Artfully Prepared

“Elite performers plan assiduously and prepare in depth before, during, and after a performance.” Shirley Emmons and Alma Thomas

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a rock star. Didn’t you? Eventually, I did learn to play the guitar. I enrolled in a couple of different music schools and eventually earned a degree in music composition and arranging. I played professionally for several years, and made some decent music and friends and memories.

But I was never satisfied. And now I think I know why.

1- I cared more about my reputation than the music. Honestly, I just wanted people to like me, to be impressed, to say nice stuff about me. I probably wanted to be famous (ick!) and have lots of money to waste. Of course, I would never have admitted these things, not even to myself. But hindsight is not only accurate; it can be downright cruel too.

2- I was never fully prepared. I was good enough because I had put in a ton of hours and thought and sweat perfecting things I thought I already knew how to do. But I was never great. I thought I could get by on what little technical prowess I had accumulated. I could be flashy at times and fake my way through most gigs. But I was putting style before substance. And the music suffered.

Again, I did work hard. I just didn’t work smart, or in the right direction.

Thankfully, I learned my lesson when it came to writing. Although my heart is still prone to wander, I write because I love it, because I truly believe creative writing magnifies truth and beauty, and because writing makes those who choose to write it better people.

It’s about serving the work, not the other way around.

I’m playing music again too. But no longer do I try and “get by.” Instead, I take a more balanced, sometimes laborious approach. I listen, take notes, learn the songs as recorded, then try and find alternate ways to play them–different inversions, single-note lines, just anything that might serve the song better in the heat of the moment. ON gig days I get up way early to rehearse tunes, scribble more notes on charts, and to make sure I have all my gear packed and ready to go.

This is not original with me: “Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice does.” This is original with me: “Artfully perfect beats technically perfect any day of the week.”

What is artfully perfect? Who really knows? It’s an eye-of-the-beholder kind of thing. But the odds of finding yourself in that hollowed creative space is by properly setting the table for your Muse.

Tyrus Morgan

Available October 30, 2012

This is not really an album review or an artist profile. It’s not even a veiled marketing ploy to separate you from your money. It’s more of a public service announcement. I know something that you may not. And that something could make your life incrementally better.

Tyrus Morgan (aka,“Ty”) is a singer, songwriter, musician, producer, and worship leader. He’s also a devoted husband, father, friend to many, and just an all-around good guy. Parenthetically, he’s also quite good at basketball. If you had to pick one person to embark on long road trips and engage in pseudo-intellectual BS sessions that linger on to the wee hours of the night before devolving into downright silliness, you couldn’t do much better than Tyrus Morgan.

Am I shamelessly plugging my friend’s new album? Perhaps. But (and you’ll just have to trust me on this) I’m actually pointing all this out for your benefit, dear reader, not his.

Ty doesn’t need you to listen to his record. He won’t retire early because of the sales generated in this meager blog post. I can’t imagine his life will get one tiny bit better as a result of anything I write here.

But yours just might.

The new album releases 10/30/12. But you can (and should) pre-order a copy HERE.

And if you’re interested in check out a 45-second promo video for the record, click HERE.

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Yep, that guy on the right is me.

Trying Too Hard

There’s a saying in business that everybody loves to buy, but nobody wants to be sold.

That’s a problem in artistic endeavors as well, one that I’ve been guilty of myself. It’s what happens when we try to write for someone other than ourselves. When we write to impress. When we find ourselves trying too hard.

I recently heard an interview with the legendary Alan Arkin where he talked about teaching acting workshops. The first exercise he puts his students through goes something like this…

He gets them all together in a circle and they have to pretend to toss a ball around to one another. The only instruction—and he’s adamant about holding them to this—is to not be creative. Just toss the ball. As the exercise progresses, he’ll announce that the ball has changed. It may turn into a basketball, a golf ball, a woven basket, a piece of rope, a small animal, whatever. Over time, the students get into a zone just pretending to toss the ever-changing, imaginary object around the circle. When it’s over, he asks them, “What happened?” As they deconstruct the exercise, the natural conclusion is that they were creative in spite of themselves, even in the face of instructions to the contrary. The creativity on display was a natural resource. It came from who they really are. There was nothing “special” going on, nothing forced.

I’ve done similar improv exercises in music classes with similar results. And every writer I know experiences this same thing from time to time.

