. I go up one flight to the third floor.

My new (highly used) car

I seem destined to drive red cars. This is the third car I’ve owned in life, and like its two predecessors, it is red. I don’t choose them for their color. It just worked out that way. I like this one a lot.

Looking toward Pittsburgh

Isn’t this interesting? This view makes it clear that, although Pittsburgh is a well-known, major U.S. city, it’s nestled among forested hills. You can’t go far in any direction without crossing a ridge, a patch of woods, a brushy ravine. Remember those paintings I did, trying to capture the feel of the city? I’ll stick in a panel here, so you can compare the actual to my rendition:

Detail from The Uncanny City, 2010

A city of rivers and hills

I discovered that you can see my apartment in this view, though the photo isn’t detailed enough to allow it. It’s in the middle distance, toward the left of the picture.

St. Mary's Cemetery

Those previous photos were taken near the feet of this cross. From my front balcony, I can just make out this cross on the horizon!

Sunset from my balcony

And that would be in this view — but again, the photo isn’t sufficiently detailed.

Behind my place, from my doorstep

I like the green spaces so close at hand. Trouble is, there’s a lot of poison ivy along my back fence. Of course, that makes it just like home.

My balcony

My balcony

I brought my bicycle with me from Japan. Several have questioned the wisdom of doing so, but it has great emotional value to me. Unfortunately, the valves on bicycle tubes are different in Japan and the U.S.! I had to acquire American inner tubes.

Summer sunset from my front balcony

I like sitting in a beach chair on my balcony to watch the sun go down.

My neighborhood

This is the view from my balcony in the daytime.

One more balcony shot

That’s a fascinating and picturesque cemetery on that steep, rounded hill nearby. Alas, the signs say it’s private and order you to keep out. (It’s probably prowled by Old Ones or other monsters at night.)

Great lamp

I obtained this floor lamp very inexpensively from a friend-of-a-friend who was clearing out his parents’ house and had a lot of furniture to get rid of. I like it!

Kitchen

Here’s a view of my kitchen. Any members of our old D&D group will recognize that card table! The other one is in my current bedroom.

Mom's buffet

I brought this along from my childhood home, too. If you’re a burglar casing my place on-line, there’s no value to it — Mom got it and a companion table and chairs from the Salvation Army or the Goodwill. But it holds a lot of memories of growing up, and I’m glad to have it out of storage at last!

Dining room table

Here’s the companion dining room table. I used to have a great time making secret bases and hideouts under this table with my nextdoor neighbor, whom I’ll refer to as “Chris” to protect his identity. I believe this was our headquarters when our personal army was at war with Germany and/or Spain. This is only half of the table – three more legs go out in the other direction. I’m glad I was able to bring so much of the old Taylorville house to my new location, linking the present with the past.

Keeping the vigil

I’m delighted to have these old friends with me again, too! They’re from the college years, and they’ve figured into some stories and artwork. For over twenty years they sat atop my rolltop desk in the sealed-off darkness of the storage room, watching and waiting. What is time to a gargoyle?

Table leg

If I’d lived in Victorian times, I couldn’t have posted this picture on my blog. Have you heard how the Victorians designed covers to conceal the limbs of tables and chairs, which would otherwise be exposed and shocking? It’s true!

Dad's painting

This is another old treasure from storage. My dad painted this in 1964. He didn’t have any formal training, but I was in awe of it as a kid, and I still love how it captures the feel of a summer night. I imagine that I could step into its warmth-yet-coolness. In later years, we talked about how the painting is strangely prophetic. What else could that be but a Japanese Shinto torii gate, and what business does it have in the setting?

My homemade shelves

This was an innovation I’m really proud of. I have tons of books, right? TONS. I left many in storage, and only brought to Pittsburgh the ones I absolutely wanted to have with me and the ones I thought I might read sometime soon. But that still means that most of what I brought with me was books. I knew there were no bookcases I could buy that would house them properly. Bookcases can be expensive; they’re bulky, difficult to transport, and consume massive amounts of space. So I had this great idea . . .

Pittsburgh has a wonderful store called Construction Junction, which sells used and surplus building materials as well as used furniture. You can find anything there from desks and file cabinets to plumbing fixtures, church pews, stained-glass windows, and a circular stairway handrail. Some of those grand old things cost thousands of dollars, but some are ridiculously cheap, such as bricks for 35 cents apiece and random boards for about the same.

I bought a carload of odd lumber and bricks for less than $20 in all; I washed them off with a hose at my friends’  house, and when everything was dry, I assembled my own bookshelves!

Shelves for larger books

These can be made to fit the available space you have — corners, hallways, and low sections of wall below windows. They’re easier than pie to take apart and move. And I love how they look — basic, natural, functional, and rustic. Bricks are about the perfect height to accommodate mass-market paperbacks. Larger bricks work well for trade paperbacks and hardbacks!

By the way, on the shelf in the photo above, there are: 1.) Gandalf; 2.) an organ pipe from the old organ at St. Matthew Lutheran Church, which a friend gave me as a housewarming present (the pipe, not the whole organ); 3.) a troll made of moss, brought back by Mom from Norway — he was the model for Crion in The Threshold of Twilight; and 4.) a strange, smooth black stone that Dad found. I’ve never seen any other stone like it. Dad pointed out that it’s shaped like an actual heart. Maybe it’s the dark form of a Star Shard . . .

A castle on the Rhine

This is perhaps my favorite painting anywhere. It hung in our house all the while my parents lived there and I was growing up. Mom bought it from a street artist in Germany, when she taught there at a U.S. military base. The artist, E. Mludek, was painting castles on the Rhine River, and he would do them in any color you requested. Mom asked for blue. E. Mludek’s price was “five Marks [I don't remember the actual number] and a bottle of [such-and-such] wine.” Mom had to go to a certain store, buy the wine, and bring it back to him at the arranged time. And Herr Mludek painted this wondrous image for her, just as promised.

No other single image had my attention so much as a child. I passed the painting often, and it seemed full of stories. In my imagination, I walked in the dusky forest, explored the ruins, and sat on the cliffs to watch the river and dream of who might be in the distant castle on the other shore. And doesn’t that look like a face in profile on the rocky bank, gazing sternly over the river? Long years and clouds of cigarette smoke have taken their toll, but it’s still quite a painting — a gateway to enchantment, eh?

Stove

This is looking from my kitchen into what I’m using as my bedroom. My office is in the largest chamber beyond.

Shelves for very large books

Some friends from church gave me this folding bookshelf, which is ideal for my largest books. Can you glimpse any treasures? They’re there!

Workspace

Yes, the dictionaries are back in place within easy reach! I got this desk arrangement from Ikea. It’s a corner piece and two straight pieces — very sturdy, and all a person has to do is screw the legs into place. You buy however many surface pieces and however many legs you want, arrange them in the layout you want, and it’s all much cheaper than any comparable L- or U-shaped desk. I also bought those shelves at the back, same grain and color, to use as a hutch. The chair and mat are from Staples.com.

Mom’s bookcases

I’m pretty sure my mom made these bookshelves herself. The three little books between the elephant bookends are Andersen’s fairy tales. The cross is made of materials from our farm: maple twigs from the Glory Day Grove, a spool from Mom’s sewing basket, and a base from a board that was part of the barn. The longsword is from Japan, but it’s Western-style — not a Hanzou sword, heh, heh!

Hall of books

Down at the hall’s far end is a framed Emily Fiegenschuh print, an illustration for “The Star Shard.”

Ikea desk and hutch

I think it’s a good workspace.

Work station again

I’m trying to decide whether I like that chair better, or an old wooden office chair that I got along with the lamp and four little yellow chairs. I may use the wooden chair in the summer and the plush black one in the colder months.

Living room

And when I say “living room,” I mean “office” . . .

What better bookshelves could there be?

Seriously! See how you can do most anything with bricks and boards? See the little extension that rises up beside the window, making use of the space?

Chunks of historic Pittsburgh

As it turned out, I didn’t buy enough bricks. But there were some discarded in my backyard, the remains of an old foundation or sidewalk. I appropriated a few of those to finish the job, and they have great character. I like the fact that my bookshelves are built of fragments of the old city, chunks and planks from diverse places, a part of the human whirl that has struggled and endured here since the days when black smoke obscured the sky.

Tolkien corner

Though most of my Tolkien and Tolkien-related books are here, some are scattered throughout the other shelves, and this space includes a lot of non-Tolkien stuff. The shelves are surprisingly sturdy, because they utilize walls, corners when possible, and gravity. You could knock them over if you really tried, but you could do that with any bookcase. I think Gimli would approve. He’d say, “These bookshelves have good bones.”

Shelves

Norton Anthologies. Dunsany. Lewis. Do you like the decor? Such is the Fredificium!

More shelves

These are some of my best-loved books from childhood/the teenage years. Just out of the picture is a baseball from the Field of Dreams. The terra-cotta warrior and his horse came from a traveling exhibit of hundreds of actual terra-cotta warriors that I saw in Niigata.

Books, CDs, DVDs

So many books, so little time . . .

Stairway to nowhere

This is an intriguing aspect of the architecture. There’s a tiny bit of the Winchester Mystery House right here! This was a stairway connecting my floor to the one below. But the remodelers boarded it up at the bottom end, so I have a stairway (behind a chain-lock and knob lock) that descends to a blank wall of joists and boards. When I flip on its light switch, I can see a light coming on in the apartment below me, filtering through cracks between the planks. (If people move in downstairs, I can really freak them out!)

Anyway, I have one very small closet in my place, only big enough for my trombone and a couple umbrellas, etc. So I’m using my Stairway to Nowhere as a descending closet. You can see it’s full of (mostly) empty boxes. With that chain lock, I think it will contain the monsters that tend to inhabit closets.

Come and See!

This is the first painting I’ve done since moving here. It was done as a present for a friend’s birthday, and I found it quite therapeutic to be working on it; it helped me to deal with the stress of the waiting game involved in job-hunting. Anyway, the title is “Come and See!” (not to be confused with what I’m told is an excellent movie by that title). As with most of my attempts at painting, your own interpretation of what you see is strongly encouraged. My idea is that the two girls are probably cousins. The darker-haired one wants to show her cousin something out in the moonlit clearing beyond the garden. It has a secret, impulsive, maybe even forbidden aspect, as they’ve sneaked (or wandered) out in their nightgowns. What are they going to see? A moss-bearded herm? A camp of carnival wagons across the meadow, where the fiddles play and fires crackle? A standing stone? A dance of fairy-folk?

Come and See!

Can you see the fireflies?

Well, that’s it for now. Though it pains me to say it, it’s time to think of good books for fall. Well, there’s Dragonfly, of course, and Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and the anthology October Dreams, which is an absolute must for October! Any other good suggestions?

What I most recently listened to is the soundtrack of (the new) True Grit. I was so taken with the soundtrack after seeing the outstanding movie twice that I just had to acquire it. Composed by Carter Burwell, it makes use of 1800s hymns — so much use of them, in fact, that it was knocked out of the running for an Academy Award — not enough “original music” in it. Be that as it may, I cannot imagine a more appropriate and powerful soundtrack for the film.

