Monday, July 16, 2018

The Poetics of the Other: Ron Alexander

An Interview of Ron Alexander

by Stuart Orenstein and Silver Webb

We sat down with Ron Alexander at his home on a sunny afternoon for a lovely lunch and warm conversation. Ron is a mostly retired psychologist, long-term AIDS survivor, and a celebrated poet who lives in Santa Barbara with his partner Gary R. White. Ron contributes to the Santa Barbara Literary Journal as the Poetry Baron, SB Lit Jo's ambassador to both Santa Barbara and the larger poetry communities. You can find the first volume of SB Lit Jo on Amazon here.

SO: Have you always been creative?

RA: I was drawing when I was really young. I enjoyed drawing landscapes on large sheets of paper. In the fifth grade, I was friends with a couple of very smart, creative guys, one of whom was a pianist. Chris talked us into changing the lyrics of songs he knew, including Blue Moon—which I did not know—and we devised a new song. As I remember, it was about standing alone, waiting for a ham sandwich. From then on I started thinking about lyrics. Always intrigued by words, by art, by images, somewhere in there was a seed, a germ, and by college I was writing poetry, keeping a journal, making little books of poems for friends. After college, I returned to show a composition professor some of my work. I do not recall anything she said—probably faint praise—but whatever it was, I didn’t write any poetry for another twenty-five years.

SO: When did you say to yourself, I’m a poet?

RA: My “Im a poet” moment was much later, 2009, at 60. Testing positive for HIV in 1987, I finally received an AIDS diagnosis in 1996. But new drugs and regimens were just coming out and I started to feel better. My best friend, David Bennet, said, “If you’re not going to die, you should write.”
He had an idea for a plot about a person with AIDS. We developed a second character and wrote it together, each taking one of the two main characters and writing their alternate chapters. David, a nurse by profession, was to have helped me die, but he developed cancer 14 years ago and now, the tables have turned, as AIDS has become a very treatable disease and cancer still rages. We are intending to publish our novel in the coming year.
I finally began to write poems again in a Creative Writing class at SBCC under Terre Ouwehand in 1997. With David's prompting, I began attending writers conferences, but must confess, I attended the fiction workshops in the mornings, then sneaked away to the poetry workshops in the afternoons. One teacher at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference was Perie Longo, who I consider my mentor. Perie is a local poet, teacher, and former Santa Barbara Poet Laureate. She started me seriously writing poetry again at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference in the early 2000s. In 2007, my mother died, and in 2009, my father passed, both of whom I expected to survive me. I started going to Perie’s grief/writing group and writing a poem every week. Soon I was writing more on my own as well as in the group. At a Summer Workshop with Perie, Carol DeCanio told me about the SB Poetry Series and invited me to read. I read for the series in October 2009, and it was then I finally said to myself, “I guess I’m a poet.

SW: When you write a poem, do you start out with an idea?

RA: I try not to start with an idea where I presume the ending. That rarely works.  But there’s something that happens when you put pen to paper without expectation. The connection between pen in hand and some other part of you just creates. I’ve seen it in the kids I work with, as they come up with the most amazing images and startling ways of putting words together. I think the idea for me, and maybe most writers is to stop the editor inside and just let the pen do its work.

SW: You are a very deep person, although you have a good sense of humor.  Is all of your writing humorous?

RA: Parts of life are hard to make funny, like this winter's local fire and flood disasters. Overseas, I think of gay people in the Middle East being thrown off buildings. In Nigeria homosexuality is illegal and there is no punishment when LGBTQ people are killed for being who they are. There are gay people applying to the state department from Nigeria who are being denied asylum by this administration. They are sent back to Nigeria, and I find it impossible to make that funny

SO: Have you published a poem chap book?

RA: I haven’t but I’m in the process of culling through and editing work I’ve already written to put together a chapbook. And now that I’m saying that to you and this is going to be published, I will really have to do it! But first I have to clean my office! (laughing) I’m not an organized person, and there are many undated versions of poems, hard copies of some and multiple digital copies, and I have to look through all of that and decide which ones still stand.  It will be an adventure.

SO: AIDS has been a big part of your life?

RA:  I was first involved with AIDS from the perspective of having therapy clients with HIV and AIDS from very early in the epidemic. Besides just trying to stay alive, one of the biggest issues is and has been the loss of so many friends, and now, the question of what do you do when you realize you are not likely to die of AIDS? If you didn't plan on losing your hair, getting arthritis, a knee replacement, diabetes from the HIV meds, and all the various ailments that accompany aging. How do you manage that? And, more recently, realizing my generation was decimated, and so many people don't know that many of us are still here, having survived into poverty, having given up on a career, on life, in some cases
The history of the LGBTQ communities coming together with our allies in those years, of fighting prejudice, of standing up against the talk in the 80's about bringing the Japanese internment camps like Manzanar back into use as an HIV/AIDS camp, of quarantining PWAs (People with AIDS) there, talk of tattooing people with HIV/AIDS. People who did not live through the AIDS Crisis years have no idea of the insanity with which the country met AIDS.  
The fact that I will be 70 next year and still here feels utterly unbelievable.

SW: You married your longtime partner, Gary, five years ago. What that like?

RA: After same-sex marriage became legal, we weren’t in a hurry to get married. Gary was attentive to the adage, “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” He was concerned about how marriage might affect our relationship, which is and was sound. But I wasn’t as swayed against the idea as Gary was, and over time I wrote him several poems asking him to marry me. For me it was a romantic idea. But he always demurred, and I would agree.
Finally, there was another impetus. Gary works at UCSB, which provides my health coverage, and the powers that be decided the University wouldn’t pay for domestic partners anymore. If we wanted coverage for both of us, we would have to pay or get married. At that time, we were at a retreat for gay men in Malibu, towards the end of a week, slow dancing on the last night, and had been talking about the University's push for us to marry. Gary finally said, “So I guess we should get married.”
I didn’t say a word. I waited. I had labored over two poems in preceding weeks, and I was not going to let him back us into marriage. Finally, when he actually said the words “Will you marry me?” I said yes.
In October 2013, we were married at the top of the county courthouse with 20 friends and family, a few tourists and a busload of fifth-graders on a field trip as our witnesses. Gary and I wore flowered shirts, bowties, and lei's, handmade by our Best Man, Kerry Tomlinson. David was our Maid of Honor. Well, if you can't play with gender roles in a gay wedding, what's the point of having one? 
Among all these fifth-graders there was a girl who asked Gary, obviously dressed for something, what was happening.
We’re getting married,” he said.
She asked, "To who?" and Gary pointed to me.
The teacher immediately started pulling the students together, “Okay kids, time to go!” As if two men getting married was somehow contagious. In any case, she was not going to have her students witness a gay wedding on her watch. It was as if she thought we were celebrating a satanic ritual, perhaps sacrificing a goat.
That kind of absurdity is a huge piece of what goes into my poetry. When you find yourself the “other” because of age, color, gender, disability, sexual orientation, or for some other reason, you get a different perspective of the world. Everyone around you sees what's happening as normal, but you can’t. And, in contrast, what you see as normal, others see as subversive.

