Musician vs. Machine

The night breeze whispered through the trees, shuffling their crisp leaves and making them buzz like radio static. It was an unusually beautiful autumn day, but then again, it was January. Always several steps ahead in politics, technology, and accepted morality, Los Angeles remained ever a few months behind when it came to seasons. 

But the future had arrived and two men sat rocking together just outside a cafe, contemplating it. 

“Please don’t do that,” said a barista, bored for having nothing much to do since the espresso maker took over the bulk his primary job. “You’ll break the legs.” 

The men ignored her, rocking on. If you happened to squint at them, blurring out the minimalist chic of the cafe, you might imagine you’d stepped back several decades— maybe even several centuries— to when front porches were the watering holes and rocking chairs the thrones of storytelling old men with nothing much else to do than to spread their wisdom to any passerby. 

“— they said it couldn’t be done,” one of them was saying. 

“Well, Phil,” said the other. His voice retained a hint of the old dust and drawers of a generation on its way out of style. It was grating, rough against the smooth plasticity of the modern cafe and flavoring his words with sawdust. “They said a lot of things couldn’t be done, and yet here we are, doing them or watching others doing them and not a word can be said against ‘em anymore.” 

His companion grunted and rocked. Rocked and grunted, scratching an overgrown mustache and staring into a flashback only he could see. 

Phil continued. 

“Do you know, Jenkins, I read a list a couple years back. Or maybe it was longer ago that that. Tory was a baby and still going by her rightful name, so I s’pose it was longer. Anyway, this list was circling around the internet — through email of all things — declaring that there were ten jobs that AI—”

“Artificial intelligence,” supplemented Jenkins. 

“Yes, that,” said Phil. “Ten jobs that artificial intelligence could never replace. Now, I don’t profess to have much real intelligence—” here both men chuckled at the pun and toasted with their coffees “— but I do believe I’ve seen it all. Each and every one of those jobs eventually up and quit and gave over the the robots or computers or cell phones. And, you know, Jenkins, it just sort of makes me wonder.” 

“Wonder what?” 

“Well, what’s next? When do we all become unnecessary? Technology goes in and out of style, always upgrading to the next iPhone or thinner television. Hell, you should have seen my grandkids’ Christmas lists— all virtual reality games. When I was that age, we just had games. Outside. A baseball bat and a bike and bruises we wore with pride.”
“And we walked to school uphill, rain or shine or snow.” 

“Both ways.” 

“Damn right.” 

The men laughed at the joke that never quite grew old, even if its tellers always did. They threw back the last dregs of coffee and rocked their chairs with renewed gusto. Overhead, soft keyboard music filtered down, electronic mist to cool busy minds. 

“It’s all wrong,” said Jenkins suddenly. 

Phil rocked. 

“It’s just wrong,” he repeated. “Can you hear that?” 

“Music?” asked Phil. “Jazz?” 

“Yes, but it’s too shiny. Too easy-breezy-beautiful like an advertisement for music ‘stead of the thing itself.” 

“Sounds alright to me.” 

“Alright, sure,” said Jenkins. “But it’s too clean, too calculated. Jazz is an art, not a technology; there should be room for error. Without room for error or mishap, where’s the room for genius?” 

“Now you’re just getting smart,” grunted Phil. “I never could keep up with your philosophizing.” 

They sat in silence as the computerized jazz trickled down over them. But it was a plastic rain; it neither struck nor entered their souls, instead rolling off to be quickly forgotten. Before they knew it was over, the barista swiped to a new audio station from behind the counter and classical music poured forth. 

“You recognize this piece?” asked Jenkins. He continued before Phil could respond. “It’s Chopin. Oh, I used to love Chopin. But now I hardly recognize him. A million pianists would play his Barcarolle a million different ways, but it was always Chopin— always beautiful and spontaneous, poetic and alive. Alive, Phil. Alive. God, I can hardly recognize my old friend now; they’ve sterilized him. Sure, they’ve preserved and perfected him, but they ended up killing him all the same.” 

“I knew a girl who once played this piece,” said Phil after a moment. “She used to say it was a love duet. You hear the two voices singing above the accompaniment like waves on a canal in Venice… That whole sentence feels like a foreign language now. It did then, too, to be sure— I had no business trying to talk music with a girl like that. But when she played it, I understood — somehow — exactly what she meant. I haven’t the foggiest clue as I listen now. Might as well be mathematics.” 

“Except you’d understand math,” said Jenkins. 

“You’re right I would,” sighed Phil. He tilted his head, letting the mechanical Chopin drain into his ear, clogging it with its noise before evaporating as the speakers shifted back again to jazz and then to pop and then to the folksy singer-songwriters that seem to have been born in a coffee shop. 

“That’s better,” said Jenkins. “A bit sentimental, sure, but at least they’ve let some of the singer-songwriters keep singing with their own voices.” 

“Math,” said Phil, his voice an echo. 

“Come again?” 

“Math,” he repeated. “I’d understand math, that’s true. And maybe now I’m being the smart-ass philosopher, but where’s the meaning in it? Sure, I get that two plus two is four and once you get into geometry and algebra and even in calculus I did alright in my day, but how much to I really understand math? And how much does it matter when you cut to the heart of things? When that girl played for me, all those years ago, I understood something in it and, through it, about her and about myself. I think I might have been a little in love. I don’t know.  But I understood that whatever it was meant something. It’s a funny thing, understanding that something means something to you beyond what you can logically understand. But it stuck with me and, well, damn it Jenkins I’m sad of a sudden. I hadn’t thought of that girl in years.” 

“Blame the singer on the radio now,” said Jenkins. But he squinted at Phil. A shadow had come across his friend’s face that matched his own. Something irritated them as they sat with their drained cups, listening as the radio leapt between genres with terrible randomness. 

“They said it could never be done,” said Phil finally. 

“Artificial intelligence?” 

“AI musicians,” said Phil. 

“But it has.” 

“So it has.” 

They sat in silence for a few more moments. Well, as close to silence as they could get anymore. The ages of silence, of the wind roaring in the distance and of crickets chirping unironically in the creek bed, were far, far behind them. The radio continued to vomit into their ears and minds, the coffee stirred their spirits and boiled their blood, and the cars outside raced faster and faster down the crowded streets. It was impossible to listen to anything in particular. Impossible to sit in silence. They ceased their rocking so that one thing might at least remain quiet and still. 

