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Stuff We Love: Demos

For a good solid year of my tour, I opened up a session on The Book Architecture Method by playing two clips from the Beatles’ song “Sexy Sadie” in succession. The first 0:46 was basically just John playing some dusky chords into a two track recorder in India. Then I played the first minute of the finished version and we talked about how George changed the lyrics to make them less of a direct attack on his guru at the time, Paul brought some bright piano chords right off the top followed by Ringo’s shuffling drumming, and they all contributed sarcastic La-la-la-la’s  in the background. 

If someone walked in late, looking confused, I asked them, Are you here for the class on the White Album? My point was to show the distance traveled between the initial, halting idea for a song and the polished and produced version. We hear the latter and we thing: I could never do that… We hear the former and we think: Interesting. 

It’s the same across genres and media. It’s one thing to examine a smudged charcoal landscape sketch of Van Gogh’s and quite another to be engulfed by the final days intensity of “Wheatfield and Crows.” We get confused. Confused that art isn’t made, by somebody, over a succession of drafts, each improving, if not entirely, on the version that came before it.

And that’s why some Stuff We Love are demos. I recently treated myself to a box set of Bob Dylan’s studio recordings from 1965-1966. It contained the finished songs from this era, which I had heard a hundred times each. There were multiple master takes so I could listen to just the piano and the bass on “Like a Rolling Stone.” But there were also a series of screw-ups and false starts, experiments, arguments, breakthroughs and new directions until some of these famous songs were codified.

 

 

I love hearing the banter between Dylan and his bandmates, such as lead guitarist Robbie Robertson soon to be of The Band. Among the 25 takes of “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” you can hear the following exchanges:

 

Dylan: “Can you do that, Robbie? But I don’t mean just, I don’t just mean that. Can you do anything else? But not that. Some kind of a… no, no, no. Yeah, I do want it, but not so specific.”

*

Dylan: “I don’t think that’s the right way… do you think so?”

*

Robbie: “I’m going to modify it a little bit. To make it blend with what he’s doing.”

Dylan: “Sure! Tell me what you mean…”

 

 

I don’t know what Dylan means when he complains to Rick Danko, “No! I don’t like that bass run. That’s… that’s modal.” I’m not even sure he does. These tapes communicate being in the wilderness with only a small spark of an idea, and tending that flame so it can get air under sheltered conditions until it begins to burn on its own. 

And that’s why we recommend looking for demos—translated to whatever art and taste suits you—when you need to be reminded of not just your humanity but the humanity of the artists you admire. Their experience of being lost, then gradually found, through a combination of curiosity and faith, looks like something we could call perseverance—if it wasn’t fueled at least as much by residing in the delight of creation.

The Thing You Think You Cannot Say: Writing a Memoir You Can Live With

This post originally appeared on the San Francisco Writers Conference site.

 

Writing a memoir is like writing a detective story where you get to find out what happened—except, it’s to you. It’s a complicated challenge. In the first place, you have to find your best stories, and tell them in a way that is interesting to other people, with the proper level of detail to convince your readers these things happened, but enough emotional resonance that they step into your shoes and live your life as if it was their own.

None of that compares, however, to the skill level required to handle the times when you hurt people or when people hurt you. It’s a Catch-22. On the one hand, you’ve got to reveal your truth. We need to know it in order to understand your problems. We need it to root for you and understand your personality and your drive. On the other hand, you may still want to have Thanksgiving with these people. Or not get sued by them. Or just generally be fair about how you’ve decided to expose (parts of) your life and now you’ve made a decision for select other people that you are going to expose theirs, too.

Before you start leaving out the best parts, or disguising people’s true identity with greater or lesser success, let me suggest you just write the first draft as clearly and honestly as you can. Assemble your possible materials and try them out; get the feel of what you’re even talking about. When you do that, then one of three things might happen:

 

  1. You might find out that what you wrote is not really a big deal at all. The person or persons you are referring to review the text and barely shrug their shoulders. They might even suggest additional dialogue or plot twists that improve the overall presentation. And the extra momentum generated by their approval inspires you to new heights of connectedness and inventiveness.
  2. You might find out you don’t need it. You were all set to relate a dark and depressing scene, but it doesn’t fit the overall theme. There actually isn’t a place for it. It’s always better to find that out first. It doesn’t pay to seek out an approval from others over very sticky material that’s going to get dropped from subsequent drafts anyway.
  3. You might have to face the music. And when that time comes, you might find that even the process itself can shift your understanding. I recently sent off a section of my memoir to some good friends of mine. It was a third of a chapter, thousands of closely observed and thematically relevant words…but the moment I pushed “send,” I knew it had to come out. Even though I was present in the events I related, it just wasn’t my story to tell—and my friends confirmed that.