SW: What is at the heart of your relationship with Gary that it has lasted this long?

RA: I would say it was built on low expectations (laughing). I met him in a Nautilus—a gym now closed for decades—and I was very attracted to him, but he was ostensibly straight. I didn’t know it then, but he was a therapist also. After not seeing him at the gym for a couple years, I started in a 3-year training group, learning about Gestalt psychology. By chance, in our introductory meeting, there he was, sitting across from me. Only when that was over in 1988, did we get together. 
Neither of us had high expectations for it lasting because I had just tested positive for HIV. AZT, the first and only treatment at the time, had just come out, but people were dying right and left. We both thought I was going to die soon, I figured within a decade, certainly by the millennium. I thought he was fearless, or crazy, to get involved with a man with HIV. I kept thinking, he’s going to try this "gay thing" out and then he’ll look for a “real” boyfriend. Although, he kept saying, “I’m not going anywhere,” I didn’t believe him.
It took me ten years to realize he was going to stick around. In that time, we grew to appreciate each other without a lot a baggage hanging on the relationship. There were no long-term plans or expectations. We didn’t get any more long-term than, “Where are we gonna go on vacation this summer, if I’m still alive.” Now, this year, we’ve been together 30 years. We have a house with a long-term mortgage.

SW: You’re happily married, so the familiar poetic trope of romantic disappointment isn’t an option. What do you focus on?

RA: Even my funny poems—and I have a lot of them—are really trying to find a way to laugh about things. Aging, for example. I thought I would die young and make a stunning corpse. I didn’t think I’d have to deal with aging. But, like anyone my age, I’ve had a host of medical challenges related to aging. I try to find humor in the things that disturb me.

SW: As part of the queer and AIDS communities, you’ve known a lot of people who have passed. Do you feel them present in your writing?

RA: Very much so. Yes, I feel an obligation to live, really, to live fully. So many of their names, even more so, their stories have been forgotten. So many people today have no sense of what the 80s were like, it was what I imagine a world war felt like, where you would hear constantly about friends, neighbors who have died. I contemplate not just my own mortality and appreciation of life, but all the people I’ve known and loved and lost.

SO: Thanks so much for speaking with us, Ron.

RA: You’re very welcome.

We're pleased to have also featured three of Ron's poems here on the blog. Scroll down to see them or click on the title: 

Ron’s work has appeared in journals including Arts & Understanding, Askew, Solo Novo, and Lummox3, as well as several anthologies, such as A Bird Black as the Sun: California Poets on Crows & Ravens, and To Give Life a Shape. One of four of his poems in a recent anthology, Poems 2 F*ck 2“Zebra," inspired a short film of the same name by Paul Detwiler, which has been shown at LGBTQ film festivals in North and South America, Europe and Asia.

The first issue of SB Lit Jo is available on Amazon here.

Stuart Orenstein
Stuart Orenstein short one-act play “I Do-nut Think That’s A-Muse-Ing” was published in Volume 1 of the Santa Barbara Literary journal. He got into writing plays via his second career—acting. He has been acting on stage and screen (Please see his IMDB page for some of his credits) since 1990. He retired from his first career (clinical psychiatry) in 2007. His second path towards writing comes through his being a life-long learner. Currently he is in his 39th year of school, his 27th year of higher education. It is through Creative Writing classes that he has started to write.


by Ron Alexander

'''Now that John is feeling better, 
he has realized that AIDS 
has destroyed his life,''
 said Dr. Howard Grossman.”
David France, New York Times, October 10, 1998

The sign says the wolverine
weighs but thirty-five pounds
and will take on grizzlies
            over a kill.

But that’s hardly the whole story.
You have to chase it over sharp
            granite talus,
through the manzanita
scrub, grab it by the tail
and wrestle it down the mountain.

your hands on those jaws.
            Squeeze your fingers
between its teeth.  Pry that feral
mouth open.  Start with one foot—
then push the other in. 
Climb down its fetid gullet
among the shards of bone
and clumps of sticky
            matted fur.

            Tight quarters.
Just to get comfortable enough to rest,
you have to curl up tight like when
you were a babe in your father’s arms.
Only then can you pause,
take a breath,
            plan a future.

© 2009 Ron Alexander, originally published in ASKEW Poetry Journal, (7) Winter/Fall 2009

Ron is a mostly retired psychologist, long-term AIDS survivor, and a celebrated poet who lives in Santa Barbara with his partner Gary R. White. Ron contributes to Santa Barbara Literary Journal as the Poetry Baron, SB Lit Jo's ambassador to both Santa Barbara and the larger poetry communities. You can find the first volume of SB Lit Jo on Amazon here.

Bad Dream

by Ron Alexander

The dream swats me
wields a green willow switch
wakes me
whacks my thighs shoulders
gnaws at my ankles
drives splinters under my eyelids
spits vile names from its little yellow mouth.

I outmaneuver it in the grocery store
hiding next to the dryer sheets
which make my skin crawl—
something insidious about their claim
Eliminates Static Cling.
But at what cost?

When I get home
it waits by the kitty door to the kitchen
now peering out a window in the stereo cabinet
or there on the panini press
pretending to ignore me.

© Ron Alexander 2011

Ron is a mostly retired psychologist, long-term AIDS survivor, and a celebrated poet who lives in Santa Barbara with his partner Gary R. White. Ron contributes to Santa Barbara Literary Journal as the Poetry Baron, SB Lit Jo's ambassador to both Santa Barbara and the larger poetry communities. You can find the first volume of SB Lit Jo on Amazon here.

I'm Not Going to Clean My Room Anymore

by Ron Alexander

I’m not going to clean my room anymore.

I’m not going to clean the house.
It’s a waste of time
to wash clothes and dishes

when tomorrow they’ll just be soiled again.
I have better things to do.
I have appointments To miss
and people to flee.

I have worries to ruminate over and over and
over and a computer to keep
on life support.
I have an overgrown garden that demands ignoring,
a faithful lover who requires avoiding,
petulant gods that must be denied
and two demanding
calicos that tolerate none of the above.

To procrastinate, to do it well
takes effort and commitment.
To put off the essential,
to focus on the inconsequential
is an art not lost on me.
But I will excel.
I will decide not to decide,
and pursue the life I was born to live.

