QWERTY in C Major (That which inspires…)

“Please.” I say wistfully to the empty room.

“Make this computer keyboard a piano.”

 I’m wishing the QWERTY characters could be struck in multiples and instead of jamming in the electronic buffer, produce a melodic chord. I try anyways – just in case the planets are in alignment. The result isn’t magical but randomly appropriate.  jhurgrrrrrrrrrr. Grrrrr is the growl of denial that begins to vibrate deep inside me.

I am still infused and brimming with music. The poetic side of my brain is choked, wanting to exhale but I am not a musician.

At least for a moment it portends a hidden talent. I feel the power in my fingertips as my entire body rises in anticipation of the notes being struck.  It would be exhilarating to translate these thoughts into music.

I am even tapping these words with a rhythm, with importance. Only the cat watches me with one lazy eye. To her it’s little more than white noise, as noteworthy as a dripping tap.

There is no melody, no chorus, and no rhythm. Only my words designed to populate a vision or an idea in the mind of a reader.

I took piano lessons when I was about ten years old. Three different instructors were hired over a three year period before abandoning the effort. I learned how to read music. I could transpose the black marks to the ivory keys but I was mechanical and unable to move beyond the notes on the page. I had no ability to play by ear and when I tried to create new sounds and always ended up with clunky chord sequences. I still remember my favorite combination, D-E-A-D.  And Dead is where my musical aspirations ended.

Instead of giving up I picked up a pair of headphones (Walkman personal audio devices were still a few years away) and began a lifetime of consuming music.

I’ve written before of my penchant for ‘power naps’. This afternoon was no exception. Forty blissful minutes before that same cat head-butted me back into the waning afternoon. Naps are a form of meditation. I wake up refreshed and receptive. It’s a fertile time to write or as I would discover, connect to an artistic muse.

I’ve recently become enamored with the show Classic Albums made accessible through on-line streaming from NetFlix. The show’s simple promise is to examine a classic album in detail. They include historical footage which establishes the society from which the music was created. A dialogue with the musicians, the engineers, and the producers stays true to what created the music. The most fascinating aspect of the show is when the artists sit at a mixing board and bring up the original multi-track recordings and break the song down.

Musicians make a staggering number of choices. When we listen it seems effortless because we don’t know the song in any other way. We learn the song through repetition and come to believe that it’s just the way it was supposed to be.  A similar thing happens in books, the reader doesn’t see a choice having been made, it’s just what the character would do. The writer and musician become invisible.

I’ve watched episodes on The Band, U2, and Fleetwood Mac. Tonight’s was Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.  This was an album I had owned when it was released on vinyl. While his flamboyant style was in the making, it was yet to be a distraction and his focus was about the music.

Arguably this is one of the great double record sets (that means two LP (long play) discs for the younger readers) of all times. I had worn through the grooves of my vinyl copy and as a result of those hundreds of repetitions; I know the minute details of every track. I was excited to hear it again for the first time as the artists did.

And each day I learn just a little bit more

I don’t know why but I do know what for If we’re all going somewhere let’s get there soon

Oh this song’s got no title just words and a tune

The episode didn’t disappoint. My routine after watching these episodes is to consume the album from start to finish steeped with new insight. This has to be done with quality headphones in and environment without distractions. An empty house and a fed cat made this possible.

A brief aside. The key word here is an ‘album’ or a collection of music. Today’s music consumers are driven by the hits or singles. In my day I had a small collection of ‘45s’ (single song on each side, tiny vinyl discs) but these were almost always stepping stones to save up enough money to buy the full album. I am still more interested in hearing the complete set of work. I’ve never responded well to Greatest Hits packages. I think this is part of what will make me successful as a writer. I am interested in the context within a collection of work.

Tune me in to the wild side of life I’m an innocent young child sharp as a knife Take me to the garrets where the artists have died Show me the courtrooms where the judges have lied

The asanas (postures) for listening intently to music can include anything from lying in a hammock, on the bed, on the floor, to sitting bodhisattva style. It can also include an activity.

