On Writing and Permission: Drafting My New Life

Almost exactly two years ago I wrote this post for AMV. It is all about seeking permission— from the commenters, contributors, and readers of AMV, from God, and from myself—to start reclaiming things I had given up or lost. I framed it all in the context of writing and mother-guilt but, reading it now, I can see I wasn’t actually asking for permission to write. I was asking for something much, much larger.

Two years ago, my life was a mess and I wasn’t sure I was going to live much longer to fix it. My marriage was a destructive one and it was slowly killing me. I was having increasing amounts of suicidal ideations and my children were acting out in more and more ways. The things I was working so hard to fix (read: change, hide, or cover-up) weren’t getting fixed and I was finding myself under more and more stress trying to compensate for all the things that happened behind closed doors.  The gory details of my marriage don’t belong on the Internet—they are private experiences and I intend to keep them that way—but here’s what I’m willing to say about it: it wasn’t tabloid-bad but it was bad.

Two years ago, I was waiting for someone—the commenters, contributors, and readers of AMV, God, or myself—to give me permission to stop living half a life, to be a full person, to get out of my marriage.

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I was so scared when I wrote that post. Trying to keep myself and my kids afloat inside the context of my marriage was fairly all-consuming and confusing and, in June 2012, the parts of myself that I had given up listening to were telling me quite loudly that it was make-it-or-break-it time. These were the parts that urged me to write, the parts that urged me to keep praying and trusting God. They were also the same parts that told me my marriage was ruining my life. At thirty years old  with four small children, so much of my life was a pile of things I didn’t want and it was time to make it into something else or let it break me down, maybe permanently.

Over the course of my marriage I had found that the more time I spent writing the more cognitive dissonance increased. Flannery O’Connor said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” Joan Didion echoed that when she wrote, “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.” Whenever I sat down to write the things that kept cropping up were loss and fear and darkness and surrender. The differences between what I presented, that far too common Sunday Face we all know so well, and my reality were strangulating.

Dropping into writing, committing to it, meant hearing all my parts and honoring the truth that was waiting for me there. There was so, so, so much pain and no matter how hard I worked and prayed and wished my marriage was still a mess and I was failing. Big time. Failing at being a present, engaged mother; at fulfilling the Mormon cultural ideals I held at my core; at being a writer; at being a whole human.  There were so many things I had to keep hidden I couldn’t engage in any form of honesty and, turns out, honesty is where a hell of a lot of success, both in writing and life, starts.

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It took almost an entire year for the pieces to fall into place, but in May of 2013 God told me it was time to get out. In June of 2013 I moved my husband out of our family home and watched my children’s hearts simultaneously break and start to beat easier. In July of 2013 I filed my divorce papers and finally took an honest look at the seven million broken pieces that were my heart and spirit. In August of 2013 I put my kids in daycare and went back to work. In October of 2013 the divorce was finalized. In March of 2014 our marital house sold and I moved to a new stake, where I could build a life for just my kids and I with a clean slate.

It’s been a year of horribly hard things.

But it’s also been a year of honesty and a year of realizing that not all the failures are mine. My husband failed me. My marriage failed me.  In fact, when it comes right down to it, looking back at all the things I failed at while I was trying to fix my marriage I don’t see so much failure. I see someone doing the best she could in an impossible situation and maybe she wasn’t perfect but maybe being perfect, keeping up with all the things she thought she was supposed to be, was never the point.

Jesus said, “And you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”  Like pretty much every person ever, failure, my own and those of the people around me, were (are!) a massive part of my truth. I had (have!) to accept them in order to be set free.

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Freedom, it turns out, is trickier than I thought it was going to be.

When I imagined being out of my marriage. . .well, actually, I never could fill that in. It was a giant blank space. It felt exactly the same as sitting down in front of a blank sheet of paper. Throat tightening. Heart pounding. Expectations rising.  Mind racing. No clue what on earth was supposed to go there.

So I’m doing with my life what I do with blank pages: I’m folding it in half and then in half again because filling small bits of blankness is less overwhelming.

Just like novels get written one word at a time, new lives get written one day at a time. The key is the doing of it.

I get up every morning and I don’t think about the vast expanse known as The Rest of My Life That Isn’t What I Thought it Would Be. Yes, I still say things to myself like, “This is not what I signed up for.” Being a single mom to four kids isn’t easy. Trying to figure out how to make enough money to provide for four kids when my heart is yearning to just get an MFA and dream up novels and poems and teach for the rest of my life isn’t easy. Dealing with being young and divorced in a family-oriented Church isn’t easy. Waiting on God to reveal promised blessings and relying on the strength of my covenants isn’t easy.

But I can rewrite my thinking now. My life might not be what I expected but it is something that, with God’s help and guidance, I can shape. Filling it in, shaping it, writing my own life might not be easy but it’s something I can do. One word, one day, one draft at a time.

