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Wyrd Words Moonrise 2015 (photo by Stephen H. Segal)

In my last blog entry, I wrote about the song that my kids and I worked on together for the Amanda Palmer Blackout songwriting challenge–our first collaboration, my first songwriting lyric attempt, my 12 year-old-daughter’s first time singing in a public space, my son’s first time working with lyrics for one of his compositions. That’s a lot of firsts.

I’m not a singer, and my daughter enjoys it, so I asked her to be a part of this because it’s summer and I wanted to try making something together; but the truth is, I would have sung the lyrics myself (however poorly) if she hadn’t wanted to be a part of this.

Full disclosure: I’m terrified of singing in public. I have not sung in front of strangers since I was a child and my family teased me about performing “Dites-Moi” too dramatically in the choir at St. Pascal’s grammar school. I think I was 9.

I only started singing in small, private settings in the last few years, ever since the kids were born and I wanted them to feel comfortable singing. I tried to model for them that not having a “good voice” shouldn’t stop their love of making noises and expressing themselves. But have I ever done Karaoke? Nope.

Still, for this, I would have sung.  So what had changed? It’s not the fact that it’s recorded, because the idea of something living online is even scarier than a live performance.

This thought was fresh in my mind after we posted our song entry, when Lana and I started to go through the hundreds of comments to see how other people had responded to Amanda’s challenge. I continued to peruse them last night, and something struck me.

Again and again I read versions of the following in the Patreon comments:

“I’m really nervous…” “I’ve never done anything like this before…” “I only sing in my shower…” “I can’t play an instrument…” “English is not my first language…” “I’m learning how to speak English…” “I’ve always wanted to write a song…” “I was so inspired to try…”

Hundreds of people responded with song lyrics that they wrote, many of them sung into telephones and computers with little or no musical/recording experience. In a week. They made art and shared it with strangers.

There is wisdom in the modern proverb, “Do not read the comments.” Too often, strangers are not kind to those who reveal their vulnerability in a public way. It can be scary even for those those of us who look to have an audience for our voices and ideas. Here were people taking up the challenge to be creative and post it publicly. Even if they couldn’t play an instrument or were afraid to sing or if knew that they would be disqualified because they didn’t fully follow the instructions, still they posted their words and sang their songs.

Why?

Surely many wanted the opportunity to share something with the artist who has given them so much joy and comfort and inspiration. Amanda’s relationship with her fans is special. She works hard at it, and as a writer mama, I respect the way she’s trying to make time for the many relationships in her life now that she’s raising her young son Ash, including the relationship with her fans and collaborators.

It’s a contest, and so some were inspired by the prize and potential recognition, and yet in other contexts, competitions can get ugly. To date, this one has not.

I believe there’s more to it than fandom. Amanda has cultivated her community with a desire to connect, to share unapologetically her life and her self online and in person. Her community of supporters is built on her foundation of vulnerability and acceptance. She does it in a way that is bold and and performative, and it’s not for everyone, but it’s a message that reaches a lot of people looking for a safe place to be themselves, to be seen, to be heard.

The wonderful Brené Brown writes in her book, Daring Greatly,  “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”

It’s interesting, because when a friend heard our song, she told me that she was struck by how vulnerable Lana sounded. She’s right. Hearing our finished song, I felt both protective and proud, and I think it’s because of that creative vulnerability. I asked Stephen his thoughts, and his response was that this community was likely to be mutually supportive–that Amanda Palmer fans weren’t going to tear each other down over a prize.

We’ve all heard stories of how kids get cyber-bullied. I’ve been protective of the kids growing up because of the way that the internet *can* bring out the worst in people. But Stephen was right, this really is different.

Looking at the songwriting entries from all over the world, I was heartened to read people saying supportive things to strangers, offering to help one another. I think that’s really important. There’s a lot of poison out there now, and it was good to see a few more examples that we can do better. I know there are other such communities and online sanctuaries, and I’m grateful to be a part of a few of them; but it’s also easy to get weighed down every day by the many places where we need to work harder to make things better. This was a small moment of hope, and I just wanted to share.

