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QUINTESSENCE

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

 

In conversation recently with Marjan Kamali, whose remarkable new novel, THE STATIONERY SHOP was published just this month to great acclaim, Marjan mentioned that part of what she loved about my new novel, SO LONG AS WE'RE TOGETHER, were the distinctions between the truth and the stories the characters tell themselves.
 
Marjan's observation hits the nail on the head: We are our stories and we also are not. All of the characters in my novel are spinning stories out of their pasts. Some because the truth may be what has broken them, or remains impossible to bear; for others, because of the absence of a pathway to healing in the truth. The story is preferable to a more foreboding or nuanced reality.
 
We tell ourselves stories all the time, naturally and without thought. We deliberately construct more livable fictions for ourselves. We edit the memories of our experiences, build happier fantasies for the future. We create myths around things either too difficult, too improbable, or too tragic to live with. Our stories help us survive a dangerous or challenging present, or merely mute the pain and broken places in our lives in a more bearable way. Our myths unconsciously make us larger than life, so that like our heroes, we might rise to whatever monsters or Herculean challenges lie ahead. Stories are powerful ways of shifting borders and identities, and in truth, we may get into trouble when we lose sight of what is real.
 
What interested me in telling the story of the musical Stone family in SO LONG AS WE'RE TOGETHER was the complicated nature of each character's relationship with the truth. For the Stone women, the remaking of the personal had become a way to cope with the unthinkable. Their chosen narratives born of wishful thinking or sheer ambition; a way to dodge an unbearable truth. What omissions, what lies, I wondered, had they felt must be told to protect one another? To move forward. And the origins of their stories—what dark elements of family lore or brute practicality play forward through the generations. Were there impulses of unacknowledged guilt or primitive self-protection? Even genuine ignorance?
 
For the reader threading apart the Stone family tales of omission, truth, and lies, the implications of secrecy—when truth is backed up against survival—raises profound questions. What stories born of misguided intention have nonetheless become a thing of beauty across the grain of old scars—a kind of patina over the past—and what untruths must yet be unraveled for each of these characters to heal and find happiness.
 
I hope as you read SO LONG AS WE'RE TOGETHER you will ponder if perhaps all of our stories are a kind of music of the heart. A melody we weave, singly and together.

 

 

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How Close is Close, Character Twin Dynamics


 Marley and Andi Stone, the singer-songwriter country duo of my novel, SO LONG AS WE'RE TOGETHER, are fraternal twins, as well as Geminis, born in June. Twinned twice, as it were. Why did I choose characters who were twins? To deepen the elements of connection and natural sibling competition. I wanted the main characters of my novel to be sisters, close in age, and bonded by both an unconventional childhood and their conjoined careers as family musicians.
 
Twin statistics are interesting. There are two-thirds more fraternal twins than identical, and in total, twins account for about 23% of births per thousand in the world. And while "identical" is a given for identical twins biologically-speaking, the range of "perceived likeness" is considerable for both groups. Fraternal twins can be quite similar, or as different as normal siblings might be. And identical twins can prove the fact, or it's contrary, for any "nature versus nurture" argument. What interested me about the dynamics between twins, not being one myself but growing up knowing several, was the complex subtlety of always being both close and too close. The tension between the dependency and comfort in having someone in your life who knows you almost as well as you know yourself, and the potential pyschic claustrophobia—the challenge to establish your own independence and uniqueness when there is literally double of everything "you" in your family life. Twins are often quite close as children, and then push apart in late-adolescence and in their twenties, sick of being "the twins" and seeking an independent identity. Most then return to the twin bond as life leads back toward supporting one another in their own special way. Twins often feel they are their own sibling bedrock within fluctuating family dynamics.
 
As Geminis, assuming you don't mind my throwing some astrology into the country music mix, the girls stepped out in full character: expressive, lively, adaptable, humorous, clever, sociable, curious, whimsical, independent, brainy, and charming. But also scattered, moody, shallow, inquisitive, opportunistic, selfish, fragile, inconsistent, and changeable. Marley is my songwriter, and Andi, my singer: two girls who feel as Keith Richards put it, "Music is a language that doesn't speak in particular words. It speaks in emotions, and if it's in the bones, it's in the bones." 
 
