Monday, February 22, 2010

Writing: The Creative Process

John Steinbeck used to write his books in longhand with a pencil. Can you imagine? Sometimes my typing on the computer can’t keep up with how fast I think. How did Steinbeck deal with that delay between thought and medium? On the other hand, there’s something to be said about creating with hands-on earthy tools.

For East of Eden, Steinbeck utilized a huge blank book, writing thoughts and letters (mostly to his editor) on the left side while writing the actual book on the right side. The journaling helped shape his ideas for characters, plot and settings. And when he got stuck on the book, he would return to the journaling to hash things out. It was like a creative dialogue with himself. The problem, of course, was the necessity of having to type up his manuscript for publication during the pre-digital age. But by the time of East of Eden, Steinbeck was already a famous and established author, with Grapes of Wrath and other books under his belt. He occasionally mailed this workbook to his New York editor, who had a secretary type it up, then sent the workbook back to the author. Perks of success, but the mind boggles at how much the future Nobel laureate trusted the US Mail with the only copy of his masterpiece!

Writing on paper. I’m not sure if I can do that anymore, specifically because of the need to type everything again in a word processor. But I do write songs the old-fashioned way, sitting at my piano with manuscript paper and pencil in hand. I can’t seem to get myself to write or arrange music directly from keyboard through MIDI and into notation software. I don’t want to record myself playing a new song idea either until the song is fully developed. No, I treasure the feel of pencil, eraser and manuscript paper all in front of me at my piano. I even constructed a “desk” that floats above my keyboard specifically for the purpose of writing. (See photo above.)

Yes, I save everything, every scrap of paper for every single musical idea, all filed away in a “half-baked” folder. Sometimes I write a song where the words are terrific but the melody not so. A few months later, I might pull it out and realize, hey, these lyrics are in rhyme and meter! Let’s put a better melody to it. Voila! New song!

The songwriting process is more concise than the book writing process. I go back again to Steinbeck’s inner dialogue with himself, how journaling influenced the book and vice versa. With two major books on my writing agenda, maybe it’s good idea to talk with myself in this way.

Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters

Monday, February 15, 2010

Mountain of God

With all the skiiing and snowboarding at the Winter Olympics, I am reminded of my youth group at St. Monica Parish in Moraga, California. Here is a reflection that first appeared a few years ago on the old artist blog page on


There’s something about a mountain that conjures up a lot of mental images: rustic beauty; a vacation getaway; a challenge to be climbed and conquered. For teenagers in a youth group, “mountain” means an important high school ritual: the annual ski and snowboard trip! As youth minister at St. Monica Parish in Moraga, California, I learned early that this was probably the most important activity of the year for my teens. Kids who were only minimally involved at church suddenly came out of the woodwork when the ski trip was announced.

So there I was at Boreal Ski Resort at Lake Tahoe, talking amicably with the other adult chaperones in the lodge as our 40-plus teenagers happily charged down the slopes. Suddenly, a couple of girls burst in looking for me. “Ken! Ken!” The adult group looked up with concern. “It’s Nick!” Of course, it had to be Nick.

Nick was one of those “minimally involved” teens. Not really a regular at our weekly youth ministry meetings, he always showed up for lock-ins, summer workcamp, and ski trips. Dark-haired and slender, Nick was a gregarious and outgoing risk taker who always kept a wise-guy shell around himself. Every group has a disruptor, and I could always count on Nick to tell the most outrageous non-sequitur jokes during group discussions, or give a silly intention as we went around the circle during prayer. What had he done now?

Nick came limping in, his arms around two other boys as they walked him slowly into the lodge. “He tried to do a Jonny Moseley,” they told me, referring to the young man who had just won a gold medal for his outrageous hot-dogging ski maneuvers at the recent Winter Olympics. Nick apparently attempted a 360 aerial and found out quickly that he was no Jonny Moseley.

We sat him down and it became obvious that Nick needed medical attention immediately. His limbs weren’t broken, but he complained of a pounding headache. By now, a large group of our teens had heard about Nick’s escapade, and they swarmed into the lodge, worried about their friend. The injured youth put up a macho front in front of his peers, but he was clearly in pain. I went with Nick to the hospital in the lodge ambulance. The staff had put him in a neck brace and each bump on the mountain road made him wince.

Gone was the wisecracking Eddie Murphy persona. Nick was now just a scared kid. Realizing that I had to call his parents, Nick looked at me with pleading eyes and said, “Go easy when you talk to my mom. Don’t scare her, Ken. Please!” I promised him I wouldn’t as they took him in for x-rays.

I called Nick’s mom, who was trying her best to be calm, but her anxious voice betrayed her concern. As she gave me insurance information, I assured her that I would be with her son the whole time in the hospital and would keep her informed.

Returning to ER, I found Nick lying on his bed, staring blankly at the ceiling. I had never seen him so quiet and helpless. I decided to take a page out of his book and started cracking jokes, asking him if he enjoyed the attention of all the pretty nurses. Nick gave a slight smile and we started trading quips and one-liners over the course of the afternoon. Eventually, we prayed together, a Hail Mary and a spontaneous prayer for protection and good health.

“I’m sorry, Ken,” he said after we prayed. I had never seen Nick so serious before. “I didn’t mean to cause you so much trouble.”

“It’s all right, Nick. Just take it easy and relax. All your friends in our youth group are praying for you.” He smiled and grasped my hand.

Eventually, the medical staff came in, examined Nick, and showed us the x-rays. Nick’s neck wasn’t broken, thank God; only badly sprained. We had a long bus trip home and the doctor gave me some painkiller pills that the patient was supposed to take every half hour or so. Nick and I were both relieved that his injury had not been serious. We also had a new understanding of each other. After two hours together in a tense, uncertain situation, Nick gained a new respect for my commitment to youth ministry. I learned there was more depth to this young man than he was letting on.

On the bus trip home, Nick sat in back with his friends as the conquering hero. I stayed in front because I didn’t want it to look like I was “baby-sitting” him. Occasionally, I went to check on him and give him his painkillers. The laughter that came from the back was reassuring.

Finally, after a long three-hour journey, we were back at the parish, and Nick’s mom was there to greet us. She was relieved to see her son was all right. After shaking hands, Nick walked gingerly with his mom to their car. Then he turned around and walked straight back to me. Macho Nick was not known to be an affectionate guy, but he came back to give me a hug.

“Thanks for everything, Ken,” he said, smiling. “I’ll see you next week at youth group.” And he did come back every week after that. No longer a “minimally involved” teen, Nick became an active member of our group. We had been to the mountain, taking on the simple challenge of getting to know each other better.


Note: I wrote the song Mountain of God with Marc Cavallero and Dan Brennan, who were part of our youth group and on this ski trip. Those were fun times! The awesome teens of St. Monica youth ministry of the 1990s are all grown up now, into their lives and careers and families. I still stay in touch with a few of them on Facebook. God is good!