See the movie. It’s an inspiration. The writing particularly caught my attention, and everything about the film is superb. (And it’s another novel I’d like to read.)

Here’s what Carter Burwell wrote (in part) about his musical choices for this undertaking:

“Mattie Ross drives this story. But her unquestioning determination to go into wild country in pursuit of her father’s killer begs explanation. Where would a 14-year-old girl come by the audacity to browbeat outlaws and lawmen, follow them into the wilderness, correct their spelling? Church, of course.”

That quote runs deep. That’s where the courage and the pluck come from: from belief. From “Leaning On the Everlasting Arms.”

To Unemployment, I say, “Fill your hands, you . . .” and ride forth with the reins in my teeth!

Dorothy VanAndel Frisch Interview: The Gift of Music

August 4, 2011

The blog’s offices are relocated now: here is our first entry from Pittsburgh, the Uncanny City! In keeping with our dedication to embracing writing in all forms — Poetry in the largest sense — we present an interview with a musician. Dorothy is a long-time reader of and contributor to this blog: you know her as Daylily. She has kindly agreed to “blow her cover” and answer some questions about her creative work.

Dorothy is a prolific composer and arranger of music — choral and instrumental (and combinations thereof), sacred and secular. She studied music as an undergrad, concentrating in organ. Now holding a Master of Music degree in history and literature, she has sung in choral groups all her life. She has been a soloist, choir director, church organist, composer-in-residence, and teacher of composition.

Especially within the last few years, her work has been receiving national notice. Yet she remains dedicated to encouraging others to develop and enjoy their musical gifts. One among many examples of her service to young musicians is her arranging of the songs for Glad to Be Alive!: A Musical Character Education Program of 54 Songs for Elementary Children by Kathryn S. Atman. This willingness to teach and share is apparent in Dorothy’s firm belief that music is a gift for people of all ages and abilities.

Here, then, are my questions and Dorothy’s answers:

 

Would you tell us about the scope or range of your work as a composer? That is, what types of music do you write?

I usually write for the performing forces available to me.  So I have written numerous sacred choral anthems, a Christmas cantata, an Easter cantata, organ music, piano music, hand bell works, and various instrumental works and arrangements.

Recently, there was an exciting, large-scale performance of your musical setting for my poem “Summerdark.” Would you tell us when and where that was, who was involved, and how it came about? And how did it go? 

The premiere of “Summerdark” was on May 22, 2011 in Stow, MA by the Sounds of Stow Festival Chorus, some forty voices. [Here is a link to the sound file]:

http://soundcloud.com/dorothy-vanandel-frisch/summerdark

  I had written the setting of “Summerdark” back in June of 2010 and was looking for a group to perform the work.  Last January, I attended a workshop for choral directors and choristers. There I met Barbara Jones, director of the Sounds of Stow.  She and some of her choristers were sitting at one of the lunch tables and I joined them.  When the discussion turned to the spring concert of the chorus, and Ms. Jones mentioned that the theme would be place-related, I thought, “’Summerdark’ is a place.  It’s an imaginary place, but it’s a place!”  So I mentioned “Summerdark,” the director was quite taken with the MIDI file of the piece, and she programmed the work.  The choir enjoyed the piece immensely and so did the audience; I myself sank into the music and lived in it for those few moments, as it finally became this work of living sound.  Here it was, sung with the expression and the mystery for which I had hoped.  At last the work was no longer just my private inner recording of the imaginary choir that sings in my head!

As for the inspiration to set “Summerdark” to music, that goes back to your blog entry of some time back (April 30, 2009, “Spring-Boards”), in which you quoted part of your poem “I Am Looking at Lilacs,” using various lines to accompany your pictures of spring in Japan.  I was intrigued by the poem and wanted to see the whole thing, and you kindly sent me a copy.  The poem sat on my desk for a while, and one day I realized that it would make a lovely choral work.  Then, this choral piece needed a companion piece, and that turned out to be “Summerdark”!  (Both poems are in your book of poetry, Songs of Summerdark.)

What are the challenges of setting an existing poem to music?

The challenge is to listen to the poem and let it tell you what the setting should be, i.e., what are the logical rhythms of the words, what are the shapes of the phrases, who is singing this line or that, who answers with another line, and what sort of tone painting might words like “deep beneath the wall” (in “Summerdark”) be asking for.  “Deep beneath the wall” turned out to be a line for the bass section to sing at the bottom of their range!  The biggest challenge is to listen first and to not write anything down too quickly, i.e., to let the words make their own setting.

You also recently did a setting for a poem of John Milton’s, which won you some serious recognition. Please tell us about that!

I chose to set John Milton’s “At a Solemn Musick” for the 2010-2011 Sorel Medallion Choral Composition Contest, a competition for women composers.  The setting was required to be for mixed chorus and pipe organ, i.e. the Voices of Ascension, a 40-voice choir of paid professionals, and a new five-manual Pascal Quoirin organ, the first French-made organ to be installed in New York City.  The entry was to be no longer than eleven minutes.  I wanted a text with some length, some drama, and some interesting word pictures.  This text has that and more!  Setting it was quite a challenge.  The setting is very much text-driven, with a good deal of tone painting.  For example, for the phrase “hymns devout and holy psalms,” the music sounds like a four-part hymn.  “And with harsh din” is spoken by the voices individually, in an additive effect, louder and louder, then adding chord clusters with the organist’s fists.  It is a most horrible cacophony, as befits the text which says “disproportioned sin Jarr’d against natures chime, and with harsh din Broke the fair musick”.  The opening pictures of the poem depict the glorious harmony of all heaven united in praise to God, a song which earth once joined until sin introduced discord to the world.  But the poem ends in hope, and correspondingly the music returns to the joy and light of heaven.  I found it to be a very educational experience, writing something this long (eight and a half minutes) and working with a text of this difficulty.  It was a great honor to have the work selected for the semifinalist and then the finalist round! The three finalists were invited to New York City for the rehearsals and performance of our pieces.  We all received transportation to NYC, lodging in a fine hotel, meals, consultations with the conductor, and the performance of our work by one of the best choirs in America.  That was the best prize of all: the performance.  The Voices of Ascension are astoundingly good.  It was a night of goose bumps!  We did not know who would receive what place until midway through that evening of June 8, 2011.  As it turned out, I received third place and $1000 for “At a Solemn Musick.”  Considering the music of the second half, “Missa Brevis” by Zoltan Kodaly and “I was glad” by Sir Charles Hubert H. Parry, I felt blessed to have my work premiered amid such company and by such a superb ensemble!

You are a composer, organist, pianist, singer, and teacher of composition. What are the interrelationships of those roles? How do you divide your time and energies among them?

Great question!  I find that each of these interests informs the others.  For example, my personal acquaintance with the organ, piano, and voice makes me know what will work on these instruments and what will not.  And all the literature I have performed with these instruments is part of the background I bring to my writing.  Also, improvising at the organ is a form of composition and can lead to a written composition.  In teaching composition, I think about what I know and what I want to convey, and that helps me to be more intentional in my own composing.  As for time, there are not enough hours in the day!  My idea of heaven is getting to write, play, and sing daily, but that does not often happen.  So I allot my time according to the performances coming up and the deadlines for the various compositions.  I do usually sing and hum a little each day, because I retain my range better that way.  And I enjoy singing and improvising with my voice in the car!

We’ve talked a lot on this blog about where fiction writers get their ideas. Where do musical inspirations come from? How does a composition begin in your mind?

I have no one answer for this question.  It depends on what sort of composition it is.  If the piece is a setting of a hymn text, I start with the text and do some research, looking for the best available common domain tune.  Sometimes I find a wonderful tune to suit the text; sometimes the best solution is to write my own tune.  Once I have text and tune, all the rest follows.  The usual form is introduction, stanza one, interlude, stanza two, interlude, stanza three, etc., coda.  If the piece is a setting of a poem, it may well become a freeform interpretation of the text, with the tune varying from stanza to stanza.  If the piece is purely instrumental, it may be based on a pre-existent tune, or it may develop from a fragment of melody that comes to me.

When you have an idea, do you usually know from the start what form it will take? Has a piece ever surprised you along the way?

When I write a choral anthem using one tune (pre-existent or my own), the form will be as described above.  The fun is in listening to the piece in my mind and hearing which of the many possible ways of setting text and tune will be the way this piece wants to develop.  Who will sing first?  Who will answer?  What sort of dialogue will develop between the voices?  With a freeform setting of a poem, I have many more surprises.  Besides listening for who is singing, I listen for what will be the best bit of melody to set a certain bit of text.  My biggest surprise was in setting “O the Depth!” by John A. Dalles.  A certain part (“sound the Alleluia, Alleluia”) wanted to modulate ever higher and higher, and end up who knows where, in some heavenly realm perhaps.  It was like nothing I’d ever written before.  And this part I had to work out at the piano, because I really couldn’t hear where this was supposed to be going.  It did turn out to be a suitably dramatic effect, despite my misgivings.

Have you always known you wanted to be a composer? 

No, I am a late bloomer. My talent started to come out in graduate school.

How did music first enter your life? Where did the “music bug” come from?

Our family often had classical music playing in the house, and we attended concerts.  I started piano lessons the summer after first grade.  Sometime in grade school, I knew that I would be an organist like my grandfather Henry VanAndel, the first college organist of my alma mater, Calvin College.  I majored in organ at Calvin and the organ has been an important part of my life ever since.

You know I’m going to ask about tools and work spaces. Do you compose on paper or with a computer? Do you have favorite equipment and/or a favorite place to work?

My tools are paper and pencil, computer, and keyboards.  If the composition involves a text, I start with the text on one sheet of paper.  Then I sit on the sofa and listen for what setting the text wants to create.  I listen over and over until the setting settles into one form.  Then I’ll make a few notes next to the text regarding who is singing, what the interludes are, etc.  At this point, I might make some notes in my music sketchbook.  If the composition is a freeform setting, I will have far more to write into the music sketchbook.  Once I’m satisfied with the outline of the piece, I enter the basic melodic structure into the computer, using my electronic keyboard.  I print the outline and take it to the acoustic piano to fill in harmonies and accompaniment.  I work through the piece to the end.  Then I go back to the computer and enter in as much as I can.  I listen to the computer playback and refine the piece, taking the piece back to the piano if I need to.  Before releasing the piece, I play through the accompaniment myself, to find those little things the computer playback will not show me.

A challenge I face as a writer is that my fiction tends to defy the classification labels that marketing departments like. Is there any similar difficulty in the music field?

Certainly.  Publishers of music tend to like “more of the same, only different,” just as in book publishing.  Anything too unusual in style or too difficult or too long is suspect.  In choral music, it is the short works that sell.  It is hard to get multi-movement works published.  In fairness, one can see that publishers can’t just publish music out of the goodness of their hearts; they have to be able to sell copies.  It is possible to write music that fits into a publishing niche and is also a work of art in itself.  But the temptation is do what sells, thereby letting the niche more and more define one’s art.

In the world of fiction writing, the typical pattern is that writers try to get published. They look for agents and editors who believe in the book. How does it work in your arena? How do composers get their work to audiences?