And actually, there is some truth to that as it pertains to twins in the music industry. A quick search yields some fascinating examples: Lorretta Lynn's two youngest daughters, the twins Peggy and Patsy Lynn performing as The Lynn Sisters; the Hager Brothers, twins Jim and Jon of Hee Haw fame, Robin and Maurice Gibbs of the Bee Gees; and the Russian Eurovision stars Anastasiya and Maria Andreyevna, to name just a handful. Twins seem to gravitate into musical careers from early childhood over other arts like dance, acting, and writing, or pursuits like politics, modeling, or television. Family bands are not unusual, but is there something in the fluidity between songwriting and vocal and instrument performance that particularly allows twins to express their common gifts and yet create distinct identities within their shared art? I envisioned the Stone sisters' band, The Andi Stone Tour, as a vehicle for setting these characters loose in a setting that would expose talents as well as artistic conflicts.
 
Oftentimes the myths and romance of twinning overshadow the realities. The allusion to "twin radar" for example—one sibling knowing without communicating what the other is thinking or needs; the "two halves make a whole" suggested codependence; even the belief that twin life is sprinkled with "extras" in whatever way one can think of—from the ability to pull pranks to an organ donor match. But what research and experiences with my twin friends taught me is that twins often struggle as they come-of-age—when they are less likely to be alike and more inclined to develop differences, naturally or deliberately. This natural need for self-assertion became the subtle narrative framework for my fictional singer-songwriter duo: Andi and Marley were growing up in the context of professional country music, bound by the constraints of continuously working together; and later as adults, by the complicating reality of one sister becoming more powerful, visible, and wealthy in their shared music life. How this imbalance affected Marley and Andi's personal lives would underscore how the sisters grapple with a sudden and devastating family tragedy.
 
It is my hope that when you read SO LONG AS WE'RE TOGETHER, you will believe that not only do Marley and Andi know the music is "in their bones," but they are—for forever and always—the Stone sisters.

 

 

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Family Dynamics, The Dark and The Light

David Salle, Playing, Dreaming, 2015  [oil, acrylic, crayon, and archival digital print on linen]

 

Tolstoy wrote in his novel Anna Karenina, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." When we think of family dynamics and the poignant mix of affection and dysfunction present in lifelong relationship, we understand why novelists, poets, playwrights, and creatives in general mine the undercurrents of human unhappiness that sometimes transform into resilient joy. This was the case when I began my novel SO LONG AS WE'RE TOGETHER. I knew the themes of the novel would be survival, forgiveness, redemption, secrecy, and the ties that bind. But I wasn't yet certain if the secrets of the Stone family would crumble or shore up the foundation of the love they felt for one another and their shared life in music.
 
I was wrestling with dynamics of light and dark. As the painter David Salle wrote, "The subject exists inside of its shadows. That's part of the way we see the subject. It's not about dragging something out into the light, some glaring gaze. It's about something being developed or caressed by shadows, or revealed within shadows, or just falling onto shadow." Standing before Salle's painting Playing, Dreaming, 2015 on exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Boston a few years back, I understood family dynamics are similarly marked by positive and negative space interactions. My novel could not solely circumscribe complex characters and their long-held secrets but must explore the effect of one upon the other—changes in fortune and changes within, and their subtleties.
 
We have the shadow and we have the light.
 
When plot is taken down a notch, and the narrative becomes voice-driven and language-heavy, the literal and the figurative meet. What is harsh, ugly, or mysterious in the human experience may be illuminated by language. I thought about the power of secrets to drive narrative—the most common of plot points—and about the finer point I wanted to make about human happiness. I made a decision to place the Stone family secrets in the wings, slightly off-stage in the narrative. Yes, we know there is something there, but our priority is getting to know the Stone family­—Marley, Andi, and their mother Donna—rather than reading ahead to tease out plot points. We root for our heroines as they seek their way out of the shadows. And when we finally understand what the family has been dealing with, the revelation is the more profound for our connection to the characters and theirs to one another.
 