I will spare my heirs the burden
of a long obituary,
too many accomplishments to list.
I will leave this life undone, unnoticed,
unaccomplished at the meanest
tasks and enter eternity peacefully,
blissfully laid out in my sleek
stainless steel coffin.

Mourners will ask, “Did he ever finish
anything? that novel?
that poem?
that sentence?”
Devotees will find inspiration in the works
I never produced,
the autobiography unwritten
and I will pass into oblivion except, perhaps,
in the heartless ruminations
of those damned cats.

© 2011 Ron Alexander, originally published in 20 Years of A&U, an anthology of writing by people affected by HIV and AIDS, (Black Lawrence Press)

Ron is a mostly retired psychologist, long-term AIDS survivor, and a celebrated poet who lives in Santa Barbara with his partner Gary R. White. Ron contributes to Santa Barbara Literary Journal as the Poetry Baron, SB Lit Jo's ambassador to both Santa Barbara and the larger poetry communities. You can find the first volume of SB Lit Jo on Amazon here.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Bryan Titus: Big Heart, Big Voice

Interview with Bryan Titus 
by Laura Hemenway

Photo by  Bryan Toro

Connecticut transplant Bryan Titus arrived in Santa Barbara several years ago, and hit the ground running. The gravelly voiced songwriter is one of the hardest-working musicians on the Central Coast…playing diverse venues from wineries to the world-famous Lobero Theatre. In fact, on July 18, his Trio will be opening for Paul Thorn at the Lobero! His song "Lightning" was featured in Volume 1 of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal, which is available here. I met up with Bryan at Santa Barbara’s Handlebar Coffeehouse, where we had a great conversation about his early influences, his songwriting process, and his inspiration to keep writing.

LH: What kind of encouragement did you get, in your early life, to be a creative person?

BT: It was part of our family culture. My mom was a singer, and my dad was a classical violinist. My father kind of insisted that I start playing the violin at age 4. So I was classically trained on violin. But music came to me as something that was my own when I went through adolescence, when I was 14 and I picked up a guitar, like many boys do, and started writing songs about girls. (laughing)

LH: So, your parents were both classical musicians?

BT: Yes. But my dad did branch out and played some bluegrass later in life. He joined a band that was all bird watchers. They would only play songs about birds. Bluegrass songs have a lot of songs with birds in the titles and the lyrics… the whippoorwill is the harbinger of doom, and the bluebird represents happiness, robins signal spring; there’s a lot of bluegrass music that has bird imagery in the lyrics. So their repertoire was all songs about birds. They’d play “Go tell Aunt Rhody, the old grey goose is dead,” and “Redwing,” “Grey Eagle Hornpipe,” “First Whipoorwill,” tons of old-timey music that had to do with birds, and they’d go around and play at different Audubon clubs, and different conservation benefits. …

LH: Did you have siblings who were involved in music, as well?

BT: My brother played the piano; and he’s the first dude that introduced me to the blues. Some of my favorite moments in my musical self-discovery were because of my brother, Jeff. He’s 8 years older than I am, and we have another brother who’s 8 years older than he is. So the age gap between us is wild, and for me, it’s like having a crystal ball, I can see myself aging 8 years in the future, 16 years in the future, like “Oh, that’s what I’m gonna look like when I’m 56!” (laughing)

My brother Jeff graduated from college and went off to teach English in Japan for a year, and he left his drafting studio (he was an architect) set up, and that’s where I started drawing, and listening to this box of tapes that he had left behind, which was full of good stuff, like the Clash, and John Lee Hooker, and Jim Morrison and the Doors greatest hits, and Jimi Hendrix…just tape after tape after tape. That’s when I got deeply interested in what people were saying in their songs. I didn’t really think of myself as a songwriter yet, at that point, but I was starting…and learning “okay, this is the kind of voice that I love…this thick, throaty, raspy. bluesy voice…I’ve got to figure out how that’s happening”…I don’t know if that’s genetic or luck, but I somehow ended up with having that kind of a voice.

LH: Tell me about your first music teacher.

BT: The first music teacher that I remember was an amazing woman named Connie Satler. She was a weird bird; an old hippie kind of a lady. They lived on a farm. The farm had sheep and horses, and it was out in a really rural part of Connecticut called Moodus. Moodus is a local Indian word that means something like “Strange sounds in the hills.” Moooooodus…you could think it has something to do with cows (laughing), but, there’s a lot of limestone in Connecticut, and limestone, under the proper conditions will melt away, and that’s how you get stalactites and stalagmites. And when it melts away, you end up with these caves, or fissures in the sides of hills. And just like blowing over the mouthpiece of a flute, the wind would come over the hill in a strange way and create this kind of “wooooooooo” kind of a sound. So that’s where that came from.

I used to love going there. She taught Suzuki method, so I would just listen to her play things, and then memorize it and then play it back. I didn’t really learn how to read music until I went to Berklee School of Music. She was a cool teacher. I remember being like 8 years old and having my first crème de cassis and soda, which as you know is a liqueur…I must’ve been especially annoying that day, and she needed to mellow me out or something (laughing)

LH: So, it was a good experience.

BT: Good and bad. I really didn’t like the rigidity of classical music, and I had tremendous amounts of social anxiety growing up, so being put in front of a room full of people at a library, next to a piano with some person playing the piano that I’d never seen before and never rehearsed with before, was pretty traumatic…

LH: In a recital situation?

BT: Yeah, and I basically refused to do recitals after that. I felt like my heart might actually explode out of my chest I was so nervous and so scared…

LH: What about in high school? Were you involved in music then?

BT: I sang in the church choir as a kid, until my voice changed. And then after it changed and kind of settled, I realized, after listening to those tapes in my brother’s room, that I could sing rock n roll. My best friend in high school, Matt Zimmitti, played guitar. And next thing you know, we were playing in a band together. We started out by learning the popular grunge rock n roll songs of the day, by Nirvana, and Red Hot Chili Peppers, seasoned in with the Classic Rock that everybody loves, at every age, like Bob Dylan, and a little Zeppelin, and maybe some Doors . And we put our band together, and I started writing some original songs at that time as well. Matt would come up with a cool guitar idea, and then I would sing a melody over it, and then put some stream of conscious lyrics to it…We wrote in his basement, in 1991…when I was 14 years old. Some of the songs actually kind of stand up a little bit. I mean I didn’t have anything TOO important to say…at this point, I look back on them and say “Yeah, you were 14. You didn’t like school, huh?” (laughing)

LH: What was the name of that first song?