Agents are less interested in representing composers, because we are usually producing numbers of small works, rather than larger works with larger price tags.  [Fred's interruption: Just as in the fiction industry, agents don't handle short stories.] And in the music field, the larger works are much harder to get published.  The publishers want easier, shorter works so that they can sell lots of copies.  So it’s a matter of finding a publisher that wants the kind of thing you are writing, or of writing what they want, or both.  A composer can find a limited audience for almost anything he/she writes by finding a local group to perform the work.  Said work may or may not be publishable; it all depends upon whether a publisher thinks the work is salable.

Are you more productive at certain times of day?

I am most productive at night.  I like to write music after dinner, if I have no evening meetings.  But I can write music at any time of day.

Was there a breakthrough or epiphany moment in your musical life, when you felt you took a great stride forward as a composer?

The first breakthrough was the result of taking “Beginning Choral Writing” with Alice Parker.  It was in that course that I learned how to think of choral music in terms of voices in a dialogue, answering back and forth.  I also learned how to find the outline for a new piece and how to listen to the piece develop from beginning to end before starting to write down the notes.  This course revolutionized my composing technique!

A number of years later, the course I took with Jeanne Cotter opened to me the great possibilities of creative harmonization.  Every once in a while, I have another breakthrough.  The most recent one is realizing that now I can write freeform settings of poetry, settings that interpret the words more closely than can be done by using the same tune for each stanza.  “I Am Looking at Lilacs” was the second of these settings and “Summerdark” was the third.

It seems to me that composers have a point in common with playwrights: what they write passes through an intermediary agency before it reaches the audience — either actors or performing musicians interpret the work, and some of their choices may not be what the creator intended. Is this a difficult aspect of composing, and how do you deal with it?

I always feel grateful to the performers, without whom the work would only be black marks on a white piece of paper.  The score is merely a guide to the music; it is not the music itself.  And I respect the insights that various conductors and performers bring to the music. I also strive to attend rehearsals of a new work, so that I can help to shape the premiere.  This is important, because although composers try to put every indication possible into the score to help the performers, the score is still an imperfect guide to the music. [Fred's intrusion: So it sounds like it's more a plus than a minus to have all these other minds and talents contributing to the performance. I hear you! In that way, musical compositions are like movie scripts, too. The finished movie is the collaboration of hundreds and hundreds of people. Fiction writers, of course, have the help of editors, copyeditors, proofreaders, jacket designers, artists . . . and finally, of course, to all these works comes the audience -- the reader, viewer, or listener, who brings the work to the only life it truly has.]

Would you be willing to relate for us one of your finest moments as a composer?

That would have to be the premiere of “At a Solemn Musick” by the Voices of Ascension!  At the end, I wanted to jump up and shout, “Hallelujah, Amen!”

What drew you to the organ? Was it the first instrument you played?

The piano was my first instrument, and I still love to play the piano, as well as finding it a vital tool for my work as composer.  But I took an interest in the organ from a young age, perhaps because of the many and varied sounds available on a fine instrument, the powerful sound of the full organ, and the fascination of studying an instrument that demands the use of two hands and two feet, sometimes all at the same time!

Many writers seek the opinions of test readers at some point before considering a book or story ready to go out into the world. Do you do something similar?

I always seek a first performance of a work before submitting it for publication.  No matter how good the computer playback is, it does not tell all.  Having heard the piece brought to life, I then know what little things should be altered in the score.  It could be so small as an added expression mark or a courtesy accidental.  My proofreading is very good, but there is nothing like a live performance to show exactly what one has written!

Has there been a particular composer or two that has/have especially inspired or influenced you?

My influences are many and varied:  J. S. Bach, Brahms, the English composers such as Ralph Vaughn Williams and Herbert Howells, and contemporary women composers such as Alice Parker and Jeanne Cotter.

What would you say is the reason you compose? What do you hope to accomplish through your work?

I write music because I must.  Believe me, my life would be much easier without writing music.  I have so many interests that I could very happily and productively fill my time without writing a note of music.  However, I have found that I am incomplete unless I write music.  It is perhaps my best gift from God, and I feel the strong pull to use it.  I feel the call to create beauty.  The world has far too much ugliness in it, and more beauty is needed as a counterbalance.  And I hope that the music I create points to the Creator of “every good and perfect gift” (James 1:17).

Thank you, Dorothy!

You are most welcome, Fred!  It was an honor.

Patrick Doud: An Author Interview

June 14, 2011

As Midsummer’s Eve approaches, it’s a fine time for focusing on tales of friendship and adventure that can transport us “beyond the fields we know.” I’ve just been reading one such, and I’m here to introduce you to its creator. Joining us for an exclusive interview is Patrick Doud, author of The Winnitok Tales, a young-adult fantasy series of which the first two volumes have been published by North Atlantic Books. The books thus far available are The Hunt for the Eye of Ogin (2010) and The Mornith War (2011). As a delighted reader, I can personally vouch for the outstanding work Patrick delivers. The following are my own words, which appear as an endorsement on the back cover of the second book:

“Patrick Doud has the heart of a poet and writes with the skill of a seasoned storyteller. Evoking the awe and magic of the natural world, his beautifully paced work is rich in detail, crackling with action, and populated by characters we care deeply about. The ease with which he keeps us turning pages makes it hard to believe that Ogin is his fiction debut. Well-imagined, intelligent, and original — there is much to love in the wondrous world of The Winnitok Tales.” — Frederic S. Durbin

Ogin
Volume One of THE WINNITOK TALES

The amazing cover art for the books is by August Hall, with book and cover design by Paula Morrison. Here’s Volume Two, just released:

Volume Two of THE WINNITOK TALES

 There are also some links you should know about. Patrick’s blog can be found at www.patrickdoud.com. And there’s a special site for the series itself at www.winnitoktales.com. Also, you can watch video interviews with Patrick:

http://goodmorninggloucester.wordpress.com/2011/06/02/gloucester-author-patrick-doud-second-novel-the-mornith-war/

That was a recent one, upon the release of the second book. Here’s the earlier one, for his first book:

http://goodmorninggloucester.wordpress.com/2010/03/20/patrick-doud-book-signing-at-the-bookstore-of-gloucester/

And now, on to our main event! Here is the interview that Patrick graciously agreed to do for us:

FSD: Your love of nature is quite apparent in your books. Do you feel that the natural world in some ways inspires the plots? Please tell us anything you’d like to about how nature influences you, the writer.

PD: There are quite visible ways the natural world becomes a part of the plot, like the poison ivy and the mountain laurel in Ogin, or the wild grapes growing in the pine grove in Mornith. Vegetable life, land forms, weather… all interest me, and all may have an effect on plot. 
 
I like stories where plot and setting are inextricable, and the kinds of settings I tend to like best are wild or rural.
 
When I was a kid in Western New York, one way I endured many long car rides from Buffalo to Syracuse and back visiting family was by watching the woods and farms on either side of Interstate 90, imagining things happening in the places we passed. I still do that.
 
FSD: Have you ever spent the night in an actual swamp? After reading Ogin, I am convinced that you have!
 
PD: I’m glad to know that was convincing! But I’ve never actually spent a whole night in a swamp, not that I recall anyway. Sleeping in a tent in the woods when I was an adolescent, I did hear noises that terrified me. I’m sure that experience found its way into The Winnitok Tales.
 
FSD: Before you turned to fiction, your publishing career included some volumes of poetry: Girding the Ghost, The Man in Green, and Hickory Bardolino Poems. In your fiction, we readers get to “hear” poems and songs that your characters sing. But it’s not only that — poetry seems to enliven your work on a deeper level. Can you tell us something of how you view the relationship between fiction and poetry?
 
PD: That’s difficult. Each gives to the other and takes from the other, but it seems like poetry gets a lot more out of their relationship.   
 
FSD: Do you have any particular methods for choosing the names of characters and places? Do they come easily to you?
 
PD: Sometimes a name finds me, but much more often I have to find it. My usual method is to make a list, usually variations on a proto-name, rejecting possibilities as I go.
 
FSD: I love to hear about writers’ work spaces and equipment. Do you have favorite places to write, and any favorite writing tools?
 
PD: My study is the main place. Desk, pc, books, reading chair, a couple of windows… I make use of them all regularly while working, and it’s not easy to move all those elements around or recreate them somewhere else.
 
Another favorite place to write is the woods near my house. It’s a good place to get ideas. I scribble on scratch paper in the palm of my hand, then transfer it all to composition books later.
 
One of my oldest and dearest tools is a battered Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, a gift from my parents when I graduated high school. For deeper queries I have the one volume, magnifying glass-required OED. 
 
The writing place I remember most fondly: a very old trailer on the eastern shore of Otisco Lake, in Central New York. In the mid-nineties I would go there to write for several days at a time.The beauty and relative isolation of the place were both very good for work. 
 
FSD: When you are working on a book, what is your writing schedule like?
 
PD: Ideally I start in the morning after breakfast and a little reading, and keep going until my mind is too tired to do good work. Often that’s not possible, of course, and I just have to write whenever I can. 
 
FSD: Did you have to do any research or learn about something new in order to write The Winnitok Tales?
 
PD: At the beginning I spent time looking deeper than I had before into North America in the time before Europeans came here, and also in the time after they came but before they completely took over. William Bartram’s Travels, James Wilson’s The Earth Shall Weep, and William Cronon’s Changes in the Land were three very useful books. I remember getting a lot out of John Hanson Mitchell’s books Trespassing and CeremonialTime, and Tom Wessels’ Reading the Forested Landscape. It happened that Bernd Heinrich’s Mind of the Raven was published just after Booj first flew into the story. Ravens seem to shun the places where I’ve spent most of my life, so I relied on that book a lot.  
 
FSD: One real strength that sets your books apart from so many fantasies is the original and beautifully-developed characters. They’re not copies of the Tolkien archetypes. How do you go about creating characters?
 
PD: Why, thank you! I don’t have any system or series of steps by which I create characters, at least not that I’m conscious of. For me, story is primary, character is secondary. If I follow the story, the characters fall into place; if the story proceeds as it should, the characters naturally do likewise. [FSD: I just have to insert this thought: Remember what Garth Nix said at World Fantasy? He said he discovers the characters as he writes the book -- as he watches and listens while they react to what happens to them, as they strive to overcome the challenges thrown at them by the plot. I really liked that thought, because it's the way I do it, too. And it's contrary to what many writers say about how you have to get the characters all figured out in minute detail before you ever start writing.] 
 
FSD: What draws you to fantasy as a genre?
 
PD: One appeal is the way fantasy worlds put our own world in perspective. Our imagined worlds are made from parts of the world we all live in, and in a funny way, they help us look at this world with unfamiliar eyes. To make a world equal to ours would require infinitely more imagination than any of us fantasists could ever hope to wield.
  
FSD: How is writing young-adult fiction different from writing for adults?
 
PD: Other than the obvious restriction — the story cannot go anywhere that most people would consider inappropriate for teenagers — I think very little is different. 
 
FSD: What was the greatest challenge in writing The Winnitok Tales? Is it true what so many say about the second novel being harder to write than the first?
 
