Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Why You Should Think About Your Fans Instead of Your Critics

People want to like you. They want to like your band. They want to like your novel.

When I am listening to the radio, I am not in critic mode. I am in consumer mode. I am looking for the next artist to fall in love with. I am listening for a song I might want to download onto my iPhone.

When I walk into Broadside Bookstore, I am looking for my next great read. I want to find it. When I pick up a novel and read the first paragraph, I am not hoping it will disappoint me. I want to be captivated. I want to take the book home with me and make it keep me from going to bed on time. I want to be caught.

I want to like it, in the same way when I walk into a clothing shop I am looking for what might work, rather than what won’t work. I am hopeful. I want to leave the store with something in my hand.

I say all this because too many of the writers I know (myself included) go at their writing with the idea that the whole world is holding its proverbial breath, just waiting to pounce on your questionable plot, your clunky dialogue, your too-long beginning, your two-dimensional side character. We songwriters think everyone’s going to notice that the tenses changed in the third verse, and so dismiss the song outright.

Wrong.

There are people out there who will love your book. There are people out there who will love your song. They have been waiting for it. When they see it, or hear it, they will come to full attention and dive in. They are your fan tribe, and they want to like what you have written. They are looking for what’s good in your work. They want to take you home with them. They are waiting for the next thing you might have to say.

Here at Big Yellow (the name my retreatants have given my house, where I hold Writing it Up in the Garden workshops and retreats), we train participants to listen like fans, not critics, because it’s ultimately the fans that count—not the critics. Critics don’t buy books. They get given books. It’s their job to point out what doesn’t work. Editors don’t buy books. They get paid to see what doesn’t work and make your book better. They have their place, don’t get me wrong. But they are not your fans, and they are (therefore) not your employer. Your employer is the one who pays you. That would be your fans.

So when listening to a writer’s new work, I ask my retreatants and workshop participants to listen like a fan. What works? What phrase are you going to take away with you? What part do you want to hear again? What intrigues you? The amazing thing about this process is that when we listen for what works instead of for what doesn’t work, we not only seem to fall in love a bit more with the other writer, but more importantly, we gain trust in our own ability. When we sit in a room full of enthusiasm, we see (eventually) that folks might just find something to love in our own work. And that maybe it’s selfish, and even a little mean, not to share that song, that poem, that book, with those fans out there.

You will find each other. But only if you keep writing and putting it out there.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Equinox


I am writing this during my September Equinox retreat. It's already chilly--I put my wool socks on last weekend when we played the Turtle Hill Festival, and I haven't traded back for cotton since. My sweaters are down from the attic, neatly folded in my closet, like old friends. I haven't written in a few weeks, and I almost don't remember how. Katryna and I have been so immersed in our new record, my mind is there, among the tracks, listening for lines we could use as the title, listening for places we'd like to ask our fiddler to fill in, thinking about the photo shoot we're doing Sunday. But fall is a time for rooting, and as tempting as it (always) is for me to live with my head in the clouds, now is a time when I want to be digging into known routines. Routine--root, right? So alongside the scheming and dreaming about our album, I am also trying to get back to my novel, this blog, my spiritual writing, the daily practice of putting my fingers on the keyboard, or gripping a pen in my imperfect way (the second grade teacher always tried to correct my grip, which is, I admit, inefficient and clumsy) and scribbling out some words, not knowing where I am going, just trusting that something inside of me is smarter than I am.It felt good to clean up the summer clothes, let go what I don't need anymore, fold the winter ones into my drawers and closets, weed the yard, prepare the food for the retreat. These things ground me.

Stella has helped with the rooting and grounding too. Stella, oh, Stella! Dog of my life! Stella has proved to be the right dog at the right time. For one thing, Elle is head over heels for her. For some girls, a dog feels like some kind of divine completion. So it is with mine. Elle comes down in the morning and the two of them roll around together in a big human/canine cuddle. Stella rarely barks, is housebroken, seems to take well to her doggie obedience class, keeps up with Tom and me when we take her on our runs, and mostly doesn't chew stuff. She did destroy the cable to our Roku box, but I don't hold that against her. (By the way, if you chew the Roku cable, Radio Shack will tell you that you can't replace it. It goes with the Roku, and you will have to buy a whole new unit. Sorry, they will say.)