BT: I can’t think of it exactly, right now. I think it was “Nothingness” or something like that. It was about unrequited love; typical 14–year-old themes. But the funny thing was, when I was 14 years old, I sounded like I do now. But I was 130 pounds and 5’6”. (Brian does an impersonation of himself at that age) You know, kind of like Eddie Vedder and Scott Wyland from Stone Temple Pilots, and Anthony Kiedis from the Red Hot Chili Peppers…those were the people who were popular at that time, and when I realized that I could hit those notes and had that tone, I was just like “Oh! I’m gonna DO this!”

LH: So, note-reading wasn’t really essential at this point?

BT: No, not until I got to Berklee College of Music.

LH: What kind of songwriter do you think thrives at Berklee?

BT: I think the most important thing with Berklee is, that Berklee is exactly what you make of it. If you know what you want, and you’re willing to work for it, you can make incredible progress there. I think that Berklee would be good for any songwriter, as long as they’re willing to really do the work, and be open to it. You definitely learn through classes like Song Survey, about different forms you can take; you learn how to write formulaically, there, but you also learn how to break those rules, and you’re given permission to do those things that are exciting to you.

I’m really glad that I went there, and I actually fantasize about going back. Because I already did go back once. I went there when I was 18,…and then back when I was 22, and I’d like to go back now, in my 40s.

LH: Speaking of education, didn’t you just get back from a songwriting retreat? What do you think is the value of a songwriting workshop or retreat?

BT: I think that every opportunity that you can find, to foster your creativity, should be taken advantage of. I’m so glad I went on this retreat; it was amazing. But, it was very difficult. Songwriting, and telling personal stories can be really challenging, and scary. To be emotionally available and vulnerable in front of other people and with other people, is a very scary thing to do,

One thing I’d never been super comfortable doing was co-writing, and that was a big part of this particular retreat. We co-wrote every day with new partners…strangers, that we hadn’t met before, and had to be really open with, and challenging, and polite, but not a yes-man. If you had a better idea than your partner, you had to figure out a way to tell them so. And maybe not hurt their feelings too much, hopefully. You were there for the sole purpose of writing a good song, not coddling someone, so finding that way to work with people is really challenging, but it was so rewarding. The retreat was 4 days long, and we did 3 co-writing sessions that were each 3 hours long.

LH: How does your life experience inform your songwriting? What life experience most informs your songwriting?

BT: I’m really grateful that my dad was a college professor, and he would teach abroad for a year at a time, and so our family lived in Cambridge, England, when I was 2 years old, and in Kyoto, Japan, when I was 6 years old. When I was 2 years old, obviously I was just a baby, so I don’t really remember much of that, but when I lived in Japan, I was in 2nd grade, and I went to a public Japanese school. I was the only white kid in the entire school, and I didn’t speak a word of Japanese on the first day of school. And it was an incredibly difficult and strange experience, but by the end of that year, I didn’t want to come home, and I had a whole group of friends there.

Basically, being in that situation gave me a sense of “otherness” that made me feel different. It gave me the opportunity to see that there are a lot of different perspectives. I think that has informed my songwriting and given me that ability to kind of step out of myself and imagine what life is like in someone else’s shoes.

LH: What part does “Place” play in your creative process? Or does it?

BT: Physical location?

LH: Yeah.

BT: Right now it plays a lot, because I’m in this tiny apartment that I can’t stand, and I don’t have a designated place to write, so it’s really difficult to work in my current situation.

But, that being said, I love Santa Barbara, because Santa Barbara has afforded me, for the first time in my life, the opportunity to be a musician and nothing else. I’ve always had other jobs everywhere else I’ve lived, but here In Santa Barbara I’m making enough money performing that I can pay my rent. My rent is too high. It’s crazy here!

LH: But yet, there are places to perform. It’s like a double-edged sword.

BT: Exactly. I love it here. The fact that I’m able to play 4 to 5 gigs a week and get paid for it, without having to drive like 5,000 miles a week is pretty amazing. We do have a tourist economy here, so we have a lot of people coming through, so that gives me the opportunity to play for new people every week, , and people keep buying our CDs! I remember even 5 years ago people were looking at me like “you want to make CDs? What are you, crazy?” We still sell the crap out of them.

LH: But part of it too, is, I think, that your sound is unique, here.

BT: I think it matches here. The sound I have didn’t match an urban environment, so living in LA didn’t work for me. People move to LA when they’re like 22 years old, not when they’re 30, like I did. So I was already too old for being there. My contemporaries had been there for like 10 years. They were not people I had access to, so I was playing music for people who weren’t interested in what I was doing.

Here, it’s a different story. People here love songs about cowboys and the plains and the mountains , because they’re here, seeing the beauty of our physical landscape, which I love. For me, as an active individual, that’s the other thing. I need to be able to go out and hike and get into the hills and get away from people and places, to write. So that’s another reason Santa Barbara has been so great for me, is I can go drive 10 minutes away, and I’m on top of a mountain, looking out over the whole city and imagining what people are doing, and it just lets my imagination run wild.

LH: What’s your favorite part of the creative process: crafting a song, performing a song, or recording a song?

BT: Actually, I love recording. Because by that time, you’ve gotten the song, you’ve done all the hard work, getting the song just right, everything’s in place, you’ve done the pre-production. I love to perform in the studio, because you have this team of people around you, the engineers,that are making the perfect environment for you to do what you need to do. Does it sound just right? Is the guitar too loud? Can you hear your voice okay? Everything is focused…maybe this is a little narcissistic of me, but everybody’s paying attention to me! And giving me exactly what I want! Because I’m the one that’s about to do the thing. And then, when you put it down, and it feels good; it’s awesome.

LH: Do you have a favorite venue that you’ve played?

BT: I’ve got to say, it’s the Lobero Theater, here. It’s pretty much the best place I’ve played. It’s such a beautiful venue, and it’s such a historic place. I’m a sucker for places that have good vibes and juju and all that stuff, and if there’s a place in town that has it, that’s it.

LH: Do you like playing to that size venue?

BT: I’m not sure that the music that I write, up to this point, is “big stadium music.”

The Lobero is a 600-seat venue, and we’ve played to it when we opened for Albert Lee and when we opened for White Buffalo. It was pretty full. And it’s a seated venue. I feel like people were there to really listen. It was so exciting, because that was one of my first goals, when we moved here, was “I’ve gotta figure out how to get on this stage, somehow.” And it happened.

LH: Can you point to anything that sustains you on a daily basis; something that keeps you coming back to write, again and again?

BT: I’m lucky that I have a partner in my life who is extremely supportive and a constant source of inspiration, my wife, Katie. She’s part of the reason that I do what I do. It’s probably annoying for her, but a bunch of my songs are written about her, and sometimes when she’s in the audience, I sing them to her.

