Seven Songs that Will Make you Want to Write

For those of you who don’t already know, I have really good taste in music. Also, I’m totally stellar when it comes to making playlists. Seriously…stellar. I like to think I’m also pretty gifted at mixing musical genres and uncovering delightful songs and artists under the radar. And so it is with great pleasure that I present to you today seven songs you’ve perhaps never heard of that will absolutely make you want to write. Get out the pen and paper now, folks. It’s going to be fantastic.

1. The Narrative – Don’t Want to Fall

The Narrative is one of my favorite indie/folk finds of the year. The duo is extraordinarily talented musically and lyrically. Their songs are so impressive that I had a hard time choosing just one that would make you want to write. They are all, to me, such compelling representations of the unspoken words and conflicting feelings that occur between lovers. Writing an emotionally-charged scene between a character and his/her love interest? Play The Narrative over and over again in the background. I challenge you not to be inspired.

2. EarlyRise – Narcissistic Cannibal

What’s not to love about an independent, nu metal, female-fronted band out of Tel Aviv, Israel? I am completely hooked on this group’s heavy musical style, melodic vocals, and haunting lyrics. And while their self-produced album “What If” is quite satisfying, the song I chose to represent them on this list is actually a cover of a song by Korn. And it is epic.

3. Icon for Hire – The Grey

I’m thrilled that this group is steadily gaining more mainstream traction. They’ve certainly earned it. Both of their full-length albums are phenomenal, blending a mixture of pop, punk, and rap. Lead singer Ariel can belt it, and her lyrics are truly captivating. Bonus: she also designs her own clothing line. This song, “The Grey,” is seriously one of my favorite writing jams. Just don’t adopt it as an anthem for your main character, because I’ve already called it. Respect the “dibs” system, please!

4. Eppic & Lindsey Stirling – By No Means

Surely you’ve heard of Lindsey Stirling. I sincerely hope you have. She’s a wonderfully creative violinist and performer who also seems to do a fair amount of genre hopping herself. For this list, though, I wanted to showcase one of her lesser-known tracks, a collaboration with a hip hop artist who goes by the name “Eppic.” If this song doesn’t stir your blood, you are by no means allowing enough creative energy into your life. By, by no means.

5. Emery – Butcher’s Mouth

I’ve been a long-time fan of Emery. They’re another group that’s difficult to define in terms of genre, with songs fluctuating from powerful rock riffs to melodic screamo harmonization. Each is musically complex and lyrically solid. And while you may not typically consider screamo as an effective background medium for writing, I promise you there is a time and a place for it. And when you come across those occasions, songs like this one fit just perfectly.

6. Falling Up – Islander

I’m personally more a fan of Falling Up’s earlier work, but they are nonetheless impressive as their sound has evolved over time. The older stuff makes for a super backdrop for spacey, sic-fi inspired melodrama. See for yourself.

7. Mutemath – Clipping

Mutemath is another act you might have heard of. If so, you may be familiar with their song “Spotlight,” featured on the Twilight movie soundtrack. If that’s all you’ve heard, I urge you to listen to the full breadth of this band’s work. It is intelligent, fun, and catchy. The song I feature here, “Clipping,” sets a mesmerizing atmosphere for a main character’s inner turmoil. On a related note, if you catch that the lead singer of Mutemath was also the frontman for a delicious little Christian rock band called Earthsuit about a decade ago, I will give you a high five. (That’s quite an offer, because I hate high fives.)

There are many other artists and songs I didn’t include here that also deserve a place on your writing playlists. I truly believe a good playlist is a key ingredient for inspiring creativity. So whatever kind of music catches your fancy, bathe deeply in it, my friend!

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The Artist and the Activist

I have always been jealous of the natural artist. If you can sketch a perfect likeness of something onto a scrap of paper…if you can sing like the angels…if you can pick up a guitar and teach yourself how to play it…then I pretty much hate you. The artist has something I’ve always longed for: The ability to devote herself to the creation of something beautiful and have that thing actually be beautiful by the time she is finished.

I’ve never seen myself as a natural artist. But I’ve always felt a thrill when I’ve allowed myself to create. How strange, then, that in recent years I’ve spent so much energy denying myself the pursuit of creative endeavors.

There was a time when all I wanted to be was a writer. It’s what I did in my spare time. It’s what made me come alive. It fed my soul.

It’s no wonder that when I headed off to college, I planned to major in English. That plan changed in the matter of a semester, however. I started volunteering in the local community, and by so doing, I found that oppression broke my heart more than written words could mend. Writing was no longer enough for me. I needed to do something. The world was hurting, and it could not wait to be healed. So I switched majors to social work. Then I got a graduate degree. Then I worked in social services for four years.

I’ve been recovering ever since.