While I do recommend writing a first draft free of external influence, I don’t recommend skipping the stage where you show your material to the people you are writing about. Sometimes authors will just hope that a featured subject doesn’t come across their writing, or they hope they do come across it, and that way settle some scores with them in public. Neither of these options has a lot of lift to them.

Mary Karr gives this advice in her book on memoir writing, “I notify [those mentioned] way in advance, to give them a chance to shoot it down (nobody has yet). I keep pages private till the book’s done, and at the end, I send work out to folks I wrote about long before type’s set. As a side note, it’s not my nature to write at any length about people I don’t like. Save portraits of a grandmother who pissed me off and two pedophiles, it’s mostly love that drives me to the page.”

Knowing that you are going to have to show a passage or a chapter to some other people might stop your heart at first. But that’s the same heart that has been stopped by these conflicts and hurts for years. Now, you have the process of writing on your side. Working through the introduction of your memoir to your community might actually help you find the way you want to write your book after all. I simply love the memoirist Susan Steele’s construction: “The first draft was the gory, adult, vengeful Susan; the second healed me; the third healed my family; and the fourth was the story others needed to read.”

This kind of last draft is you reaching out to others with fairness. It is also reaching inwards to find transcendence. It probably doesn’t require arcane Buddhist commentary to believe that our healing necessarily includes other people’s healing. When a delicate topic gets exposed and stays stuck there it doesn’t help anyone. When it goes through an arc, however, when exposure is followed by inquiry, development, and understanding—well that might create a mini-monument to how we want to live in this world.

Drinking was my friend: How I talked to my daughter about my alcoholism

This article was originally posted on the Today Show website

 

When my older daughter, Fifer, entered high school, I introduced the concept of Amnesty Day. On the last day of every month, she got to tell me anything she’d done that wasn’t what she was supposed to do—and not get in any trouble for it. We talked through what choices she could have made differently, but on that day only, she didn’t get guilted, or yelled at, or grounded for not following the rules.

When Fifer’s confessions were about her own behavior and choices, that worked out well in terms of opening the lines of communication. As she approached legal drinking age, however, I needed to be able to discuss alcohol with her in a way that would prevent her from getting sucked into the void of her newfound freedom. How could I do that without relating my own battles, which eventually led to my becoming sober?

That was not something I could hide, like we couldn’t hide the fact that our younger daughter is adopted. Bodhi is from Taiwan; my wife and I are white. We never tried to figure out when would be the right time to tell her. She’s just always known, just as Fifer has always known I am a recovering alcoholic. Dad doesn’t drink. There must be a story there.

There were a lot of stories there. There were nights that didn’t end without my getting cut off at a restaurant, alienating everyone I was out to dinner with, and lying down to hiccup in the gutter for an hour. In those days, I wrote as many poems as I finished off bottles of scotch; I had to have the former to justify the latter. I got the shakes; I had hallucinations; I was not headed for a long life.

In recovery, you’re not supposed to tell these stories in a way that makes them sound romantic. With Fifer, it was doubly important not to make my escapades sound appealing. If I told her what I did when I was her age, would that give her permission to do the same? There was a lot riding on our not misunderstanding this fine line.

As I searched for a way to communicate my history, I came upon the journal I kept during the early days of my sobriety.

 

 

I didn’t write a lot in it (and I can write a lot when I want to!). It was actually just a series of 41 different answers to the same question, one that my therapist, Gretchen, had posed to me:

“Why can’t you stop drinking?”

The first time she asked me that, my response was “Because drinking is my friend.”

Gretchen didn’t like that answer. She challenged me to abstain from alcohol for a month, and to use that time to record all the reasons I wanted to take a drink, even as I knew drinking was not working in my favor.

 

I started with some pretty mundane motivations. I want to drink . . .

. . . because I’m in a bar.

. . . because the best man from my wedding is coming to visit.

. . . because I need a day off.

 

These soon graduated to more serious appraisals, however, about what wasn’t working in my life:

. . . because work isn’t going well and I may have to leave eventually.

. . . because I’m so frustrated.

. . . because I’ve been hurt.

 

 

I wrote one reason per day, and as I dug deeper, I uncovered what had been driving me all along.

 

. . . because no one has any space for me.

. . . because I don’t have any space for me.