PD: One of the greatest challenges was deciding whether or not to write them at all. I’ve always loved fantasy, but for some years before beginning The Winnitok Tales I was part of a writing culture which either disdains genre fiction, or enjoys reading genre fiction but does not write it. I was very conscious that it would be an odd move — in my own eyes as well as everyone else’s. 
 
As for the question of whether or not the second novel is harder: in my case it may have been easier. For one thing, Mornith is a continuation of the story begun in Ogin, so I had already had a foundation to build on.
 
FSD: Would you be willing to relate for us one of the best moments in your writing life so far?
 
PD: One of the best moments came when I was rewriting Ogin. I suddenly realized I had an essential part of Elwood’s story all wrong, and how to make it right. It was something I hadn’t even seen as a problem before. Revelation followed by a period of euphoria. 
 
FSD: At what point do you let other people read a new manuscript?
 

PD: Usually once I have a sense that I’ve taken it as far as I can on my own.
 
FSD: To what extent do you plan or outline a book?
 
PD: For Mornith I wrote a summary of each chapter before I began the first draft. Writing Ogin, my approach was much less organized: the book began as a pile of notes. I will probably follow the chapter summary plan with the third.  
 
FSD: What draws you to the novel over the short story?
 
PD: It’s not that I prefer one or the other; it’s just that up to now, stories coming my way have been long. I’m excited to see how short stories may contribute to the world of Ehm by dealing with times and places that are not Elwood’s.    
 
FSD: For how much of your life has the world of Winnitok been in your imagination? How far back does it go?
 
PD: The very first image, the image of Elwood and Drallah meeting in the woods of Winnitok, came in 1999. So that’s about a quarter of my life so far. 
 
FSD: Another thing you and I have in common is that you’re also a fantasy role-playing gamer. Tell us about gaming and writing. Has there been any crossover? (Have you developed ideas for a game campaign that you eventually used in your fiction, etc.?) Does your gaming background help you as a writer? Does it hinder you in any way?
 
PD: In the late 70′s and early 80′s, on either side of the age of twelve, there definitely was crossover between gaming and writing for me. I don’t remember taking anything specific from one sphere to place in the other, but I do recall filling notebooks with words and maps, with parts of other worlds; some of these were for play, some to read — but all were fantasy. I still draw on memories of those formative years when I write. If that era hinders my writing, I’m unaware of it. 
 
FSD: I am really impressed with the way you handle violence in Ogin. It’s not cartoon violence. It has a psychological cost for the characters who are involved with it. Are violent action scenes hard to write?
 
PD: It is hard for me to write violence — to the point that I’m uneasy about having the word “war” in the title of my book. There’s a part of me that’s horrified by real violence, and another that’s entertained by imaginary violence. I see the difference between the two, but also their relation. I’m beginning to understand that the violence in The Winnitok Tales is, in part, me working through this problem.
 
FSD: Do you have any amusing rejection stories you’d care to tell us? (An editor once told me a story I’d sent him was “much ado about nothing.” Another told me to “learn standard punctuation.”)
 
PD: Unfortunately all my rejections to date have been standard, boring. (I wonder about the editor who told you to learn punctuation! Your punctuation is of course impeccable. Indeed, I’m counting on you here to make mine look good!) [FSD: Thank you, but I don't deserve such kind words. I know my use of English (punctuation included) can be quirky. But the longer I've been writing, the more I've found this to be true: there are style books that will agree with you, and style books that will disagree, and both are respectable books. Editors and houses have their own styles (and prejudices), too. True story: I've had my "hooves" changed to "hoofs" by one excellent editor, then back to "hooves" again by another. I think the best course is not to lose sleep over it, but to strive always to communicate clearly and to be consistent -- and the greater of these is to communicate. There were -- what was it? -- about four different spellings of the name "Shakespeare" recorded on different documents in the Bard's lifetime . . . whoever he really was!]
 
FSD: What was the best writing advice you ever received?
 
PD: Among the best: a poet friend advised me to stop rewriting a poem I had already rewritten many times, and instead address whatever I was dissatisfied with in that poem with a new poem.   
  
FSD: Do you listen to music while you write?
 
PD: Almost always. Usually symphonic music, without voices. When I’m deep in the work I’m not conscious of it at all. 
 
FSD: Can you remember your earliest attempts at writing, probably when you were a child? What did you write about?
 
PD: The earliest completed story I can remember was for school. It was about a group of boys who build a raft, dress as pirates, and go out on the river looking for a rival group of boys who are doing the same thing.
 
FSD: What would you say is the reason you write? What do you hope to accomplish through your writing?
 
PD: Writing is an urge, a desire to make; like the drive to reproduce. My hope for what I write is that readers will find in it a place they like to go.
   
FSD: Patrick, thank you very much!
 
PD: Thank you, Fred! It’s been an honor and a pleasure.
 

Clock Tower

May 14, 2011

Black Gate Issue 15It’s an exciting week on the publishing front! First, over to the right here is Issue #15 of Black Gate — it is hot off the presses and loaded with stories, including my “World’s End.” This is the first publication of any of my stories in the Agondria cycle. Every issue of Black Gate is like a super-high-quality anthology of sword & sorcery adventure, along with reviews of books, games, an insightful editorial . . . even a cartoon! At 384 pages long, this issue is essentially a book. I am truly honored to be sharing the table of contents with some of the finest writers in the field, including my friend John R. Fultz (who has been interviewed on this blog). Also, I have to tell this story: some months ago, when Editor John O’Neill revealed the wonderful painting he’d purchased for the cover — and knowing some of the stories he’d chosen for inclusion — I remarked to him, “Wow! So this is the Warrior Woman Issue, huh? You chose that cover to match the content!” Actually, he hadn’t — or not consciously, anyway! But he agreed that I was quite right. Sure enough, in the table of contents, he has grouped eight stories into a section under the heading “Special Warrior Woman Issue”! So I had the honor of making one extra contribution to this issue, other than my story — it seems I even helped a tiny bit with the conceptual design (or at least in identifying it)!

Also, Mr. Gordon Van Gelder very kindly sent me a contributor’s copy of Issue #4 of the new Polish language version of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, which reprints my Lovecraft-inspired story “The Place of Roots” just before an interview with Ursula K. Le Guin! In Polish, the story is called “Miejsce Korzeni,” and was translated by Konrad Walewski. I am told it was Mr. Walewski who chose my story for inclusion. It’s a tremendous honor to think that, of all the tales published in the long history of F&SF, he selected mine for Issue #4! So my deepest thanks go out to Mr. Walewski, and I salute him, too, for bringing this great magazine to the people of Poland! (This is the second language my fiction has been translated into: “The Bone Man” appeared awhile back in the Russian edition of F&SF.)

For fans of Emily Fiegenschuh’s illustrations for “The Star Shard” in Cricket: Emily has recently presented me with her amazing book Journey: Sketchbook Volume 3. It’s a beautiful, 96-page softcover collection of her artwork from around the time she worked on my story. One long section of the book is entirely devoted to “The Star Shard,” including conceptual designs, a motion sequence or two, and variations on the appearances and costuming of the characters. Herein are some of the sketches I got to see when we were still in the planning stages, when we were working out how some things should look. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the pre-production world of “The Star Shard,” though most of the images are quite detailed. One of my favorite pages shows the possible looks that might have been given to Bobbin and Argent. Really cool! For anyone who may not yet know: you can view the images for the story in all their full-color glory — and even order prints! — on Emily’s web site at www.e-figart.com.

And now, allow me to change the subject with a monkey wrench: Grrooiinnnkk! A couple weeks ago, some friends from out of town visited me. One highlight of the visit was an opportunity that even many Taylorvillians may not be aware of. Remember our county courthouse, situated on the Square in Taylorville right behind the statue of Lincoln and the pig?

Christian County’s third courthouse, built in 1902

There it is! Well, the man who winds the tower clock once a week is always willing to take visitors along with him. If you can get out of bed to meet him a little before 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday — and if you can climb a lot of stairs — he’ll give you a fascinating tour of this historic landmark. A more knowledgeable guide you will not find. His passion for history and mechanics becomes immediately apparent. Eighteen years ago, he escorted me and some Japanese friends up into the clock tower. This time around, knowing it would be just the sort of thing my company would enjoy, I gave him a call, hoping he was still the Clock Man — and he is! 

 

Seal of Illinois in the First Floor Rotunda

This seal greets you as you enter the courthouse. The building itself, constructed in 1902, is the third courthouse of Christian County. The first, as Lincoln afficionadoes will know, is located now on the grounds of our local historical museum, and is the building in which Lincoln himself practiced law.

 

Through the attic

My personal favorite part of the ascent is the journey through the dim attic, behind those roof-parts of the courthouse. It’s like being in a mine, with all the brickwork and dust and walkways. Are those dust-motes in my photos, or orbs?

The courthouse attic -- another inspirational source for DRAGONFLY

Seriously — I think this attic was an inspiration for the basement stairway scene in Dragonfly. Does the math work out? If I’m figuring right, 1993 would have been when I first saw this attic. Hmm. Iffy, but very close.

The brickwork of the tower

We’re heading up into the tower here. The wooden walkways really remind me of tourist pathways in commercial caves.

Onward, upward, by shadowy ways

The crowning jewel of the courthouse is a stained-glass dome that for decades was hidden by a false ceiling and all but forgotten. When I made my first trip up into the tower, it was visible in a dark crawlspace, but it was not yet restored.

 

Return to regions of light

Here, we’re climbing above the dome. You know, this courthouse has inspired two of my short stories as well. One, an unpublished “learning experience,” was called “Hunting the Vampire,” in which two pre-teen boys (heavily based on my nextdoor neighbor and me) become convinced that a vampire has taken up residence in the courthouse tower. Taking it upon themselves to rid the community of this horror, they break into the courthouse at night and ascend the black tower . . . to a somewhat surprising (if inept) ending. I used to inflict that story on my Saturday English students at Nozomi Lutheran Church. I had study guides to go with it and everything.

Early light outside the windows

This dome was discovered beneath four feet of dust! That’s a fact, according to the clock keeper, and he would certainly know. The other story set partly in this courthouse is “Witherwings,” in which a young boy gifted with a special “sight” sees horribly disturbing images in the stained-glass dome that no one else sees. I really like that one!

The restored dome, from above

The center part of the story beneath the dome was removed during the restoration, so that you can now stand in the First Floor Rotunda, tip your head back, and gaze up at the wonder of the dome! (And hope you don’t see horribly disturbing images . . .)

The restored dome, from below

Are you okay? Everyone still here? Whew! It’s quite beautiful.

Emerging into the bell space

You come up this narrow stairway into that open-air part of the tower that you can see from the ground. That’s where the mighty bell crouches.

The clock bell

And just as one of our party was kneeling in front of this bell to take a closeup picture, the bell struck 8:00 a.m. That . . . was . . . LOUD. And now we come into the small housing chamber of the grand clock itself. This clock keeper is only the third man to do the job since 1902. Clock keepers tend to be lifers — people who do the job because they absolutely love it.

Oiling the clock

Back in the fifties and sixties, many weight-driven clocks were gutted and fitted with electric motors. Doing so was a travesty. Aside from their historic value, the weight-powered clocks are simply better. They don’t stop during power failures. Furthermore, in wintry Midwest conditions, clock hands are often blocked in their movement by snow and ice. When this happens, weight clocks will just stop and wait (Do I have to pay the pun fund?). Electric motors will burn themselves out.

