Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

I don’t know anything about classical music. I’ve played some — back in my mercifully short career as a high school flutist. I’ve sung a fair bit. I have favorite pieces. There are symphonies I love, composers who generally never let me down, but I don’t actually know anything. I haven’t studied, don’t understand intricacies or what makes one piece speak to me and another leave me cold. I’m that classic, “I know what I like,” kind of fan.

I could fix my ignorance, of course, take classes that would give me the background and vocabulary for all the things I don’t know how to say about this music. I don’t mind my not-knowing, however. Not really. I like coming to this music following my heart, my emotional response, rather than paying close attention to my head.

Last year and this — and again for next year — I have bought not one but two subscriptions to concert series at Carnegie Hall. And they’ve been all classical music all the time. Last year, one of the series was all Russian composers, and that was pretty fabulous. I hadn’t really thought about having a particular love for the Russians, but apparently my musical tastes run similarly to my early literature-reading tastes. Give me the Russians (shame to think this is something I’d have in common with THOTUS)!

The final concert of my subscriptions for this season, the last of my Philadelphia Orchestra performances, was Leonard Bernstein, Mozart, and Robert Schumann. Of the three, as much as I have discovered myself as a lover of Mozart (I resisted at first because it seemed too easy, too obvious — he was someone I was supposed to like), the Bernstein and the Schumann won me, with the Bernstein resonating most deeply.

Just as I love choral singing — my one voice melded into a crowd of others — I love orchestral music, love the singular pieces all playing together to make a whole. And the beautiful playing of the Philadelphia Orchestra under the dynamic and gracious conducting of Yannick Nézet-Séguin doesn’t disappoint.

Favorite moment? At the end of the first movement of the Bernstein, the percussionist is called upon toe use maracas (what does the scoring look like for maracas, I wonder) … and he picks them up … and uses them as drumsticks to play the timpani!! That, truly, was everything. Every last thing.

* * *

Not long ago, I posted on Facebook about how self-doubt creeps in on me, makes me question whether I’m really a writer at all, whether I should just quit messing around and use my time more productively. Watching the orchestra, I wondered if that doubt is fueled, in part, by the solitary echo chamber that is writing. As a member of an orchestra, you can see and hear your work every time you take up your instrument. Your place in the larger whole comes back to you as harmony, rhythm, a full and beating heart of sound. And watching the Philadelphia Orchestra reminded me of some of the self-care I know my creative self needs, things I haven’t been making time for.

I like writing in community. I don’t mean that I like working on group writing projects (although that sounds like fun and could someone please propose one for me to join you on?). No, I mean that I like being around other writers while I’m working. I like basking in and soaking up that creative energy. I like not being alone, like working next to folks who get what I’m trying to do, having those folks be right there when frustration or procrastination hit.

And I know this. But somehow I allow myself to forget. Over and over. Somehow I set aside this vital truth and, instead of finding more ways to write in community, I isolate myself so I can get some work done … and I grind myself down smaller and smaller until I get almost nothing done at all.

My smart, talented lovely friend Lisa wrote a manifesto for nurturing her creativity while nurturing her new child. She drafted it on a dramatic length of butcher paper and hung it on her wall. I’m thinking bout that now, the larger-than-life, in everyone’s face commitment of that butcher paper. I’m thinking I need something similarly large, large like the poster I’ll be making of the Joe Louis fist, large enough that I can’t help but see it and can’t possibly ignore or forget about it.

It needs to say obvious things like “write in community,” but also things like “keep your Carnegie subscription,” “go to the singalong Messiah,” “go to the theater.”

And you’ll notice how few of those things have specifically to do with pen and paper, with me actually doing some writing. But I think that’s another part of the point. Because yes, I need to sit down and work — with other people when that’s possible — but I also need to feed my creativity. When Julia Cameron wrote about “filling the well” in The Artist’s Way, she wasn’t talking about writing every minute of every day. She was talking about the exact opposite, about the fact that we can’t create if the well is dry, if we never give ourselves the chance to take in beauty, nature, music … whatever is going to replenish our spirits so that we can sit down and do the work.

