All Lost (on the way to) the Supermarket:
“I’m all lost in the supermarket,
I can no longer shop happily,
I came in for a special offer,
A guaranteed personality…” ~ Joe Strummer and Mick Jones (of The Clash, from Lost in the Supermarket)
I’ve often written about how large a role music plays in my artistic journey. For me, the best part about doing things that are often considered chores, like mowing the lawn or driving twenty minutes each way to the supermarket, is having the opportunity to listen to music as I do them. I might more aptly describe this as getting lost in music while doing something that can be done by rote. It’s always been a big part of my creative process.
So this week both my trip to the grocery store and the time spent mowing the lawn proved to be no exceptions. In both cases I cranked the iPod and got to it, body doing one thing, brain doing a dozen others. Music allows my mind to work in a unique way. The best way I can describe it is to say that music seems to distract me enough to actually allow ideas to flow freely. Sometimes they flow directly from the music or lyrics, other times not so much (as in: seemingly from nowhere). They just flow. But music seems to be the stimulus. I hope that makes enough sense to continue reading. If not, thanks for trying. Please come back for the next post.
Doin’ the Epiphany Shuffle:
“I was born in the middle,
Maybe too late, everything good had been made,
So I just get loaded, And never leave my house,
It’s takin’ way too long to figure this out.” ~Tim Showalter (of Strand of Oaks, from Shut In)
Of late, the main thing I’ve been pondering while under my musical spell is the state of my current rewrite. I work through plot issues and character conflicts, of course. But I’m also often wondering if I’m even making it better. Of course my intent is to improve it, but over the years I’ve received enough conflicting feedback on rewrites to keep me guessing. It’s probably a good thing; the intention of my muse to keep me on my toes. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck to always be second-guessing myself. I’ve found it can’t be helped, though.
While mowing, with my iPod on shuffle, the Strand of Oaks lyrics above caught my ear: “Everything good had been made.” In that moment it seemed sort of futile. There are so many great books! Classics! In the moment it felt like all the great stories had already been told. What’s the point?
As I stewed on that notion, along came Just a Song Before I Go, by Crosby, Stills & Nash. Most people would consider them and this song a timeless classic. And I thought, ‘Well, this is a simple story, a simple melody. Not one of their best.’ But then I knew what made it special: the power of their voices! Such talent! People listened to their later, more subdued songs because they knew and trusted their talent. As I worked that concept through, up pops The Smiths’ How Soon Is Now? “I am the son, and the heir, of nothing in particular.” How strikingly different! And less than ten years apart. Although The Smiths rank high on my list of all-time favorites, it seems I’m in the minority in considering them classic. Less than a decade after the likes of The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Beach Boys and The Stones hit their high marks, bands like The Clash and The Police, then The Cure and The Smiths, were changing rock. And yet, were they? Wasn’t it just a unique spin on an existing genre? Who would say that one set of groups supplanted the other?
The clincher of my epiphany came when I heard Wild Horses by… The Sundays? Yep, a venerable Rolling Stones classic, gorgeously rendered by Harriet Wheeler and her jangly post-punk band-mates, twenty-one years after the original. It’s a song I love. Both versions. What a shame it would’ve been if The Sundays had considered it to have been “already done,” not worth their effort. In my book, both versions are timeless classics.
The Song Remains the Same:
“There are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt.” ~Audre Lorde
I admit it. I’ve spent a lot of needless worry. Historical fantasy? Set in an alternative version of ancient Europe? A young man who is the subject of a so-called prophesy? Is he the heir to kingship? Oh Lord! It’s SO been done, right?
What about voice? Do I even have one? Is it unique? Are the elements of my novels novel? Are readers not by now tiring of archaic dialog, my good sirs and ladies? I durst not contemplate. (No, I don’t use durst. ‘Tis in bad taste, is it not?)
Will it ever sell? Can it be made better still? Without compromising my original vision? Will it ever be worthy of a traditional deal? Am I kidding myself? Should I just self-pub and move on? Will I know when enough is enough?
“Know my name, know I mean it,
It’s not as bad as it seems,
And we try in our own way to get better,
Even if we’re alone…” ~Tim Showalter (also from Shut In)
Know this, and know I mean it: None of it matters! I’ve been working on this too long to look back or to have regrets. No matter how many times I revise, the story remains the same. It’s an elaborate attempt to convey the yearnings of my heart. If I’d written it any other way, I wouldn’t have been passionate about it. If I hadn’t been passionate, I wouldn’t have found my voice (yes, I do believe I have one). The conflicts and passions of my characters may not be new. They are merely human. But the way I have felt them in the writing of my stories is uniquely mine. Perhaps that uniqueness can one day be conveyed to readers.