 

Maintaining the clock

Various conditions can affect the clock’s accuracy: temperature, humidity, weather . . . Good clock keepers learn to listen, to know the sounds and rhythms of the mechanics, so that they can hear when something is wrong. Some tiny glitch can occur that may stop the clock many hours later. So if there is a problem, the clock keeper becomes a detective. Did the wind from a certain direction push the clock hand inward just enough to snag on a number on the clock’s face? When might this have happened? And on which of the four clock faces?

This week, the clock was running fast by 25 seconds. (It must be wound once a week, at the same time each week.) Do you see this telephone atop the clock mechanism?

Hotline to the clock

The keeper is able to call the clock from his own cellular phone. By dialing in different codes, he can stop the clock and restart it. While we watched, he stopped the clock for precisely 25 seconds, then restarted it — putting it back on the correct time. And all by phone! He also has cameras set up to “watch” the clock; they stream their images to the Internet, so anyone can watch the clock! (Is it just me, or does this scenario suggest an element of a good murder mystery?)

The crank used by former keepers

The first two keepers used this crank (above) to wind the clock. It’s the bell side of the clock that is by far the harder to wind; you have to raise a weight equivalent (in weight, not size) to a smallish car up four stories to wind the striker. By hand, the process took a good hour, with frequent stops to rest. The current keeper did that once. Then he built himself a motorized attachment, which winds the clock (lifts the weight) in a few minutes. The former keeper did the job until he was in his nineties. At the time he retired, he could still turn the crank with no problem; it was his knees that forced him to quit. He couldn’t climb all the way up there any more.

Hatchway in one clock face

So we’re looking right out through the face of the courthouse clock here! One of the hands is visible.

Taylorville water tower

There’s the northeast corner of the Square (above). Look! Beyond the water tower is the soybean mill which is visible from my yard, which lies still farther east!

North side of the Square

There’s the north side, and the movie theater. I can’t quite see what’s playing. Isn’t it odd? Just a few short months ago, I was taking photos from atop a tower on the other side of the world. Strange feeling. These places we know so well, where we spend our lives . . .

Slave clock on the first floor

This clock on the ceiling of the first floor is tied to the great clock in the tower. What the big faces outside show, this one shows.

Lincoln’s Tomb in Springfield, Illinois

Here’s Lincoln’s Tomb in Springfield. The long-observed tradition is for visitors to rub Lincoln’s nose for good luck. The nose of this sculpture is bright and shiny. Looks like Tycho Brahe. (I don’t think this practice was observed while Lincoln was alive.)

My place in Taylorville, May 2011

And here’s my place. [Cue the "Concerning Hobbits" soundtrack.]

Looking southwest at my place

What do you say? Good place to end the post? Talk to you soon!

Transition

April 5, 2011

So here I am back in Illinois, as still-raw winds blow over the unworked fields and the world slowly awakens into spring. I have some ambivalent emotions, just like the season. It’s a big change, and it will take time to make the adjustment. But I’m on the path, and well-supported, and trusting. I miss the people in Japan. My heart is with those who are suffering so greatly. My mind is boggled at the timing of my departure. There must be some meaning there that may become clearer in time. The overwhelming message I get is that my life is being guided with a purpose, and I need to live it with awareness and care, redeeming the full value of the days.

Another thought I’ve had: in the speculative fiction field, we talk about the genre of epic or heroic fantasy. We read and write of heroes. Our society at large venerates its sports “heroes.” But today we’re seeing the truest of all heroes — those workers in Fukushima who have committed themselves to remaining at the nuclear reactor site, sacrificing their lives for their fellow human beings. At one point, a report said there were 300 of these workers, and I thought, “Wow! It’s Thermopylae again, the Brave Three Hundred at the Hot Gates.” I believe the number who stayed after the radiation levels got so high is much smaller. Books will be written about these selfless people. Movies will be made. These are heroes, and I pray for their success.

While we’re on this serious topic: I don’t normally do “causes” on the blog, but I’m guessing no one will be too offended if I post one address. If you’re looking for a way to help the people of Japan and aren’t sure which organizations you can trust to use your contribution properly, here’s one that I know is rock-solid and genuine. Checks (noting “Japan Disaster Relief” in the memo line) can be sent to: LCMS World Relief and Human Care, P.O. Box 66861, St. Louis, MO  63166-6861.

Okay, onto brighter subjects:

On the writing front, it’s an exciting time. I am just now checking what’s called “first pages” for The Star Shard. This is the typeset copy, exactly how it will look in the finished book. At least two other capable pairs of eyes at the publisher’s are also going over it, so I hope among us, we can catch any typos that may still lurk. And if we don’t . . . well, remember those tiny flaws the Amish deliberately work into their magnificent quilts, to maintain humility before God?

Also exciting: Head for your newsstand now! My article “Riddles: An Ancient Game” is in the April issue of Cricket! It’s beautifully illustrated by Julie Collins, who did a fantastic job of visually portraying my riddles without giving them away. Cricket also secured permission from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for me to quote a few riddles from The Hobbit by way of example! But it gets better! The writing contest at the back of the magazine is based on a writing prompt in my article. So we’re hoping young readers will be coming up with their own Anglo-Saxon style riddles and/or poems, the best of which will appear in a future issue. And in the magazine’s Cricket Country cartoon panel, the buggie characters are telling riddles — so the entire issue is riddled with good stuff! (Pun fund . . .)

I did some detective work and found out that my article “The Great God Pan: Myth, Horror, and the Divine” appeared in the November/December 2010 issue of FATE Magazine. If anyone wants to track that one down, it can be ordered from their website at www.fatemag.com. I believe they’ll sell you either a hard copy of the magazine or a very inexpensive pdf version.

It’s good to be back at my home church again, worshiping in English, singing in the choir, and even playing with other instrumentalists. I’ve been practicing my trombone, and this past Sunday we did a trombone trio plus flute on “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” Fun!

It’s very nice spending time with aunts, an uncle, and lots of cousins. Since coming back, I’ve done some yard work, been through a week-long bad cold, and am trying to help around the house as I do some job-related research and explorations. One of my main duties at my aunt and uncle’s house is to take the dog Cassie on her daily walk. Thanks to the blessings of a CD Walkman and an iPod (the latter very kindly given to me by one among you — a wonderful present!), I’ve been listening to a lot of music on these walks.

A couple days ago, out by the fair grounds, Cassie caught the scent of a large groundhog. I saw the animal at a distance as it came out of a shed, hid briefly beneath a storage trailer, and then headed for the trees along the edge of a field. Cassie didn’t see that, and she was convinced the groundhog was still hiding under the trailer. She had a fantastic time sniffing and running back and forth, around and around the metal unit, poking her nose into every groundhog-scented space. That day was perfectly windless and we were away from traffic noises — the ideal listening experience — so I let Cassie take us around and around the trailer — good exercise, good canine fun, excellent music.

The other day in the comments section of this blog, Chris made a point that, coincidentally, I had just been thinking of myself: how one great thing about albums is that they often introduce us to songs among their contents that are actually greater treasures than the songs that may be getting the most attention and radio time. I also have been thinking that songs are like people in the way they make their impressions on us. Sometimes we’re not particularly impressed when we hear a song for the first time, but on subsequent listenings, those same unassuming selections can rise to become dear friends.

My favorite new (to me) songs and albums in these spring days:

The Celtic Circle: Legendary Music from a Mystic World. It’s by various artists — a two-disc set. It includes most of everyone’s favorite Celtic artists as well as a suite from The Lord of the Rings  and “Hedwig’s Theme” from Harry Potter. My favorite on the album is a track by Phil Coulter featuring Sinead O’Connor singing “The Shores of the Swilly.” It’s a haunting, achingly lovely song.

Priscilla Ahn’s album A Good Day. (This one is not Celtic.) Favorite songs: “Dream,” “Lullaby,” and “A Good Day (Morning Song),” although the whole album is well worth owning.

The Tannahill Weavers, Dancing Feet. I’ve had this one for awhile. Lately I’ve been revisiting it, and it gets better and better. Lively, driving, merry, sad, living Scots songs. I love “Wild Mountain Thyme” and “The Final Trawl.” Courage and inspiration!

Loreena McKennitt’s new album, The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Absolutely lovely stuff. Favorites: the title piece, and also “Down By the Sally Gardens,” text by W.B. Yeats.

Finally, Sinead O’Connor’s Sean-Nos Nua. Hard to pick a favorite on this one — it’s all superb. Sinead O’Connor has been impressing me more and more lately. The following songs of hers, not from this album, are all extraordinary: “Song of Jerusalem,” “Three Babies,” “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace,” and “Mna Na Ha Eireann.”

So I move forward, with a dog straining at the leash — into the wind, into April, into the undiscovered country. Talk to you again soon.

More Views of Niigata

March 8, 2011

Gather ’round and see a few more pictures of Niigata! In case there’s any confusion, my explanations appear under the photos they’re about, not above.

Niigata Station

Not a lot of explanation needed here that the caption doesn’t provide. It’s the main train station in Niigata.

Bus boarding area in front of Niigata Station

Likewise here. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that crosswalk without a crowd of people on it.

The type of bus I typically ride

This is in the area between the station and Bandai City. (Bandai City is a section of Niigata, not a separate city. I was confused about that when I first arrived.) The buses I ride to and from the university are that color.

Looking toward the station

I’m going to get fired as a commentator! No “color” to add on this one, either! It will be more interesting when Chris adds the monsters with his digital vandalism.

Bandai Bashi: "The Bridge of Ten Thousand Generations"

Okay. Back in the early sixties, during the Great Niigata Earthquake, all the other bridges collapsed, but Bandai Bridge stayed intact, ever standing astride the flood of the Shinano. This is one symbol of Niigata. Tourists come to see this bridge. There used to be a fantastic pub, the Kirin Bandai Beer Hall, diagonally opposite (across the river) from where I stood to take this picture. It had ivy-framed windows overlooking the river, and you could gaze out on the night view of the bridge, lighted with golden lights, as you quaffed your Kirin or your Guinness. Closing that place down is one of the five worst things the city has ever done. Now an apartment building stands there.

I more often see it from this side.

This is looking across from the Okura Hotel side toward the Bandai City side.

The Anastasia

Sightseers can ride this boat up and down the river on dinner cruises. I always find it somehow comforting when the Anastasia chugs past me. (Its name, you know, means “Resurrection” in Greek.) I’ve always fantasized about jumping off one of the bridges onto its roof as it passes beneath me. I’ve never done it, because I’m not sure what the next step would be. Rescuing the girl, I suppose. But what if there wasn’t a girl on board?

Yasuragi-Tei, a park on the bank of the Shinano River

In my younger days, I spent a LOT of time on this riverbank — reading, writing, viewing cherry blossoms in season, playing catch with friends, lighting fireworks (which are perfectly legal here!), practicing my trombone . . . I even set up a tent one night and camped here! (I was only 23 or so — the age at which you do stuff like that.) I remember a few curious senior citizens peering in through the mosquito mesh early the next morning. I only did that once . . .

