This Spring, I had the opportunity to teach a Creative Writing class at my school. I enjoy teaching writing because students can usually take pride in what they write and they can see their own improvement over time.
I usually try to write a few things myself, based on the prompts I have for the students. Here are three of the little written-in-45-minutes-based-on-a-writing-prompt-things that I wrote this time around.
There's this photo of me on Facebook. My friend Peter, who's playing congas with me here, is playing with me. My guess is that the photo was taken in 2001, but it could have been taken a little earlier.
The thing is that I don't remember what I was singing about. I think I was playing at Felicita's at UVic, but I don't remember why. I have no idea what songs might have showed-up on that setlist hanging from the microphone—printed characteristically on a used piece of paper, a photocopied article. It was 2001 and I thought myself a musician of sorts... but what did I have to say? I have no fucking idea.
This is a problem as I try to find my way through all this separation stuff. In the vernacular, a psychological assessor said my "values are all over the place." And it seems like, as I listen to podcasts and read self-help and leadership books, it's highly encouraged to follow your vision. It seems as if happiness lies in one's ability to live out their singular purpose, to live out their message in such a way that lets them live a life where message and life are blurred and beautiful.
I have no idea what my message is, what I'd like to say to the world. I feel utterly lost in this. I don't think it's a matter of religious apostasy, but over the last few years my ability to access my "voice" has diminished until I don't know what to do with it.
And I don't have to go back to 2001 to figure it out. I wrote a personal weblog on a near-daily basis between 2001-2005; I made a CD of original songs in 2006; I wrote a CD's worth of as-yet-unreleased material over the few years that followed—but by 2013, my writing essentially stopped. I no longer played riffs and thought "I should use that" and built something around it. I had nothing to say.
And I could feel it happening. I tried a few things to fight it: I worked with a drummer and tried to write some songs using riffs; I would record mini-moments of inspiration on my phone and hope to make sense of them when I came back to them; I sat down and wrote journals; I tried to write semi-creative blog posts; I tried to attend open-mic nights and pub jams; I tried to record videos of cover songs, secretly hoping that they'd turn into something of my own. I'd sit down and try to learn proper riffs, hoping they'd lead to new flashes of inspiration. But they never did. And I still feel like I have nothing to say.
There are ironies here: I know people want to hear what I have to say; I know people care about me and think I have worthwhile ideas; I know people can see that I have a vision for things. And I'm anxious to get it out, myself.
I imagine a good portion of it is separation-based. This whole marriage-falling-apart thing has been a pretty enormous blow to my ego, and it's been a long process that continues to take up an inordinate amount of brainspace in any given moment. So perhaps, as I learn how to be myself again, maybe I'll find a way to articulate my vision again, whatever it is.
But it's not there yet. My vision simmers at best.
But I could sure use some of that overflowing confidence to express myself again.
And using "simmers" reminded me of this special moment from last summer:
Every once in a while, I come across a book from my childhood and I try to introduce it to my daughters. And I'm almost always disappointed at how they just don't seem impressed.
This is one such book:
From that book, I learned about Esperanto, Andorra, Alfred Nobel, and the history of candy. I read its articles over and over again and used it in school projects. This book and books like it were my bread and butter for learning and company at home.
There's a long tradition of books like this one:
And here are a few that I've bought for my classroom: my Grade 7s in particular choose them for silent reading time.
So why don't I read them very often anymore?
I blame the Internet.
Because these books were the Internet before the Internet. These books were a wealth of information that a person just might be looking for. There seemed to be so many times when I would wonder something, crack open one of these books, scour the Table of Contents and the Index, and actually find an article that addressed my curiosity. The writing was always edited carefully and written in a lively, interactive tone. They were perfect for knowledge-seekers like me,
Now I first go to the Internet and these books often lay dormant. I feel a little bit o' melancholy about it, as if something's been lost. But that's probably just me being a sucker for nostalgia.
Which isn't all bad. But I miss the careful editing. The Internet's slapdash chaos is useful for finding specifics, but nothing beats good editing and copy for getting big ideas across.
Back in 2011 I wrote, "35, 17;" I recorded most of it in 2013 and put additional frills into it over the year that followed. I really hoped I'd get it professionally mixed and mastered by the time I turned 35, but I never made it happen; today, a day before I turn 36, I feel a little desperate about releasing it in one way or another, so here it is. It's mixed a little quietly and not mastered at all, but I feel as if time is of the essence here.