The magic happens when we get out of our own way.

Turn that on its head and it’s why we’re naturally turned off by any writing that is pushing some kind of an agenda. Frankly, it’s why most Christian fiction is not that much fun to read. It’s trying too hard. Trying to get some message across. Trying not to offend. Trying to prove something. The story feels contrived and the reader feels manipulated. The art falls victim to all that trying.

This works the other way too. Miley Cyrus has become a national punchline because whatever artistic merit she possesses has been eclipsed by her pathetic attempts to impress people she doesn’t know and that don’t know her.

We want to read stories about people. We want to care. We want to explore together and discover a story’s natural truth and inherent beauty. We naturally crave stories that surprise us, but feel completely inevitable.

When we write to impress a person or some group of unseen people we start to pull punches. We play safe. We’re not fair to the story. And thus, we end up shortchanging our readers in the process, not to mention our characters and the story itself.

We become the literary version of the stereotypical “Friendly Freddy” used car salesman. We try to sell our stories instead of telling them.

Stephen King talks about writing first drafts with “the door closed.” This simple admonition is pretty profound. With the door closed (heck, have your imaginary self triple-bolt it and move a giant gun safe in front of it!), you can write with abandon, write from your soul, write without worry or shame or fear or guilt. And that’s where the good stuff comes from, the stuff worth reading, worth remembering, worth the time invested by both writer and reader.

Weekend Update

Occasionally, I plan to list a few books, movies, records, articles, blogs, overheard conversations, or just whatever else may have popped into my head over the course of a week or so.

These may include (but will not be limited to) actual reviews, recommendations, weird musings, and/or the occasional dumb joke.

So here goes:

Defending Jacob by William Landay (Audiobook)
I would call this a literary thriller. If you take the best story elements from Grisham, Martini, et al, then apply generous amounts of elegant technique, this is what you get. The comparisons to To Kill A Mockingbird may be a bit lofty. But I get why they’re made. Two enthusiastic thumbs up.

Blue Like Jazz – (DVD)
I really liked this movie a lot. I do wish I’d been able to see it before I’d heard ANY opinions about it though. Even better, I wish I had seen it without the knowledge that Don Miller wrote it and Steve Taylor directed it. I don’t know that I would have enjoyed it any more or any less, but I’m certain a little more ignorance on my part would have helped keep my mind in neutral during the film.

Standup Comedian by Demetri Martin
The ONLY thing working against this album is my own rampant expectations! In a word, Martin is brilliant (and not just brilliantly funny, he’s like a bona fide genius). His comedy is from the Steven Wright lineage. Martin delivers heady one-liners that might “take a second,” rather than full blown jokes with traditional setups and punch lines.

I did finish Coal Black Horse by Robert Olmstead and liked it well enough. It’s a dense read and takes a little long to get to the heart of things. Not sure who else I would recommend this book too. It’s historical fiction (Civil War), rather bleak, sometimes depressing, other times horrific.

I started, then stopped Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon. He’s so good, and I like his stuff so much, that I wanted to make sure the book had my full attention. Although I liked what I read, I kept finding myself confused (I’m pretty certain it’s me, not Chabon). So I’m shelving it until I have time to reader in longer bursts.

The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings – I’m about halfway through and am really enjoying it. I will admit that I like the premise and the writing more than the characters and/or the way the story has developed thus far. But as far as contemporary-literary-fiction-with-a-humorous-bent, I think it’s going to be a darn good one.

1922 by Stephen King (audio, novella) – This was a bit of a downer for me. King is obviously an amazing writer. I began championing his literary cause when I was in high school. The man certainly knows his way around a paragraph. But my tastes have changed over time. The story and the writing were fine. But the gore and the haunting and all the silly rats just got a bit tedious for me.

The blog of the week for me would have to go to Mike Duran’s DeCompose. He’s a really smart, really talented, and really nice guy. He likes to ask hard questions and stir the pot to make people think. And that’s a good thing.

My Best Writing Story

The book in question is the yellow one on the bottom, aka “Fink”

Once upon a time I was at a book signing in Michigan, hanging with the inimitable Rob Stennett. He and I had been relegated to the book signing equivalent of the kiddie-table–which simply means all the multi-published, big-time, somewhat famous authors with actual fans congregated around the main table. The closer to this central hub you were located, the more published, big-time, and/or famous you were. Rob and I were seated in the next zip code.