To add to our tech woes, our printer is not talking to our new Comcast router/modem. My receiver still sometimes can't handle pumping music out of four speakers. The Facebook app on my iPad regularly goes so slowly that I give up before I can see what my friends are up to. These irritations burrow deep inside me and color my mood for the rest of the day. It goes the other way too; when I solve a techno problem, I am elated for the day. But it doesn't pay, in the long run, to attach one's moods to whether your gear works well or not.

Ten days ago, my father fell while running and broke a rib, tore a muscle and had to be flown home from Miami, where he'd been working on a case. He spent a week on heavy painkillers, resting at home. Now he is up and about, working 14 hour days from home on the phone. But while this was unfolding--while we were wondering if he would be ok--I couldn't stop crying. I felt paralyzed, too. What did any of this (Roku, Comcast, Best Buy stereo, even our CD) matter when my dad was suffering? What if this did him in? I rode the grief to its natural conclusion, which was that I didn't really care to live in a world where my father was not. The pain in my chest, in my brain, was too much, just thinking about this. How do people survive the loss of their parents?

Fortunately, I still don't know. For now, it seems, he will make a good recovery. But sometime during the weekend in Rochester, a weekend we spent surrounded by folk music lovers, people whose values were sweetly and groundingly familiar,the grip on my heart eased up. I knew I would survive that loss, and that I had to. It was my duty. It was part of the agreement. Besides, my kids needed me to.

Katryna and I saw a movie called Chef last Saturday night, a movie I can neither recommend nor denounce. It was gorgeous food porn, gorgeous actors (mostly the women were gorgeous, which was kind of my issue with the whole thing), a cute kid, some fun social media sidelines, and most of all a really cool road trip from Miami to New Orleans to Austin, TX, plus a killer soundtrack. But we both left the theatre kind of empty, even though we should have felt full. Here, after all, was a film that had gotten a very good rating on Rotten Tomatoes, was chock full of notable actors (Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, Amy Sedaris, Oliver Platt, Robert Downey, Jr, Sofia Veraga--the most beautiful woman on the planet), and besides which it was a total coup that we'd actually gone to the movies, which we never get to do. But still, I have to say: WTF? It was a story of a workaholic divorcé (it was never explained why his marriage failed), pathetic and stereotypically negligent dad, who was sort of having a relationship with an incredibly patient and wise hostess for his 4 star restaurant. He gets into a fight with a food critic, loses his temper and then his job, finally listens to his ex-wife who, mysteriously, knows that the cure to what ails him it to drive a food truck around the Southeast and make Cubanos (sandwiches) (she is of Cuban descent) and sell them to hoards of people. This is a fine plot, but the main character evinces absolutely zero development or motive to change or any kind of likeability. He just seems to be an average guy upon whom luck and lovely women regularly rain down.

If the protagonist were a woman, would I be complaining? I don't know. And as I write this critique, something inside of me twists away from it. As my late mother-in-law Mary Duffy used to say to her kids when they'd complain about dinner, "It's better than the dinner you made." I have never written or starred in a film. Could I really do better than Jon Favreau? I think I am going to end with this: I am glad I went to that movie. The images and music will stick with me. And I loved the kid.

An equinox is the time of year when life should pause, just for a moment, balancing like the proverbial egg on its end, as we say goodbye to summer and greet the autumn. We should all be gazing out the window at the last of the tomatoes, at the strange appearance of some random tulip tree blossoms (see above), or at the n ext super moon. Instead, most of us just keep zooming along. I am no different. But I am trying, as I sit here surrounded by other writers, to just be. To breathe. To give thanks. To feel the grief of the inevitable loss. Losses. Writing affords us that, if we stay in the moment, with our characters, waiting for them to tell us what to put down on the page. Dogs help, since they are nothing but present. Tonight I am going to pull out my guitar and sing our Big Yellow songs (there's a playlist on Spotify in my account, or whatever you call it.) We'll follow the lyrics on paper, or through the good old oral tradition, and only look them up if we are really desperate on our iPhones. The leaves are still here. For one more night, it's still summer.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

We Got a Dog

At Falcon Ridge, my kids busked with their little violins, and filled their fiddle cases with dollars and quarters. At one point, their cousin shouted "Donations!" to the passers-by. Horrified, Tom gathered the kids and told them they had to pick a charity to give the money to, and that charity could not (only) be their Nutella Crepe fund. So they chose the Dakin Animal Shelter.