 In the spirit of the Buddhist teaching: “When you chop wood and carry water, just chop wood and carry water,” I also like to mindfully complete tasks while listening to the music. On this evening I would create my dinner. A friend had given me a farm box of organic produce that included a loaf of sprouted Khorasan wheat bread. Tonight’s menu would be built around two extraordinary sandwiches.

As the album continued to play I sliced yellow and red bell peppers into wide strips, peeled garlic cloves before tossing everything in a stainless steel mixing bowl with ground black pepper and Queen Creek Olive Mill Extra virgin olive oil. Then exposed to the heat of a Phoenix afternoon I stood at the barbecue and laid out the peppers and garlic in a wire basket and roasted them until soft and slightly chard. The sound cancelling headphones removed the whine of air conditioners from houses stacked next to each other in the confines of this suburban neighborhood.

Let me drink deeply from the water and the wine Light coloured candles in dark dreary mines Look in the mirror and stare at myself And wonder if that’s really me on the shelf

The sandwich was finished with Maya Farms micro basil, micro greens, and organic leaf lettuce. It proved to be delicious. The second sandwich was a variation on a classic. Thin slices of plump purple and green Sunizona heirloom tomatoes were combined with strips of bacon.  The bread was lightly toasted and brushed with a thin veneer of mayonnaise before a finish of leaf lettuce, a pinch of micro greens, micro basil and ground pepper. A BLT worthy of savoring.

Slow food, slowly prepared while immersed in the intimacy of well-known but re-discovered music. It was a meditation of music and the yoga of food. The joining of two things I love.

Take me down alleys where the murders are done In a vast high powered rocket to the core of the sun Want to read books in the studies of men Born on the breeze and die on the wind

The meal and clean up concluded with the end of the album and I removed the headphones to the contrast of a silent house but still a bulging musical meniscus, about to tear. It has been difficult to sit as these paragraphs dot the screen. I eventually settle with gratitude to the artists who make my favorite music and inspire me to write.

 

If I was an artist who paints with his eyes I’d study my subject and silently cry Cry for my darkness to come down on me For confusion to carry on turning the wheel

 

Excerpt from

This Song Has No Title

From Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

Music: Elton John Lyrics: Bernie Taupin

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Seeking Inspiration: Independent Coffee Houses

I am sitting alone. Not just at a table by myself but completely alone at Matadors, an independent coffee house in North Phoenix.

It’s a Wednesday night between 7:00 – 8:00pm. A bluenote era jazz station plays on Sirius. Overhead a commercial air handler squeals briefly when triggered to deal with the seeping warmth of the Phoenix night. A rush of cool air then with a bump it will shut off and the cycle will repeat. A refrigerator hums in the servery. There are no hushed voices from other tables or the sharp double crack of the barista clearing the espresso filter. Even the two staff members are absent.

Absent, but not far away. They sit together on the otherwise empty strip of sidewalk that doubles as a patio. The dark haired girl has just joined her light brown/blonde associate. She places a B&B plate with a two halves of a burrito on the table and adjusts the chair. Though I can’t hear it, my mind becomes a foley artist (the people that add common sounds to movies, ie: the crunch of feet on gravel, or a squeak of an old door) and I am able to imagine the thin metal chair vibrate as it’s dragged across the coarse surface.

The blonde draws a deep inhale, rushing to finish her cigarette before the other begins to eat. They settle into a conversation. Her now idle cigarette hand absently thumbs through the pages of a thin orange Vonnegut volume. She had been reading from it and writing in a small notebook since I arrived ten minutes earlier. I wonder if she’s a student with required reading, or seeking inspiration in Vonnegut’s writing. Does she welcome the company at her table? Or was she not quite ready to separate from the prose or the physical connection that inspires her to commit thoughts in wide cursive loops to her notebook.

These are the stories and questions that play out in front of me in coffee houses. Readers, writers (especially with pen and notebook), students, and dynamic staff members all inspire my writing. Nobody else to feed the muse on this night.

I am also overly sensitive to scenes such as this but from a different angle. I pursue my writing whenever possible in Cafes. Given the choice I will support local, independent businesses. Up until a week ago I had two great choices near my home. Routine is a fundamental component of my writing. One night a week (at least) and Saturday mornings I settle at the same table at Matadors. Sunday mornings were always savored at Press Coffee Roasters at City North.