If you follow my musical endeavors, you've probably heard it before: I performed it for that Tractorgrease Studios thing almost two years ago to the day. I'd post the link, but the video really embarrasses me; despite an excellent guitar performance, I had a cold and my voice sounds terrible, and I even screwed up on some of the words. So here's the "studio" version of sorts, rough throughout, but acceptable.
I never meant for the song to be prophetic in any way. In it, the speaker begins a relationship because he feels lonely, and despite it giving him life for a bit, eventually the passion fades and the couple splits up—at age 35. And here, as I get ready to leave 35 behind me, I find myself also alone again, "boxes filled and stacked to the ceiling, […] my memory reeling." Of course it's not word-for-word analogous, but it sure feels weird to hear the lyrics from this side of 35, even though I wrote it when I was 30.
The guitar riff had been sitting around for a year and a half or so before the words came together. I wrote most of the lyrics over a two day span while we lived at an RV park, weeks after we'd sold our house in Hope. It's pretty rare for me to write lyrics in such a short period of time, but they just came together this way. It's a bona fide expression of emotion from me, something that doesn't happen very often. This time it worked out to give me one of those songs with loads of narrative gaps, but a concise, lyrical story laced with a smatter of vignettes. I actually take pride in this set of lyrics.
Recording-wise, I wanted to keep it simple. I laid out the drum machine track with I still lived in Hope, and the synth track when I lived in Smithers in 2011-2012. I recorded the guitars at my brother's house in the summer of 2013, and the vocals later that winter in Agassiz. I may have redone the vocals a few times over the year that followed, but I can't quite remember. Beyond that, the only additional frills were the ride cymbal (recorded in Agassiz at the school) and the synth pad, which I believe I recorded in Chilliwack, although I can't quite be sure without the files in front of me. I tried to record a new bassline last night, but I wasn't happy with it, so the simple one will have to do. It was a long process for such a musically simple song.
Anyhow, it's rough, but I turn 36 tomorrow and I don't want to hate the song, so I'm posting this mix now. It might be the most pure expression of the disappointment of dislocation and heartbreak that I've ever written, and perhaps may ever write. Enjoy my melancholy.
1. Attend a songwriting retreat with other songwriters.
I've always wanted to attend a songwriters retreat.
Unfortunately, retreats like this cost $$$, and I simply do not have $$$ right now. Perhaps I can find some sort of free Internet songwriting group. Or perhaps I'll have to start up a MeetUp of my own. If I'm going to make a retreat for myself, it's going to have to be a little closer to home.
2. Solve writer's block by Pinteresting the shit out of my social media.
My ex loves Pinterest and her best friend says "Don't follow me on Facebook if you want to know who I am: check out my Pinterest boards and you'll know everything about me." I don't tend to aggressively use Pinterest myself, but perhaps I need to create a few Writer's inspiration boards on my own Pinterest.
On reflection, my Pinterest largely consists of stuff about mental health and leadership. I doubt all the academic reading I had to do for my Master's in Leadership Studies degree was very helpful in regards to my desire to write elemental, emotional, community-based music. So I should probably do my best to avoid all of that sort of writing for a bit create a songwriting board on Pinterest and visit it regularly..
3. Track down a shaman of some sort.
I hesitate to apply "spiritual" ideas to anything these days, but religions endure and tap into elemental human aspects. I should try to tap into them too.
Religions try to give purpose and vision to people in a collaborative manner. They usually have a hierarchy of leadership and mentorship. As much as I've chafed over the years at mentorship, perhaps some time with an inspirational shaman of sorts might help kick this writer's block goodbye.
As to how I could do this at this moment... I have no idea.
4. Date carelessly.
I have tried to be a very careful dater over the years. At this point, when I look back, that over-caution hasn't really got me very far, writing-wise. I still haven't written any of those "What the hell was that all about" breakup songs. I think part of this might be attributable to my general even-temperedness and desire to give everybody the benefit of a doubt and assume their well-meaningness. More likely, though, is that I'm a bit of a cowardly dater and I barely date in the first place. And right now is most definitely NOT the time to start, even for the sake of a song or two.
This one is very important. I have not had a healthy group of friend-relationships for a long time. The conversations that inspire new metaphors and hooks... I just haven't had them. Nor have I had anybody highlight what's worth holding on to and what's worth scrapping.
So perhaps this is the best option. It's time to track down a songwriting partner. Time to get back to reading literature and filling my brain with latent metaphors I'd never considered before.
Perhaps a new project for the new year.
The Internet Archive
YouTube: ephemeral ideas