The money has been sitting in a brown paper bag for the past four weeks. "What are we going to do with this?" I said to Tom. "It's $18 in cash and coins!"
"Take it to Dakin, of course," he said.
"No way," I said. "If I go to Dakin, I am coming back with a dog."

Elle has been militating for a dog for about three years. She wears dog socks. She reads only books about dogs. She stops to pat any dog she sees. She cries herself to sleep at night because the day of the dog has not yet arrived in our house. She has pledged what every dog-loving child pledges: when we get the dog, she will walk it and feed it and bathe it and save all her pennies for the vet bills. Her last birthday was a dog-themed party. Her friends all gave her birthday cards with pictures of dogs on them. When she grabs my iPhone, it's not to play video games, but to look up her favorite breeds' puppy pictures.

Last Thursday, the last possible day for me to do anything, I took the brown paper bag and the kids to Dakin in Leverett. I prayed hard. Let them all be ugly. And barky. And smelly. I prayed to be stopped from getting a dog; unless, of course, we were supposed to get a dog.

We gave them our brown paper bag, and they let us see the dogs. The first dog we saw was a tiny dainty Husky-like critter, like what would happen if you mixed a basenji with a chihuahua and painted it with husky colors. Three years old, a dixie dog from Texas, total beta dog, non-barking or jumping, sweet and cuddly. Eighteen pounds. Delicate and graceful as a greyhound. And I was done.

Or at least, I spilled the beans, showed my hand, or whatever you want to say. I let the kids know I was smitten, and they dug in with all twenty nails. We walked her, we played with her, she never barked (except at the guinea pigs), and we put a deposit down on her and went home to tell Tom he needed to stop us.

But Tom came back with us and said, "We could never handle a puppy. This dog even Jay can handle. It's inevitable. Let's do it."

I proceeded to not sleep that night. What if this wasn't MY dog? What about all the other dogs I want to get? The ruby King Charles Cavalier puppy my aunt's dog might whelp next spring? The Aussie pup I've always dreamed of? The big soft Bernese Mountain dog I want to snuggle up next to on a cold winter night? When your dream comes true, you're out one dream. Now I don't get to fantasize about my dog. I will have my dog. Plus, what if Jay is allergic to her? What if she eats the guinea pigs? What if she isn't housebroken? What if she continues to smell (because she did smell. This is because she has not been bathed in anyone's memory.) And if I had doubts, did that mean I should not go forward? Was this like choosing a husband? Would the doubts form a cold wet coating in the pit of my stomach, and remain there for years? Plus there was the cost.

Also, I got hung up on this other dog that Dakin had. A fluffy-haired one-year-old with giant brown eyes and soft shepherd fur. A dog with a retriever muzzle, a dog who looked like all the dogs I've ever had. But my kids were not interested in this dog. They wanted Stella, the miniature husky.

So we put Stella in the van. As we drove, she came up between the two front seats and put her paws on the console and panted in that nervous ways dogs pant when they are in the car. And I don't know why, but suddenly she was my dog. My doubts went away. We went to Dave's and bought hundreds of dollars worth of dog stuff, including a great shampoo. We brought her home and romped around with her. We let her sniff around our park, and I explained to the kids that dogs sniffing in the park is as pleasurable to them as Facebook is to us. It's how they get the local news. We gave her a bath, which she tolerated. After, I put my arms around my sweet smelling pooch and proceeded to sneeze. She crawled into my lap.

Elle slept in the kitchen on the floor next to Stella's crate. When we went to bed, we looked down at our daughter's face, totally peaceful, one hand curled under the gate of the crate, the dog's sharp little nose pointed at her fingers.

This may not be MY dog. But this is my kids' dog. And I will do anything to support them getting to have this dog.