Thank You for Listening

Last week, I heard about the blackout in New York City, 42 years after the Blackout of 1977, which lasted 36 hours. I noted that it was interesting, and went back to typical weekend preparation for the week to come.

The next day, over lunch, I was catching up with social media, and I read about a challenge issued by singer Amanda Palmer to write a song inspired by the blackout… due in a week. (That’s tonight, Sunday, July 21, 2019.) I thought, “It might be fun to collaborate with Liam on that.” Liam, my son, is 14 and has been composing on piano and GarageBand for the past few years, and taking classes with the incredible folks at Access Contemporary Music in Chicago.

But there was the day job to focus on, and life and writing and summertime kid-shlepping, so I tried it put it out of my head again.

Except I couldn’t. The song kept writing itself in my brain, much like poems and stories do. The more I try to not write them, the louder they respond in my head. So… I opened a window and kept jotting down notes.

That night, after putting the kids to bed, I turned sheepishly to Stephen and told him I had written a song, except it had to be under 5 minutes, and it was 10 minutes long (and I had already cut 1/3 of it.)

He laughed and read it over with some suggestions—he’s a wonderful editor—and the next morning before work, I handed the lyrics to Liam and asked if he’d be interested in writing the music. After I explained the challenge and the deadline (thank goodness it’s summer vacation), he enthusiastically agreed; and we asked my youngest, Lana, who’s 12, if she’d like to sing.  She also agreed, and away Liam went—and 24 hours later, we handed Lana the lyrics and music for a four-and-a-half minute song, currently titled “In the Dark.”

If we had another week, my oldest daughter, Maya, would have created animation to accompany the song, but the deadline is tonight, so we’ve posted it with the lyrics to YouTube.

One of the things that I appreciate about Amanda and Neil Gaiman, and their extended circle of creative adventurers, is their eagerness to collaborate and encourage collaboration. It was a collaboration that brought them together, and our mutual friend Kyle Cassidy had a part to play in that—and several other collaborations orchestrated on the internet over the years. I watched with great interest Neil and Amanda’s 8in8 experiment with Ben Folds and OK Go’s Damian Kulash back in 2011, when they committed to work together to try and create and record 8 songs in 8 hours. One of the songs that came out of that, “The Problem With Saints,” is a family favorite.

Liam, Lana, Maya

So this Blackout songwriting challenge provided me with the first actual opportunity to collaborate with my kids, and I’m really proud of them for working together (no small feat for this preteen and teen). It’s our first attempt at doing something like this, Lana’s first try at singing in public (she’s shy), with the added challenge of trying to sing an “Amanda Palmer” song, in a lower vocal register than she would usually sing.

Honestly, I’m not sure I would have been able to do that at their age. While Liam has been composing songs for a few years, they have been instrumental only and usually classical or EDM (electronic dance music). I handed them the lyrics, and they did the rest.

Thank you, Amanda, for being the art catalyst. I love it when art makes ripples like this. In today’s day and age, making good art is as important as ever, and I’m happy to be a part of it, and to show my kids that, working together, we can do amazing things.

I look forward to listening to the other entries now that we’ve submitted ours. If you’d like to review the hundred responses, you can find them on Amanda’s Patreon page: https://www.patreon.com/posts/sunday-contest-28370965

I’ve been smiling all evening because of the absolute joy of this. There are some great entries for the contest, a few submitted by friends of mine; and for me and the kids, it was really never about the destination, but all about the journey. We got to make something together. That is a gift.

It will be fun to see what evolves out of this.

Thank you for listening to this proud Mama.

xxo

 

Remembering Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe passed away last night, April 14, 2019. He was one of the world’s greatest writers, one of my literary heroes and inspiration, and he was my friend. 

Many people have written about his novels and stories, and more will continue to speak about Gene’s incredible talent, his sharp intellect and wit, his brilliant imagination and unforgettable characters. It’s all true and so much more. Gene’s writing bridged literary and genre worlds in a way unlike any other writer. His books and stories will stand the test of time.