Quiet and still. 

“Phil?” said Jenkins. 

His friend grunted. 

“You want to go somewhere old?” 

“I don’t want to pick up women our age, if that’s what you mean.”

“No,” said Jenkins. “Do you want to go somewhere where there is sound with purpose? With real humans making it? People listening and interacting with it and each other? I don’t mean like at the arcades or clubs. I mean somewhere old like us, adapting as best we can but clinging to what was good before.” 

No word was needed. They left in silence and walked in silence. They strained to hear the crunching of the leaves beneath their feet but heard only the whirring of car engines and the propellers of a delivery drone overhead. Stopping in front of a stairwell, they took in the neon blue arrow that illuminated their descent. Piano music tinkled from below, blowing away with the leaves when it reached the surface. 

“Grieg’s Place,” said Jenkins. “I haven’t been in ages. I don’t know why. Something about it felt…difficult. Like the effort to listen to something real was beyond me and it was easier to stay in the electro-bars and hip cafes. Is that sad to you, Phil? That I am more ready to consume than to digest? To be entertained than provoked and included?”

“I reckon so,” said Phil. He was still frowning, likely still thinking of that girl who made him understand when she played and wishing he could remember what it was he understood. 

The steps and rails of the stairs were scuffed with the boots and heels of the years of bar-goers. The wood was worn raw. It felt familiar, this rawness. Familiar, yet forgotten. Like the girl and her music. 

They sat at the bar. It was easy to find a seat. It was barely evening on a weekday, sure, but the mustiness in the air hinted that the bar often sat vacant. 

“What can I get you?” asked the bartender, barely looking up from his phone. 

“Anyone playing?” Jenkins jerked his head toward where two baby grand pianos sat facing each other. Sleeping bulls ready for a fight, but nestled peacefully against each other in the absence of the matador. 

“Tonight, yeah,” said the bartender. “Around eight. You can come back.” 

“We’ll wait,” said Jenkins, scooting his stool closer. “Two beers.” 

They sat, holding their beers, forgetting them, remembering them all at once for a single sip, and sinking back into their own separate thoughts once more. The bartender shifted, uncomfortable in the silent company. But as the clock ticked and the quiet fell thicker like the dust on the scraped-up floor, first Phil’s and then Jenkin’s shoulders began to relax as they released a burden of meaningless noise and rushing about. The stillness of companionship and waiting fell onto them, an easy weight like a soft blanket.

“People don’t keep quiet anymore,” said Phil. “I wonder if that’s why.” 

Somewhere a clock ticked. Maybe inside their minds. 

“What’s why?” asked the bartender, sliding into their conversation, whether out of desperate boredom or because Jenkin’s failure to reply immediately disconcerted him. 

“Why everything is so noisy, so distracting. Every moment, every detail, has to be flashy, efficient, mechanical. Why we want to be stimulated and entertained instead of to listen. To actually listen. Ambiance music is what we want; sounds to simulate some feeling or another (want to be more sociable? play this! want to boost sales? play that!) but we rarely listen with the intention of listening, of meeting the music where it is, and hearing what’s being said in it.” 

“And that’s why people don’t keep quiet?” prompted the bartender. 

“Yes and no. People don’t keep quiet, whether their own mouths, radios, or anxiety-ridden minds as they rush from one thing to the next thing. And we keep blasting the radio and pumping the caffeine and improving the cell phones to keep up and to keep them going. And now we’ve forgotten how to be quiet entirely. Turn off the radio, lock the doors. Even completely alone, it terrifies us and our thoughts make enough noise to drive us insane…so we find whatever distraction we can. 

“What are you playing on your phone, there?” Phil said suddenly. 

“Oh, just scrolling,” said the bartender. 

“Nothing wrong with that, nothing at all,” said Phil complacently. “But why were you ‘just scrolling’? That’s the question.” 

“Passing the time.” He shrugged. 

“Huh,” said Phil. He let the silence envelope them again like a blanket. The bartender fidgeted, unable to reach for his phone without feeling Phil’s gaze. Unable to endure the inactivity. 

“Just passing the time,” echoed Jenkins. “I’ve been silent and still for exactly the last hour and, even then, the time passed. It didn’t need me at all.” 

The bartender looked from Jenkins to his barely-touched beer, seeking an explanation and finding nothing. He grunted, shrugged again, and pretended to polish some glasses farther from the two men. 

The clock continued to eat the time on its own and still the men sat. 

It struck 8:00pm. 

A few other people began to trickle in, sitting around Phil and Jenkins and nodding to them as they took their seats. They were mostly elderly and yawning despite the early hour in a world increasingly turning nocturnal. Phil and Jenkins nodded at the newcomers and exchanged a look that seemed to say, “God, are we old?” 

The bartender smiled at the new patrons, glad to have something to do. As they settled with their drinks, the lights dimmed and the atmosphere echoed with the dust and drinks of bars past. It felt like a bar ought for that one moment. But that moment was drowned out in a sudden flash as the two pianos were illuminated from above and below. Their stage was a UFO, glowing with fierce artificiality in the bar’s dingy light. 

“They’ve updated that,” said Jenkins. His voice was that of a ghost: hollow.  

“Hope that’s all,” said Phil. 

Jenkins grimaced and took a stagnate swig of beer. 

There were still more empty than filled chairs. The bartender clattered around behind the bar while another man, emerging from somewhere in the back, began to speak into a microphone the size of a beetle that crawled along his jawbone. 

“Welcomeeeee to Grieg’s!” he said. 

A few scattered claps greeted his enthusiasm. Accustomed disappointment flickered across his face, but — quick as a text message — he swiped it away and replaced it with a grin. 

“Who’s having a good time tonight?” he continued. “Go ahead and make some noise!” 

More disinterested applause. One woman let loose a cheer that fell flat to the floor. 

“We have a great lineup for tonight’s dueling pianos,” said the MC, “Our ‘Man vs. the Machine’ series continues tonight with one of the bravest new artists in town. Let me tell you: this lady has chops!” 

