29 October 2015

Kyrie - Communication In Art (A Ramble)

I can't get over Kyrie.

For those who don't know, Kyrie is the name of my most recent novel, written November 2014. It's still in rough draft form, but I've reread it every three weeks since I finished it.

It was my first real foray into literary fiction (though I didn't realise at the time that that's what I was writing). Usually my novels are pretty plot-driven (get back to 'your' time before the plague kills you, destroy the magical jewel in the Red Cave before an entire civilisation dies, find your kidnapped wife before you go crazy with loneliness, that sort of thing), but in Kyrie, the plot mostly centered on the development of a relationship. When I wrote Kyrie, I was giving a lot of thought to the concept of being an artist -- being that weird 'unambitious' relative that everybody pretends doesn't exist, trying to distill truth and beauty into a medium of choice in a world that increasingly despises truth and beauty. And so the character Kyrie spent a lot of the book working out those same questions that I had, with the help of the book's first-person narrator, also a performing artist.

Spoiler alert: Kyrie dies before all of the questions are resolved. And that leaves her friend not only taking up the mantle of her unanswered questions, it leaves him with additional questions of his own regarding this almost-ethereal artist friend that seemed a step removed even from his world: questions about what she really knew, understood, and saw that she hadn't yet been able to communicate, as well as questions about the nature of her death (he's not convinced her death was a complete accident).

It's eerie now to think that I wrote Kyrie before my friend died (of lung failure), before my cousin died (of an asthma attack), before half my extended family died (of divorce). Kyrie's backstory involves a family whose harsh opinions she's actively trying to escape (how much do I want to escape the desolate landscape formerly known as family gatherings?) and Kyrie herself dies of an asthma attack. Again, I wrote Kyrie's death before 2015, with all the hell it would bring, dawned.

And maybe that's another part of why the writer's block is SO strong. If I write something 'bad,' in which the characters die or their families are torn to pieces... what if it actually happens in real life? I know that's pretty much impossible and the fact that Kyrie died of lung failure and then so did my friend and cousin is probably a coincidence... but when my cousin died I realised this stuff happens in real life. Real people die, and you can't get them back. Looking back, I think my treatment of Kyrie's friend's grief was actually pretty true-to-life, but to have it written in words somehow cheapens the depth of it. And here we come back to communication, truth, and beauty (not that we were actually there, come to think of it, but this is a ramble-post so let's roll with it). As a writer, how can I communicate the depths of this kind of hellish grief without cheapening it? How do I tune the phrases, the mood, the character's voice to give the proper amount of weight to it without swinging into melodramatic territory?

16 October 2015

Music Day - Missing Person

Another piece of my childhood (and also one of the few songs on my list of songs to feature on Music Day that actually sort of applies to my life right now).

I think this was actually my introduction to Michael W. Smith. I was young -- about five -- when this was the big hit on Christian radio, and I mostly kept liking it out of nostalgia. But this is one of those MWS lyrics (and one of the very few mainstream CCM lyrics) that actually hints at the reality of being a less-than-perfect Christian whose life is not all together. Christian music needs this reminder in the worst way. We have so many songs (and, increasingly, films) that tell you 'come to Jesus and everything will be perfect,' but that's simply not true; and we as Christians need to stop perpetuating that lie. What's more, we need to stop believing it.

One of the biggest things I miss about not being ticked off at God is being able to tell people I'm praying for them. I feel like it's hypocritical for me to tell others I'm praying for them when I can't even pray for myself. But now I just feel so useless when my friends are having problems. I wish I could help -- but I feel blocked from doing the one thing that I can actually (physically) do.

Where did that person go? I used to pray about everything, all the time. I used to really believe prayer could move proverbial mountains. I used to pray for everyone who I knew needed something. Of course I would do anything I could physically as well, but if I couldn't do anything else, I would at least pray. And I don't even have that anymore. It's funny how much I miss it. But I don't know how to take it back.

There was a boy who had the faith to move a mountain
And like a child he would believe without a reason
Without a trace he disappeared into the void and
I've been searching for that missing person...

Title: Missing Person
Artist: Michael W. Smith
Album: Live The Life
Year: 1998
iTunes here; YouTube here.

Props to MWS for writing this. Most other artists could have written this song and it would have been horribly neglected (though it was so badly needed). But Michael W. Smith, with nearly two decades of CCM popularity under his belt, could write this song and get it on the radio -- despite the melancholy, 'lost' theme of the lyric -- simply because his name was attached to it. And it took off. The chorus absolutely soars. Probably one of the catchiest things mainstream CCM ever produced. Play this for anybody who listened to Christian radio in the late '90s and see if they don't belt out that chorus at the top of their lungs. The smooth melody, the yearning vocal, the vulnerable lyric (the verses are primarily spoken, adding to the vulnerable feel), the melancholy guitar riff, and even the electric organ accents could not be anything but a hit in Christian circles thirsty for something honest.

09 October 2015

Music Day - Dig Here, Revisited

This Music Day will have a slightly different feel to it.
I featured this album once before, upon its release in June 2013. At that time in my life, I had just been accepted to college and I was in a whirlwind of terror as I realised my life was about to change very drastically (little did I know...). I had been a Daniel Amos fan for all of four months.

I liked the album quite a lot when it first came out. As a writer with a literary/poetic bent, I fell deeply in love with nearly every lyric. Terry Taylor has been writing songs professionally for over a quarter century and his ability to turn a phrase, paint a mental image, and/or juxtapose two concepts for maximum irony is very finely honed.

Even the musical backdrops captured my imagination. At that point in my life, I listened to music almost exclusively for the lyrics. If you had tried to get me into a song based on a 'really sweet guitar solo' or an 'awesome' chord progression in the bridge, well... not going to happen. I really didn't care about the music as long as it generally sounded cool as a whole. Of course, two years in a college music program has since utterly reformed the way I listen to songs, but even at the time I loved the music of this album. It was rich, it was lush, it was full-bodied, it was part Dr. Seuss, part brooding Van Gogh, part rock band, part orchestra.

Fast forward two years. Well, two and a half. A lot has happened... my beloved rattletrap gave up the ghost, I graduated from college with not only an Associate of Arts in music, but a lead role in a stage musical under my belt, I lost an aunt, an uncle, a cousin, and two good friends to death of various kinds. For the first time in my life, I have truly known heartache. Depression is one thing, heartache is another. They are intertwined, but I'm not sure they're quite the same thing.

Today I listened to this album for the first time since all those deaths. Different things catch my attention now, and other things that hit me before hit harder now. I had already noticed (how could anyone not?) that this album explores the topic of death quite a lot. On the brink of leaving my family for college two years ago, I thought I knew what that was -- the end of my old life of being surrounded by family, the end of free time. And although I'm back in Alberta with my family now, in a way I was right. Nothing is the same now as it was then, and it never will be.

To hear these lyrics again in this new reality that I can't get away from, this reality that half my family is essentially dead, hits a tender spot I walled off the night my mother texted me that my uncle left his wife:

You left me ruined on the inside
Taught me love's a wrecking crew...

I need to dream again...

So why should we take his big bitter pill
And wash it down with a bucket of our tears?

You hide Yourself away somewhere behind a thundercloud...

My heartbeat is the pounding of Your iron hand breaking me...

In my head
Here it comes
Ruthless hum of dread...

And the spot that still flames red with anger and pain from the night I begged God for a miracle and received only cold static in reply:

We were anxious for our prayers to be answered
But our angels were distracted and so slow...

The same rock that we stood on crushed us...

I've never been more alive
Now that I've died...

Another bad guy wins
More good friends die
They mounted up like eagles
Now they're dropping like flies...

In a pauper's field of dreams
I'm walking in between open-mouthed graves
Anxious to be fed...

Listening to this album today brought me a comfort that has eluded me for a year. It didn't fix anything -- my family is still in shambles. It was a temporary comfort. But there's that... I don't know, camaraderie? that comes from hearing your pain in words that someone else penned. It makes you feel not quite as alone.