Two weeks ago, as I pulled up to Press I was immediately aware that something was wrong. Even before I noticed all the patio furniture was gone, there were boxes lined up along the windows instead of the usual tables. The business was shuttered.

It didn’t surprise me. For the last two and a half years that I had been a customer it was never busy. The City North complex was intended to be a sprawling destination of offices, restaurants, retail, and residences. All were to have been anchored by two major department stores. The economic crisis of the last few years left it crippled. A few restaurants had survived. The condos above the single street appeared occupied. All of the retail failed and the department stores were never built. You don’t have to be in the business to know that a coffee house needs high traffic to survive.

As a writer, Press Coffee was busy enough to be interesting, but not too overwhelming. There were many regulars with whom I could nod my head in vague association. In particular I enjoyed seeing two other writers that met each Sunday to discuss their writing projects. It’s May, the Phoenix snowbirds are gone, we are heading into the hot slow season. More than this business could handle.

In a facebook farewell, I used the word ‘forlorn’ to describe my mood on that Sunday morning. On a selfish level I was being wrenched from my comfort zone. For my purposes Press was a great location. A big work table and access to power for my computer. There was a great patio that allowed dogs. Close to my home and on any given day the patrons represented an interesting mix of ages and purposes. And most important, a friendly acknowledging staff.

My Sunday routine was now derailed. Where would I write? I didn’t want to drive too far. There is no shortage of Starbucks but they are just too busy (and the tables too small). My preferred décor, demographic, layout have been mentioned in previous blog posts. I’m quite particular and to the benefit of the operation when I find what I want – loyal.

Matadors isn’t making any money tonight.

With no customers, what is the staff to do? I don’t begrudge them the opportunity to leave their stations and relax. The floor is swept, the tables are tidy. I don’t need to be babysat. It’s a reverse type of customer recognition – they know I will be okay with this. Or at least, they can trust me not to ransack the place.

Periodically they both look through the window towards me. Do they think it odd that I am sitting all alone? Two loan .25 cent coins in the tip jar. Can they survive without the personal income?

Next Sunday I will continue my search for a new writing corner. Ten miles to the north, The Cave Creek Coffee Company is an option. A little closer I been told of a place called Roots. An appropriate name at least. I will explore.

And to the owners of Matadors, hang in there. Our neighborhood needs its independent coffee houses. If only the people would come! Your staff can then appreciate a ‘break’ for what it is meant to be, not an escape from an empty room.

But it’s not an empty room. They’re always that guy sitting alone. Get to know me, I’m a regular.

 

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2011 NaNoWriMo

My third successful year in NaNoWriMo

(National Novel Writing Month)

The lessons learned that I wrote about last year  all still apply.

NaNoWrimo2010

 

There is a great sense of accomplishement having another first draft of a novel to ‘someday’ edit for public consumption.

There were many days where I wanted to sit down and get back to the novel to see what happens next. I think for writers, sometime the role isn’t that much different than being a reader. We crave the story and connect with the characters and are often surprised at what happens next.

A writer writes!….and that’s what I did.

Rowan’s Branch, a novel by Kevin S. Moul

 

 

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Casting for Characters and Drawing Inspiration – Part 2

One of the pleasures of writing in public places is harvesting the fertile surroundings for new characters. When I am feeling sluggish or experiencing what some may define as writer’s block, I pull out my cheap notebook and begin a classic Natalie Goldberg writing prompt.  ‘Before me I see’, ten minutes, go!

On a recent Friday, claustrophobic from being home all day,  I wanted to tackle a third draft of a writing project and sought inspiration with a change of scenery. One of the busier Starbucks in my neighborhood seemed a suitable tonic with the added benefit of being surrounded by dining options, knowing that would be a later internal monologue.

Pen in hand, notebook open and without overthinking (very important, see earlier posts on writing practice), I looked up from my notebook and spotted a woman settling into a chair.  In her late 40’s and at least for the moment she was alone. Individuals, couples, or small groups, all offer a completely different dynamic.