The way families connect, as the work of both Tolstoy and Salle observe, that is, despite and through difficulty, underscores a profound human truth. We are each our own unique mix of light and dark. And how we harmonize those aspects (or don't) render what is always a nuanced happiness. Writing family dynamics, the dark elements are where we find a mark in history, a leavening, a moral, the proverbial fork in the road. The Stone women exist, fully and richly, inside their secrets. And we love our characters all the more for what is revealed within those shadows. 

 

 

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The Music in Narrative

 

Alone he is a solo for piano that never comes to an end,

a small plane that keeps flying away from the earth.

He is the last line of a poem that continues off the page

and down to a river to drag there in the cool flow,

 

questioning the still pools with its silver hook.

 

––from "Going Out for Cigarettes," Billy Collins
 
This is the first post in a series of personal "notes from the author" as we head toward the publication of my newest novel, SO LONG AS WE'RE TOGETHER, from Black Opal Books in September of this year. In my books I have frequently written about artists and the drive to produce creative work. A confluence of passion and obsession, and at times sacrifice, that cuts deep to the bone and may be as ruinous as it is successful. In previous novels I have written about sculptors (Loose Threads), and classical cellists and photographers (Exposures). In the process of writing each book I learned something about our fierce and brilliant, if fragile, humanity. In my new novel I delve into the performance world of country music, telling the story of the Stone twins, Andi and Marley Stone, and their rise from the singing kid stars on collapsible fairground stages across the west to complex seasoned performers taking the stage at the Country Music Awards.

 

In researching this book, I delved into the professional and technical aspects of songwriting and vocal performance, the thrill and disappointments of a life on stage, and the ways music like a balm may bring healing to the human heart. I held an image in my mind of an out-of-luck family living on the road; of an eccentric and erratic single mother hellbent to survive. Donna Stone lived on caffeine, her wits, and sheer ambition. She relentlessly promoted the musical talent of her girls –– yet Donna would stop at nothing to protect her daughters from harm. This idea grew to become a story of the bond between sisters, a mother's fierce love, and the dark power of secrets.

 

A story of love and what might break it.

 

In my novel, writing and composing country music lyrics anchor the life of one sister in particular. The synergy––even the synesthesia between words and music––and the transformational power of lyric vocals was very much on my mind as I developed the characters of Andi and Marley Stone. 

 

A few months back, as some of you may have read, I spoke with New York Times bestselling novelist Caroline Leavitt –– This is You, Cruel Beautiful World –– on her blog about SO LONG AS WE'RE TOGETHER, exploring the interconnected power of music and writing. [Link: carolineleavittville.blogspot.com/Burgess]  Here is what I wrote about music and writing:
 
Debussy was said to have painted music, Sibelius heard compositions as a symphony of color. As I worked on my country music novel, SO LONG AS WE'RE TOGETHER, I realized I was beginning to hear unspoken words within the music, not just the music of words. Language has always possessed musicality—and naturally and effortlessly transforms into the lyric, the song—but for me it was a unique experience to think about songwriting, melody, and a novel's narrative all from the point of view of a musician. What story does a line of notes tell when there are as yet no lyrics, when the song says nothing at all?
 
When words do partner with a melody there is a dance between meaning and feeling. We understand words, however we feel music. What becomes important? What is said, or left unsaid? Conveyed through language or simply through the notes of the song? 
 
I determined to make a deliberate effort in my narrative to infuse in the landscape, scenes, and in dialog, echoes of the musical performances of my country music duo, Marley and Andi Stone. I felt the twin sisters' music was as much a character in their story as the lake in the novel, or Donna, their mother. That for some characters, what they seek speaks their piece in the world.  Marley leaves heartbreak at the keyboard, finds hope in an inspired melody. Andi defines a world for herself by singing it into being. Donna pushes back a hard and disappointing life listening to the jubilation in the notes and verses of others. I considered the novel's narrative as a musical composition between all the parts of the story and an original melody took root in the pages, from the opening note to the last.
 