Fingers crossed that we are not allergic.

The Snag of Not Forever



It’s the last day in the studio, at least until September. Truthfully, we are almost done. I have to do vocals on the choruses of “Dave Hayes,” the chorus of “Witness,” the choruses of “You Don’t Have that Kind of Time” and backgrounds on “Normandies,” plus a few other tiny things. Katryna is completely done. Kit is going to take the project back home with him to Virginia where he and his studio partner Chip Johnson will add some more gorgeousness. Then Kit will return in September and we’ll see what else we all want and need—for surely much will come to the surface as we listen through to all the tracks over the next two weeks.

The album is beyond—far beyond—what I thought it could be. I had liked the songs, coming in, but what they’ve grown into is …well, words fail. I probably say this every time (though I didn’t say it about Full Catastrophe), but this is my favorite record ever.

Making it has been interesting. In the past 10 years, we’ve mostly taken our time with our CD-making. We had that luxury, since Dave Chalfant was our producer, and it was his studio, and we had no label clamoring for a next release. But after Catastrophe (that sounds so ominous!), we learned our lesson. We need a deadline! Plus, we need to make a living, and suspending our lives while we focused on one CD seemed wiser than prolonging it all indefinitely. In short, we could only afford to take a month off. And we have families who want vacations: these dictated the beginning (when Katryna and her family got back from theirs) as well as the end (when my family wants to go on ours) of the recording window.

Here are the tracks on the new CD, plus some bonus material for a little Kickstarter premium:
Princess
Wasn’t That a Time
Love Love Love
Normandies
As Big as I Am
I Put My Treasure in the Rock
Victory (Turn it Around)
Delilah
Witness
You Don’t Have that Kind of Time
Dave Hayes the Weather Guy
Joe Hill
River
Bonus tracks:
I’m Pretty Sure That My iPhone Is Making Me Sick
Acoustic Joe Hill
Lonesome Valley
Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream

Earlier this week, the world learned that Robin Williams had hanged himself. For some reason, this hit me very hard. Perhaps because he was in recovery. Perhaps because he came on the scene when I was a certain age (eleven), and was old enough to be struck by his unusual talent and brilliance, and the right age for his first hit, “Mork and Mindy.”
What must it have been like for him to be catapulted to superstardom at the age of 27? Intoxicating, surely. And for a bi-polar self-proclaimed alcoholic, this high must have always felt wobbly. Or maybe not. I have no idea what happened, why he would kill himself, but I do know that the worst pain I ever suffered was when I harmed myself and others, doing things without my permission. Rumors get piped in through every channel: Parkinson’s, relapse, mental illness. We will all take this story and project our own experience onto it. I think that’s part of the reason so many are fascinated by celebrity dramas. For me, it brings up a theme I’ve been struggling with of late.

What happens when you get to a point in your life when you see the big view? I am not arrogant enough to think I see the whole view—but I am at midlife. The top of the “Hill,” over which I will (arguably) soon be. We get to this place where we see how far we’ve come—look! Our kids are getting more independent! Look! The paint on the house is peeling. Look! Our marriage is settling into deeply rutted routines. Look! The audiences are dwindling. Pretty soon….fill in the blank. The kids won’t need us. The house will need a paint job we can’t afford. We’ll be taking each other for granted. The performing career will be over. It’s the snag; the hook of nothing lasts forever.

This summer is the summer of Whoa. Not yet.

Playing at Falcon Ridge on the main stage with a full band was a sharp reminder that there is still plenty of juice in the old girl, or girls as the case may be. We still rock. This new CD is proof of that. I thought the worst thing that could ever happen would be that Dave Chalfant would stop producing us. I thought no one could get our ideas into digital grooves the way he could. I thought his departure from the engineering throne would be our demise. It turns out what we really needed was fresh ears, new hands, an objective view of our 23 year career.

This morning my almost 6 year old climbed into bed with us. He still does this, fairly regularly, and when I am not living in my head, I notice that I actually still have two cuddly little kids; they are not yet teenagers, and they still need me, play with my hair, snuggle in my lap. I am still alive.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Falcon Ridge 2014 Highlights


The weather. No rain! This is the first time in my memory that that's been the case. Usually it's a mud bath.