. . . because I don’t know who I’ll be if I stop.

 

Forty-one days later, I closed the journal, and I have been sober ever since. I’m not saying that my lack of self-love blossomed into a reliable self-esteem overnight. But my life did start trending up. The things I learned yesterday were still there today. I was building on something, instead of waking up to find it all wiped away while I stood in a hole of my own making.

When I showed this journal to Fifer, it was in the context of Amnesty Day. In doing so, I realized I was seeking amnesty from her. Not healing in the sense that my past never happened, but healing in the sense that it did happen. It could be released from the dark corners of my mind.

In an unexpected turn of events, her witnessing me allowed me to witness her. Rather than feeling as if she had license to misbehave, she seemed to trust me more. Now when I counseled her on how not to get taken advantage of at a house party or be part of some horrific accident in college, I didn’t seem as much a hypocrite as a mentor.

I know I can’t save her from making the mistakes that are hers to make. Everyone has their own road. But she believed me when I told her that I wanted her to write the next chapters of her life with more light, more self-possession, and more inner peace than I ever had. She heard me say a prayer that she keep herself safe by loving herself. And that is a prayer that I have come to have faith in.

Letter Writing as a Powerful Prompt

This originally appeared as a guest post on Jane Friedman’s website

 

 

When Franz Kafka handwrote a 45-page letter to his father, he may not have been conscious that it would end up as a literary document to be studied through the ages. When Bob Dylan wrote a not-very-nice 20-page letter to an ex-girlfriend—whom he had the courtesy never to name—he probably didn’t know that he would end up extracting from it the lyrics to “Like a Rolling Stone.” But what these examples, and many more throughout history, show is the power of letter writing to benefit a wide variety of projects, from memoir to creative nonfiction to fiction.

My forthcoming memoir started as a letter to my daughter when she went off to college. I chose someone with whom I could be honest and self-revealing; fortunately, we have that kind of relationship. Getting to intimacy with an imaginary reader is hard; if you write to someone you can talk to, on the other hand, you can more easily achieve a confessional and arresting tone. This is because there is no such a thing as “voice” in the abstract. There is the voice of a speaker, and there is the audience of a listener or listeners, but what carries the words from one to the other is the tone of voice. This tone is carried by everything from word choice to content that reflects a shared approach to life.

If you choose the right addressee, eventually, the general reader can become a stand-in. You will be able to remove the direct address yet retain the warmth of tone. The best writing makes this journey from being a personal exposé to a larger, cathartic vision of how we all can live. The author Susan Steele once put it to me this way about her memoir: “The first draft was the gory, adult, vengeful Susan; the second healed me; the third healed my family; and the fourth was the story others needed to read.” I saw that firsthand with my own process, even though I would describe the finished product a little differently: The fourth draft really felt like the draft I could live with select other people not loving.

Your specific addressee does not need to be someone you see eye-to-eye with. In both Kafka’s and Dylan’s examples above, they were writing to someone with whom they had a difficult legacy. Some very powerful personal writing can be addressed to once intimate connections with whom you have fallen out. Not to complicate matters too much, but you may find both audiences present at once: someone who you believe will understand what you are saying, and someone who you fear won’t (or will refuse to) understand.

Your addressee may never read your letter in either its pure or its refined form. Sometimes issues of libel come up, and sometimes there are other considerations, such as wanting to continue to have Thanksgiving with your family members. But getting into your material via the prompt of letter writing—with the understanding that you don’t need to send the letter as is—can help you dig deeper into the things you think you can’t say. Without the fear of being interrupted, you can really hear yourself think. True confessional moments bring up grief, anger, and shame—those emotions we prefer to keep to ourselves. That material is why readers turn to writers in the first place—because writers are people who are brave and put themselves out there to help others through their struggles to be conscious.

What you can’t say face-to-face, you can say in a letter, especially one you will continue to work with. How you shape the material after that is up to you, of course. You might turn it into fiction, using the same hallmarks of storytelling you can employ in a letter—finding the scenes that ground the discussion through sensual detail, action, and point of view. You might write a letter from the point of view of one character to another as an exercise that can help reveal the inner workings of the relationships in your novel. Novelists often know each of their characters deeply in a one-on-one relationship, but those characters may not always know each other as well. The drama of a closed fictional world is always enhanced when characters are more clearly aware of what they want from others and what information they are withholding.

Whether you use your letter as a starter to get you somewhere else or use it to help you heal a living relationship in real time, letter writing can be more than a prompt or an exercise. It can be a portal that projects you into the discovery of a world.