Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Tyranny of the Blank Page

That blank white screen is staring at me, screaming at me. I recoil in unholy terror. And yet it beckons, waiting to be filled with whatever vagaries filter through my easily distracted mind. I once studied meditation with a Bay Area Zen master. His advice was simplicity itself:

“Hello, thought. Goodbye, thought.”

In Zen, the plain blank page should be enough. Meditate on nothingness and be filled. It’s all very cool, but my Western mind craves more than nothingness. I guess that’s why I’m a writer. I have a compulsive need to fill a blank page.

According to my last entry, I’m supposed to use my blog as a way to get warmed up before I do the actual writing of my book. At least that’s how John Steinbeck did it, but he started first thing in the morning and kept on writing well past Noon. I try to wake up every day at 6:00am but at that time I am already embroiled in getting ready for my commute to the office: feed the cat, feed the fish, shave and shower, then navigate the start-and-stop Portland labyrinth known as Highway 26. I listen to NPR radio to catch up with the news of the day, and when I get bored with that I switch to the Beatles Channel on Sirius-XM. “Good morning, good morning, good morning, good morning, good morning, yeah!”

Obviously, I don’t have time to write in the morning, like I used to in my good old freelance days. It’s 8:30pm as I type this blog. My evening commute home saw 90-degree temps but it has now cooled down to a reasonable 79 on this fine July evening. The Beatles Channel is All-Fabs, All-the-Time but for my last several weeks it’s been All-Saint-Louis-Jesuits, All-the-Time.

I have been concurrently working on TWO St. Louis Jesuit projects. First, OCP’s amazing re-release of the SLJ’s 1977 Advent-Christmas album, Gentle Night. 2017 is the 40th anniversary of this beloved album and, with the group’s support, we have remixed the original fifteen tracks, under Dan Schutte’s supervision, to meet the audio standards of the 21st century. I was tasked with writing copy for the new CD booklet, and I had the distinct honor of interviewing John Foley, Bob Dufford, Dan Schutte, Roc O’Connor, and Tim Manion, plus a couple of friends of theirs from back in the day. I believe this Gentle Night 40th Anniversary Edition is going to be a true gift to those who love the music of these pioneering contemporary Catholic composers.

My second St. Louis Jesuit project is, of course, my book, From Mountains High, the sequel to my first book, Keep the Fire Burning that told the story of the Folk Mass of the 1960s. My new book continues the narrative into the 1970s, and that means the St. Louis Jesuits, along with other contemporary Catholic composers like Carey Landry, the Monks of Weston Priory, Tom Kendzia, John Michael Talbot, and the whole roster of composers published by North American Liturgy Resources (NALR). It’s a labor of love, and I have spent the better part of the past six years interviewing composers and researching the music and the times of that fertile era in the American Catholic Church.

I have tried to draw a connecting line between what was going on in the world and the music that was sung in the churches. I do not see a dichotomy between the sacred and the profane, an age-old argument that lies at the heart of today’s so-called liturgy wars. I write more details about those “wars” in my book, and I may also discuss it here in a future blog. I will say now that the wars are unnecessary and run contrary to Christ’s prayer for his disciples (John 17:21), “that they may all be one.”

Let me say from the start that I respect the Latin Mass and I love Gregorian chant. That is the liturgy that I grew up with as a child, and its beauty is unsurpassed. But I also grew up with the Folk Mass and was privileged to participate in the movement as a musician, as a composer, and in my work with various publishers of the music. I am only trying to tell that story. I harbor absolutely no grudge against those who love the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite (the liturgy of the 1962 Roman Missal) and I refuse to be baited into a heated discussion on what is “right” and what is “wrong” in Roman Catholic liturgy. I only pray that my esteemed conservative brethren would offer the same Christian courtesy to those of us who have found spiritual nourishment in contemporary liturgical music.

Well, my blank screen is suddenly not blank anymore. Time to start writing my book’s next chapter!

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Of Steinbeck and Writer’s Block

John Steinbeck is my inspiration as a writer. In college, I read The Grapes of Wrath as part of a Freshman sociology class and I never looked back. Soon afterward I got hooked on Cannery Row and its sequel, Sweet Thursday; Tortilla Flat; the revealing road journal, Travels with Charley; The Wayward Bus; The Winter of Our Discontent; his compendium of short stories, The Long Valley; and on and on.

My John Steinbeck collection

As a Sophomore, I was privileged to take a Steinbeck course in which I specialized in the author’s epic semi-autobiographical novel, East of Eden. If you can only read one Steinbeck book in your lifetime, this is it. Set at the beginning of the 20th century in the vast farmland of California’s Salinas Valley, the novel cleverly interweaves the story of two families: the Hamiltons (Steinbeck’s maternal family); and the Trasks, a fictional family whose travails are a modern-day retelling of Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel. This story unfolds in Steinbeck’s inimitable prose which is direct and uncluttered, yet so masterful in the author’s understanding of the motivations that drive the human condition.