Little waterfall in Hakusan Park

Very peaceful place. In this park, there is a cage full of big grayish-brown monkeys of the type that inhabit the mountains of Japan and sometimes compete with guests for space in the outdoor hot-spring baths. Well, once about ten or fifteen years back, the monkeys escaped and climbed high up into the park’s trees. Just at that time, Niigata City’s official monkey-wrangler was away in Africa. So it fell to the city employees to deal with the situation. There were a lot of guys from the city hall, all in conservative suits, ties, and wingtip shoes, clambering around through the park, trying to coax the monkeys down from the trees. The monkeys sat up there laughing for about three days, beaning their pursuers on the heads with pine cones. Eventually they came down to eat and went back into their cage.

Pond in Hakusan Park

My parents visited this park. I remember reading a lot of the book Shiokari Pass here, and it was one of my haunts during my first few years in Niigata. The park was another place I came to think of writing ideas and to write. The glimpse of bright red you see is the main front torii gate of the park and shrine.

Directions and hours

This stone bench has a central dial engraved with the ancient Chinese symbols for the compass directions. Here are also the hours of the day. I always liked hearing of the Hour of the Ox, the darkest, deepest part of the night, when ghosts appear.

Scenic footbridge over the pond

This bridge is covered with wisteria vines. When the pale purple flowers bloom, the bridge has a living, fragrant ceiling and walls.

Famous tree (I think)

I’ve heard that this tree is a national treasure of Japan, being of profound age. I think I have the right tree.

Guardian dogs at Hakusan Shrine

These dogs guard the entrances of Shinto shrines. Notice the mouths of the dogs. This one is open, forming the syllable “a.”

"A" and "N"

His companion has a closed mouth, forming the sound “n.” In the Japanese syllabary, “a” is the first sound and “n” is the last. So the dogs are mouthing the equivalent of alpha and omega, an all-encompassing circle.

Shimenawa

The shimenawa is the woven grass rope that hangs on the torii. And smaller versions hang in the entranceways of the homes of Shinto practitioners. The shimenawa prevents evil from entering. On New Year’s Eve, a great bonfire is built here at the shrine, and people bring their old shimenawa and toss them into the flames. People skewer dried squid on long sticks and roast them over the fire, then gnaw on them (it’s like beef jerky, only squid-flavored). And new shimenawa are hung to replace the old.

First plum blossoms, Hakusan Park

Here’s a stone lantern, or tourou. The monkey cage is just behind me and to my left. The monkeys were hiding up on the roof of their inner sanctum that day, and I couldn’t get a decent picture.

First plum blossoms, Hakusan Park

The first plum (ume) blossoms are a sign that spring is indeed coming.

Site of Dead Poets Society meetings

Yes! The first few years I was in Niigata, I convinced a group of friends (church members and adult students) to come with me out into the pine woods on Midsummer’s Eve, and by flashlight beam, we each read aloud a poem or two we’d chosen for the occasion. This is the actual site of one of our meetings. (We also did that on a camping trip to Sado Island one summer, in a spider-haunted grove.)

The Matsubayashi

Maybe you remember that my friends had a black cat named Pucca. This is where we found Pucca as a newborn kitten, alone and abandoned in the brush, crying and crying. Pucca had a long and happy cat life, but we always wondered about her . . . a jet-black cat, found in the dark woods on Midsummer’s Eve. And she would attack the Bible, biting its pages, but not other books. (Her name was chosen because I had read a poem that night featuring the pooka or pucca from Irish folklore. The name stuck.) We found her near the top of this staircase.

My first apartment, Mezon Matsunami

This is where I lived when I first came to Niigata. That was my place on the corner, where that sign is, just above the garage. If anyone remembers the first newsletters of mine — this is where they were written. I was still living here when I started Dragonfly, though much of it was also written at my friends’ place and in Taylorville. Across the street are some houses, then the pine woods, and then the sea. I remember when there would be a storm at sea with high winds, afterwards there would be sand in my apartment.

Niigata City Hall

Niigata City Hall.

A castle near the sea

I hung out in this park, too, back in 1989-92 or so. It’s between the pine woods and the sea.

Historic stairway

This stairway is historic only to me — on it, and in the park and woods around it, I read Algernon Blackwood, Ambrose Bierce, H.P. Lovecraft, and wrote most of A Green and Ancient Light.

The violent Sea of Japan

It was cold the day I took this picture. Somewhere over there is mainland Asia.

Nozomi Lutheran Church

This is where I served as a lay missionary for my first few years in Japan, through the Overseas Volunteer Youth Ministry program, teaching English in classrooms on the second floor. I also taught one day a week at Niigata High School and one day a week at Niigata University. The church’s appearance has hardly changed a bit in all these interposing years.

Niigata High School

Niigata High School. My task was to come into the classroom and correct any mistakes I found in the English sentences the students had written on the chalkboards before class. That was one of my favorite jobs in all the years. It was regimented like a military unit — the boys all in black uniforms with gold buttons, though the girls were allowed to dress however they wanted (because when the school began, it was only for boys . . . so the dress code was never added for the girls, although in my day, it was about half boys and half girls). At various times I would privately ask a student, “Doesn’t it . . . you know . . . bother you that the boys have to wear uniforms and the girls don’t?” Invariably the student, whether male or female, would blink in confusion and say, “Well, no.”

The desks were all in rows, and the teacher stood on a raised platform. At the beginning of class, all the students would stand up, and at the command of their class leader, would all bow to the teacher (and I would bow back). They worked very, very hard. It was probably the best high school in the prefecture then (may still be), and the students were striving to pass the rigorous college entrance exams which have an enormous influence on the future of a person in Japan.

The room was packed with desks and people — no place to stand except on the platform. When they would have a space cleared for the arrival of the heating stove in the late fall, before the stove got there, I would always joke “Oh! You’ve finally made a space for me to stand! Thank you!” The students loved that. I wasn’t that much older than the kids in those days, so the girls would blush and whisper and giggle and drop pencils when I came into the room or passed nearby.

Part of my job, too, was to suggest alternative ways to say certain parts of the sentences, and the students would eagerly copy those down. But I always had to watch the Japanese teacher, who stood at the back. There were ways that we actually say things in the States that would have been marked wrong on a Japanese college entrance exam. If the teacher gave me a shake of the head, I would say “Wait! Cancel that!” and the students would smile and note that they’d just learned some “forbidden” English.

Finally, trees

There’s just one thing left to say in this post. You may have been wondering about the nostalgic tone of the last couple entries here. There’s a reason for that. After twenty-two years in Japan, I have made the decision to relocate to my homeland.

There’s no calamity, no scandal — it’s just time. Nor is it sudden: this is a decision I’ve been feeling my way toward for close to ten years. The little signs and “nudges” have been steadily accumulating, and . . . well, it’s just, as I said, time. Leaving here is extremely difficult, but I am convinced I’m doing the right thing.

I am returning to the States two days from now. It may be a little while before I can post again, so please be patient. And be assured that, Lord willing and I have safe travels, the blog will most certainly continue. There will be new adventures to chronicle, new points to discuss as the writing life goes on!

I appreciate your prayers for fair winds and happy journeys.

Some Views of Niigata (And a Couple of Tokyo)

March 1, 2011

The prefecture office here in Niigata has a great observation deck on its highest floor. I took my camera up there on a sunny morning last week.

Chitose Great Bridge

That part of Niigata surrounded by water — the river, the canal, and the sea — is referred to as “Niigata Island.” That’s the part I lived and worked in when I first came as a volunteer with the Lutheran church. Here, you can see the heli-pad in the foreground. When dignitaries visit Niigata, they are often flown in by helicopters that land here. I cross this bridge a lot in my daily life.

Looking across the Shinano River toward the Sea of Japan

Niigata Island again. Can you make out the faint bluish outline of Sado Island on the horizon? I’m not sure if I can, or if it’s wishful thinking. Obscured by buildings in the left half of the picture, the Sekiya Canal connects the river with the sea. The sea-mouth is in about the top center of the photo.

Facing downstream; the Shinano flowing toward the sea

My stomping grounds. The Furumachi area is to the left of the river, and Bandai City is straight ahead on the right side.

Sado Island in the hazy distance

Or else wishful thinking. Sado is really clear on some days and invisible on others. Maybe it’s not always there!

The little holt at the foot of the prefecture office

When I take the bus to the university, I walk right through the middle of this little woods and then cross the bridge you saw in the first photo. Although this was taken in late February, the trees are vibrant in the warmer seasons. I always think of the path through them as “the Shire.”

A green and ancient corner -- idea place

Down there where the driveway makes a corner against the woods is one of my old places from my first couple years here. For some reason, I chose that spot to park my bicycle, and I remember scribbling notes there for what become A Green and Ancient Light, which I conceived as a dictionary cataloguing my childhood, including things that really were and things that were imagined, and making no distinctions between them. I’d like to re-do that book someday and get it into a form that’s actually publishable. It has possibilities.

Looking toward my place

See the distant tower in the top center? Okay, just beneath that is the line of the bullet train tracks. And just below those, straight down from the tower, see the next big building? That’s the movie theater complex I go to, about a five-minute walk from my apartment. On the horizon to the left of the tower, see the thing that looks like a giant clam or a landed alien spacecraft? That’s Big Swan, the soccer stadium.

Mt. Yahiko and Mt. Kakuda

We’re looking more or less south here. I’ve climbed both those mountains: Kakuda once, Yahiko many times.

The idea corner again

This is a closeup of that woody corner beneath the prefecture office.

Niigata Prefecture Office

And this is looking up from there at the office building.

From beyond the holt

This reminds me of a medieval castle rising from the woods.

Near my place

Here’s a street I pass along every day. The green building on the right is the veterinary clinic where I took the injured duck that time. The Cupid supermarket is just to the left. The big building right behind the clinic is where my good friends live.

Very significant table

No other table is more important to the writing and all other projects I’ve done in the past two decades plus! Hallowe’en jack-o’-lanterns were perennially carved here (until I started going to World Fantasy Conventions at that time of year). D&D metal figures were painted here, and D&D was played. Uncounted lessons have been prepared here. And stories and books, from the first to the most recent — this has been the primary writing place. I always seem to work better at a kitchen table than at a desk. The chair where I typically sit is that one closest to the coffeepot.

Post office at the West Gate

Here’s the little post office outside the West Gate of Niigata University. I always think of it as my “lucky post office,” since manuscripts sent from there seem to fare better with editors than those sent from other places. But that may simply be my imagination . . . the fact is, I’ve used this post office more than any other over the years. I’ve lived in different parts of the city, near other post offices, but mailing things from the university has been more or less a constant.

Approach to the building where I teach

I love this gap in the trees between the parking lot and the building where my classes are taught.

Sunny bank of the parking lot

Nice setting, huh? The trees are often full of crows that caw loudly, ransack the garbage, and will try to mooch food from anyone eating outdoors. I had one hop up and stick his beak into the top of my tote bag one day to see what was inside. Also, these trees rain down a brown powder at a certain time of year that coats all the cars in the lot.

Niigata University, very early spring

Sometimes I take the path through these trees; sometimes I take the path that goes around them.

Plastic food

Japan abounds with highly realistic-looking plastic food. These are models in the showcase outside a restaurant.

"My" bench in Eleven Park

Eleven Park is a tiny park tucked between houses and buildings near my place. I’ve written many a letter from this concrete bench. I sat there this past summer to write most of “Someplace Cool and Dark” on my AlphaSmart Neo.

Yotsuya Station, Tokyo

This photo was taken last year. Back in my Tokyo days (1988-89), there weren’t convenient signs in English letters (romaji). We had to learn hiragana well enough to decipher the station names in time to know whether to get off or not before the doors closed. Yotsuya was the place where I and my two fellow volunteers who lived out my way would transfer from the long-distance orange train to the local yellow one.

Train station in Tokyo

I forget where precisely I took this picture, but it’s a station on the Chuo Line. I remember being the last person to squeeze into a packed train one day during rush hour. I was so close to the doors that, when they closed, the front of my coat was caught and held fast between them. I couldn’t pull it out — couldn’t retreat at all, because the train behind me was full of people. I was worried that the doors on the opposite side would open at the next station, and I’d be left dangling there. But fortunately, they opened on my side next.

A friend told me the story of getting onto a rush-hour train with a dingy, dirty tote bag. When he got off the train, it was all shiny and clean. All the passengers around him unwittingly rubbed off a little of the dirt with their backs and fronts and elbows and briefcases and manga covers.

Wickets

Look at all the bilingual signs nowadays! Not so back in my day, let me tell you . . . Also, now these wickets are all automated. When I lived in Tokyo 22 years ago, station employees stood at every entrance gate and punched the edge of your ticket with a hand-held punch. Most of them kept up a constant rhythm, clicking all the time, even between moments when passengers thrust tickets at them. Clickety clickety clickety click.

Tokyo, March 1989

There I am, newly arrived in Japan, doing my six-month homestay in Musashi Koganei on the Chuo Line. I was reading Stephen King’s It then, I remember. I had been using a Smith Corona word processor in the States and had not yet bought my Ricoh “My Riport” N-10 word processor. I remember having hair. I’m still using those black PaperMate pens, the best pens made. Yes, that was my first kotatsu experience (the low table, heated beneath with electric coils that glow bright red). I shared this room most of the time with my host family’s poodle, Ringo.

This has been fun! I’ll try to take a few more pictures of city landmarks soon.

Long Live the Fine Arts!

February 20, 2011

There’s a quote from Paul Darcy Boles that I use every year with my writing students. I’m pretty sure I’ve brought it up on this blog before: “We are all storytellers sitting around the cave of the world.” When Mr. Boles said it (and I was there, so I know), he was talking about how all of us writers, regardless of genre, language, level of accomplishment, place, or time in history are all engaged in the same basic and fundamental (and necessary) human activity, which has been around since the dawn of our kind. Today, we are still gathered around the crackling flames while shadows dance on the walls and the night looms outside. We are still entertaining our companions with tales — tales that apply to our lives whatever they may be, if we think about the stories and see the connections. Stories bring us fulfillment, but also education, insight, catharsis, encouragement, and hope.

Yesterday was a great day. Through the experience of seeing many dance performances, of having an exhibition of my paintings (such as they are), and of reading one of my poems aloud as a talented young dancer expressed it visually, I felt again the unity among all the creative arts. They’re all about telling stories.

The performance yesterday was mostly about dancing. It’s the second annual event called “T.A.Y. — C” (the letters standing for the names of the central organizers, who are some of the main dancers). It features the dance club of Niigata’s Minami High School (quite a large group) as well as OB’s and OG’s (which, in Japan, means alumni and alumnae — have I got the Latin right? — and those letters stand for “Old Boy” and “Old Girl” — former members who have graduated and moved on from a particular group). So this event also starred university students who came back for it from their various schools all across Japan — and a professional dance troupe from Tokyo. Quite a big production!

It was held in the Ongaku Bunka Kaikan — the Hall of Music and Culture. And what a day of music and culture it was! We gathered in the morning, set things up, had informal rehearsals followed by a dress rehearsal in the afternoon, and then the real thing starting at 6:00 p.m. Lunch and supper were provided for us. The various groups used different parts of the building as dressing rooms. I was with a trio of singers and their accompanists — one of the singers, Aiko-san, is my co-worker at the university who “got me into this.” Their group sang “Singing’ in the Rain” and selections from West Side Story (both including dancers) just before my part in the program.

The images you’ll see below are the pamphlet for my art exhibition, which was held in the corridor just outside the auditorium. This pamphlet was included as one of the inserts in the main program that the audience members received. The teacher who made this for us — free of charge — did a fantastic job, didn’t she?

The cover for the pamphlet introducing me at the performance on February 19, 2011.

Yes, I know that title, “The Dreamworlds of . . .” is awfully pretentious. We were just having fun. I couldn’t think of anything better to call it, and everyone seemed to like that idea. Don’t suppose that I’m taking myself all that seriously, okay? In this scan, the paintings have a strange quality, like you can see the weave of the paper or something. They didn’t look like that on the actual folder.

Pamphlet interior, left side: the English version of my poem (which will appear in THE STAR SHARD this fall).

Pamphlet interior, right side: the translation of "Blue Were Her Eyes," set with great care and sensitivity into Japanese by Ms. Aiko Sato.

In the morning, a group of high-school girls helped me set the exhibition up. They attached monofilament strands to the backs of the paintings, and we suspended them at artistically-varied heights on two large corkboards along the corridor wall, just opposite one of the auditorium doors. I had made special laminated placards giving the title and some other information about each painting (usually a hint as to how to understand it — though of course, who am I to dictate that? — once a painting is out there, it’s all up to the viewer). Personnel announced the exhibition over the p.a. system, too, and invited the audience to see it. In the half-hour or so before the show started and during the intermission, I was on hand to talk with people who browsed the pictures. That was a good time.

The pamphlet's back cover. (That weird rectangle of paper isn't part of it. It's there to cover up my signature.)

My experience with the world of dance is very limited. Back in college, we needed a certain number of p.e. credits to graduate. Not being adept at sports, I wondered what course to take . . . until I saw one called “Folk and Square Dance.” Aha, I thought! Here was a chance to do something that might be fun, especially because I was sure it would throw me together with a lot of girls. That sort of physical contact would be infinitely better than getting slammed into by guys in football or basketball. And the course was a great time, but that’s the subject for a different post. My point here is, in nearly all the dances I’d encountered until yesterday, the moves are prescribed. There are right and wrong ways to do the steps.

But yesterday, these kids were doing what we always celebrate on this blog. They had chosen songs or simply ideas and developed their own movements to express them to an audience. They were telling stories with physical motion. And it was poetry of the most exquisite sort. I wish you could have seen it!

It would take far too much space to recount all of the dances for you (there were 17 other performances on the program, not counting mine). But I’ll try to hit some highlights. During the dress rehearsal I got to see most of them, and even during the real show at night, I went in by a back door and stood at the rear of the dark auditorium to watch the first half (the place was packed, and I heard that it seats 500 people!).

The professional girls from Tokyo did a fantastic piece from Senegal, which featured a red-lit background at one point, driving rhythms, and the music of Africa that evokes heat and an ancient heritage. I do not know how people can remember such a long progression of complex movements, let alone perfectly coordinating them with an entire team of dancers.

One of the more interesting dances was called “Passing Each Other,” performed by a guy and a girl. The soundtrack was simply a jingling, an irregular ringing, as if you would take a spoon, hold it loosely, and shake and jerk your hand to keep the spoon bouncing against a metal pipe. The dancers’ attitudes conveyed a sense of unfulfillment, of longing toward each other, but their paths were always skewed, always at odds, never quite lining up. They never quite managed to come face-to-face and make contact. So it is with some relationships, right? People can bounce all around the edges of a genuine connection, never quite getting there, until time takes its toll and their ways part irrevocably. The jingling became more urgent after the halfway point with a sound like static, which increased the sense of desperation. Toward the end, these sounds were joined by a recurring deeper note which, to me anyway, signified the big chunks of life breaking up and beginning to move, bigger things changing, the time of opportunity passing. At the end, when the guy almost embraced the girl from behind, she bent her knees, slid downward through the hoop of his arms that weren’t quite touching her, and very slowly paced away into the dark with him following — their postures showing resignation and sadness.

The most beautiful dance, I thought, was one called “Cosmos” (the flower, not the Carl Sagan show). It was performed by one girl. I won’t even lessen it with an inept description, but it communicated all that is best in the feminine and in the beauty of spring and awakening summer.

To me, the most interesting and moving dance was done by two girls — the same one from “Cosmos,” but in a different costume, and another girl in a matching costume. It was called “Little Girl.” I had the chance to talk to both of them at the party that night, and we discussed the interpretation of it. The dance showed the fear, reluctance, sadness, and shaky, fluttering hope of growing up, of moving from childhood into adulthood. The dancers very effectively used two pairs of bright red shoes as symbolic props. Barefoot, the girls slowly approached the shoes from opposite sides of the stage at the beginning, and then they did all sorts of things with them — tentatively trying them on, rejecting them, being drawn back to them, and at one point linking them together into a dangling chain of four shoes that then came apart and rained down like falling petals. In the end, the girls put on the shoes and moved forward into their grownup years. (I couldn’t help thinking of Narnia’s Susan.)

The music for that dance with the red shoes was Priscilla Ahn’s “Dream.” It’s about having a dream when you’re very young, and trying to find what you’re supposed to do in life. The end, which really got to me emotionally, goes like this:

“Now I’m old and feeling grey. I don’t know what’s left to say about this life I’m willing to leave. I lived it full and lived it well, there’s many tales I’ve lived to tell. I’m ready now, I’m ready now, I’m ready now to fly from the highest wing. I had a dream.”

Man, I can’t even type that with dry eyes! Sooner or later, I’d like to get a recording of the song. Isn’t that great, though? Live full, live well, and when it’s time to die, be ready.

I asked those two girls why nearly all the songs the groups chose to dance to were English-language songs. Their answer really made sense. It’s because their audience won’t be familiar with the songs. If the dancers chose popular Japanese hits, the audience would already have a clear mental image of the particular artist singing the song — they would bring all sorts of baggage to it. By using music that is unfamiliar, the dancers have a clean canvas to work with. Isn’t that an impressive answer?

The atmosphere backstage was energetic and a great thing to experience, too. It reminded me of my thespian years in high school, but this was on a much bigger scale. Imagine all these groups (many involving 15 or 20 people, many in identical costumes) crammed into various rooms and hallways, some girls helping each other with makeup, and many of the chief dancers (guys and girls) stretching in near-impossible ways and bouncing on their toes and practicing their expressive twirls and bends and gestures – everybody leaping around, the stage manager with his headset trying to keep things coordinated, the lighting and sound people at their consoles, adjusting toggles, watching the needles hop . . . Most of the large groups had to use long hallways to eat lunch, keep their stuff, and change (outer) clothes in. The room my group was assigned to was at the end of one such hallway, so every time we went in or out, we had to pass among all these high-school girls.