Anyhow, this very nice lady made eventually made her way to the end of the line and began saying, “Snyder, Snyder, which one is Snyder?”

I believe Rob and I had the same idea–that we would pretend he was me and see if we could make things a bit more interesting. But thankfully, we behaved.

Then the very nice lady then began to tell me a story. What has become one of my all-time faves.

To paraphrase, she indicated that her son had allowed life and circumstances and a lack of confidence to stunt his emotional growth. He had dropped out of college and was settling for dead end jobs. I’m guessing this resulted in a lot of spare time. So his mom decided to give him a copy of my first novel to help fill it. She said that he loved the story, couldn’t put it down. She went on to say that he was so inspired by it, that he began to read more widely and more often. This newfound love of reading led him to re-enroll in college and get his life back on track.

I felt like Costanza, tempted to leave on a high note.

It really is hard for me to retell this story without getting choked up. I know that sounds sappy. I realize it would be much more dramatic if the son–the real hero of the story–started out on death row, or was at least dealing crack in dark alleys before his newfound love for literature culminated in a college scholarship and eventually being short-listed for a Pulitzer.

It was his reading, perhaps even his writing, that led to the change. My writing was simply the spark.

Still, I can’t really explain how humbling it is that something I conjured up and scribbled down may have actually helped change a life.

So what about you? Inspired anyone lately, intentional or not? Been inspired? Have a writing story of your own you’d like to share?

Tis The (flu) Season…

I’m a natural-born skeptic. So when my lovely wife first demanded I open my mouth like a baby birdie waiting for a worm, then dumped these slightly sweet crystals under my tongue, I wondered if she were trying to poison me for the life insurance.

The actual reason? I was coming down with the flu. She’d heard about this stuff called Oscillococcinum, ostensibly the #1 flu remedy in France and tried it herself. We repeated this procedure three times, roughly 30 minutes apart.

Later, she asked how I was feeling and my brilliant response was: “Oh, fine. I guess I wasn’t really that sick.”

I’ll admit, that was a wee bit stupid on my part.

I have since witnessed these little tubes of diluted duck liver work small miracles on every kind of flu symptom. The best evidence was on a camping trip a few years ago. My son’s scout leader was clearly feeling awful. The temperature in the woods had climbed to about 102, the scout leader’s was even higher. I offered him a few doses of “Oscillo” and he agreed (he was stranded in woods, feeling miserable, what choice did he have?). Later that afternoon, he was back from the Near Dead. He was not turning cartwheels or leading cheers, but he was able to function like a normal human being. He went to the doctor the next day and realized he was battling strep throat.

If you’ve ever experienced a bout of Streptococcus, you know how rotten it makes you feel.

Now according to Wikipedia: “There is no scientific evidence that Oscillococcinum has any effect beyond placebo.”

Granted, I’m no scientist. But I have personally rid myself of flu symptoms a half-dozen times. It works on my kids, who have no idea what a placebo is. And I’ve talked to a dozen or so others who have experienced similar results.

Bottom line: If you feel the onset of flu symptoms, isn’t it worth about three dollars to not feel like crap? Placebo or not?

I certainly think so.

Have any remedies or oddball treatments you’d like to share?

Comfort Zone Elasticity

I’ve never been big on setting goals, at least not formally. Not that I don’t have things I want to accomplish. It’s just that I have this dipped-in-cheese memory of a Dale Carnegie course from eons ago, where we were assured that the only goals worth having were S.M.A.R.T. ones (which I remember as meaning: Sexy, Mellifluous, Acrylic, Radioactive, and Torpid).

Obviously, there are things I want and/or need to do. And yes, sometimes I write those things down so I don’t forget. Coincidentally, I did recently decide to formalize a set of goals in the non-cheesiest way I could muster. More on that in a later post.

There must always be a sense of progression or movement towards definite landmarks–Tobias Matthay, pianist

Anyhow, here is some stuff I already accomplished in 2012…

1- I discovered (the hard way) that I’m not terrified of heights. But I’m not overly fond of them either…especially on an empty stomach.

This realization happened on a tightrope, 24 feet above a hardwood floor in a University of Georgia gymnasium. Our company did a ropes course (sans a hearty lunch beforehand). There was no real danger of falling to my death, but it was challenging enough to make my knees week and turn my insides to goo. My forearms hurt for about a month but I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Time to prepare: About 20 minutes.