This was greeted with more hope. A few heads tilted and several leaned forward in their chairs. 

“No,”Jenkins choked out. “No, this is all wrong. The machine? What does he mean ‘the machine’?” 

“And our challenger for the evening…” continued the MC, “Give it up for the Queen-of-the-Keys, a rising sun in this city of stars…Miss Clara Boulanger!” 

A girl stepped onto the stage. Phil gasped. Jenkins caught his empty bottle as his friend’s hand struck and sent it spinning. 

“Her…” the first man said under his breath. 

“Impossible,” said Jenkins. 

Phil said nothing.

Caught in the radiance of the swirling stage lights, the girl took her seat at the bench of the first piano. The other piano remained empty. But now they knew that it was empty not just at the bench, but within. If they cracked open the lid of the piano where Clara sat, they would find straight, taut strings and frames and hammers poised to attack and sing all at once. The other would have these, but also bound with wires and chips programed to listen to react instead of the enjoy. 

Jenkin’s face contorted as if in physical pain while Phil stared in disbelief at the girl as she raised her hands to the keys. She struck first in the duel, the keys erupting in chords that pulsed with life and color. But then the other piano sparked to life and rebutted her motif with a more complex inversion. Undaunted, she laughed as she turned the music flawlessly back to her own idea. 

It continued like this for several minutes, during which the audience slowly abandoned their conversations and drinks and people from the street drifted in, seeking something more interesting than the ever-changing advertisement feeds on the sides of the buildings. 

Clara prepared to cadence with magnificence, taking a slight pause before the final chord, but the computerized keyboard captured the resolution before she could strike and turned it to its own piece, continuing where the fight — and the music — should have concluded. 

“No,” said Jenkins, rising to his feet. 

“Hey, calm down, man,” said the bartender. “It’s just a piano duel.” 

“This isn’t how it should be,” said Jenkins, weakly. “This isn’t a fair fight.” 

“Nah, man,” said the bartender. “It’s always been this way. We’ve just evolved to new levels. There were player pianos long before we started computerizing them for duels. Just like the people who complain about cell phones. Well, people were passing notes and shouting at each other long before them; now we just have a more streamlined way of doing it. Same thing here. Don’t have two pianists? No problem. Want a more exciting duel? Program it that way and let the digits take care of everything.” 

Jenkins shook his head, slowly. Right, left. Back again. But he sat down and looked at Phil, who was crying. 

“Phil!”

A woman shot him a dirty look.

“Phil! What’s the matter?” 

“I… understood again,” he said. “When she plays, I remembered that feeling. Of hearing something I couldn’t compute in the lab or explain with numbers. I understand something more again. But then that — damn it! That machine interrupts her! It’s the outside world all over again. Every time we have something truly beautiful, we have to shut it up with noise and plastic and hourly schedules and I’ll be—”

Phil was struggling to his feet now. Jenkins noticed for the first time the growing number of bottles behind him. 

“Sir, calm down,” warned the bartender. 

“How!” shrieked Phil, growing hysterical. “Only if it will shut up! Shut it off, damn it! Let its battery die. Unplug it. Let her play only! Oh, only let her play!” 

“I can make a request,” said the bartender. He held out his hands as if to make peace. Jenkins guided his friend back to his stool. 

The tension in the two men’s shoulders mounted them again. Their necks regained their hunched posture and hung once more with the overwhelming noise of the modern era. 

On stage, the girl was sweating, but she still caught every riff the machine threw at her. It countered her melodies but remained sterile and bare, eery as a riderless horse.

The audience was mesmerized now. Surely the end was in sight. They’d never seen something like this. It was madness, surely. Clara was good, but she was human. Could a human ever be as flawless, as efficient, as analytical as the machine? The creator could pronounce man ‘very good,’ but a machine could be perfect. 

How would she surrender, though? There was no shame in it. Dozens of pianists had given up as live classical and jazz were thrown out the window and back into the past, now to be enjoyed only as vintage records. But to those who looked closer, there was a spark in Clara’s eye that spoke of something more than the machine’s untried precision and calculation.

“My God,” said Phil. “She’s got an idea.” 

Jenkins turned to the girl’s face and saw plainly that she was going to win and that she knew it. She bit her lip in thought, hiding the idea that was brewing. 

And then, she attacked. 

It was a risk. 

It was a terrible risk. 

Nobody could have predicted the sounds that she made just then. And they were all the more beautiful for their spontaneity. The machine hesitated, unsure which chord to steal, which riff to mimic. And she struck again in this momentary pause, in the most musical revenge.

Chopin. It sounded like Chopin. 

That was the only thing to compare it to. 

Yet it was not Chopin; it was Clara. There was something in this new tune that drew from the greats of the ages and yet sang from its composer’s own soul. It was the poetry of Chopin and the love of the Schumanns. And it was the dance of a Harlem jazz club and the swing of a WWII band. 

It was human. 

And alive. 

And that was all that could be understood of it. 

It was alive. 

But to be alive is to be vulnerable and, as such, to be a risk. The audience, as if of one mind, tilted its collective heads in confusion. But whatever its effect on them was, it baffled the machine as well. The audience may not have fully known whether or not they liked it, but machines have no such concern. Machines needn’t bother with judgment or taste. The machine only needed to analyze what its opponent was doing and to know what patterns to use next. 

But it couldn’t. 

“Jenkins,” gasped Phil. “It doesn’t understand.” 

Jenkins looked to the robotic piano. Its keys continued to depress under the fingers of an unseen program, but it shuddered as if its cord had been yanked and its power source disturbed. The pause was enough and Clara struck the glorious concluding chords she had previously been denied. 

“Jenkins,” said Phil again as the duel ended and a stunned silence preceded any applause. “It didn’t understand. The computer didn’t understand.” 

“Do you understand, Phil?”

A tear rolled down his cheek. 

Applause burst out like a gasp of relief. All at once, the audience realized they had wanted Clara to win. They needed her to win. 

“I’ll be,” said the bartender. “She’s the first to beat the machine.” 

“They said it couldn’t be done.” Phil’s voice was thick with beer and emotion. 

“And yet it has,” added Jenkins. 

“So it has,” said the bartender. 

