Saturday, December 18, 2004

singing and writing a happy life

The New York Times has an interesting op-ed piece on Christmas music. I’m happy to say that my personal collection is much more varied than the ASCAP ranking. I do go through phases, and admittedly, the “chestnuts” Passy references comprise one of those phases.

Today, however, my proclivity is gospel (Mahalia Jackson, Take 6, The Boys Choir of Harlem, Mervyn Warren). Although I’m listening to a mix of genres thanks to iTunes, the volume goes up whenever a gospel song starts. Even Harry Connick, Jr. gets into the gospel spirit with I Pray on Christmas.

I pray on Christmas that the sick will soon be strong
I pray on Christmas, the Lord will hear my song
I pray on Christmas that God will lead the way
And I pray on Christmas, He’ll get me through another day

I can’t help but to clap my hands, stomp my feet, and sing along loudly. Well, I sing along loudly when I’m by myself. If I did that at the office, I’d probably be limiting my career options, and if I did it at home, I’d probably be divorced. My high school band teacher prided himself on regularly proclaiming that I could sing correctly (right notes, right phrasing, right rhythm), but the quality of my tone was just really bad. I was the accompanist for my high school chorus, and the choral teacher finally resigned to keeping me behind the piano after attempting to give me singing lessons. I can admit it: I wasn’t born to sing in public.

Writing in public, now that’s a different thing. Hence, sanguinary blue. I haven’t been able to dedicate as much time to blogging as I’d hoped, much in the same way I’ve struggled with dedicating the time to my journals or even the occasional stab at prose or poetry.

This can be attributed primarily to two reasons. The first is the volume of work and holiday projects I’m currently experiencing. So the test of that excuse -- um, I mean reason -- will be how well I re-enter the blogging practice after the holidays and my big January business trip. The second reason is the amount of time I spend writing. The first draft is easy: unhindered, I can type well over 100 words per minute. But I’m freakishly meticulous about editing to the final product. A simple newsletter article, for example, will take me 20 minutes to write and three weeks to edit.

My lottery fantasy is that I would be able to concentrate exclusively on writing (and taking as much time as I need for editing). The random windfall is doubtful, and so instead I must dedicate myself to reprioritizing it within the confines of my current job/income/lifestyle. Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m not buying a PowerBall ticket today.

I’m inspired by both good and bad writers. The good ones stir my soul and make me yearn to write something that might be equally stirring to someone else. The bad ones remind me that my writing can be (and often is) better than these people who have somehow managed to get themselves published (and paid to write). This sounds egotistical, but at the risk of exacerbating that impression, it’s true.

About eight years ago, I self-published a chapbook of my poetry. My inspiration was the then-recently-published chapbook by one of my college professors, which I purchased. It was dreadful (sorry, Dr. Reilly). I didn’t connect to it at any level: his style was unpleasant, his content was dry, and any passion he might have had for his subjects was not apparent. He only occasionally made good use of the splendid words the English language provides. I remember scouring every poem to find something – anything – that was provocative in any way. I found a single phrase that I liked, but it was surrounded by countless morose and stagnant phrases. I’ll stop short of saying that his writing is unilaterally bad because I’ve only read a portion of it (because he is frighteningly prolific). But what I’ve read, well, let’s just say I wasn’t impressed. So, I thought I could do better.

My chapbook was entitled She Gathers Voices. I love the image of that phrase. It was well suited to the variety of poems I included in the book, which ranged from a handful of haiku and other reasonably new poems to a sampling of older ones that went as far back as my high school days. It’s only slightly ironic that I didn’t write the title (a friend in my online poetry group wrote it as the first line of a haiku about me, and yes, he gave me official permission to use it in the book). I also made no attempt to work with a publisher. I formatted, printed, and trimmed each page myself, and I bound the books by hand (a technique I learned at church camp in 1975). I cannot attest to their durability, as I neither made a copy for myself (too work-intensive) nor made any attempt to followup on those purchased by my family and friends.

Another irony is that the only other notable English teacher in my life, Ian Veitenheimer, is an amazing writer. Stunning, really. He was a huge influence on me, not only because he was my teacher (twice, Freshman and Junior years) and my advisor (in my four years on the school literary magazine, two as Editor), but also because he’s a complete word wonk like me.

When I was in elementary school, any time I opened the dictionary to find a word, I’d end up spending half an hour flipping through the pages and reading more definitions. I would read the dictionary. I thought I was mildly insane for this little hobby of mine until I met Mr. Veitenheimer, who showered upon me and my classmates 10 new vocabulary words every day of the year in a publication he called the “SAT Lexicon.” So enamored with it was I, that I convinced Mr. V. to give me copies of the new ones even after I’d graduated. So, why wasn’t this good influence my inspiration for the chapbook? Timing, really. And I did dedicate the book to Mr. Veitenheimer.

I read yesterday’s The Rural Life piece by Verlyn Klinkenborg in the New York Times. I really enjoy his writing style and admire the content. In part, this article about winter on the farm reads thusly:

No matter how unprepared I am, I always imagine preparing for a winter you can't muddle through. It's a deep, wooded season. Time pauses and then pauses again. The sun winks over the horizon, glinting on a snow-swept lake - just enough light to wake the chickadees.

The eaves are low all around the house that this winter comes to, and I've surrounded the entire house with cordwood, leaving gaps for the windows and doors. Winter will go nowhere until I've burned through it all.

I have no plans except to rake the snow off the roof after the next big blizzard, and carry out the ashes from the woodstove, and read everything I've ever meant to read.

Of course, a daydream like this isn't really about winter or snow or firewood or even the feeling of having prepared every last thing that needs preparing. It's about something far more elemental, the time that moves through us day by day. It's an old human hope - to have a consciousness separate from the consciousness of time. But it's always a vain hope.

I'll never get that much cordwood stacked, and never need to. Winter comes and goes in the same breath, condensing right before your face on a day when the temperature never gets up to 20 degrees.

And with that, it’s time for me to go do some more Christmas preparation. Ted’s at work this morning, which makes it a perfect time for me to wrap his presents. And I have to get to Costco when the door opens, so as to avoid the thickest of the Saturday-before-Christmas rush.

2 comments:

Anonymous Poet said...
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JoJo said...

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