I also think that songwriting, for me, is a compulsion. It is also my identity at this point. If I lost that, it would be like having a limb cut off. If I wasn’t able to sing, or play, or be creative in that way, I would still have other outlets, but the biggest one would be missing. And I would feel really bad. So let’s hope that doesn’t happen! (Laughing)

LH: What subject(s) can you give advice about, to creative people?

BT: Advice to musicians in general…would just be, if you’re going to be a performing musician, treat it like a job. And understand that you are in the customer service industry. You are not a rock star. You are a waiter. You are bringing people music. So be humble. Be nice. Be good-hearted.

And be willing to please people. If people don’t want to hear your songs and they want you to play a cover song, play them a cover song. We’re in the entertainment industry, not in the “bolster my own ego” industry. Now, hopefully, you’ll get to the point where your songs are the songs that are being asked for. That is the most awesome compliment, when somebody asks me to play one of my songs for them. I’m blown away, that’s awesome. I feel really lucky to have gotten to that stage. But yeah. We’re in the customer service industry. And if you don’t have happy customers, you’re not going to have a job. You’re going to be playing for yourself, by yourself.

And then, find the people that make music with you well. There are certain people that you just click with, and you need to find those people. And if somebody in your band isn’t clicking, then even if they’re good friends, you’ve got to find a way to say “Hey man, it’s just not working out.” You only have a certain amount of time, so make the best of it.

LH: Thanks, Bryan.

BT: Thank you, this was so fun!

You can read Bryan's contribution to Santa Barbara Literary Journal in Volume 1, which is available an Amazon here.

You can listen to “Lightning” (and other songs from Bryan’s most recent EP “The Road”) here.

You can find out more about Bryan’s music, new, and performance dates here.  

Monday, July 2, 2018

Ted Chiles: The Accidental Novelist?

An Interview of Ted Chiles
by Christine Casey Logsdon

"I like microeconomics, which is about a person who has to make a decision and then they are faced with constraints of income and circumstances and then how do you make the best choice? I think that’s fabulous training for being a writer, because that’s all writing is. A character is faced with constraints, and they have to make a choice. If they weren’t constrained, they would just do whatever they want, and that’d be boring as Hell.” –Ted Chiles

Ted Chiles contributed “The Incidence at the Church in Alabama,” “An Unexpected Talent,” and “Lighter Than Thee” to Volume 1 of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal, which is available on Amazon here. He and his wife, Chella, have lived in Santa Barbara, CA for the last 17 years, but have strong roots in the American South. “The Incidence at the Church in Alabama" is a flash fiction piece about longstanding tensions in a ladies church group, leading to, what else?, a knife fight. Malice simmers among the sweet potato casserole and okra, highlighting Ted's ability to use sophisticated, well-crafted language to tell darkly humorous stories.

CL: Tell me about “The Incidence at the Church in Alabama,” which happens to be about two women, and which I found to be incredibly authentic.

Ted: (laughs) It’s about an incident in Alabama that happened in my father’s hometown, which is also my wife’s hometown, Albertville, Alabama, on top of Sand Mountain. I embellished it completely, but the result is that one of the women, one who picked up a knife, was kicked out of the church. My sister-in-law thought that the woman didn’t really threaten to cut her, so my sister-in-law took her up as a cause and I heard a lot about this. I knew some of the people involved, one of whom has since passed away. I didn’t know the person who picked up the knife. But it’s within my experience.

CL: So you lived in Alabama?

Ted: For 12 years. I taught at Auburn University in Montgomery. My wife, Chella, taught at Huntington College. That’s how we met. But as it turns out she was very good friends with my cousins, had grown up three doors down from them and two doors down from where my grandmother lived at the end of her life. She probably met me when we were young, but we don’t have any memory of it.

CL: Where are you from originally?

Ted: Originally I’m from Akron, Ohio—rubber capital. I lived there until I went away to college. After I graduated college I started a PhD program in Economics at Rice University in Houston—I lasted a year, they just kicked my butt. I was unprepared for the work required. After I received an MA in Economics from the University of Akron, I got a teaching gig in Bradford, PA, the home of Zippo lighters and Case knives. When I was there, my college said they’d put me on tenure track if I’d go get a PhD, so I commuted from Bradford to Penn State for a couple of years.

CL: I was raised the South, myself. Your story rang true on every level.

Ted: Thank you. I’m very lucky in that my wife’s has a PhD in British and American literature. When she was at Santa Barbara City College, she got an MFA in poetry. She’s much more published than I am. She’s published tons of poetry. She’s published like eight chapbooks. She’s published a novella. I’ve got a great first reader—and I’m her first reader, so it works out.

CL: What motivated you to get your MFA?

Ted: Part of my desire for the MFA program was that I’d started a novel and I was kind of stuck. I’d taken a ton of short-story workshops and flash fiction workshops, because I'm a nerd. What do nerds do when they want to learn something? They go to class. I did the Southern California Writers Conference and met Marla Miller. I said, “My wife thinks I have a good voice, but she’s my wife. Maybe she’s just being nice to me. What do you think?” Marla says, “Oh, no, you’ve got a voice.”

She suggested that I try the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. I went to it for three years, and I really enjoyed it. I particularly enjoyed the pirate workshops, but initially I went in for non-fiction. I wanted to be a humorist writing about my golf game. When I said “golf,” people heard “goth,” and imagined I was going to write about people in black with piercings. No. Golf. The reason I got into writing was, I was playing golf with my friends at Ojai, and I got the shanks. I couldn’t get rid of them. I would go to the driving range and try these different tricks you use. My wife, who believes in journaling, said, “Why don’t you write about it?” So I did, then I forgot about it and pulled it down a few weeks later and edited it. Did some rewrites. We were driving cross-country and at my friend Kevin’s, a tennis and golf buddy from high school, probably my best friend. Chella found this on my computer and said, “What is this?” and I said, “It’s what you told me to write.” Then she asked if she could read it and I said, “Sure.” Then she said, “Can I read it out loud?” and I said, “Okay,” at which point Kevin laughed so hard that he fell out of his chair. So I decided that I was going to become a golf writer.

CL: And this from the guy who doesn’t like writing non-fiction?