But the purpose of this blog is not to give an essay on John Steinbeck. I want to focus instead on the author’s modus operandi, his work ethic and the way he disciplined himself to write his novels. Make no mistake. Writing a book is one of the most daunting tasks anyone could wish to attempt. It took me more than six years to write my first book, Keep the Fire Burning. I am now reaching that same mark in the writing of my sequel, From Mountains High.

For the past six years, I have been working on and off on my second book – mostly off. The major difference between the first book and the second (besides the particular decades of each book’s story) is that I was a freelancer during the whole time I was writing Keep the Fire Burning. I had the luxury of creating my own schedule as the muse inspired me. It was not unusual for me to be writing well into the wee hours – sometimes until 3:00am – because I had no appointment or commitment the following morning. Oh, how I miss those days!

But now I am back on the OCP staff, working full-time as a Music Development Specialist. I cannot do my writing for From Mountains High during office hours; and I no longer have the freedom to stay up all night and write because I have to be at my desk by 9:00am. Since I come home tired from my nine-to-five job (who doesn’t?) I often do not have any motivation to work in the evening on my sequel.

That doesn’t mean work has not been happening. I have been doing research and interviewing composers all these years. The Internet and libraries are my friends! But the actual writing has been slow, although I am happy to report that I am already halfway through my projected twelve chapters.

So I need writer’s discipline, and that’s where John Steinbeck comes in. Several years ago, I discovered this gem of a little book: Journal of a Novel – The East of Eden Letters (©1969 by The Viking Press). 

It’s basically a written record of how Steinbeck wrote his epic novel. The Publisher’s Preface has inspired me:

Emerson has said that when his writing was blocked, he would sit down and write a long letter to a friend whom he loved. John Steinbeck, in writing East of Eden, unblocked himself for the daily stint ahead by writing a “letter” to his close friend and editor, Pascal Covici. It was written on the blue-ruled pages of a large notebook, size 10 ¾” x 14 “, which Covici had supplied. After the two opening letters, which filled the first few pages continuously, the letters appeared only on the left-hand pages; on the right, when Steinbeck felt ready, he proceeded to the text of the novel. He usually filled two pages of the text a day with a total of about fifteen hundred words. Both the letter and the text were written in black pencil in Steinbeck’s minute but clear longhand. The writing covered the period from January 29 through November 1, 1951. There was a letter for every working day until the first draft of the novel was finished.

Fifteen hundred words a day for nine months that resulted in a novel of 600 pages in the 2003 edition. That’s inspiring! So now I have a reason to go back to blogging: to get myself unstuck from writer’s block. Hopefully, my regular exercise of doing a blog will set me up to doing the actual writing of my book.

Thank you, John Steinbeck. You’re my hero!

More to come . . .

Thursday, July 20, 2017


It has been a LONG time since I have blogged. After a few years of regular entries, I suddenly stopped in 2014, unsure of what use I could make of this unique forum of expression. In 2014, I had begun to embrace Twitter, with its easy 140-character conciseness. Because my Facebook pages are linked to Twitter, that conciseness carries over into the ubiquitous Zuckerberg platform. (More about Twitter in a future blog.)

Let’s talk about Facebook. I suppose it was fun at first, but now I find it incredibly annoying. Facebook has become an unfortunate forum for venting, for spewing blind political vitriol, for trolling and, yes, for stalking.

I don’t deny Facebook’s utility as an effective way to link together far-flung family and friends. And I don’t begrudge some people’s use of this social media platform as a means to vent about politics. Hey, Facebook’s strength lies in the way it can be used in whatever way the user sees fit.

Personally, I prefer to use text messaging to stay in touch with family and friends. As for politics, I would rather discuss the issues of the day in person with trusted amigos. Therein lies my major beef with social media in general and Facebook in particular: the sense of false intimacy.

I am an intensely private person. I am very uncomfortable with sharing my thoughts and feelings even with my own family and close friends. I need to be asked before I can open myself up. So why in God’s name would I share personal stuff with total strangers or casual acquaintances on Facebook? 

So that’s the reason my Facebook posts tend to be full of puns and jokes, or are filled with non sequitur nonsense or obscure references to some song or TV show from long ago youth. That’s why I shy away from posting photos of myself or my family and friends. Instead, I share my love of abstract art. That’s why I despise #ThrowbackThursday and instead post my own warped alternative, #PopTartThursday. If I want to be intimate, I’ll share my life with those closest to me, not with some nebulously random Facebook “community.”

In short, I use Facebook in my own quirky way, as is my right. Enjoy it! I certainly do.