It’s not that I regret my decision to pursue social work, or that I no longer desire to see justice for the poor and marginalized. What I do regret, though, is the lie I’ve been believing ever since that day I switched my major: That my writing and my creativity isn’t enough. That one part of my heart must be expressed only at the expense of the other. That these are separate things, and not actually two halves of one whole.

Relinquishing this lie is so difficult. As a social worker, I can measure my efforts to make a difference in the world. Things are more tangible, more visible. But as a writer, I can’t define the impact I’m making. I can’t know for sure whether my words are making a difference to any single human being. I find I long so desperately for this assurance, and I struggle with guilt when I invest my time in anything that doesn’t lead to it. At the same time, I know the person I am when I reject my desire to write, my passion to create. I am imbalanced. I am incomplete.

I am exhausted.

My words may never actually heal the societal wounds of poverty, oppression, and prejudice. My writing may never produce a measurable outcome that can be studied, examined, and replicated for future success. But I have to believe that I’m wired this way for a reason. I have to believe that there is something inherently pure and holy about engaging in the art of creation and intertwining that with a longing for activism and social change. I haven’t quite figured out what this looks like yet, or how exactly I can use it for the good of mankind. But while I’m working that out, I do know that I don’t want to deny the artist within me. I don’t want her to suffocate, to wither away and die from neglect.

I want to make art.

And I want to make change.

And so I will keep striving for both of these things, together, until I see them happen.

Introducing my New Side Project

Hey all! Just wanted to share a quick announcement with you. I’ve started a new blogging side project, “Girl Wrestles With God.” It’s an opportunity for me to delve deeper into some of the more intimate questions I ask of my faith. Don’t worry, there will still be plenty of that sort of thing going on here at my main blog site, but I’m excited to have another space solely devoted to this topic.

You can read my first post on “Girl Wrestles With God” here. You can also read the vision behind the blog here.

I hope you’ll join in on the conversation. It’s going to be a whole lot of messy and a whole lot of fun!

Why I Write Science Fiction

Not too long ago, a good friend of mine asked me a question.  She wanted to know why I preferred to write science fiction.  It was a valid question, but it caught me off guard.

You see, I hadn’t realized that I was writing science fiction at all.

When I set out to finally commit to writing a manuscript for a novel, I knew what genre I wanted to write.  Of course it had to be dystopian.  Dystopia incorporates all the things I love in a good story–heroism, defiance against a repressive status quo, drama, suspense, and a fierce exploration of the darker side of human society.  Plus, it’s all the rage right now.  So that’s an added bonus.

When others asked me about my novel, I was quick to describe it as dystopian.  But if I’m being honest with myself (which is something that I tend to avoid), I felt a bit unsettled with this label, especially as the plot and the setting developed further.  Still, I never would have categorized it as science fiction.  The thought didn’t even cross my mind.

As with most things, there is a reason for this, one that I wasn’t aware of until my friend asked me this very good question.

I started reflecting on what I believed science fiction to be.  Growing up, I devoured science fiction movies, books, and TV shows.  I was obsessed with all things futuristic, set in space, and involving alien beings.  I realize now, however, the problem I got sucked into during my youth: believing that science fiction only encompasses such things.

I know now that science fiction, when done right, is a fascinating exploration of any conflict or scenario that can be traced back to actual science.  It doesn’t have to involve aliens or robots.  It doesn’t always take place in the future.  Spaceships are not necessary, and neither is time travel.  It is, in fact, so much simpler than I once believed.  Science fiction is just that–a fictional story based in scientific fact.

So why are such images rooted so deeply into my way of thinking?  I don’t believe I’m the only one who struggles with this bias.  Even more confusing is the fact that science fiction novels are often lumped within the “fantasy” section of bookstores.  Not that a story can’t be both–in fact, I would love to see these two categories converge more.  But I admittedly get a little upset when a novel that is actually more like fantasy is considered science fiction.

For all of these reasons, I’ve been hesitant to label my novel with the often misleading descriptive “science fiction.”  But the more I think about it, the more willing I am to change my attitude about this.  I am, after all, a scientist myself.  I’m earning a doctorate degree in public health, and the things that I am learning and experiencing in this field created the very blueprints for the setting of my story.  My hunger for getting others interested in science is something that I am increasingly unable to ignore.  And in the process, I’m realizing that I do, in fact, want to write science fiction.  I want to help take back the true meaning of the genre, the one founded upon by the likes of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells.  I want to base my stories as much as possible in actual scientific fact.  I want readers to come away with the haunting yet scintillating notion that the worlds we dream of are not as distant from our reality as we might choose to believe.

I still love dystopia.  And you probably could classify my novel by using that label.  But I’ve decided I want to choose a different one.

I’d like to call it science fiction.