A Choice and a Non-Choice:
“Rejoice, Rejoice! We have no choice, but to carry on…” ~Stephen Stills (from Carry On)
Will I know when enough is enough? Yes, I think I will. And I’m not there yet. I recognize the choice, and I’m trusting my heart on this. I’m not willing to bet my record collection that my work will ever be considered classic. But I think, if I strive on, I have a shot at being on someone’s list of favorites. In a world chockablock full of books and songs, that chance alone is worth the effort. Each of us has a unique voice. It’d be a shame if we didn’t consider it worthy of striving to make it heard. All we can do is carry on, regardless of how we choose to share our work. On this we have no choice.
In the meanwhile, writerly angst and doubt aside, it’s not as bad as it seems. And I try, in my own way, to get better. You do too, I know (or you wouldn’t have followed this crazy thread this far). And even though we work alone, we’re not alone. We have each other. And our music. On shuffle.
How about you? Do you have your own list of classics? Do you think there are any new stories left? Is your voice worthy of being heard?
I was just about to shut off my internet and get down to work when your blog post popped into my mailbox. Thanks for the inspiration, Vaughn. (And I love The Sundays version of Wild Horses.) I think every story has been told, but every time it is told it is unique, because someone else is telling it. The trick, as you and I both know, is to make the retelling interesting enough to make others want to hear it again.
Oh good, another fan of The Sundays’ version. Didn’t know if I was going to be alone on that one. Some people are purists when it comes to The Stones, I know. Yes, it has to be interesting, doesn’t it? Darn, what’s interesting to me seems to rarely be of interest to society at large. Back to second-guessing. Or, should I say, here’s to a lovely niche market? 😉
Glad to have offered a bit of inspiration. Thanks for weighing in, Liz!
I so agree with you about The Smiths. I love the way they see things, things I see, but in their own unique way, uniqueness so familiar, I feel at home even as they stretch my heart. And that’s what great storytelling is anyway, right? The telling of a dear and familiar tale but with a unique spin, and the blend, the dear familiar and the unique hits home as it opens the reader’s heart. That’s what your stories did to me.
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Ah, B. “You say: ‘Ere long done do does did,’ Words which could only be your own…” You are utterly unique–both in voice and in the gigantic size of your beautiful heart. And yes, the familiar is part of what makes it feel ancient and yet new, comforting and yet exhilarating. It’s evident from your work that you understand this so well!
Thank you for adding YOUR unique and enhancing spin to this conversation. And thank you, so much, for your kind words. As you have so often, you’ve sustained me to fight on once more.
My list of what I consider the classics ( of my heart) are in my favourites list on Youtube whenever I come to do my blog. The company is great. They’re on my MP3 player when I take a bus ride not just for me to enjoy but as a barrier to prevent people interacting with me because though I like people I can’t cope in close proximity without my music.
You reminded me about it anew so I’m starting to have an early listen today.
Love that dual purpose of headphones. It does tend to leave you in peace, doesn’t it? And yes, it’s so comforting to have our favorites so close at hand these days, isn’t it? Being someone who lugged full orange crates of LPs around for decades, I continue to marvel that my entire music library now fits in my shirt pocket.
Glad to have been of service, David! Thanks for weighing in!
As far as music, I remember watching American Bandstand growing up. I’m afraid I’m a bubblegum kinda gal – I like music with a good beat that you can do to.
I believe the self-doubt you described is universal to every writer on the planet. There are definitely new stories out there, otherwise John Grisham wouldn’t have created the Legal Thriller genre and JK Rowling wouldn’t have given us a world of flying wizards. Keep writing and living your dream!
I grew up on Bandstand, too. And Soul Train, for that matter. Certainly nothing wrong with bubblegum or beats that make you move.
You’re right about the new spins. Certainly there were wizards before HP, but I can’t quite imagine Gandalf playing quidditch, can you? 😉 And Perry Mason was never in quite so deep as most Grisham characters. Great examples, Marcy! Thanks for an encouraging addition to the conversation!
My pleasure, Vaughn. Good luck with your novel.
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“But the way I have felt them in the writing of my stories is uniquely mine.” I think that, right there, is the important thing. You’ve found your voice. You love your characters and are honest on the page. Sir, I’m still pushing back extraneous layers to find my truth, my voice. My hat is off to you.
Music is a wonderful muse- and so many of the songs you shared here brought back a flood of memories of growing up and listening to vinyl albums with my father. All those stories. I think story is the key to every kind of art. We use them, after all, to make sense of our world, our inner life, and our history. (Can you tell I recently finished Wired for Story?)
