musings on art, musings on creating

the messiness of emotions & “Hamilton”

I cry. Not heartbroken, but I cry. Tears rise up, choke my throat, cut off all but a whisper. They drip, drip, drip down my cheeks, land somewhere near my collarbone, and I try to hold on. I’m driving, and I’ve already cried too much this trip. Traffic and stoplights demand my focus, and all I can do is wade through the unimaginable.

Only, it’s not my unimaginable. My life has held no tragedy. I am wildly privileged in that my family loves and accepts me. I haven’t gone hungry. I haven’t struggled to learn, to earn, worried about student loan debt or a job.

But these words, they rise up, rise up, rise up, inexplicable. I scream them, sob them, allow them to shake me to the core. I appropriate these words: the accents, the cadence. The speed with which I have managed to make them tumble from my mouth is close, but not enough. I practice.

Hamilton is not the first piece of musical theater to make me cry. I can’t remember what was. Emotions well with overtures. That’s what art is supposed to do: make people feel. Anger, heartache, glee, terror, delight.

Trying to codify how Hamilton swirls emotions feels as impossible as Hamilton itself. Who’d’ve thought a rap musical about a forgotten Founding Father would eat at the public consciousness? How do I listen to the whole album without tears?

Even whispering the words to myself, a fist squeezes my heart. No song finishes without some rallying cry.

“I’m not throwing away my shot.” “Rise up.” “How do you write like you’re running out of time?” “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” “I will never be satisfied.”

It’s just the first act, with its triumphant tale of bastard orphan rising to Treasury Secretary. The quiet and raucous, horrifying downfall and death that litter the second act bring their own sadness and forgiveness.

More eloquent and elegant people write about the transcendence of Hamilton, its ubiquitous grasp, reaching out farther and further and beyond. Our history, our present, perhaps and hope for the future.

All these things, the hard work and joy and sorrow of searching for the perfect word and grasping at quicksilver emotion. Hamilton is a rallying cry and an admission of defeat. It makes me sit up, buckle down, tell my story. And it makes me so very aware of how hard that is.

Maybe that’s why I cry. Maybe it’s just so damn good. I’m telling everyone I know this story. And I burn.

apologies to Lin-Manuel Miranda for borrowing so many of his lovely words just now.

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musings, musings on creating, musings on people

where we live & stories we tell & who we are

Spring does not often come early to my neck of the woods. Early May and the trees are only just gently feathering their leaves into the world. Mystical pockets helped along by Mother Nature’s alchemy remind us how unfurled but not quite fully formed leaves look. April’s showers linger in humid air.

Occasionally we’re treated to a day as hot as late June. Instead of grumbling, we revel in the sweat. Thankful to put away down coats and heavy scarves, everyone seems to have grown taller. No one hunches against the cold wind but beams upward at watery sunlight instead.

Birds chirp and chatter, building nests, mating, and laying eggs. Dogs decide to bask in sunlight and dewy grass, wet up to their bellies from exploring all the smells winter dulled with ice.

Gumption returns, too. Projects and improvements that lay fallow all through the cold get started and finished. Minds grow warm again with use, looking for new new new, fresh and happy and not yet slowed by summer’s heat.

My brain whirs and chirps and hums along, excited as a bird, looking for new projects and new ways of thinking. Thinking of a life to build and the lives all around me. Passion projects come and go, but the passion for a project stays and stays.

In the brief moments between reading in bed and sleep, in between discussions and dissertations, while knitting and sewing, and chopping, cooking, baking, cleaning and painting, I think about this place I live. I think about the lives led here and the one I’m leading here now. I think about the stories we tell and the ones that need telling. The little ones, the true ones.

I think a lot about writing. That itchy feeling in my fingers that comes just before the thoughts coalesce. The snap I feel with an ah ha moment. That choked up feeling I get when I read something so true, see something performed so right. That’s the story I want to tell, I tell myself.

I drive around with the windows down. Thinking. Thinking about this place and who we are. I sing along and I wonder. I wonder who we are in this little corner of Western Pennsylvania. James Carville famously said our commonwealth was Pittsburgh on one end, Philadelphia the other, with Alabama in the middle. It resonates because it’s true.

But it isn’t, not exactly. Our foodways are rather less lush, our words shorter and more to the point, our ways and feelings held far closer to our chests. We mistrust outsiders and won’t exactly be inviting a newcomer directly to our homes before she proves herself. You do your work, and why are you complaining because we all have to work hard to get by. Your life’s no harder than mine.

We think of ourselves as Northeasterners, and I never thought I held that distinction more dear to my heart than when I had to talk Midwesterners out of thinking Western PA is part of the Midwest. I’ve been thinking, though, and reading and pondering, and letting my mind whir and chirp along. We aren’t Northeasterners here, either, not really.

We’re rural people, and forest people, and hill and holler people, even if we do try to fancy it up and say holler but spell it hollow. We’re crick people, which means creek, and river people, and we’re pickup truck people, and we’re a people still in a place that hasn’t had an industrial boom since they finished cutting all the trees down in 1900. We’re still here, but not exactly stuck here, though we’re stuck here, too.

I’ve been trying to figure us out, as one does, to be objective but not condescending to the same people I went to high school with, and not pandering to the people who left to get a job different than the ones left here. What I keep coming back to, what I keep feeling a kinship with, is that we’re Appalachian people.

I’ve tried it out a few times, with people who have lived here and gone away and come back and people who have never left, and no one has liked hearing it. Every single person has instinctively recoiled a bit. If we can’t mock West Virginians and Tennesseans and Kentuckians and all the rest, they’ll be mocking us, seems to be the mindset.

Then we talk about it for a bit, we really think about it, or maybe I push it a bit, and, shit, if we aren’t Appalachian. Our hills and ridges are technically part of the range, if evened out from the peaks further south.

We don’t do kil’t greens, but we do do wilted lettuce, which is the same damn thing. Our seasonings are all salt and black pepper and vinegar. Spices are foreign and expensive and why don’t you have a slab of meat with that? Now, not that we haven’t evolved, because we do have the internet and food blogs and fancy coffee…but if you wanted a cappuccino, couldn’t you have gotten one of those from Sheetz?

We get our taciturnity from our Scotch-Irish and German ancestors. Thank god for the Italian immigrants and the Eastern Europeans that came to work the coal mines and steel mills farther south, or no one would invite anyone else to a party. We’d just have one and be pissed only our kin came. That’s alright: we didn’t need them anyway.

We talk a bit funny, even if we don’t stretch our vowels out, and we don’t bother with the letter g at the end of words. We’re mistrustful of outsiders and the government as is the way of rural people the world over, but we’re pretty sure we’re right anyway.

If you haven’t lived here, and by here I mean on the same street in the same town, for generations, you aren’t exactly from here. Your grandfather was from here, but he moved your daddy two towns over, then he moved you back, but not into town, outside of town. I suppose you’ll do. Let me tell you a story.

I’ve been thinking, letting my mind wander driving around with the windows down. I’ve been waiting for those itchy fingers and knowing what story to tell. I’ve been waiting for some sunshine and gumption and heat and passion.

Spring has sprung. The green haze of the treetops grows less ephemeral every day. I think of sweat and toil, labor physical and mental. My brain whirs and chips and hums. I think of this place where I live. I think of the lives we have led here and do lead here and will lead here. I think of the stories we tell. I think I know the ones that need telling.

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musings, musings on creating

writing delusions

In my head, in my fantasies, in my deluded thoughts, I can write easily and beautifully, but only under a certain set of circumstances. I am alone, but people are near enough to seek out when I need a break. I have tea or wine or whiskey or water or snacks, but am not distracted by them. There is silence, or maybe music. The scene is in an apartment in a beautiful small city, maybe the pretend Radio City that a character thinks exists near New York City in “Company.”

I have traveled to get there, and arrive in an entirely new place refreshed and ready to sit down and write. I do so at a refurbished desk, or maybe am roosted to perfection on a couch, or perhaps a divan. There is natural light, and a view, but not one so extraordinary that I am distracted from writing. In this scene playing out in my head, I am famous. Not the sort of famous that does not allow for public travel, but famous enough that NPR’s bookers call me. Famous enough that I run into famous people, and they have enjoyed what I have written, have been moved to thought by it.

No matter what, in this delusion, I write. I write easily. The thoughts flow and fill pages. I do not stop to check Pinterest. I do not look at Facebook or Twitter, my email alerts are silenced, I do not wonder if I am missing a text. In this fantasy I write.

Though this fantasy is entirely in my head, it also comes true. I do not need to imagine myself in a new place, at a special desk. I have a perfectly serviceable corner of the spare sitting room at my parents’ home with a lamp and a desk and natural light coming from a window I cannot easily see out and be distracted. Once I put my mind to it, stop checking Pinterest and Twitter and Facebook, stop worrying about my phone, and stop distracting myself by blogging, I do write. If I manage to distract myself from worries and concerns and turn off all of the bits of my brain but the writing bit, I do write.

I do write easily, and while time will tell if it is beautifully, I do produce pages of work. I just need to turn off the bit of my head that would rather focus on delusions. In the real world, in this world, right now, I write.

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musings, musings on creating

terror & writing & pushing through

anxiety, worry, concern, thoughtfulness: all are parts of my general makeup. I think things through, as much as is feasible, then I decide and move on with my decision. Sometimes, after moving on with the decision, I realize that the decision was the wrong one, or I have grown in a way that makes a previous path one I’d like to fork away on a new path. Thinking things through is part of who I am, but rarely am I paralyzed by the making of a decision or an inability to get started.

until now. I’m working on a project I find fascinating, one that seems tailor-made for me. A novel, not too long, that starts from a true story. I’m good with facts and easily carried away with putting my own spin on them. The story from 167 years ago about some illustrious doctors about town grave robbing in order to perform an illegal autopsy for fun has some serious potential for good storytelling. I’m enthusiastic and excited and researching to my academic heart’s delight.

there are charts and character lists that mix fact with the fictional direction I see the story going, plenty of details I know I likely won’t need but have in case I do. I sit down to type, I bring pen to paper, I plug in a microphone to dictate, and I am paralyzed. I want this so badly, I’m so concerned that I won’t make it good and honest and true that I can not write it.

situations swirl through my mind. Bits of dialogue are tucked away alongside an expansive willingness to allow the characters their freedom. Everything tries to claw its way out…but my fingers will not work. I don’t know if I’m putting too much pressure on myself. I don’t know if I’ve become too stagnant in a life that has come far too easy for far too long. The I don’t know bit is the bit that terrifies me the most, but I think I’ve a slightly better understanding for why brilliant writers drink.

this is it, though. This is the project I want, the one that wants me. I am doing this, and in doing this I hope that some time, some one, will spend a few hours reading it and being transported out of their own life, even if only once every few pages.

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