Saturday, April 20, 2013

New Book! Interplay: Finding the Keys to Creativity

I have just published a new book on writing, "Interplay," on Amazon Kindle. It will be offered for free on April 29. Following is the introduction to the book, which explains how I got into writing about the arts in the first place..


I was always going to be a novelist. The question was, what were my novels going to be about? Looking back, it’s clear that I never really had a choice.

It all began when Maurice Jackson told me I wasn’t cool enough to be in the men’s glee club. Seriously. Peterson High was like a Disney musical. Men’s glee had 125 members, including half the football team. We sang like gorillas, occasionally like dogs. We rewrote “Winter Wonderland” into a celebration of sex, drugs and booze (“…to face unafraid, the chicks that we laid…”). But we also toured other schools, encouraging boys to sing. And we once had to postpone a playoff game because the entire baseball team was playing baseball players in Damn Yankees.

I went to college at San Jose State largely because it was close to home - and proceeded to klutz my way into a world-class choir. Our first performance was in San Francisco’s brand-new Davies Symphony Hall, and we sang on a regular basis with the San Jose Symphony, including a memorable Beethoven’s Ninth. The department also had a gamelan ensemble that performed with composer Lou Harrison, a young jazz instructor named Bobby McFerrin, and Irene Dalis, a twenty-year star of the Metropolitan Opera who had returned to her hometown to start an opera workshop.

As a singing journalism major, I wrote about these things for the Spartan Daily, and I also received some tickets from the San Francisco Opera for a touring production of Verdi’s Rigoletto. The performance had two intriguing angles: Mark Rucker, a black Rigoletto (at a time when colorblind casting was still a new concept) and a third-act storm scene that benefited from actual thunder and lightning just outside the semi-covered Concord Pavilion. The subsequent review – plus an interview with Rucker – won that semester’s award for best arts feature.

It was becoming apparent that I had the specific ability to write about music. This is not a talent to be overlooked. Music is ruthlessly temporary, existing only in the present, as difficult to pin down as a butterfly on speed. “Writing about music,” says a quote attributed to just about everyone, “is like dancing about furniture.” (Reflecting this difficulty, the last thing the average music magazine addresses is the actual music.) On the bright side, music is endlessly diverse, forever fascinating, and the challenge of describing it never lessens.

And still, even after I decided to write about it, music stalked me. The year I graduated, Irene Dalis’s workshop became Opera San Jose, and Silicon Valley’s new weekly, Metro, needed someone to cover it. Metro’s jazz writer, Sammy Cohen, sold me a used drum kit, sparking a journey through a dozen jazz, blues and rock bands, plus one memorable drum circle. A local arts center, Villa Montalvo, needed a publicist – preferably someone who could write about music – for its 50-concert arts season. I emceed performances, escorted Harry Connick, Jr.’s fiancee, rapped backstage with Jon Hendricks, introduced my dad to his idol, Al Hirt, and appeared over Charlie Sheen’s shoulder in a Clint Eastwood movie.

With all this raw material beating me over the head, it was no surprise when my first novels featured artist protagonists. My first, Frozen Music, took place in a college choir. My next two – accepted by separate publishers in one very memorable week – featured a young opera singer (Gabriella’s Voice) and a theater center modeled after Villa Montalvo (Courting the Seventh Sister).

Thirteen novels on, I am still drawing from the well – poets, drummers, painters, composers, jazz singers, actors – and I am still thirsty. But it’s not just a matter of harvesting themes like an arborist picking fruit. There’s something more dynamic at work. Every time I pick up a pair of drumsticks, begin a painting, sing a Sinatra tune or review an opera, I give my internal turbine a spin, creating new energy for my fiction.

Beginning in 2005, the editors of Writer’s Digest handed me a number of assignments that challenged me to explain this and other phenomena surrounding the creative act. “Creative Lollygagging” describes the act of finding inspiration by not seeking it. In “Vice-Versa,” three noted authors describe the divine interplay between poetry and prose. The culmination is “Meeting of the Minds,” an exploration of the visual-linguistic synergy between the left and right hemispheres of the brain.

Encouraged by WD’s reprinting of these articles, most recently in a book-length collection of fiction writing, I began to visualize a book that would bring all of my worlds together, a collection of articles, short stories, novel excerpts and poems reflecting a quarter-century study of the creative act. For dessert, I have included quotes from some of the artists I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing along the way. My attempt to sort these pieces into discrete categories lasted perhaps five minutes. I have opted instead for a subtle narrative thread, a trick I learned from my friend Calder Lowe, masterful editor of The Montserrat Review.