Album: Dig Here Said The Angel
Artist: Daniel Amos
Year: 2013
Label: Independent release (Kickstarter-funded)
iTunes here; buy the CD from the band here. Buy the vinyl from the band here.
Lyrics for the album here (click on the song titles).

06 October 2015

This Is How We Die

Written 29 September 2015, 11.38pm.

I mentioned in a recent post how all my creativity is gone. As if it was never there -- just gone. NaNoWriMo is coming up and although I'm coming up with the occasional one-sentence plot idea (which is almost always enough to get me a full-blown novel), none of them capture me. None of them offer characters, setting, motivation -- just a sentence of a potential plot with everything to offer and yet nothing. Usually I can't write fast enough in my notebook to keep up with the thing.

Part of it, I think, is that my novel last year (Kyrie) was so different, so intense, so poetic... it's far and away the best thing I have ever written. And I know that the next thing I write will not come close to that level. I like to think I'm okay with that -- maybe I am, maybe I'm not. But the really different thing is that even though I wrote it almost a year ago now, that book has never let me go. I have literally re-read it once every couple weeks ever since I finished it. I find myself needing to re-read it, even though I practically have it memorised, typos and all. Something about that book was the true me -- the one I've never really been able to find. It synthesized all my hopes and dreams and fear and pain and I keep coming back to it because it understands me like none of my other work has. Today, in fact, I wrote an epilogue to it (in typical Kate fashion, I didn't actually write an ending for it at the time because I couldn't think of one). Until today, I had not added a single word to that book. It's the original November 2014 rough draft that I keep re-reading.

But part of it, I think (and this now includes choreography and photography, not just writing), is that reality hit me this year. I was talking with a friend the other day and we were talking about how I often feel like I have my head in the clouds. And she said something along the line of, "Yeah... but you're at least aware of the real world." This year, though, I saw people die. I watched several marriages die, and nobody cared about them. (We should give funerals for marriages. A dead marriage kills the couple and any children and siblings(-in-law) and parents and nieces and nephews. When a person dies, it's one person. It's awful, of course. But when a marriage dies, it's akin to genocide.)

The thing is, yes, I was aware of reality, but I ran on sort of a parallel track -- a track with dreams and passion and love and hope. I touched the real world, but I wasn't locked into it. I could pull back when I felt I should. I could observe it and step in when I felt the occasion required it. Maybe it was escapism, but it kept me sane. And anyway, I wasn't pretending the real world didn't exist, I was just a step removed from all the hysteria that constantly seems to consume people (have you SEEN a Facebook news feed lately?). But now, with all those deaths in such quick succession with little to no warning, I can't get out of the real world. I can't step back into my imagination, my creative brain, my world of participation in the arts, no matter how hard I try. It's as if a door has been locked, and I'm on the wrong side of it without a spare key.

And today I realised -- this is how it happens.

This is how people become the soulless cold unfeeling drones that I so dreaded becoming. This is how it happens. People die -- real people; people you love. And then so does the artistic brain. I always thought people's spirits died when they went to college or got a 9-to-5 job. But now I've done both, and although both made my life significantly busier, it did not kill the spark of creativity, of love for life. The divorces in my extended family, however, did. Suddenly I realised nothing would ever be the same, there would always be someone missing, and no amount of art can replace them or bring them back and bridge the chasm between what should be and what is. So what's the point? Maybe there is none. (This is another one of those things which I swore I'd never say.) Maybe I just toil out the next mile at hand and I pretend the lively Kate never existed -- not in this world, because in a way, she never did. She was one step outside of it. And that one step represented an entire world of inspiration.

(Tangent: maybe that's why Kyrie resonates so much with me. The story takes place over the course of a year and a half, and it chronicles a college junior's friendship with a freshman named Kyrie, from the time he meets her till the moment of her death. It's sort of Mary Poppins-esque. And throughout the book -- mostly due to the first-person narrator -- Kyrie is often depicted as a tiny bit otherworldly. She, too, ran on a parallel track to the rest of the world.)