The Philadelphia Orchestra is definitely a well-filler, but my Carnegie season is finished. I won’t be back in my second tier box until the fall. But there are so many things I can do in the mean time. I have a whole summer of well-filling ahead of me, a whole summer to remember to make artist dates and friend dates … and writing dates. I have a friend with whom I have semi-regular writing dates. First summer task: do a better job of making those dates more “regular” than “semi.” It’s a start.


(There was no way I could resist using that title. As soon as I started writing this post, it came flying up from the deepest depths of my memory. I couldn’t even remember what songs OMD were known for, but the name was right there, ready for me to scoop it up. I went to The Google, and was reminded of If You Leave. Oh yes, it all comes back to me now …)

In 2017, I’m on my #GriotGrind. I committed to writing an essay a week … but fell behind behind pretty quickly. I’m determined to catch up, committed to 52 essays by year’s end.
I’m following the lead of Vanessa Mártir, who launched #52essays2017 after she wrote an essay a week for 2016 … and then invited other writers along for the ride.


All Systems Go (SOLSC 17)

Today I had the pleasure of going to a great workshop hosted by the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective.  The workshop was about writing proposals for creative projects.  The workshop was led by a lovely, lovely woman with whom I’ve taken two online writing workshops.

I was interested in today’s session because I want to get more serious about applying for writing residencies.  I’ve applied in the past and always run into the wall of the artist statement, having no idea how to write one: what should I include, what shouldn’t I include, how do I talk about myself and my work in a way that is compelling but doesn’t sound arrogant, and on and on.

The workshop was led by Minal Hajratwala. One of the things I love about her workshops is that she always pushes you to develop next steps at the end so that you walk out with a plan for how to proceed.  And today was no different.  I have a pre-next-steps step to take, however, which is to decide what residencies I want to apply for this year.  So that’s my task to complete by the time I go in for my surgery.  That way I can be working on my applications as I recuperate.

I love having my brain switched on in new ways.  I love intelligent, gentle, funny people.  I love honest sharing and empathetic listening.  I love facilitators who know how to create safe space.  I love feeling welcome.

This afternoon was my compassionate give-back from the cosmos after Friday night’s ugliness.  And I offer up a hands-over-my-heart, head-bowed “Thank you.”


See all of the day’s slices at Two Writing Teachers.


The Eternal Sunshine of the Creative Mind

Tomorrow I’m going to come back to yesterday’s post and have some constructive, open-minded things to say. That’s tomorrow. I need another day to remember who I am, tap into that empathic side I’m cultivating.

Tonight, tonight is for the Brainery.

For a long time now, my friend Mopsy has been telling me about taking classes at the Brooklyn Brainery. She’s also tried to convince me I should sign up to  teach a class at the Brainery.

I’ve listened to her but haven’t listened to her, too. She’s taken a bunch of classes — cooking, knitting, other stuff I can’t remember. She is a true Brainery devotee. I gave her a Brainery gift certificate for Chanukah last year to feed her habit.

Then she sent me an email announcing a class to talk about three Octavia Butler short stories. How could I resist? I love Octavia Butler. Love. Her.

I’m on my way home from the second and final class. Both sessions were excellent. The workshop leaders were prepared, smart and funny, and so were the participants.

I love the idea of the Brainery. You know something, you want to share what you know, sign up and teach a class! People are teaching storytelling, calligraphy, canning, wine tasting …  I love people just figuring out this easy and inexpensive way to share their knowledge and bring people together.  As one of the workshop leaders said to me tonight, “We thought this would be a good way to bring people out of the woodwork.”  Yes.  Exactly.

So Mopsy’s gone and done it.  I’m a convert, a newly-inducted devotee, a Brainery lover.  Will I teach something?  I don’t know.  I still can’t think of what I’d teach. But I can’t wait to take my next class!