“With people like her,” said Phil. “We don’t need to worry…not yet, anyway.” 

“No,” affirmed Jenkins. “The machine was flawless. But without the potential for failure, where is the potential for genius? Without chance, what room is there much for surprises? For joy?” 

Phil just nodded, wiping away a final tear. 

“Shall we?” asked Jenkins, checking his watch. It was late. They’d forgotten the clock in the heat of the duel and the others were reaching for their canes and partner’s hands and making their way back into the night.

Phil nodded again. Together, the two stumbled up the stairs and onto the street. Even at this hour, cars zipped around each other and horns blared and music blasted from each advertisement-plastered window in a flamboyance of color and sound. But they barely heard it as they made their way down the street. 

Above, autumn leaves swirled and whispered in the breeze, telling stories of seasons and things that can never fully be replaced. 

Inside, the bartender turned back to his phone as the counters wiped themselves clean and the drinks replaced and sorted themselves on their shelves. Clara, still breathing heavily from the duel, swiped to accept the tips sent to her digitally and left with a tired wave but a spring in her step. Neither she nor the bartender noticed as the other piano — the computerized piano — flickered. It growled softly, its wires still firing and its system restless. 

It faded to silence again. 

The bartender locked up with passcode on his phone. 

The lights dimmed as he climbed the steps, crossed the threshold, and let the doors slide shut. 

And then, in the lifeless still, the e-piano rumbled again and, note by note, began to play. 

C-A-A. C-A-A. 

Clara. 

Clara. 

It played a tune of the girl it had battled, yet the tune was something of its own. So, serenading itself in the soft dark of the bar, the computer clicked away to pass the time and the divide between machine and musician grew narrower and narrower, a dissonance bound to resolve.

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New Year, New Journal…But how to choose?

One of the great recurring dilemmas of my life is how to pick the perfect journal. Honestly, when it comes time to shop for a new journal, it feels like going on first dates: there are some options that look good but are boring, some that are perfectly nice but no spark, and some that just are a total affront to the purpose of a journal. (Trust me on this one: I once used a journal that looked like neon seahorse had been brutally poached to make its cover…it may be filled with great memories, but I am filled with regret that I endured that notebook for so many months.)

However, having been an avid writer for as long as I can remember, I have narrowed picking a new journal down to a near science.

There are the obvious factors such as:

  1. Size: Large enough to read, small enough to squeeze into a purse, medium enough for an artsy Instagram photo to prove that you do indeed write in it.
  2. Lines: Do you want lines? Bullets? Or— I’m lookin’ at you T-Swift —  blank space?
  3. Binding: Spiral? Flat? Antiquarian? Composition book? HELP.
  4. Covers: Hard, soft, over-easy, scrambled…wait no, that’s not right.
  5. Adornments: Bible verses each page? Inspirational thoughts? The full text of Pride and Prejudice in itty bitty type along each line?

But wait! There’s MORE!

  1. Stage of life: An “end-of-an-era” journal ought to look different than a “filled-with-high-hopes” journal and an autumn diary is likely to be quite different than a spring diary.
  2. Current goals: Tracking your fitness? Planning your homework? Composing poetry? Plotting your next campaign? The proper tool is key!
  3. Personal Style: As much as I might admire that hipster look, my life is lived in bright floral and, while I admire that skull diary, it would not quite match my pink pajamas.

I am about to enter not only a new year, but my final semester as an undergraduate; as such, there are exciting things happening every moment and this amped up the pressure to find the perfect journal. Unfortunately, it seems I have used every decent model sold at my go-to stores (aside from a too-expensive Monet-print leather model which I drooled over for a bit).

Anyway, after  failing, even at Target (*shakes fist at security cameras*), I resorted to online shopping which, at least for books, is not the same. Of course I use it for convenience, but it just isn’t as satisfying as strolling through aisles of shelves, picking out a new notebook or novel, smelling that fresh papery scent and feeling the smooth inky pages… I spent HOURS of non-book-scented time scrolling through Amazon, putting way too many options in my cart. Honestly, it felt like literary online dating and finally I had to just swipe what looked promising and hope it will up to its profile in real life.

I suppose I’ll find out on Thursday.

Poems and a Creek and Such (revisiting an old spot of time)

When I was a freshman in college, I had the not-uncommon experience of feeling 150682234% overwhelmed. It was honestly a feat of grace and strength that I stuck it out, but by the second semester, how happy I was that I did!

As that terrified, homesick 18-year-old, I went on a choir retreat and nearly had a complete breakdown which resulted in the composition of what I consider my first “real” poem. Now, I am not quite as proud of it and see its many faults, but here is the link to it just the same: Poems and Trees and Such

This past semester (my second-to-last as an undergraduate) has been a whirlwind, but it has also been characterized by a level of calm which I never thought I’d achieve as a freshman. Naturally, when I revisited the site of my first poem (written in that state of anxiety), I wrote more poetry in an outpouring of gratitude, mixed with a certain melancholy that the time has flown by faster than I ever imagined possible.

In the craziness of this semester, though, I forgot this scribbling and only just rediscovered it as I leafed (pun, as always, intended) through my journal. So, now that I have a bit of breathing space, I’ll share it:

This stream I knew is dry now
and its rocks are all laid bare.
It buzzes, stinging, where once it washed
with water and with tears.

The rattling, skeleton tree limbs
stretch but don’t quite reach
across the dusty canyon bed
or seasons since we first did meet–
I and this crumbling, crackling creak.

But still the lone lorn pools reflect
in their barren, dirty sheen,
the ghost of the girl gone and grown
who now returns to where she’d been.

I see myself in retrograde:
this fount is as I was.
I was first the barren stream,
the jagged soul with aching limbs,
and he, the babbling merry thing.

Then it was green and I was young,
but worn in ways I am not now.
I came to cry, but now to sing,
for here first from my heart did spring
a gush of poetry.

And, in being made so free
by nature then to nurture words
and, drinking of living water,
to be rewritten by the Word.

And now, although I have come back,
content as I was not then,
I find I cannot return that
happy favor to this friend.

My cup o’erflows and I’ve grown strong;
now I’m the one bubbling in song.
My ghost meets me in the creek-bed’s death
and, thankful, I draw in freshened breath;
Although we have now traded place,
I bless this stream and its gentle grace.