My days are now shaped by work and filling in the gaps with things I love: gardening, playing with my kids, exercise, reading, and writing. I still don’t have a novel to hold up as validation or proof of success. Kinda like I don’t have a marriage to hold up as validation for my life choices or as proof of success both as a functional adult and a Mormon. (And believe me, I want that validation so deeply!) But every day I put words on the page and while thousands and thousands of them get edited out and the ones that stay might not ever add up to any great work they fill the empty space, both on the page and in my life. And, sometimes, I even enter that charmed space of inspiration and unexpected moments of musicality and profundity and discovery occur.

It is incredibly satisfying.

Word by word, day by day, the pieces of my broken heart and spirit are being forged into something new, something bigger with nooks and crannies that are healing and filling out. There really is an art to being a whole human and it’s one that I figure, like writing, I’ll spend the rest of my life practicing.

The best part, though? I’m no longer asking for permission because, it turns out, I never actually needed permission. I only needed to write enough to be able to hear myself think.

More Than Your Everyday Cinderella (Sarah Dunster’s _Lightning Tree_)

Maybe it was because I had just finished reading the first book of the new series, The Lunar Chronicles, when I received Sarah’s Dunster’s novel, Lightning Tree, in the mail but the tale of Magdalena Chabert is every bit a Cinderella story–and then a whole lot more.

Magdalena (Maggie) is a poor girl with a rich inner life who spends an awful lot of time mucking out chicken coops and trying to explain things in broken English. With a cold stepmother, an ineffectual father figure, and step-sisters who are by turns loving and awful, all this story needs is a glass slipper-toting fairy godmother for Maggie to get her ticket to the corn husking party for some “sparking” of her own. But Maggie has no glass slipper. Only dead parents, an uncared for younger sister, a lost brother, and violent nightmares about the suspicious death of her baby sister. Set against the backdrop of “The Cedar Incident” and the prejudices of small town pioneer Utah Lightning Tree is a dramatic story that will keep readers turning pages until every nightmare is brought to light.

Most of the strength of this novel come from the characters created by Dunster. Maggie is a pleasing blend of sarcasm, spunk, and idealism. Her little sister, Giovanna, is just the right amount of charming and exasperating. Their stepfather, Pa Alden, is both stoic and tender and the tension this creates in his character is quite winning. Ma Alden’s (Maggie’s evil stepmother) character is puzzling and contradictory–but in a way that builds tension. Even more secondary charcters, like the Holdens (the token polygamists) are surprising in their nuance. My only wish was that the bad guys, Jed and Uncle Forth, were a little more threatening early in the novel. The Cinderella set-up had me so focused on Ma Alden as the villains that the true bad guys were too unclear for me to take them seriously.

As historical fiction, this book is closer to Ann Rinaldi than Herman Wouk. Or, to put it in Mormon terms this book is closer to Gale Sears than Margaret Young/Darius Gray. All the characters in the book are fictional, except for Maggie’s backstory about the Waldensian Saints. There are no end notes or references. And while questions surrounding the Mountain Meadows Massacre weave in and out of the story if readers don’t have a fairly firm understanding of “The Cedar Incident” already this book won’t give them any help.This is not to say the book isn’t well-researched; it clearly is. But it is more of a period coming-of-age novel than strong historical fiction.

What really sells the book is the overarching philosophical questions–questions that push beyond the realm of a princess rising from the ashes. At one point in the story Henry (Maggie’s love interest) says to her, “One thing you need to learn, Mag. When people love you, you’re accountable to them. Time to throw away that pride of yours, because what happens to you isn’t just your affair” (p 241). Questions about pride versus self-reliance and self-righteousness versus love and family make Lightning Tree a good read and great discussion fodder. It’s your everyday Cinderella story and so much more.

Lightning Tree is available for purchase today. For more about Sarah Dunster check out her website. And, yes, I did receive a free review copy of this book.

“Cupcakes Can Kill You. . . (An interview with Mister Tim in two parts)

. . . especially when they’re made with death,” says Mister Tim, the quirkiest voice in a cappella music.

I’ve known Mister Tim for more than 5 years and witnessed many artistic incarnations. The earliest (for me) was as our ward choir director. Intense, focused, squinting with the effort of tweaking our voices into a semblance of harmony and with one ear always turned toward the choir Mister Tim–er, I mean, Brother Tim–did his own arrangements of hymns and sang all the music as if it were being performed for the first time every time. Ward members still talk about his performance of “O, Holy Night.”

The next incarnation, which he had been inhabiting since college, was Moosebutter. Like most college a cappella bands Moosebutter focused on and perfected the silliness inherent in singing “classic” music, like “Popcorn Popping”, with that characteristic BYU-comedy flair. They were big with the ten year olds and all their parents for being able to comically riff on everything from Harry Potter to Spam to Jon Williams (who is most definitely the man), for which they were nominated for a People’s Choice Award.

From there Mister Tim went on to work on the Vegas Strip and put together, manage, and perform in many other a cappella groups. When his stint in Vegas ended and he and his family rolled back into Colorado he came with yet another incarnation: Vocal Magic.

