Writing Songs

My primary goals for our 2020 sabbatical/retirement year (Marcia and I sometimes see it as one type of year, and sometimes as the other, depending on how we feel about taking on new salaried/in-house jobs at some point, sooner or later) are to settle on where we want to live for the long haul, and to get back into the writing routines I maintained in the ’90s and early ’00s, when I regularly created creative work, and sold it when and where I could.

There wasn’t much money there, truth be told, but credits tend to conceive credits, and bylines tend to beget bylines, and having markets and audiences for work makes work feel a bit less work-like, if you know what I mean.  Having put my creative chops (mostly) on the back burner for a lot of years, while focusing instead on the wide range of salaried professional writing for which most readers here probably know me, I’m now ready (and have the time) to do the work I need to do to bring those creative urges and outcomes back to the fore in the years ahead, for fun, for sure, and maybe for profit, fingers crossed.

I know from experience that part of that creative process flows from putting myself into creative situations with creative people, where sparks fly, networks form, inspiration oozes and feedback loops make weak work better, and good work great. I’m keeping eyes open for other opportunities, but at the moment, I’m currently registered to attend the Iceland Writers Retreat in April-May,  and the Iowa Summer Writing Festival in June. I look forward to both events, and go into them with open mind and open heart, ready to be motivated and moved.

In advance of those programs, I’m going back through a lot of work from the past decade or so (mostly short stories, some poetry, some essays, some plays-in-one-act) that I created, but that I never marketed. Some of it objectively deserves to stay hidden, but with the distance of years, some of it reads pretty darn good to me now, and I’m excited to roll it out. I am also formulating some plans for new material, perhaps even another novel, now that Eponymous is pushing 20 years old. Never say never again, I guess.

All of that comes by way of introduction to what this post is really about, if the title seems confusing. Bear with me. You know I like to ramble, but I always get where I’m going.

So! A few weeks ago, when I was thinking about writing and going through old files, one of the top discs on my Best Albums of 2019 list — Bulat Blues by Daniel Kahn — was spinning. Kahn is an expat American in Germany, working primarily with The Painted Bird, a “Klezmer Yiddish Punk Cabaret” ensemble. Bulat Blues is an album of chansons by Soviet-era composer Bulat Okudzhava, translated into English by Kahn, who performs them accompanied by Russian guitarist Vanya Zhuk. I’d never heard of any of them a year ago. Now they’re indispensable listening. That’s good stuff, that is.

One song in particular from that great album wormed its way into my consciousness as I sat at the computer: “Historical Novel.” You can read the full lyrics and hear the song here. They’re brilliant, and they perfectly capture the “writers gotta write” thing that drives me to churn out gazillions of words here and elsewhere, just because I might bust something if I don’t. The chorus sums up that drive thusly:

So, we write it
How we hear it
How we hear is
How we breathe it
How we breathe it
So we write it
Never trying to appease
That’s the way that nature made us
Don’t ask why
It’s no one’s business
Who’s to argue or to judge?

I spun the song a few times consecutively, letting it marinate and resonate with me, and that got me to thinking about other similar songs about writers and writing that move me, and might make a nice playlist for me and other creative scribblers to consider. It seemed like such an obvious topic that I expected it to be a simple exercise. Like, say, my Tree Songs post. Have idea, search the 15,000ish songs on my computer, bang out fun post. Done!

As it turns out, though, I was actually surprised by how few songs I had in my collection about the act of writing books, stories, articles, poems, prose, journalism or other print work (and the writers who write them) — as opposed to how many songs I own about writing songs, and songwriters. There are loads of those, but when I discounted that latter category as not quite what I had in mind, I found the pickings to be quite on the slim side. Hmmm.

Still, once a challenge sets itself before me, it gnaws at me until I complete it, so tonight I roll out a dozen great songs about writing and writers for your delectation (beginning with “Historical Novel”), and I welcome your suggestions for others to add to this playlist. Some of the songs are about the act of writing, some are about specific writers, some about particular works. Some of them are clearly, pointedly on-topic, while some just glance at the core concept, but in ways that work for and resonate with me.

I write best with a soundtrack, and it would be good to have more inspirational fare at my disposal as I bang away at my keyboard in the year(s) ahead . . . so hit me with your suggestions! I needs ’em! (And I will do a “part two” of this post, once another dozen or so pop up on my radar screen).