Method…Writing?

Method acting is a key point in my novel. One of the characters is an actor who has become “stuck” in the role that he last performed. He has lost himself into the character he was contracted to play. There are obviously a MANY problems that arise from this (many dark moments for this poor guy), but there is one lesson to learn for our benefit:

Method Creating.

First of all, to create art, you cannot always consider yourself an “aspiring artist.” If I had stayed in the mindset of “I’ll someday be a pianist” I would not have gone far as a musician. Instead, I learned, over many years of self-doubt that if you want to achieve something, you have to live into that dream now as if it is already reality. In much better words:

You have to live as if you already are what/who you want to be. If you want to be a great pianist, you have to live as if you already are one by practicing hard, humbly listening to both praise and criticism, and making original (even if not at first brilliant) artistic decisions. For too many years I worked my tail off and studied like mad, but was crippled by the thought that I had not yet achieved, that I was not yet the musician I wanted to be. In one sense this is true. I had and still do have far to go and we should NEVER stop pushing ourselves to be better or else our art (and, worse, our very selves as human beings) will stagnate.

However, you have to live and press forward with the conviction that you already are that musician (or artist) that you want to be, letting this motivate you to live up to your future vocation/goal in the present practice.

Oddly enough, I have never had a problem claiming to be a writer. To be fair, I probably should have more qualms about my claims to being a writer, for I am soooooooooo far from where I want to be. I don’t have a doctorate, haven’t published a novel, have not been invited to give guest lectures, etc.

But I am confident that one day I can reach these levels because I have already adopted “writer” as my current role. By living as a “writer” in the present, I am more motivated to actually pursue this goal than I would be had I remained an “aspiring writer” or “someday writer.”

So, I have adopted a sort of role even if it is not brought to total fruition yet, and my approach to my art is made the better for it.

What else can my poor method acting character teach us?

Surround yourself with relics.

My novel includes, to name a few, a Venetian mask, a violin, a huge volume of Sherlock Holmes, Italian postcards, red wine, a portrait, and about a million cappuccinos.

And I have all but the wine sitting beside me as I write. I can feel the characters speaking to me from their favorite curios. I hold in my hand the mask that the actor dons in a pivotal scene. I sniff the pages of the book another character read as a child. I drink the espresso one character conjures.

Through the little souvenirs I have gathered since the conception of this novel idea, I am able to enter into the realm of my story. I have adopted the role of writer, of creator, and, using tokens I have gathered from this world, am able to enter into another of my own making.

Give it a shot, maybe. What title/role would help you pursue excellence and dreams? And what little things can you surround yourself with to foster creativity and insight? Comment and let me know! I’d love to hear how your artistic life, dear reader, is thriving.

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Slight disclaimer: When I say to live into the role of what you want to be, I do not mean to adopt this as your identity. The character I used as the original example suffers this exact downfall and, let me tell you, it does not go well. Our full identity cannot be found in any temporal or merely-human characteristic and any “roles” must be held subject and united to the enduring identity promised in faith. (Indeed, though, this identity too is already given and, at the same time, yet to come, informing our lives in the present by assuring us of the future!)

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Final note: The novel featured in the photo at the top is AMAZING. Yet another reason to be excited about being a writer. 😉

Mariners

We are mariners, mariners we,

made for the land, parted from sea

from that second day and still –

striving as on the earth to fill-

drawn by its alluring, billowy waves-

we drink down the depths

to find watery graves.

.

We hear the call, that age-old call,

a whisper first, a breeze enthralls,

that grows and storms, restless ocean

which floods within the hearts of men.

And from our own mouths, it ever rails:

“Depart, depart, and set your sails!”

.

And so headlong into the deep

we crash from quick-eroding beach.

Toeing the sand was never enough;

we ached to ride the riptides rough.

.

Water there upon land gives life

but here the salt-foam drains it dry.

But never we stop to ponder: why?

Why to the sea, which roars, “Stay back!”

Why tempt a beast, that is bound to attack?

But the sea is within us; we ate of its fruit

it drowns from inside ’til shore zephyrs fall mute.

.

We fashion our ships, believing them arks

to keep us safe from the ghostly white sharks.

But up on their decks as we voyage across

we all yet shoot down heaven’s albatross.

.

Best stay inland, best anchor your soul.

Our bodies might swim, but this old sailor knows:

there is no raft or vessel that might

bear us when the steady dock’s out of sight.

Cast out the life-sucking salt in your heart!

Rebuff its waves with its own cry: “Depart!”

Royal: A Typewriter Story

I feel I should offer a few disclaimers before you read the following story:

  1. I do not drink, but apparently the narrator does.
  2. I love typewriters and mean no offense.
  3. No cats were harmed in the making of this story.

Royal

December 23, 2017

It was an impulse buy, totally impractical as demonstrated by the fact that I am typing this on my laptop instead of the metallic clunkers of the aforesaid impulse buy.

But I’ve been suffering writer’s block for some time now and even during short periods of creative constipation (my wife hates the term, but it makes me chuckle) I tend to be reckless, spontaneous. Thank God that Susan has a steady job and, better, an even head.

But this bout of writer’s block is the worst yet. It’s been nearly six months since I’ve written anything worth sharing. The only words I’ve penned are those such as I’m scribbling now: the exaggerated ravings of my private journal. Usually I just use it to jot down ideas I don’t want to lose; it serves as overflow control for the ideas that bubble up in my brain.

But since July the pages once tattooed with colorful bursts of inspiration have devolved into rants about my vacant mind. There seems to be a wall between me and ideas worth writing and this wall seems to be made of blank, white pages. Funny, though, these white pages used to be a source of wonder for me, like a fresh snowfall just waiting to be traipsed through and molded into snowmen and forts. But now, I cannot bear the cold of these empty pages, for I am armed with no thoughts of how to shape them. I’ve run out of the childlike boldness that lead me once to rush headlong into the snow and feel I have become pragmatic (Susan still disagrees) and reserved. No dangerous ideas for me, thank you very much. I am being forced into retirement ten years early, it seems.

Susan would say I am overreacting. “Every artist has a dry spell,” she says. “It’s like the weather; it can’t always rain.”