Many writers read their work aloud in draft to catch a lagging clause or repetitive word, dull sections, or run-on sentences. I read this entire novel aloud, by scene and section, and in a series of chapters at a time. Multiple times. Listening to the narrative was quite literal for me. I paced my small study as I read, attuned to the music in the words. The lake country as well as country music defined the Stone girls and I listened for that thread on every page. My hope is that when you read this novel, it will sing for you too.

 

I'm so looking forward to sharing this novel with you. Until then, here's to that "last line of a poem that continues off the page." 

 

May the music of your own words carry you through. 

 


 

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Father's Day

Capt. Thomas Kelsey Burgess, Sandia AFB, New Mexico

 

my lost father
by Lucille Clifton

see where he moves
he leaves a wake of tears
see in the path of his going
the banners of regret
see just above him the cloud
of welcome see him rise
see him enter the company
of husbands fathers sons





My father and me.
I lost this lovely man when he was but forty-five, and I was turning twenty. I've missed him all my life.

Happy Father's Day, Daddy.

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Wings

 

WINGS
I saw the heron
poise
like a branch of white petals
in the swamp,

in the mud that lies
like a glaze,
in the water
that swirls its pale panels

of reflected clouds;
I saw the heron shaking
its damp wings -
and then I felt

an explosion -
a pain -
also a happiness
I can hardly mention

as I slid free -
as I saw the world
through those yellow eyes -
as I stood like that, rippling,

under the mottled sky
of the evening
that was beginning to throw
its dense shadows.

No! said my heart, and drew back.
But my bones knew something wonderful
about the darkness-
and they thrashed in their cords,

they fought, they wanted
to lie down in that silky mash
of the swamp, the sooner
to fly.

~ Mary Oliver

There is something about the delicacy of the transitions from spring into early summer and then from summer into late fall that always remind me of the poetry of Mary Oliver. The way in which Oliver captures the voice and imprint of the unseen; the song of living things, the guardian silence of the skies. When I read this poem, it reminds me of my late husband Ken, who passed away in 2003. His presence still among us is the heron at the water's edge below the cliffs where he is buried. For a week after his death, a single gray heron waited there at the river's elbow, braced against the rushing waters. Still and tranquil, it watched us where we stood on the bluff above him, mute with grief. Eventually on the last day, as twilight fell to its deepest hue, our heron spread its feathered wings and rose into the sky. Lost in the dark.

All of us sing an unfamiliar song when it comes to life. We receive, we give. We perhaps only imperfectly hear the melody as we progress through the years. But how important it is that we celebrate life. Cherish family, love, the accomplishment of big dreams. The having of big dreams. The still moments though they become years. The translucent ice newly veined with cracks. The reflecting clouds. The trace of the past like the taste of cold water in an iron cup. The bloom, and the fossil. The liminal presence.

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A Memorial Day, Then and Now

 

And still it is not enough, to have memories. One must be able to forget them when they are many, and one must have the immense patience to wait till they are come again. For the memories themselves are still nothing. Not till they have turned to blood within us, to glance and gesture, nameless and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves - not till then can it happen that in a most rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them.
~ Rainer Maria Rilke

I found myself reading back through old journals this week, thinking about Memorial Day. I stopped on one from seven years ago. Those of you who know me, know that I come from a long tradition of military service, and have many generations of family members, including my father, who lie in military cemeteries in the United States and around the world. Here is part of what I wrote in 2011:

My husband is buried above the wild and tumultuous Spokane River, downriver from the traintrestle bridges. Freight trains roll high above the river, making their way across the continental U.S. Great diesels haul palettes of stacked container goods and seemingly endless chains of barrel cars of crops, oil and chemicals, and the double-decker slatted stock cars. The cars sway down the tracks and then disappear from view through narrow granite cuts in the basalt mountains. We called them "wishing trains," because we'd whisper secret wishes crisscrossing the roads beneath them as they passed. My husband liked the idea that for all eternity he would lie beside the wide, wild Spokane River, in view of those industrious magical trains. Nature and commerce. Chaos and fortune. Our lives are ruled by them.

On this day, Memorial Day, breezes wave ribbons of color along narrow cemetery paths lined with the stars and stripes. Families, lost looks on their faces, clutch plot grids and wander the treed acres looking for their buried. The hands of little ones are tucked in the hands of grownups; in the little fists small flags or bunches of garden lilacs. America does not forget its loved ones. It does not forget its soldiers. Yet the numbers buried in the green shade seem to swell in a continuous sea of monuments. Already a newly engraved stone, a simple bench, stands next to my husband's. A nineteen year old boy, lost in Afghanistan. Someone's son, someone's brother. There are two flags flying in his honor, on the grass the gift of a baseball mitt.

Bending low, I place a flag in the ground the requisite distance (a boot length away) from my husband's marker. A Vietnam era Air Force veteran, he was proud of his service. I couldn't help but think of our own boy, now twenty, at the US Naval Academy, his life at a crux point as well. National service opens us to community beyond family. Opens us to our shared identity as American citizens. In the fall my daughter will run her first half-marathon for Team USO, proud of our soldiers, her brother, her father, and all those whose names she does not know. Those who came before her and follow her now, hands open and ready to do whatever work needs doing. Whether serving in the military, the Peace Corps, Teach for America, the USO, or organizations like Doctors Without Borders or the Red Cross, let us take a moment to thank the persons we meet giving of themselves to America and to the needs of the world.


In the time since I wrote this, my daughter has become a physician, committed to the well-being and needs of others. My son has become an electrical engineer, using science in the invention and service of technology and art. Their father still lies beside the murmuring river downriver from the rumbling trains. Time has passed, and things have changed. And yet, the families come to the cemetery this and every Memorial Day, bearing their tiny flags and garden flowers.

Let the poems of memories carry the day. Whomever it is you think of on this day, whomever it is you miss, I know you will find peace in the devotions of remembrance. I give you love.

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Into the Next

Actium, western Greece. Where Cleopatra and Marcus Antonius came in from the sea
THE NEXT TIME
BY Mark Strand

Nobody sees it happening, but the architecture of our time
Is becoming the architecture of the next time. And the dazzle

Of light upon the waters is as nothing beside the changes
Wrought therein, just as our waywardness means

Nothing against the steady pull of things over the edge.
Nobody can stop the flow, but nobody can start it either.

Time slips by; our sorrows do not turn into poems,
And what is invisible stays that way. Desire has fled,

Leaving only a trace of perfume in its wake,
And so many people we loved have gone,

And no voice comes from outer space, from the folds
Of dust and carpets of wind to tell us that this

Is the way it was meant to happen, that if we only knew
How long the ruins would last we would never complain.


There is a deep truth about this poem. The poet, Mark Stand, has taken the idea of time and its passage and said something interesting about passage. Time is both a physical and experiential transition, a flow of moments here and gone, a cosmic bookmark continuously placed anew. We think of time as dynamic. But do we also experience time as architecture, nested windows of life, sometimes a ghost? Strand envisions time as the inexorable tumble of what was into what is. That "then and now" coexist, ever so briefly, before what is is then no more. THE NEXT TIME is a poem of moments. A poem that says be now. Let go.

The last sentence of Strand's poem is particularly poignant:
It is the way it was meant to happen, that if we only knew
How long the ruins would last we would never complain.


The architecture of time is beautiful. A long and vaulted hall. A soaring, columned esplanade forever arcing into the distance. Strand writes of the pull. We cannot stop, nor begin, time's flow. Time loosens our grip even as we claim it; pries loose our fingers. We struggle, lament, and then finally abandon our monuments, let go our losses, release our loves. The ring of footsteps swallowed in silence. The culmination of expired tomorrows behind us.

Measured hours lean into the next and the next.

A trace of perfume. How long the ruins last.


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Blossoms from Regrets

A wild thistle of Sicily
I thought of all the pain and how we met
Late in our lives yet lavishly at ease,
Having assumed an end to old regret..."


- from "The Balcony," May Sarton, 1980

Old Regret.

Sorrow chipped away over the passing years by forgetfulness or forgiveness, buried in moments and years we might choose not to remember. Large hearts of darkness. Is there an end to old regret?

These few lines of May Sarton's poem "The Balcony" expose rich layers of meaning. One voice of a couple, of a certain age perhaps, or world weariness, acknowledging the accidental accumulated joys and pains of life. Words that hint to the years past, to damaged relationships, shaded losses. Longed-for opportunities swept away with the passage of time.

"The Balcony" ends with this final tribute, And out of deprivation, a huge flower. What an exquisite image. The heart in its layered translucent suffering, finally and fully comprehended. From the wisdom of acceptance, this extravagant beauty.

There is a thread of durability in the poem's voice. How do we find within ourselves the strength and desire to carry on? To start over from the disappointments of the past? John F. Kennedy described his father, after the elder man's stroke, saying, "Old age is a shipwreck." Yet we feel from Sarton's words that perhaps the collection of years is not limit but context. We are always beginning. Over and again. In life, in work, in love. The passage of time has worn lines upon our foreheads, to be sure. But the times we regret -- lost, burnt, wasted, empty, wronged, violated, wounded, misspent -- needn't be the only melody of the heart. I love the thought that releasing regrets might allow us to blossom, "lavishly at ease."

Here is May Sarton's entire poem. Enjoy.

THE BALCONY
by May Sarton /after Baudelaire

Lover of silence, muse of the mysteries,
You will remember how we supped each night
There on your balcony high in the trees
Where a heraldic lion took late light,
Lover of silence, muse of the mysteries.

The big dogs slumbered near us like good bears;
The old cat begged a morsel from my plate,
And all around leaves stirred in the warm airs
Breathed from the valley as the red sun set.
The big dogs slumbered near us like good bears.

I thought of all the pain and how we met
Late in our lives yet lavishly at ease,
Having assumed an end to old regret
In the eternal presence of the trees -
I thought of all the pain and how we met.

There every night we drank deep of the wine
And our love, still without history,
Yet the completion of some real design
Earned with much thought, muse of the mystery.
There every night we drank deep of the wine.

While out of deprivation a huge flower,
The evening's passion, was about to bloom.
Such intimacy held us in its power
The long years vanished in a little room,
And out of deprivation, a huge flower.

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Old Regret and Lavish Ease

I thought of all the pain and how we met
Late in our lives yet lavishly at ease,
Having assumed an end to old regret...


- from "The Balcony," May Sarton, 1980

These words carry rich layers of meaning. Here we meet a couple at the theatre, one voice, acknowledging the joy and pain of life lived. Their mistakes and dashed hopes washed to the faintest of outlines by the passage of time. A lifetime of opportunities lost. And yet somehow, in the fullness of release, unexpected late love.

These lines are from May Sarton's longer poem "The Balcony" which ends with this final image, And out of deprivation, a huge flower. Exquisitely beautiful. Words drenched in a translucent grace fully comprehended by the unknown speaker. In the wisdom of all that has come before, beauty.

We must find for ourselves the strength and desire to carry on. To begin again, to renew, starting over from disappointments past. I do not believe the sediments of personal history must pile ever higher within us, condemning our hearts to an inevitable jam in forward motion, an inward collapse from accumulated debris. Nor do I believe that world events freely form the personal, or that age alone steals from us anything we do not give away.

John F. Kennedy once described his father after his stroke, saying, "Old age is a shipwreck." Yet from Sarton's words, I imagine old age as neither the limit nor the context. Age is a translation of experience. It is an arrival. A departure. A point along the living way. We are always beginning. In life, in work, in love. Over and again, the passage of time lies worn in the lines on our foreheads. But time itself -- lost, found, burnt, wasted, empty, celebrated, shortened or prolonged -- needn't mark the melody of the heart. I love the thought that when regrets are tallied and done, thrown over our shoulders in daring abandon, we may at last arrive lavishly at ease.

Time is a construct. Our bodies physical. Each life an interplay of the two, mapped by love. Out of all that has come to pass we may find cupped in our hands a spectacular bloom.


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