Ted: I started writing these little columns about my golf game and golf. Chella suggested that I attend the Southern California Writing Workshop and see what people think. I got some positive reinforcement, so I did it again. The first year I went to the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, I did it at Westmont. I was in the non-fiction, comedic world. Between the first and the second Santa Barbara Writers Conference, I decided I wanted to write fiction. I used to say, “Fiction is easy, you just make shit up.” I regret ever having said that. (laughs)

One of my first stories was called "The Kims," based on the zero sum game theory; you know, if one person wins the other loses. They were real estate agents, and whenever one sold a house, that person got taller and the other got shorter. It’s interesting—there was a real moment there for me. I sent the story to a very glossy magazine having a contest, Canteen I think. The deadline passed and I didn’t hear anything, so I submitted to something called "Anemone Sidecar." It was accepted an hour and a half later. The editor was in the office, doing an e-bay auction. She read it right when it came in, and accepted it immediately. Then Canteen wrote back and said they’d like to publish my story, but they were only going to publish if they didn’t mention it was published online. I thought about it and said, “No, I can’t do that.” What’s that old saying? You dance with the person you brought to the prom? So I said no, and Canteen published it anyway. One time in my life I did the moral thing, and it worked out.

So I went to the Santa Barbara Writers Conference for two years at Westmont, then they kicked us out, probably because of the cigarette butts and wine bottles. The third year was at Fess Parker. I took the story, "The Kims" and a story called "Knife" that I’d taken the year before. I did Shelly Lowenkopf’s pirate workshop, and Katharine Ryan-Hyde’s workshop. I read a story called "Diminishing," and it’s based on the diminishing margin of utility, that the more you do something, the less value it has to you on the margin. I’ve never published this one. In Katharine Ryan-Hyde’s workshop, after I’d read about half of it, she said, “Wow. That’s literary, but I don’t mean that in a bad way.”

That really struck me as odd. I’m married to somebody with a PhD in literature. I was beginning to have literary pretentions. I wanted to write literary fiction. I’d gone to a Tom Jenks workshop. He used to work at the Paris Review, and he’s edited most of the major literary figures in America. I wanted my fiction to be not just a good story, but I wanted the language to have a certain quality. I’d also already started going to the Tinhouse Writers’ Workshop because Amy Bender was up there. That’s when I decided maybe I needed to get an MFA.

CL: Did you consider your writing to be dark? The nature of life and death isn’t dark, is it?

Ted: My guilty pleasure is romantic comedies. Nice, happy endings: boy meets girl, they hate each other, all of a sudden they fall in love, you get a happy ending. Then on one extreme you have the John Irving approach to a novel where you have quirky characters, he makes you fall in love with them, then he does horrible things to them for 300 pages. That’s my take on him and his work. After Hotel New Hampshire, I stopped reading him.

Since I didn’t come from a literary background, I didn’t read a lot of literary fiction. I read non-fiction, I read a lot of mysteries, I read Stephen King. So when I came into that world, it just seemed that the difference between a movie and a film is the ending. Do we get a happy ending? Do we get a realistic ending? What’s a realistic ending? The person dies, and the survivor finds a way to deal with the grief, vs. the miracle cure?

CL: I wish I could remember the attribution, but one of the most charming things I’ve read about writing in the last year or two is this: “People overthink the difference between commercial and literary fiction, and it’s simple. The character always wants something. In commercial fiction, they get what they want. In literary fiction, they don’t.” (laughing)

Ted: That’s not bad. I once asked an agent at the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference, from Harper’s (could have been The Atlantic), “What’s literary?” She said, “You look at the elements of what fiction does: there’s a style, there’s a story, there’s the meaning, characterization, and plot. Any good writing has to do all those things. Literary fiction has to take one of those things and elevate it above what’s necessary for it to work as a story. So, deep characterization—a deeper understanding of how the character became a character, or elevating the prose in some way….” That made sense to me, actually.

CL: What do you like most about writing groups?

Ted: I honestly think that every writer subconsciously knows the weak parts of their work, but they try to use some smoke and mirrors to fool themselves and the reader. If you have a good writing group, somebody’s going to see it. Someone’s going to point out, “No, this doesn’t work.” Even if it’s someone you don’t like, or whose work isn’t that great. They might be the person whose one-sentence comment gives you the new ending that makes the story work. I literally had workshopped a story with some really good people, and this one person’s one-sentence comment helped me find the ending and I got the work published.

CL: How often do you write? Are you driven to it?

Ted: When I was getting my MFA, I wrote on a religious schedule of so many hours a day. Now, I’m much more relaxed. Lately I’ve been working on a screenplay that I’ve adapted from a play based on my wife’s novella. We’re sending the play out; it was a semifinalist for a reading at the Gary Marshall theater in LA. My novella has been a semi-finalist in a bunch of contests.

CL: Is there anything you’d like to add that I haven’t asked about?

Ted: The only thing I would add is… occasionally you run into writers who don’t read. Honestly, I’m a nerd and I learn well in a classroom situation. I don’t think it’s necessary to go get an MFA. But if you’re going to be a writer, quit going to movies and read more. If you want to be a screenwriter, watch every damn movie you can. Now that I’m writing plays, I go to every play I can.

Ted Chiles came to creative writing after moving to California in 2003. With a Ph.D. in Economics, he taught Economics at the undergraduate and graduate levels. In 2013, he completed an MFA in fiction from Spalding University. Chiles' fiction has been published in print and online and consists of short stories and flash fiction. His style varies from realism to magical realism to speculative fiction. He also has published creative nonfiction, adapted a novella for the stage, and written two ten-minute plays, one of which was produced in Santa Barbara.

If you would like to read Ted's contributions to Volume 1, it is available on Amazon here.

Christine Casey Logsdon earned her degree in English Literature from UCSB in 1991, and owns and manages a technical consulting company. She has lived in Santa Barbara with her husband and extended family for decades, and edits both fiction and non-fiction. Christine writes fiction of all lengths, and is currently editing her contemporary Southern novel and a dramatic suspense novel.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Sonya Heller: Stars Sparking in Her Fingers

An Interview with Sonya Heller 
by Laura Hemenway

New York based singer/songwriter Sonya Heller’s style could be compared to Joni Mitchell or Laura Nyro, with sensibilities honed in the 1960s and 70s, but ringing clear and true with 21st century artistry. When playing guitar and singing, she has been described as having "stars sparking in her fingers and a voice like roses." And, as Rolling Stone Magazine puts it, "Sonya Heller is very much her own artist and comes alive onstage." Her song “Just Another Daydream” is featured in Volume 1 of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal, which is available on Amazon here.

In this spirited conversation, Sonya discusses her background, her process, and offers words of encouragement to others who are following an artistic path.

LH: What kind of encouragement did you get, in your early life, to be a creative person?

SH: I had the great fortune of being born into a musical environment. My parents met, singing. My mother was a soprano who could also play anything on the piano, whether written or by ear. My father was a tenor. I come from a very musical, Russian/Jewish background; my relatives all played instruments and we had music in the house all the time. I was raised on the original “world music” which was basically Folk Music from around the world back then…and classical combined. I think it really influenced the kind of writing I do. More orchestral in nature. Movements as opposed to classic song form. I’ve gone back and forth between the two.