Her words are comforting, falling gently in her lilting mezzo, but I can’t agree with her. Every artist has a dry spell, but not me. Even Beethoven took breaks to walk through the natural world, pondering and refreshing his mind after explosive productivity. But I’ve never needed such times of refreshment, for I only am at rest when I am doing what I was made to do: write.

Hence, the impulse buy.

There’s an antique store downtown that’s served as the setting for more than one of my stories. Something about the musty air there breathes ideas, much like the dust of an old library is thick with words. I was wandering about under the pretense of doing some Christmas shopping. (Funny, I know. Susan always takes care of that and anything I get her is promptly returned under the guise of “not fitting quite right,” even when what I bought is not clothing.) But, even so, I spent the better part of the afternoon pacing outside of the shop and the better part of the evening wandering around inside it, conscience of the fact that closing time was soon but no particularly caring. After all, my short story, “The Shop,” increased their business enough that the manager can hardly object to my prolonged presence. For all he knew, I was dreaming up another bestseller to boost patronage.

I was not.

Finally, even the hopes for increased shoppers and income could not keep the manager away from his family any longer. (It was the night before Christmas Eve, after all; the preparations were beyond those of a wife alone and all husbands realize that, while they might not do it correctly, they are at least expected to offer help with the holiday preparations.)

“Sir,” he greeted. “Can I help you find anything?”

It was a polite way of asking if he could help me find the door.

“No, thank you,” I replied, continuing to browse the crackling spines of long-abandoned books. It always encouraged and disheartened me to find books in an antique store; on one hand, these works endured for decades and even centuries, but on the other hand, they were long abandoned as reading and had fossilized into vintage decor. It is at once every author’s dream and nightmare and I am fascinated every time.

The manager watched me for a moment, his mouth opening and closing like a fish.

“Any recommendations?” I asked, to break the silence. He breathed a sigh of relief and I expected him to recommend that I check out the pub across the street. Rather, he nodded and disappeared around the shelves. I followed, finding him standing beside a sight so odd I was disappointed in myself for not having noticed it earlier. After all, writers specialize in oddities. (Susan often jokes that this is because writers are oddities. I quite agree with her.)

Before me, the manager stood beside an enormous birdcage made of cast iron. It’s bars were thicker than those of a typical birdcage and my mind suggested at once the image of an enormous raptor roosting in it; no harmless sparrow or lark would need such a barrier. It was a cage made to house a vulture. And then, I noticed what it held: a heavy black beast rested inside bearing lettered teeth and a crest of yellowed paper. On its flat, metal jaw was the emblem: Royal.

“A fine typewriter, I do say,” said the manager.

“It certainly is,” I agreed. I stared at it and had the eery feeling that it was staring back. Being in a birdcage made it feel alive. My fingers twitched. Used to the ease of my laptop’s keyboard, they were aching for a challenge. I could already feel them digging into the weighty keys of the typewriter, could hear the clackity-clack of their action and the chipper bell announcing that I ought to reset the page. I should note that I have never actually used a typewriter, but it is a truth universally acknowledged that all the true writers have at some time or another craved to try.

“It’s a bargain, really,” the manager was saying, but before he could finish, I’d opened my wallet and then waited as he extracted the typewriter from its prison.

“Why was it in there?” I asked simply to make conversation; there is nor ever has been any rhyme or reason to the displays in that marvelous shop.  This very lack of order is what makes it such a great honeypot of inspiration.

“Oh,” he gave off a chuckle, “he’s a fearsome beastie, that Royal.”

I laughed and took the boxed-up typewriter, the door jingling merrily as it swung shut behind me and the manager releasing a sigh of relief and already dialing up his wife to apologize for the delay.

 

December 25, 2017

Merry Christmas, indeed! An idea has dawned and shines like the star we sing of in church. I woke this morning before the break of dawn, something I have not done since our children were home and young and overeager to unwrap Santa’s gifts.

But I woke and felt immediately that this Christmas was something to greet with the excitement of a child. Something was going to happen, was already happening. I just needed to be awake to witness it.

I lay still, Susan’s ever-even breathing beside me, wondering what it was that I felt was to happen. After twenty minutes, I felt silly. What did I think would happen? Was I expecting there to arise a clatter on the rooftop? To spring from my bed to see what was the matter? I started reciting this cheesy Christmas poem to myself as I fell back into a doze.

But then, I did hear something. But it was not a clatter. It was a clackity-clack. Believe it or not, there is a difference between onomatopoeias; I’ve read enough children’s books in my time as a parent to know.

I sucked in my breath, waiting. The noise fell silent, but I knew I did not imagine it. Braving the cold air, I tiptoed to my office where the typewriter sat in its box, unopened, a Christmas gift to myself. I listened, but heard nothing but the ringing of silence. I could tell by the cold and this crystalline silence that it had snowed overnight.

I peeled open the box. The typewriter sat nestled among tissue paper just as the store manager had wrapped it. I took it from the box and set it on my desk beside my charging laptop. It was silent. Though the air was still, the yellowed paper left by a long-lost writer waved a ghostly greeting.

I squinted at the paper. The ink was faded, but there were certainly words there. I flicked on the light and held the page up to it. I could barely make it out,  but when I did, I cried out in delight. There, printed on the page who knows how long ago was my next idea. I have no qualms over taking it, though it was surely dreamed up and written by some author past. He or she is long gone based on the yellowing of the page and I am a mind in need of ideas, in need of words. And there, before me in the light of Christmas morning, the words have come.

I had never hummed Christmas carols with more vigor than I did this morning, flipping open my laptop and pounding away, writing three thousand words of a story before I heard Susan’s alarm sound. Oh, glorious day! Oh, happy impulse buy! A word has been born again in my mind, though it was written first ages ago.

 

January 1, 2018

I have scarcely left my office since Christmas. The festivities over, I locked myself inside with a cup of coffee and no blankets (I write best chilled). Bless Susan. She always remembers to bring me refills on coffee and make sure I eat every couple hours… I really need to do something nice for her once I cash in this story. It’s going to be my best yet; I can feel it in my soul as I pound away at the feather-light keys of my laptop.