#1. “Historical Novel” by Daniel Kahn (feat. Vanya Zhuk)

#2. “Screenwriters’ Blues” by Soul Coughing

#3. “Let’s Write A Book” by Field Music

#4. “Anne Frank Story” by Human Sexual Response

#5. “The Painter Paints (And The Writer Writes)” by Shriekback

#6. “Poetry Man” by Phoebe Snow

#7. “Paperback Writer” by The Beatles

#8. “Rewrite” by Paul Simon

#9. “Autobiography” by Sloan

#10. “Writer In The Sun” by Donovan

#11. “The Engine Driver” by The Decemberists

#12. “We Call Upon the Author” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Home from Arizona

What a great trip Marcia and I had in Arizona over the past two weeks! We flew direct from Des Moines to Phoenix. (You can’t go direct from DSM to many places of interest, so that’s a big plus for the Grand Canyon State as long as we have to get from here to there). Our trips this winter are to suss out possible warm(er) weather climates, because we’re just about Upper Midwested Out at this point. Toward that end, we’ve generally been renting apartments or houses as we travel to get some small sense of what it’s like to actually live in a place, rather than just being in a place.

We spent time in Phoenix, Tempe, Florence, Sedona, Flagstaff, Cottonwood, Prescott and various point between and around those towns, and also made a trek up to Grand Canyon Village to see the big attraction there. And Holy Moly, is it BIG! (Or, perhaps even, Grand, if you prefer). Marcia and I both added “Hike down to bottom of Grand Canyon from rim, and back” to our bucket lists. Hopefully we get that one sooner rather than later, wow! Cottonwood and Flagstaff were probably the biggest surprises to us in terms of places that we didn’t know much about, but really liked and that would put us close enough to Sedona (which we love) without having to contend with Sedona crowds/traffic and expenses on a regular basis. We’re loosely thinking we will head back out that way in May to do a bit more poking about.

We had great weather the whole time we were there (cold up north in the mornings, but that’s okay so long as the sun comes out later in the day), and did at least one, sometimes two, good hikes per day, pretty much every day. My phone pedometer says I walked about 200,000 steps over the past two weeks (95 miles); not the most I’ve done in a two-week period, but still a credible trekking tour, given some of the climbing that was involved in getting up to the good stuff. We also had a lot of great meals (Flagstaff was dynamite on that front), and got to see some family and friends, which always makes things nice(r).

A great trip, overall. Feeling very warm (no pun intended) about Arizona at this point. As always, I snapped and snapped and snapped away with my camera, and if you want to see some more of that, it’s over at my usual Flickr repository. You can go directly to the Arizona Album by clicking the snap of Marcia taking a peek over the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, below. Close. But not too close.

That’s a long way down, that is . . .


Marcia and I are nearing the mid-way point of our two-week Arizona jaunt, so I thought I’d post a quick baker’s dozen pics of our adventures thus far. We’ve spent time in Phoenix, Flagstaff, Grand Canyon Village and Sedona to date, and have stays in Prescott and Phoenix (again) yet to come. Amazing, beautiful country, with some great eats and stunning hikes tossed into the mix. A good trip, with lots of sun. That last piece goes a long, long way as an alternative to dreary Midwestern winters!

(You Make Me Feel Like) Five Songs You Need To Hear

Well, the Iowa Caucuses lived way down to my prescient prediction of “chaos and disorganization” last Monday night, and then some. (I’m gonna claim prescience anyway, but if have you have ever paid any attention to how things get done politically out here, then the absurd outcome really shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. Please, let this one be the last time Iowa goes first, ever. Amen).

The only positive caucus experience we had through the pointless, poorly managed hours we spent milling about the cold concourse of our local sports arena — regularly getting told to “stop talking!” by our petty tyrant precinct captain, while our candidate’s floor manager gave us wildly varying and mutually exclusive instructions throughout the evening — was watching our daughter, her boyfriend and their friend get interviewed live by Dana Bash on CNN. The three of them were smart and well-spoken, all on the spot. Good job, you! But then, on the flip side, we also interacted with Jake Tapper as he worked the room, and, uhhhh, he was kind of a jerk.

Add some shit weather to the mix as we’ve been sitting here being embarrassed about our state of residence fully failing per forecast, and we’re very ready to hit the road again, which we’ll be doing tomorrow morning, this time for two weeks in Arizona. I’m sitting here making playlists before we head out, and it seemed like a good time for one of my occasional “Five Songs You Need to Hear” features, while I’m looking at my recent listening logs, and trying to distract myself.

As always, the only connections between these five songs are that I love ’em, and that you probably have not heard ’em. So let’s fix that, yeah? If you do like these songs, and the concept in general, hit this link and you can scroll down through all of the earlier installments, too. Happy spins!

#1. OOIOO, “UMO”

#2. Napalm Death, “Logic Ravaged by Brute Force”

#3. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, “Kyrie From Missa Papae Marcelli”

#4. Subtle, “The No”

#5. The Stan Tracey Quartet, “Llareggub”

Iowa Caucus Guide 2020

Well, it’s Iowa’s big day today, the third caucus process that we’ve gone through as a family since moving out here in 2011. While I believe “Iowa First” is terrible for our nation for a variety of reasons, and I expect chaos and disorganization tonight, I’m civic-minded and politically engaged, so I’ll be headed to our local caucus site tonight to do my part.