Note: I’m thrilled to see a growing number of young adult fiction authors who are striving to emphasize scientific fact in their works.  My hero in this endeavor is Lydia Kang, physician and author of Control.  I absolutely loved Control, and I highly recommend it for anyone who hungers for more of that blurry line between science fiction and reality.  Lydia Kang also created a blog that aims to help writers imbue their works with more medical accuracy.  I am so grateful for the efforts of talented authors such as she for inspiring the rest of us who hope to someday be that cool.

*Also, special thanks to Dharshi Devendran for always asking me the right kind of questions.

White Privilege in YA Fiction

Disclaimer:  This post might make you squirm uncomfortably.  Especially if you, like me, are a white kid with a middle-class upbringing.  If you are not in the mood to read something that might challenge your way of thinking, I would be happy to direct you to a weblink with much more tame content here.

As a social work graduate student, I took a course on diverse populations.  One of our required readings was White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh.  In case you’re not familiar with her essay, McIntosh basically lays out a long list of the race-related privileges whites have in the U.S.  Some of these are large-scale, while others are a bit more subtle.  Here are a few examples:

“I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race.”

“I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.”

“I can chose blemish cover or bandages in ‘flesh’ color and have them more or less match my skin.”

Are you squirming yet?  I certainly was (and still am).  It was an eye-opening experience for me, one that has changed the kinds of things I pay attention to and forced me to ask myself difficult questions about how I should respond.

I know Ms. McIntosh did not intend to write an exhaustive list of white privilege.  And so, with utmost respect to her, I’d like to add a few more conditions:

I can select a book from my favorite genre and feel confident that a significant character will reflect someone of my race.

I can trust that my children will be able to identify with the heroes and heroines of their favorite novels not simply on the basis of their personalities and challenges but also because of their appearances.

The lack of diversity in young adult and children’s fiction is astounding.  Did you know that only 10% of children’s books published feature racial and ethnic minorities?  And even when racially diverse characters are featured, they are seldom the main characters in their stories.

This, my friends, is unacceptable.

There are many layers to this issue, many obstacles to overcome in order for it to be resolved.  And I sure don’t have all the solutions.  But I do have a few humble ideas.

First is for those of us who write.  We need to challenge ourselves to ask honest and difficult questions about our characters.  We need to be willing to question why we’ve assigned specific races or cultural identities to them.  And if our characters’ racial identities are all the same, we need to have a sense of holy unrest about it.

It was a struggle for me to write a first person narrative from the perspective of a bicultural inner-city Latina youth.  I’m quite sure I got a lot of things wrong in the process.  So I’m taking the manuscript to those who can inform this perspective, who can correct my awful Spanish, who can tell me all the errors I made.  And though I know it’s going to be a hit to my pride to do this, I believe it’s worth it.  It’s risky, it’s challenging…but it’s a story that needs to be told.  My fear of getting it wrong isn’t justification enough to keep my character’s voice silent.

The work is perhaps even harder for those of us who read.  There’s a reason why the books that are published reflect the races and ethnicities that they do.  Publishing is a demand-based industry.  Therefore, those of us who read YA fiction have a responsibility to demand more diversity in our characters.  We can make noise about this problem instead of playing the role of mindless consumer.  We can support publishing companies that make concerted efforts to feature stories that showcase diverse characters, like Lee and Low Books.  Like so many of our favored YA fiction heroes and heroines, we can make our voices heard in the face of an unjust system.

Of course, white privilege in literature is only one aspect of diversity that is lacking in YA and children’s fiction.  There are many others:  gender role privilege, properly proportioned body type privilege, fully functioning appendages privilege, and the like.  None of these is to be taken lightly.  All are deserving of our attention.  I believe that ultimately, the books we publish and the books we demand to read reflect the values of our culture and society.

Ms. McIntosh, as it turns out, had something to say about this too:

“If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.”

*   *   *

I am indebted to the many others who have inspired my thoughts on this issue and have written about it in much better language than I:

I Want to Fail Spectacularly

My parents own a home video that was filmed when I was about five or six years old.  It shows me standing on the edge of a swimming pool, arms propped up by gigantic orange floaties, each the size of my face.  In the video, I’m trying to work up the courage to jump into the water, but I’m afraid I won’t be able to hold my breath long enough.  I practice taking in big gulps of air, then immediately let them back out again as if I don’t really believe my lungs are on board with this.  In the background, my dad’s voice can be heard, urging me to just go ahead and jump already, promising me that I’ll be able to hold my breath for the split second I’ll be underwater, assuring me that I’m not going to drown.

But I played it safe that day.  I didn’t jump in the water.

I remember watching that video when I was much older and thinking that I was such a silly little girl.  So timid, so nervous, so cautious.  But the truth is, I’m not one for taking risks.  I never have been–not as a young girl, and not as an adult, either.

Thinking about going skydiving?  Count me out.

In the mood for an evening stroll around an unfamiliar part of town?  Nah, I think I’ll pass.

