From the Top

Music Score by the blue deviant fox

Music Score by the blue deviant fox

So, you want to be a virtuoso soloist in classical music?  No, this is not like that trick Carnegie Hall joke (customer in taxi asks driver how to get to Carnegie Hall, driver says “practice, practice, practice!”).  Classical musicians have several options for pursuing a career in music, and virtuoso soloist is only one.  None of the options is easy, either.  But virtuoso soloist can be next to impossible.  And yet, musicians still try.

In my Perceval series of novels, the main character, Evan Quinn, is an orchestra conductor who works with soloists when he conducts.  One of his good friends, Vassily Bartyakov, is a young pianist who is just starting out on his career, and he wants to be a soloist.  One path for a young musician to build a solo career is to come to the attention of a well respected and sought after conductor who could request her for solo gigs with orchestras he conducts.  Evan had already begun to function in that role for Vassily by the end of Perceval’s Secret.  Conductors, however, don’t support just any musician.  The aspiring soloist really has to have the talent and the drive to succeed.  The soloist’s life is as tough and lonely as that of a conductor and requires total dedication and really an obsession with the music and the work.  When I was studying piano in college, I was thinking of pursuing a solo career.  I’m grateful that I realized at that time that I did not have the drive to achieve it.  Saved me a lot of time and heartache.

FTTlogo_rgb_webOn Sundays at noon, I listen to a radio program on Minnesota Public Radio called From the Top that showcases kids performing classical music on the instruments of their choice.  I love this show.  Host Christopher O’Riley, a virtuoso soloist pianist, encourages them, supports their aspirations, and sounds like he revels in their demonstrated talent.  This show travels around the country and even abroad, and occasionally, as it did yesterday, does updates on some of the musicians they have showcased in the past — what are they doing now kind of thing.  It must be gratifying to all involved with this show that so many of the young musicians go on to achieve music careers — some as orchestra musicians, some as soloists, opera singers, or teachers.  This show also proves the Cassandras wrong that classical music is dead or dying.  These kids are passionate about the music, and they have the drive to succeed.  They provide the pressure from below to keep the momentum going for classical music to endure.

One musician really caught my attention yesterday: Natasha Paremski.  She’s a 27-year-old pianist who was on From the Top as a teen.  Her career has developed into a virtuoso soloist career — something that can be especially difficult for a pianist because there are so many of them out there — and it was interesting to listen to her talk about her teen years, the decisions she made in order to achieve what she wanted.  She talked about the necessity of being obsessed with technique, with developing virtuosity, as a teen, and the work necessary to do that.  She took a different route than usual — kids usually stay in school and go on to attend a conservatory or music school.  But not Paremski.  She dropped out of high school (got her GED later) in order to concentrate on the piano and her obsession.  She knew exactly what she wanted to do.  I thought: Wow, she definitely had/has the drive to be a virtuoso soloist.

Photo: Monte Stevens Photography

Photo: Monte Stevens Photography

As a twentysomething, Paremski’s focus began to change in her piano work.  She found herself focusing more on the music, on the sound she was making and asking if it was what the composer had wanted, and realizing that technique was only a part of piano performance.  But once she had the technique mastered enough, then she was ready to move into the much more difficult area of “interpretation.”  This is really not a good word for what musicians do — they study a music score, the musical language that the composer has used, and the signs the composer has left in notation that will help them bring the music’s sound to listeners’ ears the way the composer wanted it.  Paremski confessed that now pieces that she had thought she’d mastered were now even more difficult than they’d been before because each time she studied them, she learned something more from them.  This is another indication that Paremski is a true virtuoso soloist.  To plunge into the music’s depths is the real work for a musician, and technique is only the top few steps down into the music.  Now I’m looking forward to attending Paremski’s performance with the Minnesota Orchestra this coming fall.

If you’d like to listen to Paremski for yourself, you can listen to yesterday’s program here.

Every Sunday at noon, From the Top confirms my decision not to pursue a music career because I hear the kids perform and talk about music with such a passionate obsession and drive that I did not have at that age.  They really are necessary characteristics for a musician to have in order to succeed in a music career — I think that’s probably also true for all artists, even writers…..



Exploring the Human Mind Through Characters in Fiction

Human behavior is an enduring mystery to me, and often that includes my own behavior.  After years of writing fiction, I realized that I explored the human mind and behavior through the writing, i.e. the characters I created.  Therefore, always in the back of my mind, I’m thinking about character motivation that drives thought and behavior and wondering what drives the motivations.  Character motivation provides the crucial momentum for any narrative, even nonfiction stories.

Photo courtesy of The Atlantic (thank you!)

Photo courtesy of The Atlantic (thank you!)