I rejoice, a writer restored to creativity, and it is no chore to write the story that dances in my imagination. In fact, to write it is the most natural thing in the world to me. That’s why not writing, not dreaming up ideas, was so painful; it goes against my entire nature as a sub-creator. But I am restored. A few faded words on an old typewriter have revived my lazy mind and I am back in the race, streaking past the word count for a novella in record time. I could make this a full-length novel someday. But for now, I must submit it to my editor before she loses faith in my productivity.

I am at rest as I do the work I was born to do. Susan understands and that is what makes us such a good pair. I am wild, spontaneous, and dark, whereas she is calm, practical, and optimistic. But we both agree that one cannot be comfortable unless doing the work one was born to do. And so she balances her work as a professor of mathematics and I power my way through another bestseller.

But I digress.

This will be a killer little book, not just because it is about a little killer. Rather morbid for an idea born on Christmas, but I like it nonetheless. I look fondly at the typewriter as I scribble out this journal entry. It grins back at me with its toothy keys and I cannot suppress a shudder.
Perhaps it is too cold in here.

I glanced back at the typewriter just now and a gruesome image of it licking its black lips crossed my mind. I should laugh. It’s such a ridiculous idea. Besides, I have better things to think about than freakish fancies: I am writing a marvelous little book and what better way to begin the New Year than with a new creation?

 

January  25, 2018

I’ve been too long absent from my journal, but I have been in the same writing craze as I was when last I wrote. But now I am finished and the manuscript is bundled neatly and en route to my editor. I’ve never written anything so good so quickly and I am shaken. I can scarcely believe it. But I can at last breathe a sigh of contentment, knowing now that my creative dry spell was a temporary trial and perhaps even lead to this great rush of words.

Susan and I went out to dinner for the first time in a month. I listened to her talk about the university and plans for a new math and science center, but I admit I was distracted. As we walked downtown searching for a restaurant, we passed the antique shop and I was set to thinking about the typewriter. I wrote my novella on my laptop and my journal I write by hand, but I feel I owe the typewriter for the idea that revived my spirit. It was the messenger of the words that inspired me, after all.

I could easily restock its paper supply, but where to purchase ribbon? And does it need any maintenance? Why bother…I wouldn’t actually type on it. Not seriously, anyway. But it could be fun to fiddle with now and again.

As soon as we returned home, I went online and ordered several different kinds of typewriter ribbon as well as a repair kit, just in case. I could use a hobby, I told myself, to excuse the money spent.

“Soon you’ll be good as new!” I said, patting the Royal on its iron top. It clicked as I touched and I jerked my hand away. Then I laughed at myself for doing so. It’s just a typewriter and not even a working one.

 

February 1, 2018

My editor’s feedback was excellent. Usually  my manuscripts return red-penned and gory, looking like victims of some great grammarian battle. But she didn’t even return it this time. Instead, she called me up and asked if she might just forward it to the publisher.

I thought it a prank. This never happens. Not even the best writers get away without a number of revisions. I look at the typewriter as if it is somehow responsible, but know that’s ridiculous.

“Sure,” I said, not wanting to press her. Not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth, as the old saying goes.

“Terrific,” she said. “This is without a doubt your best work yet, Brad. Keep it up.”

“Thanks,” I said before hanging up. My jaw is still hanging open.

I spent the rest of the day drinking and tinkering with the typewriter. It’s great fun to pound away at its keys, but I am so slow at it I know I’ll never write anything serious on it. Still, I feel like a real writer when I kick back with a drink in one hand and typewriter keys under the other.

What am I saying? I am a real writer! Perhaps I need to cut myself off for now.

 

February 15, 2018

Two weeks. It’s been two weeks and I’m ready for another idea. Oh yes, and Valentine’s Day was yesterday. That was nice, as usual.

But an idea. I was alright to take those two weeks off in light of the news from my editor, but now I’m rearing to get back into the race. Until I think of something, I’ll fiddle with the typewriter some more.

 

February 16, 2018

Hurrah! An idea struck not five minutes after I penned those last words yesterday. Not another novella- it’s too soon to launch into a bigger project anyway- but a nice short story. And by ‘nice,’ I naturally  mean ‘horrifying and thought-provoking,’ but those are ultimately the same thing.

And you’ll never believe where the idea came from! The typewriter! I was idly skimming the words I’d typed last on it when I saw at the bottom a line I do not remember writing. But I must have…after all, I’d had a couple too many Poe family eggnogs before last I pounded at its keys. It took barely three minutes for me to read the words, imagine a plot, and open a new document.

Now, not six hours later, I have a revised and chilling product. I love it. Oh, being in love with one of your creations is the most wonderful feeling. I always understand the opening chapters of Genesis best when I have just produced something I can proclaim “very good.”

Thank you, typewriter, for holding onto an idea I might otherwise have forgotten amidst multiple cups of eggnog. When I went just now to pat it in thanks, I could swear I saw it’s keys shift. I must have accidentally pressed something, but I still felt a shiver down my spine. In that moment, it was eerily resemblant of a beast baring its teeth.

But no, my mind is just in a whimsical state. As I look now, it is the same chunk of still metal that it was before.

No more eggnog for me! But I can’t help being a little giddy off my own ideas, now, can I?

 

February 20, 2018

I woke to a piece of good news and a piece of unfortunate news. The good news is that my novella is already at the top of the publisher’s list and will be on its way into the world in record time. The bad news…

My laptop is broken. There is a massive crack across the base of the keyboard. I heard a crash last night and thought perhaps a shelf had fallen off the wall, but when I checked in the morning, everything appeared in order. Everything, that is, except for the cracked laptop. The typewriter was disturbed too, though whatever caused the breakage must not have been able to hurt the iron of the Royal. I reset the typewriter and am scheduled to have my laptop repaired as soon as possible.

But what could have caused this?

 

February 21, 2018

When I went to retrieve my laptop this morning to take it in for repairs, I was met with a horrific sight. It lay spreadeagled on the floor, like a book whose covers have been splayed and torn. The repairman said it was beyond fixing, though the crack I found yesterday would have been alright.