Want me to try a bite of yogurt that’s just past its expiration date?  Definitely not happening.

Ask anyone who knows me, and they will confirm that I am in no way a risk taker.  Few of them, however, know the main reason why: because I am terrified of failure.

I’ve written previously about my drive toward perfectionism, its link to shame, and the way it paralyzes forward movement in my life.  I’ve always operated with the mentality that if there is a high probability that I will not succeed at something, I probably shouldn’t try it. It’s a safe way of living, to be sure.

But a pretty lame one, too.

Now, I’m exploring something where my likelihood of success is realistically quite small.  I wrote a novel.  I’m editing said novel.  And I want to try to publish my novel.  There are plenty of reasons why that won’t happen, why I’ll never get published.

In other words, I’m probably going to fail.

But something happened recently as I was preemptively mourning my impending future loss: I made a decision.  I decided that I didn’t want to play it safe with my writing.  I didn’t want to do what I’ve always done, risking very little, expecting even less, and sustaining only minor bruises to my ego if things don’t work out in the end.

No.

I want to fail spectacularly.

I’m talking the miserable, shameful, no hope of recovery kind of failing.  I want to fall from grace so hard that it leaves my nose bloody and broken.  I want to hit the ground so bad that the dirt lodges itself deep in my throat and I’m coughing up dust for the next several weeks.

Now that is true failure.

To be clear, I would absolutely prefer to succeed.  But just in case I don’t, I’ve decided that I don’t want the reason for my failure to be because I didn’t try hard enough.  I don’t want it to be because I was too afraid to hold my breath, to count to three, and to launch my prissy butt into the air.

So while I’m quite sure I never actually will go skydiving, and while I still strongly believe that it’s a bad idea for anyone to eat yogurt past its expiration date, I do want to start taking risks.  At least with the things that matter most to me, the desires that cling desperately to my heart and refuse to be shaken off by the voice of fatalism.

Whatever I do, I refuse to fail softly.

(Props to General Ghost for so perfectly summing up my feelings on this matter with a delightfully catchy tune.  Good job, boys.)

My Shame Journey, Part 3

My misplaced shame takes many forms.  It’s the sickening feeling in my stomach when I say or do something awkward (which is often).  It’s the annoying pinging in my head at the end of the day, drenching my memories in a distasteful flavor.  It’s the loud voice of criticism when I read back over what I’ve written, or think back over what I’ve said and done.

In other words, it’s a major force that keeps me from moving forward.

I’ve only recently realized how misplaced shame can create a paralyzing fear of failure.  It hides in plain sight, clothing itself in the more familiar guise of perfectionism or unrealistic expectations.  So I continue to bend under the pressure of performance.  I leave no room for humanity, no space for grace.

I’ll give you an example of what this looks like.

When I was seven, my family moved to a new house on the other side of the city.  This meant I had to start third grade as the “new kid” at a different school.  During my first week, we were asked to self-grade a math assignment.  The teacher walked us through each problem on the worksheet and asked us to circle any incorrect answers.  If we missed several problems in a row, she told us to circle the whole group of problems.

My chest tightened when she said that, and I looked miserably down at my paper.  My face grew hot and tears ran mercilessly down my cheeks.  Soon my teacher was at my side, utterly bewildered.  Avoiding the blatant stares of my classmates, I choked out an explanation.  Rather than drawing one large red circle around my missed math problems, I had circled them each individually.

Yes, that’s right.  I was that kid.

At the time, all I understood was that I was horribly embarrassed and ashamed.  I had made a mistake.  I was less than perfect.  In my seven-year-old brain, the issue entirely boiled down to drawing the wrong type of circle on my paper.  The real issues that made me feel like a failure, however, were far more complex, buried beneath misplaced shame.  If I had known how to dig them out, I might have understood more about my need for acceptance, my struggle to adjust to new environments, and the way I associate my sense of worth with flawless behavior.

Yikes.

In writing and editing, misplaced shame makes me hesitant to share my work publicly.  It makes me afraid of honest feedback, transforming comments meant to strengthen weaknesses into proclamations of my inadequacy as a writer.  It makes me embarrassed of my untamed imagination, makes me want to box it up and hide it away.  And time and again, I do just that.  I solemnly reinforce the sides with tape, telling the beast to keep quiet.  But I don’t completely bury it in the closet.  And I poke tiny holes in the cardboard walls to keep it from suffocating.

I know it’s going to take a while for me to uncover all the ways that misplaced shame has dominated my life.  But I can start, at least, with what it’s done to my writing, my sense of imagination, my urge to be creative.  I can recognize that there’s really no reason for me to hide my wild nighttime storytelling escapades, even if others find them strange.  I can try my hardest not to cringe when I read back over old blog posts and find them less than inspiring.  I can honor this strange part of me, this inseparable piece of my identity, rather than feeling embarrassed by it.