LH: Would you say the encouragement that you got came from your family primarily?

SH: I would say so. It came from breathing the atmosphere of music, because it was all around me. I had piano lessons. And went on to self-teach myself guitar. My father bought me my first guitar when I was 14, for 25 bucks. I got the Mel Bay books out, and studied all my favorite songwriters.

LH: When did you first start to create songs?

SH: I was 14. I remember my first song. A short little song.

LH: What was the name of it?

SH: “I’ll Still Love You” (laughing)

LH: Aw, sweet. Was it guitar-accompanied?

SH: Yes. Although I never took guitar lessons. I actually started off in theatre, before I got into music. That was my major in college. And then I started studying voice, at 19, with Liz Howard, who was a Juilliard-educated singer. And that’s how the whole singing thing started.

LH: Tell me about your first music teacher. Was that a positive experience?

SH: My first music teacher was this Hungarian woman named Mrs. Duragetzi, who used to pound my fingers, like a nun in Catholic School, on the keys, and taught me the 1-3-5 method; there were no notes. It was just 1-1,2-2,3-3…she would hammer your fingers, physically, into the keys…and then she would come to visit my grandmother, who lived with me, for pastries and coffee, on days she wasn’t supposed to be there. And my grandmother couldn’t stand her (laughing). She used to see her coming up the sidewalk and go “Oh mein Gott, she’s back!”

LH: Not particularly a positive experience, then?

SH: Not really. It was my third teacher that finally gave me a blues number. I went “Whoa! This I love!” And he had just gotten me interested…and then he died. So that was it for piano lessons! (laughing)

LH: In your songs, would you say your childhood home shows up?

SH: I think it does. My promo bio says “I was raised on Slavic doom and American sass”… Slavic doom definitely is a factor…the drama in my house…there was so much dysfunction …and Yiddish sentiment translated into English, which was very flowery and dramatic. I think that had a very strong influence, on my writing.

LH: What about geographical influence?

SH: No, I think it was more the times. I think it was being raised in the 60s and 70s, those being my formative years. I was very influenced by the politics, the world, the sexual and love revolution, the youth revolution, the first Earth Day, hippies, gurus, organic food co-ops, being a vegetarian, chanting…all that stuff…

LH: Do specific life experiences influence your songwriting?

SH: Absolutely. I put life experiences more into metaphoric or poetic form, where the listener is in a universe of possibilities in the story. Something in me always made room for the listener to have their own experience, and to fill in some of the blanks. I’ve also answered a lot of my own internal questions. My own angst has been expressed in those lyrics. I always tell people if you want to know anything about me really….just listen to the lyrics. I really tell all in them.

LH: Is there one songwriter in particular who is a touchstone for you?

SH: Yes. Laura Nyro.

LH: What is it about her? Her process? Her look? Her apparent lifestyle? Melody writing? Lyric writing? All of those things?

SH: It’s all of those things. We also have a very similar voice and vocal range, and a very similar shift in our registers. She also wrote more orchestrally. She wrote in movements. I was very attracted to that. I didn’t have the word for it then, I just knew it was the sound that I really dug. She wrote great stories that really travelled musically. There’s something in her freedom, in her stream of consciousness. She was my #1, especially as an East Coast artist.

And then I would say, Joni Mitchell, for her complexity. And again, a similar range and approach to singing. Those are my first two.

LH: Do you still look to them as role models, compositionally?

SH: Not necessarily. I think they gave me my jumpstart and it’s morphed from there.

LH: What part does “Place” play in your creative process?

SH: I think it does play a part. When I come out to the West Coast, I get a different sound, because it’s lighter here. And you don’t all wear black and gray. I even paint my toenails lavender before I come out here, instead of dark. The last tune I wrote out here was very lighthearted and had a faster rhythm to it. It bounced. It didn’t go down very deeply. Not to say that people aren’t deep thinkers here. But that’s my take as an outsider, on what the vibe is here. People are a little more laid back, more relaxed. I wear more colorful clothing. It’s sunny here, so people are sunnier. And then I get sunnier. That’s a part of me that’s not as ignited back east, especially up in the mountains, or living in the big city. I think the molecules shift.

LH: What about when you’re in Europe? Do you write differently there, too?

SH: I think I do write differently. Again, it’s environmental. Something different happens there, and I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what it is.

LH: Maybe the rhythm of the language?

SH: It’s the rhythm of the language, and the way I combine words, because some of the time I’ve been speaking another language, and my brain will start to shift a little bit. The music might appear first rather than lyrics…I might switch into a waltzy rhythm. More of an old European style…but something definitely shifts. And I enjoy that, because I love the change in language…even the body language changes when I’m there. I dress differently, I walk differently, my mouth forms words differently. It’s really interesting.

LH: When writing, do you think first about how the lyrics will look on the page, or is your first concern performance? How you will be imparting the entire musical/lyrical package to an audience?

SH: Well, I don’t necessarily write lyrics first. Sometimes the music dictates what comes down lyrically. I might start off by writing a story line and let myself have all kinds of ideas. And I resist the urge to edit like the plague. I keep telling myself, “Don’t edit, don’t edit, don’t rhyme, don’t do any of that stuff till it’s all out”, and then I can take a look at it. And then I might start playing a few chords, and start using a few of those ideas and interject them, and sometimes they just fall right into what I’m playing. It’s a very complex thing. I don’t even always know how it happens, honestly. And I certainly don’t think about performance when I’m in the midst of writing. I think the muse is very pure. And I just let the ideas come down first, very raw. I try to step aside and let all this impulse come through. And I try very hard not to take a look at it till way later.

LH: So for the visual element, you’re not thinking about how it’s going to look on your album cover?

SH: Not at all.

LH: You just kind of channel the lyrics through your consciousness?

SH: Absolutely. I really do look up before I start writing, and invoke whoever might be there. Sometimes there are maybe three or four of them up there, especially if I haven’t written in awhile. And I can literally feel them clamoring; they start speaking to me at the same time, and I have to tell them…this may sound really nuts…I go, “All right! Take turns, because (laughing) I can’t hear all of you at once!” And sometimes I’ll be very aware after awhile, that I’ve got two or three songs coming down at the same time, and I have to separate them out.

LH: So then, do you have separate projects going? Like 2 or 3 songs at once?

SH: I start out trying to use it all. And then it becomes really clear to me that “this is not part of this song, this is the other one.” I use different colored magic markers to show me which lines are keepers for one section, and which lines kind of group together for something else. One color could mean “verse of this song, and chorus of that song or another song,” and so forth.