Amelia playing with us on the main stage.

Kit Karlson, our producer, playing bass and accordion on the main stage.

Sturgis Cunningham playing with us on the main stage.
Longtime Nields fans really getting "Wasn't That a Time." Not to mention, playing that song for the first time ever in front of an audience and not crying through it. Singing that song to those people felt like a pure communication.


My aunt Elizabeth surprising us. She has never come to Falcon Ridge before. Oddly, my father and I had just been talking about how she wonderfully surprises us all the time by showing up unexpectedly.

Seeing Cheryl Wheeler, Christine Lavin, Don White and Tom Paxton at lunch.

The Pete Seeger workshop on the workshop stage. Here's what was sung:

Annie Wentz: Guantantamera
Tom Paxton: Ramblin' Boy
Ann Armstrong & Stephen Hughes: Lonesome Valley
Joe Jenks: original song for Pete, based on his HUAC testimony. SO COOL!
Louise Mosrie: Down by the Riverside
Magpie: Letters to Eve
Radoslav: Viva la Quince Brigada
John Gorka: The Water is Wide
Us Nields: Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream (I played piano for the first time ever at FR!)
Kim and Reggie: original song for Pete "High Over the Hudson"
SINGALONG PORTION:
Where have all the flowers gone
This Land
We Shall Overcome

Going out to dinner with my whole family, including Aunt Sarah, Aunt Elizabeth, her boyfriend Marcus, his son Jason and grandson Max. Seeing my parents. Spending the night with them and my mom's lifetime best friend, Joan Wallstein, who is my kids' adopted grandmother.Getting to go for a run with my wonderful dad.

Amelia joining us on the family stage to sing her awesome "Speak Up." Elle joined in on violin. Elle and Jay made about $50 busking, and they spent all of it on nutella crepes.

My mother racing up to the stage at the end of "Going to the Zoo" when we couldn't wake up Katryna, and the only thing that could rouse her was the promise that her Mama would take her to the zoo tomorrow.

The last workshop at FR where we played "Which Side are you On", "Irene Goodnight" and a finale with The Grand Slambovians playing "You Can't Always Get What You Want."
Me channelling inner Janis.


Seeing the Duhks, an amazing band we met at Winnipeg in 2007. I love them!

Holding Jay in my arms for "Never Turning Back," possibly for the last time. (The above photo is right before he climbed into my arms. Here it is with him. Thanks, Rhiannon!)


Now. Back to work in the studio!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Tracking Princess

Kit arrived yesterday, and he and Katryna and I got straight to work, running through all the songs, and refining some vocal arrangements. Kit's first instrument is the piano, and it was a joy hearing him play "Normandies" and "As Big As I Am." Also, we are organizing the Pete Seeger workshop at Falcon Ridge, so we spent part of the day emailing with the other participants. And we finished our newsletter. Today Sturgis and Chip arrived, and we spent the morning getting drum sounds. Kay is coming to take some footage, and bring us tea, help xerox the songbook for the musicians


From left to right: Dave Chalfant, Sturgis Cunningham (drummer), Kit Karlson (producer), Chip Johnson (genius boy).

It's 2:49, and I think we've wrapped up Princess. Yahoo!! Also, to my great surprise, Kit chose my Martin over my 1993 Taylor and Dave's excellent Guild, which I used for both Sister Holler and The Full Catastrophe.


We took about an hour and a half and maybe 7 takes to nail I Put My Treasure in the Rock. Chip and Sturgis are GENIUSES!!! I love playing with them. It reminds me of playing tennis when I was a kid. I am as happy as I have ever been.



Thursday, July 24, 2014

Pre-Production Week



Things I love about what's happened so far:

Monday, we met with Michele Marotta, awesome fundraiser for The Cancer Connection, to brainstorm about ways to raise money to pay for this album. More to come on this. But I feel we now have some great ideas, and I don't feel totally sick to my stomach about asking for money.
-We arranged "Love Love Love" at my house. We both started out in bad moods, and the ease with which we got the arrangement cheered us both up.