She sat against the south facing window. The low angled late  afternoon sun reflected off the lightly colored walkways and the pale stone  facing of the neighboring building provided a flattering diffused backlight. Through  her crisp white linen blouse, a muslin outline of a slender athletic frame.

Her legs wound up beneath her on the small bistro chair, balancing in a lotus or Bodhisattva posture. She looked straight ahead, her shoulders pushed back as she slowly drew in and exhaled three deep calming breathes. I couldn’t actually hear it, but my mind added the low vibrating exhale that preceded a content smile.

I allowed the scene around her to dissolve, placing her as a halcyon on a rocky crag overlooking a restless ocean. Her coffee scented breath mixing with the salt tinged air. Then the visual shifted to a zafu in a meditation hall deep in a forest, my mind anticipating the sonorous single strike of the gong to end the practice.

Timed with a deeper inhale she gracefully extended her left arm up and in a variation of the Trikonasana yoga pose, she stretched to the right. She continued the vinyasa, the intentional combination of breath and movement on the opposite side and finished with a seated sun salutation.

To my aesthetic, the only thing out of place with her serene presence was that she proceeded to read a retail catalogue or flyer. Such a crass commercial document was out of place in the imaginary world that she now inhabited. Her long slender fingers plucked at the corners to change the pages. She split her attention between the document and looking straight forward absorbed into the emptiness in front of her. At no point did she seem aware of those around her or more importantly, of my writer’s voyeuristic gaze.

She was both somewhere else and very much in contact with the shiny newsprint that slipped dryly between her fingers. Her posture grounded her in the chair, even the geometric floor tiles seemed to support her in this moment.

As the light shifted, so did my impression of her age. At  times much younger and less burdened by experience.

I thought about taking a photograph, wanting the smile and composure to be the essence of a future character in one of my stories. That would be cheating; a writer uses words and I promised that I would devote a journal entry to this discovery.

Confident, absorbed in her happiness, she cast a net and connected with everyone around her. Just looking at her I shifted to sit up straight in my chair, wanting to be more poised and purposeful. She posited without speaking the question, where would I rather be in this moment?

While I have only limited training in Yoga, I don’t believe there are ‘asanas’ (poses) that involve the hair. At least, not until now.  Unfettered, her light brown hair, only a pantone decimal from blonde, hung just below the shoulder, pulled back as to not cover her face. It was thick and moved as would a frayed silk rope, as a whole. She drew it together, grasping the luxuriant thickness, pulling it to both the right and left in a yogic recognition of balance. Then with little more than a flick of her wrist, it was miraculously held aloft by the unseen elastic previously hidden in her palm.

I wanted to be in her space. Returning to my writing project,  I became absorbed in a scene where my character makes fun of what other’s  believed.

A later glance revealed that a computer now occupied her  table top. Her eyes cast downward, her smile replaced with a neutral  countenance. The memory of her earlier affection influenced my perception and I  assigned continued tranquility to the scene.

My writing consumed me for a period of time then with a deep  breath of my own; I resurfaced from the world of my writing project content  with having completed a difficult sequence of dialogue. Her legs were now unfurled  and out from underneath her. With feet resting on the ground, her left leg flexed  slightly, bouncing on the tension of the tendon.

The scene was very different. The wash of her earlier  serenity was gone, sucked up by the computer and the intruding glow of the  words that now consumed her attention. Her lips were pursed, her shoulders  slumped forward, the latitude of her narrowed eyes parallel to grim pursed  lips. She pecked at the keyboard her chest rising in falling, searching for the
once calming breath.

I felt sadness for  her as I packed up my computer. Happy with how my scene had been re-written, I  was flush with reaching my goal, and grateful for the fuel she had provided. I
wouldn’t have thought that she could have been broken.

Now hungry, my plan was to take advantage of the early hour,  be thrifty by seeking out a happy hour special – a margarita and half priced selection of deep fried heart clogging appetizers from some local restaurant.

As I walked I wasn’t ready to give up her gift of serenity  and I found myself redirected toward ‘True Food’, a favorite restaurant with a menu that tips toward healthy eating. Their food  selections are nutritious, flavorful and worth lingering over. Mushrooms, one
of my favorites, abound.