Last evening, I read a fascinating article in the May 2015 issue of The Atlantic about a man in Rio de Janeiro who “suffered” from pathological generosity.  How can being generous be pathological?  You’d be surprised.  I was.  This man had suffered a stroke that had damaged the part of his brain that restrained giving and set the part of his brain that governed generosity loose.  At the same time, his neurologist discovered, giving triggered the release of dopamine and lit up the pleasure and rewards areas of his brain.  The pleasure and happiness he felt when giving made it impossible for him to stop.  So, did it then become an addiction?  Can other things cause pathological generosity?  It turns out “yes” to both those questions.

This morning, I started thinking about what kind of character would develop pathological generosity.  The first one that comes to mind is Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  He’s a candidate if ever there was one.  But a character could become too generous through guilt in a different way — what if a thief had a life-changing experience that turned him around and made him into a modern day Robin Hood?  Ben Thomas (Will Smith) in the movie Seven Pounds takes generosity to new heights as a result of the survivor’s guilt he feels.  I guess what I’m reaching for here is that it’s not enough to say a character is pathologically generous.  It’s important to show, in some way, the motivation behind it.  According to The Atlantic article, a person simply doesn’t have pathological generosity.  Something must have happened to the brain, or affected the brain like a drug or a mental illness, in order for the extreme of pathological generosity to occur.  So that makes me wonder, is it truly impossible, or is there some way that humans can be programmed to be extremely generous with no expectations for getting something back?

Every little bit helps.....

Every little bit helps…..

We think of generosity as being a constructive trait.  Generosity is a part of the glue that binds relationships and builds trust.  It is an important element in human society.  Combined with selflessness, it becomes the higher spiritual trait of altruism.  How interesting would a character be who was totally selfless and generous?  Would we trust that person or be suspicious of her?  Don’t we expect some behavior control even for generosity?  I’ve known people in my life who gave only when it benefited them in some way, not the recipients of their largesse.  These people were still seen as doing good and being generous — it was like their opportunistic impulses were beside the point in the final reckoning.  We see these people most often as villains in stories.

There is a destructive side to generosity.  The article about the man in Rio illustrated how his generosity tore apart his marriage, his extended family, and he lost his job.  Giving away to strangers what you need for yourself and your family would create problems for everyone.  So, humans possess impulse control located in the frontal lobes of the brain.  If those control areas have been damaged, as was true for the Brazilian man, there’s nothing stopping the generosity or telling the giver that he needs to take care of himself and his family first.  When generosity develops into an addiction, i.e. being addicted to the

Human brain pleasure centers lit up

Human brain pleasure centers lit up

pleasure and happiness that giving produces — all that dopamine being released in the brain — that can become a very destructive force in a person’s life.  So, it’s a good thing that we have frontal lobes exercising control over our behavior!

My frontal lobes have been working overtime and it has frustrated me, but the bottom line is that at this time I do not have the resources to exercise my usual generosity.  I want to, but I am actually the one who is in need of generosity.  It’s an uncomfortable position for me.  Intellectually, I understand how I ended up in this position: health crisis with bills, unable to work, no savings.  It could happen to anyone, but especially people in part-time jobs like me.  And writers as well as other artists.  It has been interesting, therefore, to observe my own behavior and responses lately — I’ve never thought of myself as poor or poverty-stricken, for example, and yet that’s where I am right now and I just cannot get my head around it — and the changes in my thinking that I’ve had to make in order to insure my own survival first.  This is all grist for my creative mill, of course.

Shameless plug for GoFundMe Medical Expenses fundraising project: And finally, please allow me to remind readers that there’s a crowdsource funding project at GoFundMe that was set up by a friend to help me with my medical and related expenses.  If you have already given, my deepest heartfelt thank you!  If you haven’t yet and are able, please help.  We are only $1490 away from making our goal!  Click here to donate.  If you don’t have the resources to give at this time, please tell others about the project and encourage them to give.  THANK YOU!


The Writer in the World

The_Power_of_Myth book cover

Years ago, Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers riveted my attention with their series The Power of Myth.  I listened carefully to Campbell.  His love for his subject gave his words power and excited me.  He talked about “following your bliss” which is the same as your soul’s desire.  I knew that my bliss was writing stories, exploring the mysteries of the human condition and behavior through fiction.  Then in one segment, Campbell talked about artists and their position in a society, their role in passing on the stories of myth.  Especially writers whom he referred to as “shamans,” or holy people. Writers are the stewards of a culture’s myths.

Are writers today the shamans of our culture?  Who are our shamans, the stewards of our culture’s myths?  Do we even know anymore what our culture’s myths are? Do we care?

The word shaman conjures images of magic, indigenous people, mysterious rituals, fire and mist.  A shaman has access to the supernatural whereas traditional clergy of most of our religions are grounded in the physical world.  Our religious clergy have a hierarchy of power to which they adhere along with rules and regulations that govern each religion.  Shamans tend to be independent contractors who abide by the laws of the Universe, as they see it.  Magic often plays a prominent role in a shaman’s work.  We can easily imagine our traditional clergy as scholars and writers — many have been.  But could we imagine a shaman as a writer?