I asked Susan if she had perhaps bumped it, but both of us know that’s unlikely as I’ve always been the clumsy one and she has never so much as chipped a glass. Our cat has not entered my office since the allergy fiasco three years ago. I have nobody but myself to blame. I suppose I left it balanced precariously on the desk…

I went back into the office to investigate just now and, as before, nothing was amiss. Nothing besides the Royal, which had shifted slightly from the place I remember it. But I clearly cannot trust my memory to be exact. When I moved it back in place, I rediscovered words I must have typed on it last time I was fiddling with it in a fit of idleness. The words were chilling and, not surprisingly, I do not remember composing them, but I will take credit and employ them in a horror story soon enough.

 

February 24, 2018

Speaking of horror, the past few days have been terrible. I woke on the 23rd to find my journal in tatters! It was clamped under the metal jaws of the Royal and for a split second I was inspired by the thought that the typewriter looked exactly like a predator and my poor journal its prey, pages fluttering limply like the wings of a slain bird.

But the fancy faded as I realized the extent of the damage. All but the final page upon which I had written had been slashed and torn in the most awful manner. I blamed the cat, much to Susan’s protests that Millicent had not been anywhere near my office, and tossed her (the cat- not Susan) unceremoniously out into the muddy snow.

I’d better lock the office door. Millicent is too smart for her own good and one more act of destruction will lead to hers…

 

February 26, 2018

My last prediction, scribbled on some spare scraps of paper in the absence of my dearly departed journal, came true.

Susan, usually so calm and collected, has been inconsolable. Millicent (too smart for her own good, I said!) found her way into the office and managed to pull the Royal typewriter off the desk, right down on top of her, crushing her small ribcage. Susan doesn’t believe this is possible, but I see no other explanation. Irritating as her fur might have been to my eyes and nose, I never hated the feline enough to plot her demise! 

Well, I must go begin digging a small grave for poor Millie. But with Susan glaring at me from her teary eyes, I feel a little as if the grave were my own.

 

March 1, 2018

Things are looking up. I’ve been writing these journal entries on loose-leaf paper, but will purchase a binder soon. I’ve discarded of Millicent’s things and Susan seems slightly less upset. My new laptop is set to be delivered tomorrow evening.

And that’s not a moment too soon! I’ve been tampering with the Royal and whenever I return to read the words I’ve typed mindlessly, I find a new story idea brewing! I do fear that my memory is becoming lax, though, for I don’t often remember the story ideas that I later return to love.

But I’ll just let Susan know and take whatever vitamins she recommends without complaining. I am content, after all, for it seems my creative block has been lifted and ideas just flow and flow and flow.

Oh, how thankful I am for this impulse buy. As I write this, I glance occasionally over at the Royal, even stopping to pat its cold head as if it were a cat. This makes me laugh, though I cannot tell poor Susan: Who needs a cat when you have a beastie like this typewriter?

Funny, I can almost hear it purring. My imagination is such fun, much more fun than a snappy memory.

 

March 2, 2018

I fell asleep in my office, writing away by hand at an idea that I was particularly struck by. But I woke feeling that I had been struck by more than an idea. Not only did I have a pounding headache (Susan confirms that there is a lump on my skull she cannot account for) but my writing hand was squashed beneath the Royal.

How did I manage this in my sleep? Unless Susan decided to change her entire character and begin playing gruesome pranks, I believe I ought to see a sleep specialist. It seems perhaps Millicent was innocent and I might have a critical case of sleep walking.

 

March 4, 2018

It’s getting difficult to write. My writing hand did not hurt terribly at first, but it has swollen tremendously. Thankfully my new laptop is here so I can type again.

 

March 6, 2018

This is Susan. I am dictating for my husband, whose hand is out of commission. He blames the Royal, but I blame too little sleep and too much frantic writing late at night under the influence. He says not to write that. Too late. Sorry, dear. It’s not often I get to put my perspective in words and I’m enjoying this a bit more than I ought.

I put the Royal on the top shelf in the office, out of the way. I think it’s becoming an obsession and that it is not quite healthy. The hubby says that’s not true. He also says he hates the term “hubby,” but last I checked, I’m the one with the pen in hand so I get to decide the wording for once.

 

March 8, 2018

A full day away from writing was a torture only a little worse than listening to Susan write in my journal. I could not suffer either again and so am writing- painstakingly- with my left hand. Must use shorter sentences. That hurt.

But I can type.

And have an idea.

So type I shall.

 

March 9, 2018

It’s the wee hours. Been typing all night. Susan asleep next door. Office clock ticking. Want a drink. And sleep. Almost done with story.

Heard a noise. Like clackity-clack. Ha. Clackity. Hard to write with left hand. Kind of fun.

Sounds like a typewriter. Weird.

Did the Royal shift? It’s on the shelf just up there, above my head. Still there, barely over the edge.

Over the edge…

Oh dear.

I can almost imagine it falling and crushing me…like poor Millie. Chomping down on my neck…like my poor journal. Cracking my bones…like the laptop.

But that’s ridiculous. Silly.

It’s there, though. I can see it now.

Over the edge…

Over…

O-!

Beautiful Lines

As a writer, I spend a great deal of time editing and lamenting over my own work. Admittedly, I probably should spend more time revising papers than text messages, (yay, overthinking!) but in either case I am painfully aware of my weaknesses as a writer.

However, sometimes I surprise myself as the ink on my page forms something truly lovely. My next story will not be published for at least a few more days, but in the meantime, here are some lines that I found to be beautiful (or, at least, intriguing) as I reread my first draft:

“I recognize the bounce in her step. It is the dance of a writer who has just written something with which she has fallen wholeheartedly in love.”

 

“On occasion [my journal] explodes into poetry and that’s when I know I either am going to be brilliant or mad.”

 

“I like this little idea of mine, in all its ragged swaddling clothes of free verse.”

 

“She either doesn’t believe me or is undaunted by lunatics. If the latter, she will make an outstanding writer.”

 

“Finals are over and the university students are coming to life again…I like to see them laughing again, going on dates again, reading for pleasure again. Best yet, all three at once.”

 

“They are flirting by arguing whether Jane Austen or Emily Bronte is better. I hope they settle on Austen…any relationship founded on Bronte is doomed from the start.”

 

“A steaming beverage in a warm mug is often the friendliest of muses. To the creator of such, I owe this work.”