And to make sure that nothing intruded on my mood, I also began with three calming breathes and commitment not to check email or open my computer lest it pull me from this serenity. Only pen and paper were allowed. Very  simply, my goal was to start a journal entry that captured this inspiring woman, and not just for one of my stories, but for me on this writing day.

 

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Wasted Weekend…NOT

“I’m wasting a beautiful sunny weekend when I could be out hiking.”
As writers we study dialogue. What did the person, a writing student, really mean by this comment?
Recently, I sat around a table with ten strangers. On this first day, all I knew of them was their writing. We were all of different genres, skill levels, and in the moment I heard that observation, we obviously came to the event with different levels of commitment. A wasted weekend?
For three days we had come together under the umbrella of the Virginia G. Piper Center at ASU, the 2011 Desert Nights Rising Stars Writing Conference. Delegates had the option to sign up for small group sessions, ten people, each sharing for critique a 20 page manuscript. These “Master” classes were each facilitated by a published author. In my case, the Scottish Writer Jem Poster. He has two novels available in the US market, Courting Shadows, and Rifling Paradise.
The master classes were in addition to an expansive agenda of readings, panel discussions and classes. Certainly not a waste of time but a joyous inoculation, being surrounded by people that for three days would be happy to discuss nothing but writing.
~~~
Here are a few thoughts shared by a talented faculty. Not exacts quote but a selection from my hastily scribbled notes. [Items in square brackets are my own musings but not expressly stated]
Alberto Rios
It is a fertile and fecund world…[Does your writing see everything?]
Magic is a new way of seeing something, a breaking from habit. [This reminded me of a quote, something to the effect, ‘that the most advanced technology in a culture can sometimes appear as magic?]
T.M. McNally
Who would read your fiction if they didn’t have to?
Why do you stop reading?….When something is not real.
If it crosses your mind [as the author] – it probably should cross your characters mind.
Don’t withhold information as a device for creating suspense.
If you need to know it, the reader should know it.
How do you lie? If you want to convince someone of something, use details.
Find a detail that everybody sees but no one notices.
Speak with authority
The only thing that matters is the story.
Story is the ocean, the scene is the wave, and dialogue is the foam
1 word of dialogue = 50 words of prose
1 ‘fuck’ is good for 30 pages
Detail is meaningful in context – think objective correlative.
Antonya Nelson
Revision does not mean removing.
Each revision will still be the first time for the reader.
Create ‘Transitional Draft’ [attributed to Robert Boswell, Antonya Nelson’s Husband and New York Times Bestselling Author]
Only tackle one major change in each revision but do it completely…if it doesn’t work you can go back to the previoous draft and either try again or disregard the change.
[The scattered approach puts ‘being thorough’ at risk. In particulalr if the changes also interact with each other. ]
Tara Ison
My eye loves every word; my ear is more discerning. Read it aloud.
Read each sentence out of context, start at the end and read in reverse order.
What is the best/worst thing that can happen to your character? Then consider that the character may not be aware of this but the author and perhaps the reader knows.
A need will drive behaviour!
What is the ticking clock? What have you imposed upon the character?
These are but a few ideas and inspiration captured over what was an exceptional weekend.  Hardly a wasted moment. Then, for writers, no moment should, or could ever be wasted.
~~~
The Virginia Piper Centre for Creative Writing at ASU organizes the conference (almost annually). More information can be found at
All photos by Kevin S. Moul, © 2011
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No Borders Here

This evening I walked through the chaos that was once a Borders Book Store. Garish yellow clearance signs, half empty shelves, and the cafe dark and stanchioned. This was not just any store, it was my Borders.

There are three things that have surprised me about the recent press articles on the demise of Borders Books. The last two are an important reminder to anyone who runs a service business.

The first, that it was founded in 1971 by brothers with the last name Borders (Tom and Louis). I always thought it was a good name for a book store. I took liberty that it was solely a play on the concept of what a border can be. Books challenge where we draw the line. What are the borders we establish to define our own limits?