I wrote a lot about Iowa the first time we were here (we had a four-year Chicago sabbatical in the middle), with many of my pieces being tongue-in-cheek explorations into some of the State’s (shall we say) “unique” cultural habits and history. And in a quadrennial spirit of helpfulness to those of you who may be either wondering a bit about, or wandering about a bit, of Iowa today, here are a few of those articles that may help you get what’s going on, and why.

Some of the specifics are a little outdated since I first penned them, though their gists and points mostly remain valid. I chuckled while re-reading them all, in any case, so perhaps they’ll bring a smile to your face too. God knows we can use some levity in our current political hellscape . . .

Iowa Geography: An Introduction

Iowa History 101

Why Iowa First?

Danny Allamakee’s Iowanfero (Cliff Notes Version)

Best Iowa Films

Universal Iowa Recipe

Des Moinsk, Iowaberia

Iowa Ranking Roundup

Popular Iowa Cocktails

Popular Iowa Wines

Great Iowa Novels

Great Iowa Music

The Iowa Decathlon

The Bikini Bottom caucus site has a reputation for rancor . . .

Screening the Teens: The 25 Best Films of 2010-2019

Marcia and I watched The Lighthouse this weekend. A harrowing flick with innovative visuals and cinematography, and good enough for me to update the “Best Movies” section at my 2019: Year In Review page to include it there. As I was doing that, I noticed my Best Albums of 2010-2019 article nearby (virtually speaking), and, well, if you know me and/or been here more than a couple of times, then you probably know where the combination platter of those two threads led me.

Being a chronic list-maker, I already had a large amount of information on what films I’d seen and liked over the past decade here at the website, so I started by combining and culling those annual lists, then went to look at several other critical websites for their own best of the year (each year) or decade-in-review pieces. There weren’t many films disclosed throughout that review process that I wanted to see that I hadn’t seen, so that was nice to affirm; living in Chicago within walking distance of several movie theaters certainly was conducive to keeping abreast of current cinematic offerings, alongside the emergence of streaming services over the decade.

With those resources, it didn’t take me very long to develop a first-draft list of my 25 Best Films of the decade, and as I mulled it over the past couple of days, making some drops and adds, it finally started to seem like a good list to share. I will note, though, that as I look at the list and the pool from which it was drawn, I think it’s a list of good films from a decade that history will judge to be a wan era in cinematic history, critically, if not commercially. The blockbusters of the decade are almost all comic book franchises, sequels, reboots, or movies inspired by toys, games, theme-park rides or other infantile sources. The roster of Academy Award Best Pictures includes plentiful “What were they thinking?!?” winners like Argo, The Artist, Birdman, Spotlight, The Shape of Water and Green Book, mostly nice enough for a bucket of popcorn, sure, but none to these eyes and ears worthy of being dubbed best in their years of release, by long margins in most cases.

That said, I will note one other trend: my list definitely skews toward the latter half of the decade, and I think that’s a positive sign, as more unique, original, diverse films are seeing the light of day, and then finding audiences and attention beyond the tiny art house scene, than was the case at the start of the decade. I scrubbed my list fairly hard to make sure that this late decade skew wasn’t just an artifact of me better remembering more recently-seen films than those I saw a decade ago and forgot about, but going through all the data at my disposal, I do think it is a real trend, at least in terms of the types of films that I appreciate most.

As the list below will likely and quickly make clear, the movies that I hold in the highest regard tend to be original, technically sophisticated (beyond just slathering on layers of CGI), unique, and haunting, in both their real-time content and their lingering effects on my consciousness. There are scenes and performances in these films that took my breath away, and which I continue to remember and consider years after I first saw them. Their stories are all fresh, and their action and direction are truly creative, with nary a straight regurgitation nor a franchise feature among them. More of these, Hollywood! Please!

As always, I welcome your own thoughts, corrections, and additions in the comments. Is there something out there that I need to see? An amendment screaming to be made? Hit me, if so! I’m always open to having my mind blown unexpectedly.


1917 (2019)
Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
Black Swan (2010)
The Death of Stalin (2017)
Dunkirk (2017)
The Favourite (2018)
The Florida Project (2017)
Frank (2014)
Get Out (2017)
A Ghost Story (2017)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Inside Out (2015)
Jojo Rabbit (2019)
Lady Bird (2017)
The Lobster (2015)
Melancholia (2011)
Midsommar (2019)
Moonlight (2016)
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
mother! (2017)
Parasite (2019)
Sorry to Bother You (2018)
Under the Skin (2013)
Us (2019)
The Witch (2015)

And if I had to pick the best of the best . . . which Oscar COMPLETELY ignored, ugh . . .