Vocal Magic is a multifaceted one man show that hinges on Mister Tim’s prodigious vocal textures, far-reaching vocal range, and his ability to work three sound effect pedals that enable to sing with himself and mix his voice in real time–a process called live looping. Part stand-up comedy, part poetry slam, and part performance art, Vocal Magic was like nothing I had ever seen before. My first thought: If T.S. Eliot could have sang and Allan Ginsberg had known how to beatbox and been stuck in one body, they could have been reincarnated as Mister Tim. Vocal Magic was like nothing I’d ever seen but it was definitely something I wished to see again.

Mr. Tim graciously agreed to be interviewed. His answers were thorough enough and thought-provoking enough that I split the interview into two parts. Here’s part one.

LHC: How are you feeling today? (Fuzzy, spacey, ???)

Mr. T: Perpendicular.

LHC: Tell me about the modern a cappella scene. Until I saw your show whenever I thought of a cappella I always thought of those guys from “Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?” How has a cappella grown and changed?

Mr. T:There is a great deal of detail and nuance to this answer. “A Cappella” to most people, I think, means Rockapella (Carmen San Diego), or a barbershop quartet, or a college group like BYU’s Vocal Point, or, more and more frequently, “GLEE” (even though there has only been one actual a cappella song on that show). But, even Rockapella, still touring the world 15 years after Carmen San Diego went off the air, is nothing like they were on that show: [now] they are a technology-dependent pop act. There are groups that use stacks and stacks of expensive sound gear, like Naturally 7 who are touring with Michael Buble.

Really there are three ways to define “a cappella”: 1) the most basic– meaning any music performed without
instruments, regardless of style (including when rock bands sing a section of their song without instruments, like the beginning of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”); 2) what seems to be the popular interpretation of a cappella, which is the Rockapella version, or the college a cappella version, or even the barbershop version, which carries a fragrance of dorkiness; 3) and “contemporary” a cappella, which is a movement of modern musicians doing modern music at a very high level, usually incorporating vocal percussion, and usually depending on technology to create the same auditory punch as a ‘real’ band.

My history in a cappella really follows the progression of contemporary a cappella. I listened to The King’s Singers (classical) in high school, saw BYU’s Vocal Point at one of BYU’s very first a cappella jams; I had friends bootlegging a cappella radio programs onto cassette tapes and passing them around; I was introduced, through rumor at first, to The House Jacks, and then by the late 90’s to m*pact. I started attending a cappella conferences, and growing less satisfied with the traditional a cappella standard and wanting… more. And there were groups doing more, and I gravitated to them. Then I started making my own groups, and have been skewing further and further from “traditional” a cappella since then, although I still keep the traditional stuff around because it makes $.

When most people call me wanting to hire “an a cappella group,” they want something like early 90’s Rockapella, or like a college group. Recognizable covers, bare-bones vocal sound, oftenthey want something a little corny (which is part of that old-school a cappella… thing).

LHC: What attracted you to live looping? How is it different from traditional a cappella?

Mr. T: My wife and I used to joke that I was constantly disappointed with the other singers in my groups because what I really wanted was for all the singers in my group to be me. Well, looping lets me do that! I get to sing everything just the way I want it sung, and I don’t have to wait for other people to learn their parts.

Other reasons I started live-looping: a) I want to go out and perform as often as possible, but couldn’t get the other people in my groups to go all the time; b) There are lots of paid shows that come up that don’t pay enough for a whole group, but are good money for just one person; c) I saw other people do it, and it looked like fun.

But, one of the biggest factors: I love teaching. I love teaching. The problem with the kind of teaching I do, where I drop in and talk to kids in their regular music classes, or in assemblies, or at music festivals, is that if they don’t know who I am, they don’t care about what I have to say. If I’m there with a group, they hear the group sing, they think it’s cool, then they’ll listen. But I want to be teaching as often as possible, visiting classes, flying out to music festivals, showing up at concerts. I can’t afford to fly a whole group out to these kinds of things for free, which most of them demand (even the big a cappella festivals where I teach I have to pay my own way there unless I’m one of the headline performers). But now that I’ve got a solo act, I can drop in on a class with my small sound system that takes less than 5 minutes to set up, sing a couple of songs,
the kids think it’s cool, and then when I speak, my words matter. It’s a pedagogical thing.

Artistically, what attracts me now to continue live-looping is that it really is rare to have one person doing looping with just the voice. Novelty factor, and if done well and if we find the market I’ve got a corner on the market. I do enjoy the constraints: a lot of my material has developed to address specific issues of how to keep the show from being boring, dealing with the repetitive nature of the loop, not being able to change the music once it’s laid down without completely starting over. Limiting, yes, but has forced me to adapt in ways and to develop new approaches to my performing that I think have greatly improved the overall impact of my
performance.

LHC: I know you’re a fan of all types of music, but what musicians and songs/works have stuck with you over the years?

Mr. T: The 3 B’s: Bach, Beethoven, Barenaked Ladies (I don’t like Brahms); Midnight Oil; Kingston Trio; Manheim Steamroller; Spike Jones; Weird Al Yankovic; Alan Sherman; Smothers Brothers; Brandon Flowers; John Adams

To be continued, but while you are waiting feel free to enjoy this: