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We find inspiration wherever we can get it. And sometimes when we’re not even looking, really great inspiration comes into your boring job, sits right down, inspires you, goes to lunch with you, inspires you some more, goes home, and then friends you on Facebook. This is what happened to me this week — another busy week — when I wasn’t looking for inspiration. Inspiration walked in called herself “Laurie Lindeen” (http://laurielindeen.com/) and proceeded to remind me why playing music is still worth doing even when I haven’t touched a drumstick in four weeks.
One of the bonuses of being a teacher is that we have a venue for sharing and exposing other artists’ work to the college and to students. It was Brian’s idea (not mine) to invite Laurie to speak at the school; he had been an admirer of Laurie’s band Zuzu’s Petals in the 1990s. She had recently published a memoir about her experiences titled Petal Pusher and Brian had loved it. I had no idea who she was. But, dutifully, I supported Brian and assigned an excerpt of her memoir about playing in a rock band to my students. This was facilitated by Brian who handed me a copy of a chapter and an assignment and said, “Here, have your students read this.”
And I did. The chapter I read could have been a posting on chickdrummer. In it Lindeen writes about the aftereffects of gigging, the adrenaline that races through your veins the next morning, the hangover that comes not just from alcohol, but from the experience.
“It’s difficult returning to your normal life the morning after a gig. I’m not exactly a dewy-eyed newlywed with an afterglow. More like a haggard mental patient following shock treatment: After all that adrenaline leaves your body, you are left with a ferocous hangover. The counterchemical is as down as the adrenaline is up. Antiadrenaline is the darkest shade of navy blue; it brings a sort of postcoital depression.”
I read that in my office preparing for class, but I felt like the proselyte of a new religion who had just heard holy words from an oracle. You said it, girl. I had always wondered what that was. That funk, that weirdness I felt the morning after gigs. The first two years of gigging I rode the adrenaline high for two days after the show, but as I get older I want off the ride the faster. Roller coasters are great, but who wants to live on one? So, I had to develop a new after-show routine. We leave the club as soon as we can, no hanging out to talk with other musicians, we come home, unload the gear with the precision of a S.W.A.T team, and I shower, I eat something light and healthy — grains, vegetables, tofu, fruit — I do yoga to stretch the worn-out muscles, and I try to be in bed before 2 am (reasonably early for musicians), and the next morning I try to get up at the same time I always do instead of sleeping late. I learned to do this out of my own sense of self-preservation. I’m 40 years-old, not twenty, and the physical strain of shows takes a toll on me that it doesn’t on some young thing.
And that was what was so inspiring about Laurie. She writes about and talks about what gigging and being a “rock star” (in quotes because the term is relative) really means. It means you can still suck at your instruments and still record and gig, it means you don’t have to be a virtuoso, it means you can do it just for fun, and here’s the inspirational part: it means you can be woman. And she also speaks from the perspective of a woman who has matured and reflected on what the years in a rock band in her twenties means for her now and how it influences her writing. “I write listening to the backbeat; I hear how the vocal sits on top,” she said. That too, I think, is also the benefit of music outside of music. It changes our understanding of other arts.
There aren’t a lot of books by female musicians that tell you what’s like for us. There’s umpteen million books about male musicians, their gear, their groupies, their drug problems, but there aren’t many written by women. The other inspiration in Laurie’s public appearance is that I could see how she inspired the young women in the audience. I could see it in their eyes and the way they looked at her with one question beaming from their faces: How did you do it? In the end, it doesn’t matter that you or I may have not heard of Laurie Lindeen or Zuzu’s Petals. What matters for some of the women (young or old) in the audience is that there was another one out there who tried to live life on her own terms.
Brian brought home a copy of the The Portable Anton Chekov yesterday and without comment handed it to me with the book open to page 597.
“Read this,” he said.
All of those who are near to me have always treated my writing with condescension and have never stopped advising me in a friendly manner not to give up real work for scribbling. I have hundred of acquaintances in Moscow, among them a score or so of people who write, and I cannot recall a single one who would read or regard me as an artist.
“That’s Chekov,” he said.
I’m not sure now what to make of the fact that Chekov was told repeatedly to give up writing. I think it’s supposed to inspire me that he kept writing and had a day job and now he’s Chekov. But I don’t think so much of the end-product of his effort, meaning that a hundred years later he’s Chekov, the “master storyteller,” rather I think of all those days he had when someone showed no interest in his writing. I imagine he might have gone to lunch with a friend and when he said, “I’m writing a story,” the other person, tasteful and elegant, might have looked back with a face as blank as a sheet of paper and said, “Do you still do that?” I wonder, if, in that very moment, he still felt inspired.
I’ve been teaching Tolstoy’s Confessions and he tells a story about a friend who lost his faith. When he was twenty-six, his friend went on a hunting trip with his brother and, as was his habit since childhood, his friend knelt before his cot to say his prayers. He brother watched him and when he was finished, the brother asked, “Do you still do that?” They said nothing else about it, but as Tolstoy writes, “from that day on S. stopped saying his prayers and going to church.”
Having faith in writing or playing music is a lot like having faith in God. We need faith that writing and playing music is still meaningful even if everyone else around us says it isn’t. It’s funny that other people’s responses to our creativity can be so damaging especially because oftentimes it’s so lightly said. “Do you still do that?” isn’t the same as saying, “You shouldn’t do that.” I could handle that. It would make me feel determined and revolutionary. Rather “Do you still do that?” suggests, as Tolstoy implies, that writing or the music is a holdover from childhood, a childish habit like thumb-sucking or gum-chewing, which should be given up once we become adults.
Brian even went through a phase when he gave up playing or writing music because he thought he was “grown up now.” It was shortly after we moved to Louisiana so that he could begin his first job as a professor and as we moved our things into the small house we rented, he began to shove guitars under the bed. The amps, once a visual feature of the living room, were placed into a corner out of sight.
“Guess it’s time for me to be an adult now,” he said.
And, for the first time since I began to live with him, I no longer heard him play guitar. He was a professor now. He was going to teach and research. That was in August. It lasted until December. The longer he went without playing the more agitated he would become with issues at work. He began to sit on the couch mindlessly staring at the television, chewing on one of his fingernails.
In December, when I was out of town, he set up mikes and amps and guitars in the dining room and began recording songs that we play now (“Rosie,” “I Bought You a New Sweater”). It was as if a dam exploded inside him and when I returned from the trip, a few days after Christmas, he handed me a tape cassette filled with songs he had recorded during the three days I was gone. Weeks of material had been recorded in days.
‘Why did you stop playing that year?” I asked him a few years later.
“I thought I was supposed to. I thought when you grew up you got ‘serious’ and stopped playing music.”
Ironically, for me, it’s been the reverse. The older I become the more important it is for me to write and play music. The insanity that results for me and Brian is much worse than facing down the blank-faced person at the dinner table who asks mildly, “Do you still do that?”
Yes. We still do that. All the time.
I only just realized, this morning, while I was sitting in a cafe avoiding my dissertation that my blog about drumming isn’t just about drumming. Drumming is a metaphor — an allegory — for life.
You thought I knew this.
I thought I knew this.
I didn’t really know this.
I realized it today as I planned to write another post about learning to play triplets. I was thinking of metaphors for it to explain why adding a third stroke can be so challenging if you had been playing a certain rhythm before.
It’s like being a teacher, I thought. A teacher who has been teaching 2 classes a semester for years and then suddenly someone asks you to teach a third class. And you say yes. Then you realize something: all the routines are slightly different now. The times to teach, when to prepare, even the hours of the commute. So something so small ends up being bigger than you thought.
That’s when I figured it out: that’s not a metaphor or an analogy, it’s my life.
I am a teacher. I just did take on a third class this semester after having taught 2 classes a semester for years. And I’m learning to adjust my routines, my commute, my lunch times.
And like drumming, that third class is like a third stroke added to a rhythm.
It’s not a big deal, but I only just realized it. Drumming is like…life.