I hope that you will find in these pieces the same entertainment, fascination and creative spark that I found in the artists who inspired them. I have had a hell of a lot of fun.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

FREE on Amazon Kindle, April 11. One day only! Fields of Satchmo - wild American poems by Michael J. Vaughn.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

An Error Undone

Several years ago, I wrote a novel, Rhyming Pittsburgh, about a failed marriage proposal, and I dedicated it to the woman who inspired the story. This is how authors should always decide dedications: dedicate it to the person who had the most to do with your writing the thing in the first place.

At the time, my new girlfriend did not agree with me. She complained that the dedication was yet another indication that I was still obsessed with the woman in question. I replied that writing the novel, in fact, was my way of working that woman out of my system.

Alas, I crumbled. I dedicated the novel to my sister (who deserves to have all of my novels dedicated to her). But I regretted that decision ever since.

Fortunately, things change. The new girlfriend was soon gone. The small press that released the novel went out of business. Years later, I re-released Rhyming Pittsburgh on Amazon Kindle.

And I changed the dedication.

I feel much better.

You can buy Rhyming Pittsburgh at Amazon Kindle for 99 cents. And find out who that dedication was for.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

FREE on Amazon Kindle, April 6. Michael J. Vaughn's baseball novel, Billy Saddle Today only!

Friday, April 5, 2013

An Encouraging Word

Fields of Satchmo, the new book of Wild American poems by Michael J. Vaughn. Only 99 cents on Amazon Kindle.

In the fall of 2011, I had just finished The Popcorn Girl, the most recent in a line of several overlapping novel projects, and I was worn out. (Looking back, I think it was the Memento-like psychological twists that taxed me). I needed a break, and visiting an old neighborhood - poetry - seemed like just the thing. I had been quite an active poet in the '90s, leading an open mic, working on a literary journal, and placing poems in more than 50 journals - had even finished second in the 2000 Austin International Poetry Festival to finish off the decade. After that, however, it was three, maybe four poems a year.

Which is a shame, really, because poetry is a wonderful place to stretch the imaginative muscles, to engage in wordplay, to conduct mad linguistic experiments. People are always surprised, in fact, that my poems are so non-linear, coming from a novelist. (I found the same to be true of my prose hero, Raymond Carver, whose poems are refreshingly free of narrative bounds.)

I was hesitant, though, and couldn't seem to get started. That's when I mentioned it to my pal Ellen Lee Gibson, who has this amazing capacity to be a fan of my work even though she's a long-time friend (it's difficult to separate an authorial voice from a friend's voice, that's why many people can't read a friend's work objectively). And this is what Ellen said:

"I miss your poems."

Simple statement, but it's the wording that got to me. Not "You should definitely write poems," but something much more personal and touching. So I ordered up a latte, started writing, and produced 120 poems over the next four months. Talk about pulling a finger from the dike!

These poems astounded me. In those ten prose-filled years, I had stored up a new voice, full of swagger and wild imagination. By the end of the year, 28 of them had been accepted by literary journals around the world, and I began to consider finally putting out my first collection. Now it's out: Fields of Satchmo, named for a poem that conducts a mad compression of slavery America until Louis Armstrong rises from a field of manure, trumpet in hand, like a gorgeous sunflower.

Watch out what you say to your writer friends. You might be lighting a fuse. And sometimes, in only four words. Thanks, Ellen. You're awesome.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Fields of Satchmo, the new book of Wild American poems by Michael J. Vaughn! Only 99 cents on Amazon Kindle.

An Author Talks with his Protagonist

Bubba Heinreid, please take note:
I see what you are doing and
you should know that I disapprove.

The fact that I made you
up is no excuse. I have
spent far less attention on
real people and for that
alone you should feel flattered.

Come with me to the sidewalk.
Have a beer.
Tell me about the girl.
The one you wished you loved.
Because she deserves it.
Because you don’t.
I’ve been there.
That’s why I wrote you.

Think of that first chapter,
when your friend snuck up
behind the two of you in the
bar and managed to
photograph your third kiss.
Two people falling toward one another,
lips just that far apart.
The avalanche begins with a pebble,
ends with a confused man,
standing before the rubble,
one hand on his forehead.

A lifetime grinding at spiral notebooks.
You would think, once in a while,
a clear-cut notion would show its face.
Instead we slap the after-shave,
tie the blindfold, stumble for hours,
a miracle that we manage to
arrive back at our beds.

I saw
Nigger Jew
scratched into
the metal above a
toilet. Remembered a
piece of sandpaper in my
pocket, reduced it to a gray
smear. Things can be
taken back, things
can be made

You’re alive.
And though we often don’t
even know what that means,
we’re fairly certain that it’s a
higher state, because someday
you won’t be.

Thanks, Bubba.
I chose you well.
And don’t worry,
I take care of
those who work for me.

I picture you in a swimming pool,
on a cruise ship, west of Baja,
catching the eye of a
three-year-old who thinks you’re God.

First published in Rose & Thorn Journal