I believe this is an especially important question right now because of the social upheaval we’re seeing in our culture.  When I think about writer-shamans, the first name that pops into my head is John Lennon and his song Imagine.  In this song, Lennon focused more on imagining positive images after identifying what needs to be changed.  He kept it simple, giving the song power in its straightforward words.  Lennon understood that it wasn’t enough simply to identify what’s wrong.  It was necessary to use the imagination to create images of the positive changes that will replace what’s wrong.

For the life of me, though, I cannot think of any novelists or poets who I could elevate to shaman status.  Writers who explore social change have traditionally written in the science fiction and fantasy genre where they can set their stories on other planets or worlds to gain distance from earth’s readers and their sensitivities.  The last few years, dystopias and apocalyptic scenarios have dominated this genre to a certain degree.  Does that mean that we are expecting the worst?  Or does it mean that we need to be reminded even more to use our imaginations to imagine positive futures for ourselves?

Leibowitz coverI’ve just finished reading a novel written by a possible shaman: Walter M. Miller, Jr.  His novel was A Canticle for Leibowitz.  After a nuclear war that destroys earth as we know it, there’s a social backlash against political leaders and intellectuals, scientists and anyone else who was involved in creating the conditions that led to the war, and the knowledge involved.  But the physicist Leibowitz understands that someone needs to protect and preserve human knowledge for the future when people will be ready to learn it again.  The overall theme of this novel is the question: Can humans learn from their mistakes and not make the same mistakes again?  Miller explores how humans think, what’s important to people in the future, religion and spiritual influences (not always the same thing), and the social changes that occur over time.  I think this is the work of a shaman-writer because of the depth of the exploration, the hard questions Miller poses, and his honesty and integrity in telling the story.  It’s not as optimistic as I think writers would create now, but it thoroughly examines humanity and the issues we face now as well as the possible issues we’d face in the future.

Who else could be a writer-shaman in the present?  Are there any bestselling novelists who would qualify?




Book Club Discussion Guide

Author Nancy Cohen at her blog has posted helpful questions and tips for book discussion groups.  If you want to re-invigorate your group, take a look at her post here.

I plan to keep this post handy for future reference when I’m developing guides for book clubs for my novels…..

Messages from the Deep

"Sleeping Woman" oil painting by Tamara de Lempicka

“Sleeping Woman” oil painting by Tamara de Lempicka

A couple nights ago, as I was falling asleep, my mind suddenly shifted focus to the beginning of Perceval in Love, the third novel in the Perceval series.  I’ve written about half of the first draft.  The first chapter has bugged me since I wrote it.  My mind proceeded to rewrite the first few pages, changing the tone from defensive to open and vulnerable.  It also opened the door to the reconciliation between two characters that I had not been sure about before.  In short, of its own accord, my mind resolved the problem of these two characters.  What especially pleased me was the depth of emotion that came through from these two characters, especially for each other.  Wow.

Where did that come from?

Earlier this week, I read a post by Damyanti over at Daily (w)rite about listening to the subconscious.  I have depended on my subconscious for helping me solve problems in my writing, helping me get to know my characters, and for visualizing the world in which the characters live.  So, to answer Damyanti — yes, I do take cues from my subconscious for my fiction.  I also believe that the imagination/subconscious will communicate its desires whether we are totally aware of the source or not.

One way I encourage my subconscious is to purposefully think about a problem or issue I want to tackle the next day as I’m getting ready for bed at night.  Usually I don’t have to do more than that to get the wheels turning in my subconscious.  But if you’re the kind of person who expects an immediate answer, you’ll be frustrated.  The subconscious/imagination operates on its own time.  It will not be rushed.  The answer will eventually come.

Most of the time I’m not really that aware of my subconscious at work.  I can physically experience it at times — it’s kind of an electric buzz that runs through every cell of my body.  What I do is to trust that my imagination wants to play with me and my characters.  Trust in the process.  This can be the hardest part of writing fiction.  To sit back and go with the flow of it, to not force it at all, to listen to the voices that the imagination presents to me.  Trust my imagination to guide me on the best path for the story and characters.

It’s been a very long time since I’ve worked on fiction.  For the last year or two, I’ve been focused on e-publishing production, marketing, and nonfiction (for paying markets).  I’d hoped that this year I’d do a revision of the second novel in the Perceval series, and if that goes well, to finish the first draft of book three.  I may end up with just a handful of short stories, though.  I shall write fiction!

Thinking about writing fiction means that I am feeling much better physically, emerging from the health crisis that so preoccupied my mind for the first four months of this year.  Has my subconscious also sent me a message from the deep by re-writing the first few pages of novel three’s beginning?  Could that message be that I need to re-arrange my priorities again and make fiction a primary priority?  My imagination would rather play with fiction than deal with the concerns of life and adult responsibilities…..

Laptop Computer: a tool of the writer in 2015

Laptop Computer: a tool of the writer in 2015