And sometimes, it happens in an instant. It’s just magic.

LH: And there’s no way to predict what the process is going to be? You just open yourself up to it and see what happens?

SH: I think all songwriters go through that, unless they’re doing work for hire, and then, it’s just very, very specific. But yes, I just let it come down and see what happens. Because all the work happens AFTER that. That’s when you have to put your songwriter mechanical cap on and start developing the form. That’s Part Two.

LH: Do you have a favorite topic to explore in your writing: Story songs? Songs about emotion? Songs about place? Songs about relationships?

SH: I think I write a lot of “healing” songs. Introspective songs that have questions and explore answers. I write a lot about spirituality and sexuality and nature and how they intermingle.

LH: What’s your favorite part of the creative process: creating a song, performing a song, recording it, promoting it?

SH: I’m a recording studio freak. I could live in a studio the rest of my life. I don’t care if there’s a window, or if the sun comes out…I love being in the studio, I love recording. I love mixing, I love listening to the playbacks; dissecting sound. I have a thing for sound. I enjoy my ears. I really get to experience my sonic gift in this particular way. I love when my engineer/producer hears the same thing. You know then, that you’re with the right person, and they share the same kind of discernment you have. And that you can nitpick and get that “Eureka” moment you’re listening for.

My equally favorite thing is the birth. The birth of an idea, when something comes down so strong when I’m sitting there, in the middle of the night, and I can feel it through my bones and cells. A couple of choice lines come out, and next thing, I am just weeping. And when I’m weeping, I know I’ve got a keeper. And it doesn’t mean it’s over, it just means “you’re going to be working on this one…but this is a keeper.” That really comes from up above.

So those are my two favorite moments. That first moment of conception…and the birthing in the studio. Putting it together.

LH: So, when the birth happens, do you ever hear it fully realized, in your head, like the way you want it orchestrated?

SH: I have done that, yes. In my little home studio, I will often record bass lines, or very specific things that I hear, and then I’ll leave the rest open to interpretation…but sometimes if I get a line and I really want it there, like it HAS to be there. My first producer used to call it “demo-itis” (laughing), and you can fall prey to that. But there are some times you’ve got to stick to your guns, because as a composer you feel it, it’s just RIGHT. And it was given to you to DO that way. That’s what makes us all so different and unique. It’s your signature that’s coming out.

LH: Can you point to anything that sustains you on a daily basis; something that keeps you coming back to write, again and again?

SH: Knowing that I’d be dead if I didn’t.

LH: That’s your inspiration.

SH: It gives me a sense of purpose, not only for myself, but knowing that I can be of service to others. That what I do can be helpful to somebody, somewhere. I have had those words spoken to me, many times, over the last 40 years. The first time somebody told me they were on the brink of taking their life but heard me at 3:00 in the morning on the radio, in New York City, and it got them back off a ledge, I said “If I die tomorrow, I did good.”

LH: I’ll say. Wow.

SH: And it’s given me my own sense of wellness, balance, grounding. I’ve gone through depression, and the highs and lows of life, and the creative process and writing are what ground me and connect me to my Creator on a daily basis.

LH: So, as a result of that positive feedback that you get, you don’t experience writer’s block, because it’s such a positive thing for you, that you just want to keep doing it, over and over and over, and you just CAN…

SH: Oh, I’ve had long bouts of writer’s block. Every time I start writing my album’s worth, which is what I do every February, I start fretting the week before, and up until that minute I’m thinking, “I’ve got nothing left.”

LH: Really?

SH: There’s nothing there. But I also know, and trust, at that moment, that the same thing that happened last year will happen this year. Somehow my brain will open up, I’ll get the first prompt word, and I’m off to the races. It’s community, community, community. I know those people are out there doing it with me. That’s why community is so important. Especially as a writer, because it’s a lonely job. And we all share the dread we have before we do it. “Oh man, I’m busy, I know I don’t have it in me, I’m not feelin’ it, there’s so much goin’ on, I don’t know if I’m gonna get to it…” We’re all doing the same thing. And then we all end up exploding with stuff.

LH: Right on.

SH: I’ve been very careful to join writer’s groups and social media and stay connected, and we keep encouraging each other to keep writing and complete our re-writes. That’s been very, very good for me. But there have been many times where I’ve had lulls, and haven’t gone near my instrument, haven’t sang…just don’t feel it. I feel it more now, that I’ve gotten into the rhythm of writing every year, and going to more retreats, where we really get to focus on the music. You kind of have to get away from your daily life sometimes, to give that to yourself. Retreats. And anyplace you can gather as a community are very helpful. They’re friendly and loving and inspiring.

LH: What kind of advice could you give to other writers? Are there any subjects that you could give advice to other artists, about?

SH: Stay in your own lane.

LH: Explain that.

SH: Don’t try to imitate anyone. Keep exploring who you are, where you are. Go learn from people, listen to a lot of music, and then spend time not listening to any music. Take walks. Don’t feel like a lazy bum when you’re walking. You’re working. When you’re not writing, you’re working. Allow yourself to know that your subconscious is collecting information all the time. So by the time you sit down to write, all that material is already there, and you can draw upon it.

I think we spend too much time judging ourselves, as if we need to apply a certain amount of hours in the day to the craft. And although I think that reading books and going to seminars is a great thing to do, we also have to tune in to how it happens for US. What is YOUR process? For me, it’s about wandering the streets; like window shopping. And I used to feel that I was lazy. I had a teacher, and I said to him, “You know, I spent three days walking the streets, I came home, and I wrote this song in 13 minutes.” And he said, “You did not. You spent three days walking around. Your conscious mind needed to get out of the way so your unconscious mind could get busy writing and collecting. And you did not write that song in 13 minutes. You wrote it in three days and 13 minutes.” (laughing)

It’s an honor to have this gift. Take the time to recognize how that works within you and cultivate it.

Community is the most important thing. Find your tribe. Find the place that you feel well. Find the place where you feel you belong and you’re being encouraged, and honor each others’ differences. Go to open mics. There, you have an opportunity to listen to tons of people, to get up in front of an audience, to work through stage fright. Hear what you like about the tune, hear what you don’t like about the tune, and in the meantime, you’re making friends and dates, and it makes you want to run back home and keep working. So, community, community, community. I think it’s THE most important thing, right next to the process of writing.

LH: Thanks, Sonya.

SH: You’re welcome!

Laura Hemenway and Sonya Heller at play.
To read Sonya's contribution to Volume 1, as well as the rest of our talented contributors, click here.

Discover more about Sonya Heller’s performances and music here.