#13 Determination, music and writing struggles
10 things to share over coffee
1. A letter from me
Hi, y'all; it's me again. Yep, I'm still here. I am sending you all the best from Sicily. It's a new month, and it's been one filled with endless distractions, miserable wintry weather and a powerful temptation to lapse into an infinite loop of procrastination. But I am determined not to give up. So I will sit down and put one word in front of the other and hope for the best.
Statistically, March is when most people forget those shiny New Year's resolutions when they begin to tire. As I, too, am skimming close to the edge of that bottomless pit, I can say it isn't easy.
But instead of heaping too many expectations onto myself, I am learning to be a little more forgiving. If I have a lapse, I will let it go, get back up and try better; as long as I am gradually moving forward, I'm happy.
As an incessant list maker, I wrote a list of things I wanted to do this month. Some are simple, like reading more and making sure I get my exercise. Others are more ambitious, like finishing off some work or redrafting. But others still are pretty damned scary, like start making some videos or get around to my podcast. But there are baby steps to be taken there. I have promised myself to do things even though they are scary. So let's hold hands and move towards the challenges because that's where the growth is.
Here's to not giving up!
2. What I've been reading
Since I have a serious book addiction and I am pretty greedy with my reading, I have been becoming seriously restless with my reading, dipping into several books simultaneously. I went on a little shopping spree for my birthday last week, ordered some new books, and downloaded the usual inappropriate amount of ebooks to skim over. I find I have become quite impatient with my books. Perhaps it's because social media has influenced me too much; I want everything to entertain me immediately. I don't want to commit too much of my time unless I know it will be worth it. Perhaps I've just read too many disappointing books.
This week I've been obsessing over the Beats. I'm reading Allen Ginsberg's Howl, Kaddish and other poems, which have been gloriously chaotic, insane and pyrotechnic. Paired with William S. Burroughs's Naked Lunch, I've happily been lost in the strange nightmarish, seedy subversive word of the Beat subculture of the '60s.
3. What I've been listening to
This week I've been listening to a lot of Rufus Wainright. I haven't always been a fan, but something is soothing about his voice.
Over Christmas, I started listening to Rufus does Judy at Capitol Studios, where he sings classic show tunes made famous by Judy Garland. I particularly fell in love with his duet of Happy Days are here again\Get Happy featuring Kirstin Chenoweth.
I've needed reassurance this week, and so Rufus has been outstanding company this week (yes, I am on a first-name basis with Rufus Wainwright after a week in the company of his voice)—particularly his early albums. I went back and listened to his 2003 debut, Want. But his song Going to a town from his album Release the Stars (2007) has been on repeat.
The world wiery sound of Going to town; despite the frustration of all the shit happening (particularly in America), there is a strong desire to continue his life despite all the mess. This song makes me feel we are still moving forward on our terms despite everything negative happening here because we have a life to live, a soul to feed and a dream to heed.
A special mention also to his album Take all my loves dedicated to 9 of Shakespeare's sonnets. All my loves is a beautiful unicorn classical crossover recorded through Deutsche Grammophon, with incredible collaborations with Anna Prohaska, Helena Bonham Carter, Carrie Fisher and the ephemeral Florence Welch, amongst others.
Here's a playlist made up of my eclectic listening, where I will add the songs I mention every week for you to listen to together with me.
Any suggestions for a better name?
4. Poem of the week
This week I've been rereading the poignant poetry of American essayist and translator Gil Fagiani (1945-2018). His posthumously published collection Missing Madonnas is filled with many beautiful reflections on the nature of memory and the Italo-American identity.
My favourite from the collection has to be American Now, which ends with the following sad stanza, about migrants who lost their connections and heritage to Sicily.
The sole sign
of her immigrant home:
gold heart earrings
sent her from Messina
out the subway window.
5. What I've been thinking of
This week I have been obsessing over the creative process for writers. As I plan to start work on my next book, I was curious to see how other writers work.
I listened to the DIY MFA Radio podcast, where writer Gabriela Pereira interviewed the genre-hopping author Courtney Maum. And her process is very chaotic, random and hit and miss despite writing several books. She writes the first 20,000 words to a book to see where it will go, and what happens next can be pretty chaotic. She works closely with her editor, and her work will go through some dramatic re/writes, changing plot, characters and structure. She has even had the terrible experience of scraping a completed manuscript simply because it didn't work. It sounds like a terrifying experience to go through, but also, in a way, it is comforting to think that there is no one way to approach the writing process. It sounds like it will always be a challenging, creative and evolving journey.