I think many writers, starting out, believe there is only one crossroads- “to write, or not to write”.
In fact, we come across a great many, and each of them just as complex and requiring at least as much energy. I think it’s the Universe’s way to make sure we find the essence of what it is we want to say, of drawing closer to our “muse”. Back to music- it can be a tool, a compass to finding our way back to what makes us passionate.
All those questions we ask ourselves- all those doubts- mean we’re awake and aware and striving to make something readers will love. We don’t have to hold onto them, but, as you know, those questions can lead us right back to what is important.
Here’s one of *my* classics, and it features two very different voices, again, taking something old and making it new again:
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You are so right about the various crossroads we encounter, one after another after another. They speak of persistence winning out for successful writers, but it’s really a persistent willingness to continue to not choose the path of least resistance. We’re a stubborn-assed bunch, aren’t we? Yes, I think I want to write; yes, I think this may be ready to share with others; yes, it sucks to be rejected, but I will continue to try; yes, I think this is the story I want to stick with, and not begin again; yes, it’s getting better but it’s still not there, and yet I will spend another six months trying to take it to another level I still do not fully comprehend, etc. etc.
Wow, epic song! By two evocative and unique voices. Talk about layers within a piece! Worthy of repeated listening, thanks for sharing!
Great observations, Tonia! I suspected you might connect with this piece. Glad I was right. Thanks so much for putting so much into your addition to the conversation!
It’s not wrong to question, every once in a while, if you’re going in the right direction. Just don’t waste too much time asking the same question – and answering with a strong ‘yes!’
My brain seems to forget – so I do this in writing: am I writing the right story? Do I still want to put what might be months or years of effort into it? Do I still like these people, and think their story need to be told? Can I find an audience, even though I’m writing it just for me?
For me, what helps is that I never find someone else doing the same story; I’ve found a little corner all my own. That’s both scary and exciting. It may not be a big niche, but it doesn’t seem to be inhabited. Surely there are parts of your story you’ve never seen anyone else do the way you do? Those are the pieces the rest of the writing is there to support.
These are all excellent guideposts, Alicia. I love the specificity of your self-querying. And yes, I do often remind myself of the unique elements. But I’ve never put that into the context of having the rest of the writing be there to support them. Splendid perspective!
Thanks so much for stopping by and bringing such wonderful, and grounding, suggestions. Have a great weekend!
If YOU don’t write your stories, no one else will, and they will die untold. It’s a big responsibility, being unique.
It’s good for ‘writer’s block’ to ask all those questions and answer them in writing instead of inside your head, where they tend to go around in circles. Eventually, after you’ve written more than you ever though you would about what the problem is, solutions start popping out. I have to do it IN writing, which has the advantage that pieces can sometimes be popped into the story already typed.
Often there are two problems: what to say, and how to say it. The brain tries to answer the questions simultaneously, and, since they have different answers, this can create an unbreakable logjam – and nothing comes out. Separate the pieces.
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Encouraging as well as informative, Alicia! Thanks again!
Fantastic post as always, Vaughn, and just what I needed today. As a fellow fantasy lover, I can tell you that your voice is unique and wonderful and there are readers out there that want this story. Writing is hard. It’s emotionally gut wrenching and amazingly euphoric all at the same time. The self-doubt, the questioning, it never goes away, or at least I’ve never met a writer yet that had an answer for how to stop it, only to cope. And cope we do. As I delve into my newest WIP, a semi-historical fantasy set in a alternate Rome/Scotland, like you, I question if what I’m doing has been done to death. Especially when I open the pages and feast on stories from the likes of Robin Hobb and other heroes of mine from our genre. It scares me to death, and yet I can’t not write this story. It’s itching to be told, and I know in my heart that it will be unique, because I am unique, just as you are. As hard as it is, at the end of the day, we have to drown out the outside voices, listen to our own music and sing our own songs. I will if you will 🙂
Hey Heather! Thanks very much for the vote of confidence! It’s heartening and greatly appreciated. Particularly now, as I plow toward the third act of the new version of Severing Son (which will most likely need a new title soon, I’m thinking). I’m so excited for you and your new venture. I know what a big role fantasy has played in your reading and writerly life. For me, Hobb is one of the most daunting. And yet she’s inspiring and a wonderful role model, too. What depths her characters exhibit! How intricately layered her world, and entwined with her conflicts! Yes, something to aspire to.
I’m in on the deal! As always, thanks for your support, my friend! Looking forward to beta-reading (you’ll let me, right?).