Tuesday. I drove up to Sackamusic, and we arranged "Wasn't That a Time," "As Big As I Am," and started on "Victory (Turn It Around)". Also, we talked about our Falcon Ridge set. Kit Karlson, our producer, is playing bass on the songs Amelia isn't playing.

We came back to my house, where our intern Kay was updating our mailing list and entering our shows into Artist Data. She rocks! Here she is:

And here is a poem she wrote at my retreat:
On Being a Millennial:
What gets me
What really gets me
Is that in my years of
Emotional pampering, of
Participational trophies,
Dozens of selfies
Of being told I can be anything
Now people can make a living telling me
How I'm ugly on the inside
-Kay Carambia

Wednesday. Back to Sackamusic. It's 90 degrees, and the guys are working on the roof. We figured out our Falcon Ridge set, after much musing on the requests we got on Facebook. We worked up "Joe Hill," "You Don't Have that Kind of Time," "Dave Hayes the Weather Guy," and had Dave come in to coach us on "Witness," "Wasn't That a Time," "Love3" and "Delilah." All we have left now is "Normandies" and "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream." Dave wants me to Travis pick "Delilah!" Whoa! I haven't Travis picked on a song since Sister Holler. So now I am going out to watch the thunderstorm and practice my Travis picking.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Writing It Up in the Garden Summer Camp



Words can't really begin to express how much I loved the Writing It Up in the Garden Summer Camp experience. I am homesick for it already, even though I am still in the same home the retreatants gathered in. It was so much fun to gather daily, to keep my house clean (with the help of Liz Bedell and my wonderful new intern Kailey Carambia), to try out fresh summer recipes, to walk the labyrinth in the morning, to take a vigorous post-lunch power walk with the other writers in the park across the street, to hear the new work, to immerse myself in my own writing. I can't wait for next summer.
Here is something offered by poet KC Ryan on the last afternoon we were together. I wish you could have seen her as she performed this for us, approaching each of her compadres with a verse, like a gift. Thank you, KC!

A Hip-Hop Poem from an Unlikely Source
Ann:
crack the day open
writing up some hope when
curled up spirit
needs the Feast you're offerin'
Write It Up In The Garden!

Beth:
writing up Sweeney
tortured though he may be
thoughtful chronicle
offers back his dignity

Write It Up In The Garden!
Janell:
writing dissertation
too much information!
glad you shared Morocco
we'll await your publication

Write It Up In The Garden!
Jen:
two on Death's row
write him in her bed, yo!
wanna hear the rest of
how they're gonna let go

Write It Up In The Garden!
Jennie:
break up, break down
draggin' wounded Heart around
writing up the pain helps
point the way to solid ground
Write It Up In The Garden!

Laurel:
takin’ on Cancer!
questioning the “answers”
writing bittersweet show
free to take the chance here
Write It Up In The Garden!

Liz:
unmoored un-poem
searching for your True Home
brought it to The Garden
anchored by the writers’ bond

Write It Up In The Garden!

Nerissa:
singer’s voice, writer’s voice
supporting us in this choice
gentle shove to “Write It Up!”
and a Place to rejoice

Write It Up In The Garden!

Robin:
you were only fifteen
had to run away from Mean
writing wit and wisdom
a glimpse into the L.A. scene

Write It Up In The Garden!

Sarah:
gotta get it just right
might crash, might fly!
wrote it up and took us with
two as one, finding Sky

Write It Up In The Garden!

Sierra:
princess, warrior!
wrote so that we Saw ya
saved your own pierced heart
brighter future lies before ya

Write It Up In The Garden!

KC:
feelin’ terror walkin’ toward ya
what if my writing bored ya?
hid behind a pseudonym –
my real name’s Victorya!

Write It Up In The Garden!
Write It Up In The Garden!
Write It Up In The Garden!


written July 10 & 11, 2014
in celebration of an indescribably delicious week of Writing It Up In The Garden
by KC Ryan a/k/a Victorya McEvoy


Writing on the porch!


This is me with two of my oldest friends, Liz Bedell and Jennie DeGarmo Wilhelm, both of whom attended and wrote beautifully. So grateful for friends, especially those who have seen us through thick and thin.