6. Commonplace quote
Always on the writing theme, I was reading George Saunder's newsletter, where he was answering questions about how he revises his works in progress. His process is significantly loose and intuitive. But at the same time, his concerns and worries are the same as any other writer. Once again, it's so comforting to know that this writing stuff is hard for everyone, even the most experienced writers, and we must keep up a certain level of enthusiasm, playfulness and joy to make something new.
Saunder's explains in his newsletter The Story Club with:
I'll revise that swath over and over, even as I am also trying to add to it, just based on what's happened in it, and what seems to "want to" come next. As I'm revising it (again, to ear, and for basic logic) it will start to "sprout" plot. As that swath becomes more detailed and specific, something will arise from it – a little tension, or a conflict, or just the promise of something that's going to happen. (It can be as simple as, for example, the main character mentions, impatiently, that he has to get to work - that might imply that the next scene wants to be him, at work. Voila! Plot.)
What often happens is that I'll get a full draft, be very happy with it – and then read it the next day and have a crisis of belief. Somehow (somewhere) it just isn't holding together. And I'll have some gut feeling of where that falling-off happened, and (maybe, sort of) why – and I'll tear it apart at that seam and start over.
Often I'll go through that "I'm done!" followed by "Crap! I need to to a teardown," many times on a story. I've done that three times already on this new story, which is about 20 pages long, and which I've only been working on since January.
But now I'm starting to see that, in writing, "mastery" just means being ok with one's lack of method - being comfortable in that space Donald Barthelme described as "not-knowing."
Another way of saying it: we get more comfortable with the notion that what we're actually good at — what we've been practicing all these years — is improvising within a given context. We've gotten good at reacting to the text that's right in front of us with some degree of confidence and playfulness.
And isn't that at least part of what we want from a book? To see another human being riffing on this thing called "life on earth" with confidence and playfulness, thereby infusing us with a touch of same as we step out the door?
7. What I've been watching
I've been a fan of Ahmir Questlove Thompson ever since seeing him on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. But after his Academy award-winning documentary, the Summer of Soul, I have admired him for his tremendous passion and talent as a documentary maker.
This week I went back and watched the Summer of Soul (or the revolution could not be televised) and was reminded of probably one of the most astounding passion projects ever completed by any musician.
The documentary highlights the historical Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969, a showcase for the Afro-American culture of the time. The six-week festival, overshadowed by Woodstock, was mostly forgotten by history but was a truly remarkable and unique historical and cultural event.
Summer of Soul takes us back to the historical event and precise time.
Summer of Soul begins with the question do you remember? Three hundred thousand people attended the free mega series of concerts over several days from the 29th of June until the 24th of August. It was all filmed, but the footage sat in storage for 50 years and was nearly forgotten.
Questlove's incredibly detailed documentary is a precious historical record of this once-in-a-lifetime event that shows off the vibrant energy of Afro-American culture within the context of a problematic and complex historical and political background.
8. Newsletter Love
I must mention one of my favourite newsletters to you. This one isn't on substack; you must sign up directly from the artist's web page. I'm talking about Nick Cave's weekly email, The Red Hand Files, where he answers questions from fans. You can sign up for the email or read his fascinating answers and ruminations every week on theredhandfiles.com . It's an excellent read for fans, also Nick Cave is also a very insightful human being.
9. Podcast crush
I have been getting into podcasts lately because I want to start my own sometime soon and also they are great company during the day. I enjoy listening to something interesting while I am driving or doing housework.
I feel less lonely when I am home alone with a podcast playing in the background. Ever since I was a kid, I always had the radio on in the background. I grew up with my favourite radio station. But ever since moving to Italy, I have gotten out of the habit. And these days, podcasts have taken the place of radio.
My current podcast crush is Funny cuz it's true with Elyse Myers. Elyse Myers is a Tiktok and Instagram creator and comic; she basically shares her life online in an authentic, lightweight and honest way. She seems down-to-earth, intelligent and hilarious. It feels like you are listening to a conversation a friend.
10. One song obsession
I have already mentioned what I have been listening to all week with Rufus Wainwright. But I have to say that there has been one song that has become a strange fixation. You know how sometimes songs get stuck in your head for no apparent reason, well that's been me with this particular song sung by Robbie Willams and Bary Barlow.
I'm not sure what has wedged this tune into my mind. Perhaps it's the harmonies, the music or the veiled, repressed homo erotic sexual tension between Williams and Barlow. Who knows, but I am obsessed
I hate to be long-winded, so I will stop here.
I'll try to share something worthwhile, well thought out and new here every week, perhaps more often if I get frisky or in some karmic writing zone.
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Speak again soon.
With love and light from RDB
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