When the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame decided to honor a writer for our first lifetime achievement award, the Fuller Award, I had no doubt that it should be Gene Wolfe. Planning that event in 2012 was one of my greatest joys, assembling writers and editors, friends and family, who loved him under one roof. We gathered together in a gilded setting full of mechanical delights (including a giant indoor carousel!) to celebrate the man and his stories. It was a magical evening to honor a remarkable man.

Neil Gaiman presenting Gene Wolfe with the Fuller Award. (Photo by 8 Eyes Photography)

It’s not often that our heroes become our friends, and over the next several years Gene and I had many treasured breakfast and dinner conversations over which we discussed life and literature, parenting and writing. If out-of-town friends were visiting, he always encouraged me to bring them along. It was a joy introducing them to Gene, he was a kind and generous conversationalist, wickedly smart and inspiring. Every conversation was a gift.

Two years ago, I brought the kids to meet Gene. They loved him immediately of course; and Lana, my youngest—the budding storyteller—was especially entranced by his stories. Gene was a master storyteller in life as well as on the page. He transported us back in time to his childhood and his father’s diner in Texas, his college days and the alligator, knife-throwing adventures and pocket knife collecting, his beloved canine companions, and so many other stories over lunch. He ended by insisting upon ice cream for dessert and reassuring my youngest that vanilla was absolutely a valid choice when her siblings teased her. Then he proceeded to tell them all about Madagascar vanilla, which evolved into a conversation about the history and animals of Madagascar.

That’s how conversations with Gene went, hopscotching through time and space, meandering through obscure facts and wonder-filled anecdotes from his incredible memory and experiences. Liam and Gene bonded over cars and rollercoasters. Maya loved him for the way he talked about animals and loved his dog, Miriam. Lana told me afterwards that Gene had a way of being cheeky and serious at the same time. She was absolutely right. Gene had a mischievous grin and the kindest, wisest of eyes.

Gene and I stood in his yard as the kids ran around chasing the dog before our drive back home to Chicago, and I gave him a hug. We talked about how kids need green spaces and he reminded me that they were always welcome to come back and run around. He picked out books for each of them and signed them; and they carried them home with a kind of reverence. They talked about how he was the first “real writer” they had ever met (other than Mom, who didn’t count), and how cool it was that he had written so many books and was still such a nice person. I was happy to share them with Gene, and to share Gene with them. I love when people I love get to connect. That day is another of my most treasured memories.

Gene once told me that one of the purest, happiest moments of his life was driving along the road when he came upon a whole flock of goldfinches in the road. As he approached them in the car, they all flew up. “It was like a gold shower coming up to heaven,” he told me, and went on to emphasize how powerful a moment of joy it was.

Today, I looked up what a flock of goldfinches is called. It’s called a charm, a charm of goldfinches. Finding out that fact is when I started to cry with the loss of my friend, because it was perfect. Gene Wolfe was charming—he delighted and entranced with his stories, and he brought so much happiness into my life and the lives of those who read and loved his words.

Earlier this year, the last time I saw Gene, he shared a story with me about the only double rainbow he had ever seen while driving through Logan, Ohio, where his parents are buried. He had stopped to buy some flowers for their grave, and on the drive into town he saw a double rainbow. Gene explained that if you’re looking for the supernatural, that’s all you need to see to believe in the supernatural.

I cherish both these memories because they capture something that I loved about Gene. Gene Wolfe was a brilliant man with a sophisticated wit and a remarkable mind, but he also had an appreciation for wonder in the world and moments of grace—be they with friends and family, with animal companions, with nature, or with good books.

Teri Goulding pins the boutonnière on her father, Gene Wolfe, at the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame’s Evening to Honor Gene Wolfe. (Photo by Carl Hertz)

What is remembered, lives; and Gene Wolfe will live on forever in his stories and in the hearts of people who adored him. Gene, may your soul soar to join your beloved Rosemary on the wings of goldfinches.