Great topic, Vaughn. What is most interesting to me is artists (writers and musical artists) who break new ground, rather than re-plowing old fields. I go back to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, but, unlike many of my contemporaries, I do believe there are musical artists who are producing great, original music today. It’s more difficult to find them, but they are out there. And I love the Sundays’ version of Wild Horses, which is also one of my favorite Rolling Stones’ songs.
I agree with you, Chris! I’m a fan of the classics, but I mostly seek out new music. I was once on a jobsite where my counterparts played a so-called classic rock radio station, and by the end of each day I couldn’t wait to put on something that I hadn’t heard at least 100 times. It’s rare, indeed, to find the gems that will endure, but luckily for me, I enjoy the seeking.
Glad to have found another who loves both versions of Wild Horses, too! Thanks again for a great comment! Have a great weekend!
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We’d have a very different world if Harper Lee or Toni Morrison had decided there was nothing more to say in fictional form about social stratification, poverty and justice.
That said, I do the self-doubt shuffle, too. I’ve come to believe it’s a form of Monkey Mind. I’ll never turn it off. Best I can do is stop tossing it bananas.
Hang in there, V. At least you have a stocked cupboard and mowed lawn. 😉
Good point about Lee and Morrison. Reading others has been a solace lately. I often need to remind myself what I love and why I’m doing this, and immersing myself in books seems to be banishing the Monkey Mind this time around–my version of banana tossing, I suppose.
Yes, one of the great side-benefits of my angst has always been how it incites my compulsion to orderliness and busy work. Thanks for the great reminders, Boss!
I once made a horrid mistake– I told a friend I was sick of vampire novels, that vampires, darlings of my mindset, had been ruined for me, and I didn’t think there was anything left to say with them. But I was wrong, and wrong to say it to him (he was working on such a novel) and wrong to be jaded, too. There is always a new way, as your Lorde quote so perfectly puts it, to make things felt. As a novelist, I’m working on that oldest of themes– coming of age– and I know I enjoy reading what I’ve got. This makes me know someone else will, too– I can’t be that singular in my tastes! And as the songs of my childhood slowly become golden oldies, I’m lucky to have friends ten or more years younger, who keep showing me their own definitions of classic. Now I’m just waiting for the Muzak version of Psycho Killer to play in some elevator.
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Laughed so loud on your last line, my wife inquired about it. Great observation about trusting our own tastes, and that they must be far from singular. I read a blog post once that sort of said what I’ve repeated above, about a young man of so-called destiny finding his way to ascension as a leader having been SO done to death. I actually let it make me feel bad, for longer than I’d care to admit. So I hope that didn’t happen to your vampire-writing friend had thicker skin than I do.
Thanks for reading and for the excellent observations, Mary! I still love coming-of-age stories, too, so I’m looking forward to yours.
I’m late to your party, Vaughn! 😀
So, you know what I think? I think that, if we’re true to ourselves, and write from our passion and our lives and feelings and don’t try to be like others, that we won’t be like others. Nothing is new under the sun, but the way we put it together is. Yes, there’s lots of epic fantasy, or urban fantasy, or historical fiction, or thrillers, etc… but there’s only one you and there’s only one me. And WE are the unique creator of our stories.
You asked if I thought my voice is worthy to be heard, and that is exactly why I chose to self-publish. Did I think my story was perfect? Nope. I knew it wasn’t. But it was the best I could get it, and I had a lot of people on Wattpad liking it, and so I decided to share it with the world at large. Now, my book is in the hands of about 7500 people (at least) and I have a decent amount of positive reviews. Is it selling hand over fist? No. But I do have people who have put me on Twitter lists such as “authors to watch” and have made some fans since releasing. Any future books I publish will have a little better starting point from the one before it.
I loved my story, I believed in my story, and I wanted readers to have the opportunity to decide for themselves if they liked it or not. I knew, if I waited for someone else to decide it’s worthiness, that it might never be seen.
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Hey Lara! No worries about arriving after the post date. Now I’ve gone and left you hanging for a few days. Sorry, Mo and I took some time away, and I did my best to stay off line.
Anyway, great point about our passion leading to our uniqueness. And I’m so glad that your career is thriving as it is! That’s wonderful that you took the leap – you’re an inspiration! It’s a great perspective, and I’m so glad you took the time to share it. As I say in the post, I’m still of a mind that my work hasn’t quite grown to the point where I’m ready to leap, and I’m trying to be honest with myself, and to be sure that only my judgement on its worthiness comes into play. But I do promise I will share it, someday soon.
Thanks again for a great contribution to this conversation, and for being such a great friend and role model for so long!