2- I sang backup vocals, into an actual working microphone, in front of a few thousand people.

Without boring you with the whole neurotic childhood tale, I’ve always had hang-ups about singing. My vocal cords have these weird polyps growing on them, which means my voice sometimes crackles with residual puberty. Thus, crooning this five-note melody in public was way scarier to me than you might imagine. I don’t claim to have actually conquered that fear, but I did do a repeat performance weeks later, and that didn’t kill me either.

Time to prepare: About three weeks.

3- I do not, however, have any hang-ups about playing other stringed instruments. One conversation led to another and I ended up trading one of my guitars for a pretty nice banjo, spending a week learning how to play exactly one song, then stood in front of a sizable crowd and actually played the thing. My performance was far from brilliant. But a young man did approach me afterward and ask if I’d give him banjo lessons! (Trust me, that’s actually way funnier that it sounds.)

Time to prepare: Roughly two weeks.

Please note, I’m not boasting here. None of the above is really brag-worthy—trust me, I was there. So please don’t take it that way. But all of it forced me up and out of my comfort zone without a lot of time to prepare and evaluate and write it all down. I’m not nineteen and fearless any more. I’m wont’ be attempting stand-up comedy or skydiving naked (the only real way to skydive!) anytime soon. But I can still do some stuff. And you can too.

And some of those things may require deciding to leap before you look.

So what about you? Been forced to out of your comfort zone lately?

The Only 2 Questions

According to the inimitable Steve Almond, the only two questions readers care about are these:

1. Who do I care about?

2. What do they care about?

“It doesn’t especially matter what your heroine cares about. as long as she cares a lot. Love and death are the usual suspects, but a great novel just might arise from a nun’s thwarted effort to remove dental floss from between her teeth (to borrow an example from Kurt Vonnegut). As long as her passion places her in peril, you’re in business.”

Sure, style matters. As does voice and technique and talent and all sorts of other writerly stuff.

But I think there’s a boatload of wisdom in Almond’s distillation.

So, what do you think?

Interviewing Naked

My PR lady emailed and said that an east coast radio station wanted to have me back on air to talk about my third novel. This was particularly cool because I remembered the guy doing the interview had actually read my other novels prior to asking me questions about them on air.

We agreed on the time and date and I put it on my calendar.

The fateful morning arrived and I double-checked my email to make sure I had the time right. I did, but my very nice PR lady had forgotten to factor in the time zone difference.

That’s not me. Nor is it my shower.

So…I was just finishing up my shower when I heard my cell phone vibrating on the sink. I hurried out of the mist and checked the number. The unfamiliar area code sure seemed east coasty.

I debated for a second, but it’s not like they were going to call back at a more convenient time. So I answered it…au naturel.

At some point I think I did wrap myself in a towel. But for the most part, I spent the next five to ten minutes talking to thousands of people in the nude.

The takeaway here?

Conventional wisdom claims that if you’re nervous about talking in front of a crowd, you should picture your audience naked. I can now tell you from personal experience that having them picture you naked works too.

What about you? Any embarrassing situations you’d like to share? (For today at least, clothing is optional…)

Truth + Beauty = A Story Worth Reading

For me, an artful story consists of truth plus beauty plus…?

That’s it, really. Everything else should serve the truth and beauty of the stories we’re trying to tell. That’s not to say that all that craft we study and slave over isn’t important; it is.

But that stuff is nourishment. The rules are just first aid. Plot and structure provide clothing and shelter. Style is the result of our sitting down and transcribing truth and beauty, not the other way around. We cannot force it by trying to be clever or cute.

“Style is doomed, to the exact extent it implies a conscious effort to shape the language,” says Steve Almond. “There’s a simple reason for this: your artistic unconscious is about ten times more powerful as an imaginative tool than your conscious mind. But it only comes out to play when you forget yourself and focus on your people…Style, in other words, is the residue produced by the dogged pursuit of truth.”

We don’t get to create truth or beauty. They are ours to observe and enjoy. We get to borrow them, arrange them in new or interesting ways. On our best days, our experiments with light and shadow may reveal some new facet of truth or peel back the curtain to reveal some previously hidden beauty. But we’re not really creating anything new under the sun.

God provides the raw material. We simply curate.

So what do you think? Agree? Disagree? Would love to hear your thoughts.