The dance club at Minami High School is incredibly well-mannered and highly disciplined. They act and answer in unison, like troops — Mrs. Funayama’s troops. Every time we would pass them, every one of the girls would brightly say “Konnichiwa” to us. So we would say it back. We all greeted one another all day. (The girls have an abbreviated form of the word that sounds like “Ch’a.” They say it politely, with a little bow.)

Two of my teacher friends from the university came for the big night, as well as one other acquaintance — it was good to see them.

As I said, I spent the first half of the show out in the auditorium itself, standing at the back, so I knew just how packed the place was. Five hundred souls. But when you’re on the stage under the bright lights, you can’t see the audience at all. Out there in front of you is just this huge black gulf that somehow conveys expectation and attention. If you listen really hard, you can hear the gulf stirring . . . you can hear it breathe.

In an interview, Gilda Radner talked about nerves before a performance, but how the moment before she’d go on stage, she just couldn’t wait to go on. That last part has always been my feeling when it comes to performance. There’s this sense that I have to get to that moment or I’ll go supernova — I belong there, I want to be there — I feel that I could tear through an interposing brick wall with my fingers if I had to.

I honestly wasn’t nervous for this one because there was nothing hard I had to do. I had my manuscript on a music stand, I knew the sound and the height of the microphone were adjusted, I knew the material, and I knew Tsuchida-san would do astounding things with the dance aspect – for me, it was just a matter of stepping out there in front of the breathing gulf and letting the moment ignite — enjoying it to the fullest, doing the sort of thing I was born to do.

When you have the audience there, an intangible something nearly always happens that simply can’t be generated artificially. No matter how well you nail a part in a rehearsal, when you’re doing it for real, something kicks in and takes hold and pulls you up out of yourself. I think that happened for both of us. When we’d finished our part (three scant minutes of a long evening of phenomenal dancing and singing), the applause was thunderous, and when I got back into the wings, two of the singers threw their arms around me in emotional hugs, which is pretty rare in Japan.

During the reading of “Blue Were Her Eyes,” I had to be looking mostly at the invisible audience, with occasional glances at the text — so I couldn’t be watching Tsuchida-san. (I’m told that I’ll get to see the video, and of course I saw some of his work in the first informal practice we did in the morning.) [He is the "T" in "T.A.Y. -- C," by the way -- according to one of the singers, he is nationally known among dance people -- he's that good.] What he did in this case was a kind of spontaneous interpretation — chance art, or art of the moment. He had practiced for some weeks with an audio tape I’d made of me reading the poem, but we didn’t meet until yesterday. He coordinated his movements to the pace, pauses, mood, and volume I was using. He started out in a side aisle among the audience, appearing there under a spotlight as I began to deliver the poem. Then he was up on stage, flying and whirling, as the narrative led us through love and painful parting to the battle . . . to long imprisonment like death . . . to eventual release and the reunion of the lovers, with the changes their lives have undergone. By all accounts, he outdid himself — I can’t wait to see it!

Aiko-san, the singer who invited me to be part of this, described how she first started arranging for dancers to dance along with her group’s vocal songs. The stars of musicals, she noted, have to be able to act, sing, and dance. But not everyone is good at all three of those. So why not put together people who excel in the individual disciplines? After all, think of the various talents that go into making a movie — hundreds and hundreds of people working at their own crafts, but joined to produce a whole that no one person could possibly create — not even someone like Da Vinci. (Or a book! Again and again I’ve experienced — and did so again this week — how greatly my writing is helped by editors who know their business. And thank goodness I don’t have to do the cover illustrations myself! Or the binding . . . or getting those pages to be the same size . . .)

Just before the poem, Aiko-san interviewed me on stage. She made the point to the audience that when you see a poem and a dance come together like this, the sum of it is much more than one thing plus one thing. She asked me what the sum was, and I said, “I’m terrible at math,” which got a laugh. She asked me about the relationship between my writing and teaching, and I was able to say how blessed I feel to be able to teach creative writing — to share what I love so much with my students. When she asked what I thought of the dancers, I said they gave me goosebumps, and the breathing gulf laughed pleasantly — I think they were surprised I knew that word. (Don’t worry — I know “goosebumps” has the same meanings in both cultures.)

So — it was a shining day, one of those experiences that remains as a treasure of the heart — one of those times you’re thankful you had the privilege to be there for. It made me want to do more with performance when the opportunity arises.

Let’s all keep living in a way that will take us to that moment of readiness to depart when the time comes. “I’m ready now to fly from the highest wing.” Let’s put on the red shoes, but not too quickly — first, let’s string them together and let them fall like petals. And when it’s time to put them on, let’s put them on with calmness and grace, and discover all that is good about wearing red shoes.

Oh — that’s another thing Aiko-san and I agreed on in front of those two young dancers at the party: there’s nothing at all bad about growing up as long as you keep your childhood’s heart — as long as you love, and take part, and keep space in your life for stories.

God bless the storytellers — including those who pirouette!

Artsy Stuff Going On

January 23, 2011

I can’t say it’s my radio debut, because to the best of my memory, I’ve been on the radio four times in life. The first was when I was in elementary school. I got to be a reader once on Professor Jackie Jackson’s radio show Reading, Writing, and Radio, broadcast out of Sangamon State University in Springfield, Illinois. It was an educational program used in a great many classrooms. Kids on the air would read writing sent in by other elementary-school students, inspired by writing prompts given on the radio show. Years later, as a teenager, I would take an evening class conducted by Professor Jackson — an experience both tremendously enjoyable and formative to me as a writer. But that’s a subject for another post. What I’m remembering now is that first experience of wearing a headset and reading into a huge mike covered in black foam, cued by a technician behind the soundproof glass. I read a little composition by some other gradeschooler whose cat had died, and s/he wrote about being sad.

The second time I can remember being on the air was in a 30-minute interview in Taylorville, conducted in 1999 in the summer Dragonfly came out. Our little town, obviously hard-pressed to find news, played the interview over and over throughout a weekend, until I’m quite sure everyone within listening range got sick of hearing my voice. Lots of former radio enthusiasts took up croquet that weekend, and TV sales spiked.

The third time I was on the radio was when I was supposed to be interviewed about Dragonfly. (This was NOT the Taylorville station. The station and interviewer shall remain anonymous to protect the . . . whatever.) I might have known things wouldn’t go well when, as I was waiting to go into the sound booth, the interviewer’s mother talked to me at great length about how her son, the interviewer, had written a book that wasn’t published yet. She was telling me all about the intricacies of this book. Also, MY mom had come along for the ride.

Well, after about two questions to me, during which I got the strong sense that he was irked that my book had gotten published, the interviewer became all excited about the fact that my mom was the founder of the annual Persimmon Party in Taylorville, and the talk turned to persimmons, persimmon recipes, persimmon folklore, and the particulars of the Persimmon Party. Mom had a great day and came away from the interview all glowing and elated. For that reason, I don’t regret it — not one bit. But it sure wasn’t much of a Dragonfly interview.

The week before last, I laid down my fourth radio track, here at FM Port 79.0, a radio station in a sleek, ultra-modern building with a ground-floor vestibule right out of a science-fiction film, and a glass elevator that offers a view down onto Bandai Bridge, that grand landmark of Niigata.

The occasion was that I was recording my part of a commercial for my friend K.’s onigiri kitchen. Onigiri, also known as omusubi, is usually translated as “rice ball.” It’s the traditional Japanese equivalent of the sandwich. It’s what people take along on picnics and in lunchboxes to eat in remote locations or on the job. It doesn’t have to be heated . . . it can be kept and carried around for a while without suffering too much depreciation. My friend makes and sells these things at her shop. Here’s a picture:

The Onigiri-dou, under the shinkansen.

It’s in a little leased structure on ground owned by Japan’s railroad company, JR. You can see that the building rests directly beneath the tracks of the bullet train (shinkansen), which periodically roars by overhead. It’s the very train I take whenever I head down to Tokyo or return from there up to Niigata.

Anyway, this little shop sells onigiri and a soup of the day, and a nearby second building sells vegetables and fruits. I’ve served as “outdoor technician” this past year, rigging up a net to protect plants at night, building some wooden benches from scratch, and (most recently) stringing Christmas lights along the eaves.

You may know that Japanese advertising often makes use of English. I’m not sure why, other than it attracts attention. So in our ad campaign, the lines I recorded for the radio commercial were:

“Let’s have a ball!

Let’s have a ball!

Let’s have a rice ball!”

And, at the commercial’s end, after a female announcer’s voice has identified the place and the hours:

“Have you tried it yet?”

To prepare for the recording session, I came up with about ten different character voices. We narrowed those down to three for the recording session. I recorded the lines in the following styles:

1. English accent, exuberant.

2. English accent, half-whispering, as if telling a fairy tale.

3. Robot voice.

(Personally, I thought my best innovation was having The Terminator, in Schwarzenegger’s voice, say, “I’ll be back . . . for another rice ball.” But that idea got nixed.)

The other artsy thing going on is this:

See my face among all that? A colleague of mine at the university is constantly engineering artistic things: concerts, vocal solos, musical compositions, unconventional photo books, etc. Somehow, she established a connection with a young guy who majored in dance who has decided to visually express one of my poems through the medium of dance. This calls for an exclamation mark: [!] If you can’t imagine what that will look like, neither can I! The dancer is working from an audio recording I made. Since he lives in another prefecture, we’ll meet for the first time on the day of the concert/recital. Talk about “chance art”! I’m supposed to read my poem from a podium while he interprets it kinetically through dance. This is to take place on February 19th. If you’re in Niigata at 6:00 p.m. on that Saturday, stop on by the Ongaku Bunka Kaikan! Literally anything could happen! Personally, I predict a Fortean rain of tiny frogs from a clear sky.

Finally, here’s a snowman that my friend and I built to promote the onigiri market:

Snowman with Snow Riceball

Snowman, January 2011

And then here I am in this wintry season:

Winter in Niigata

I look kind of Russian, don’t I? This was taken on the street in front of my apartment.

Okay, finally, writing news:

1. Black Gate #15 is scheduled to ship in February. My story “World’s End” is in it!

2. The anthology Discovery is supposed to be out any day now from Rogue Blades Entertainment. My stories “A Fire in Shandria” and “Someplace Cool and Dark” are both in it. I’m really looking forward to reading the other tales in this book, which were all written using the theme “Discovery” and an assigned painting of a female warrior and a black panther standing among some ruins in a jungle.

3. My article “Riddles: An Ancient Game” is slated for the April 2011 issue of Cricket Magazine.

4. My article “The Great God Pan: Myth, Horror, and the Divine” is in FATE Magazine — either it’s just out or is about to be — my subscription copies are always way late and haphazard, and I never know quite how to contact FATE, so I’m sorry I can’t tell you more specifically. As an illustration of the article, FATE is also using my painting of the Faun dancing in the forest at night, a detail of Self Portrait, which you’ve seen on this blog (“Pictures at an Exhibition”).

5. I’ve also got a poem, “The Last Morning of the Mammoth,” being printed in The Best of Every Day Poets I, a poetry anthology that has just been released in the past day or two, and is available through Amazon.

Okay! That’s about enough artsy stuff for one posting, isn’t it?! :-) Have fun, enjoy stories, and enjoy the people around you. Take good care of them all!


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