When I moved to the US in 2000 I sought to compare Borders and Barnes and Noble with Chapters and Indigo in Canada. Each had its own personality (In Canada, I preferred Indigo, alas they eventually merged). It seemed at the time that Borders carried a more varied inventory and their staff more passionate about reading. I readily admit that my test sample was narrow and I shouldn’t judge any service organization on one or two employees.

My family settled in an area of North Phoenix that was unfortunately void of anything independent. Chain stores ruled in artificial mega malls. I wrote in earlier blogs about my search for a place to pursue my writing,  Where To Write

This is where my second point arises. In all the articles that discuss the management missteps at Borders and how E-publishing dealt the death blow, there has been no mention of customer service at the store level.

If I use myself as a sample demographic, I get a very clear picture on where else Borders went wrong. We are a family of four. My spouse is in a monthly book club and our teenage son is an avid reader. In addition to my own appetite for fiction, I also procure a steady stream of books and magazine on my interests in writing, computers, and photography. In a one year period we consolidated all of our purchases at Borders. I would estimate this to be about 40 titles. In addition, practically every Sunday for over a year I would spend two and half hours writing at the same table in one location in their SBC Café. In addition there was also evenings and sometimes two visits a weekend. At least once a month visited all three Borders in my general area. I doubt there is much argument that my family and I represented a valuable consumer group for both books and Café purchases.

In that year the staff in the café of my main location did an excellent job learning my name and my beverage preferences. I also reached out to interact with the booksellers. It wasn’t difficult to identify those who were in leadership roles. I often asked them questions, at times offered helpful suggestions and in general tried to develop a convivial relationship.

Shortly into my second year, I had an interaction with a female who I believed to be an Assistant Manager. I had spoken to her many times in the previous year. She had no idea who I was and treated me with a dismissive attitude that left me cold. I walked out of the store that day and never returned.

The third and the final wheel to the tricycle that Borders rode to their demise was what didn’t happen next.  For years, information has been the most valuable asset of any organization. The rise of Google illustrates what an expertise in this field can represent. For over a year, Borders captured detailed information about my family and our buying habits. When a steady stream of revenue stopped, I wondered if their systems were intuitive enough to reach out and ask me why. Nothing ever came.

I moved on and switched to Barnes and Noble where technology quickly had me moving again. Not an e-book as you might suspect but the lack of plugs in their café or near their work tables. As my computer has aged, so has the capacity of my battery. This would be a discussion for another day, the failure of store design to keep me as a customer.

If bookstores are to survive, they need to become meeting places and tied into the cultural mosaic of the community they serve. Author’s readings, classes, writing groups, must all be encouraged (even at a price to participate).  They need to connect with people and encourage repeat visits. The paper and ink versions of books will become more of a collectable that an immediate consumable.

Thankfully two independent coffee shops also opened within proximity to my home, and this is where I can happily be found on my writing mornings. And yes, I will be buying an e-reader in the next few months but I don’t think anyone is going to miss me in a book store.

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Mandatory Valentine

What began as a howl towards being told when to celebrate love…quickly descended into something sentimental.  An absence from poetry (12 years!) leaves oneself vulnerable to these arisings.

 Mandatory Valentine

 It’s Legislated

               I have to do this Today?

No Stopping

               But what if I hadn’t slowed down to notice you?

Take a Number

               It felt like that some days.

No U-Turn

               What if you hadn’t come back?

No Re-Entry

               What if we hadn’t tried again? And again?

No Parking

               But what if I hadn’t stayed?

School Zone

               I’m always learning about you.

Stay Off The Grass

               That’s okay there’s always a secluded cove.

No Smoking

               But there is such heat between us.

Do Not Enter

               That was before…

No Firearms Allowed

               But I’m loaded.

No Children Allowed

               We ignored that one

February 14th, tell her you love her, buy her a gift

               The other 364 days don’t matter?

This Offer Has Expired.

               Every day matters.

Closed For The Season

               No.

This Poem was subsequently recognized, with a third place finish in a Poetry Contest hosted by the Quillians Writing Group from the virtual word of Second Life.

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