I am never more nervous than when I hand my wife a new manuscript, and I am never more relieved than when she says she likes it. She’s my first reader (first everything, really) and if I can write something that she really likes, I feel I’m a success no matter what.
Of course, I’m thrilled when anybody else likes the work. This week I got word that the mayor of Chattanooga, Tennessee started a book club and made Steal Like An Artist the first book up for discussion.
It’s wonderful but also a tiny bit unnerving how that book, which I wrote when I was 28 years old (I’ll be 35 this June), keeps having such a life of its own. I’d thought of Steal/Show as the Robin Hood duology — first you steal, then you share — and I didn’t see how it could go any further than that. But it’s clear now that I’m writing what is obviously the last book in a trilogy. It’s always more complicated when people have expectations, and it’s always a challenge to tie things up in a satisfying way, but I’m really excited about this book. It feels right to me. And long overdue.
A few hours after I made this blackout, my mom texted me something my grandma said to her earlier today: “Being old is terrible, but I sure had a lot of fun getting here.”
“Books are frozen voices, in the same way that musical scores are frozen music. The score is a way of transmitting the music to someone who can play it, releasing it into the air where it can once more be heard. And the black alphabet marks on the page represent words that were once spoken, if only in the writer’s head. They lie there inert until a reader comes along and transforms the letters into living sounds. The reader is the musician of the book: each reader may read the same text, just as each violinist plays the same piece, but each interpretation is different.”
It’s March 15, the Ides of March. Last night my brother-in-law tweeted, “Tbh in my life the Ides of March have historically been excellent days sorry Caesar.” I got to thinking about it, and yeah, historically, for about the past decade this has been a pretty excellent time for me, too. I usually have something going on at SXSW, most of my books came out in the early spring, my youngest son was born March 11, etc.
I checked in with my ol’ pal Thoreau, and on March 15, 1852, he is celebrating the arrival of spring in his journal: “This afternoon I throw off my outside coat.” At this point the year is 20% over, but Thoreau doesn’t seem at all worried about March 15. If he’s thinking about it at all, it’s only in the way the Romans marked it as a deadline for settling debts. Thoreau is 34 years old, same age as me, and he wants to be worthy of this life he’s been given:
I wish to begin this summer well; to do something in it worthy of it and of me… I pray that the life of this spring and summer may lie fair in my memory. May I dare as I have never done! […] I am eager to report the glory of the universe; may I be worthy to do it…. It is reasonable that a man should be something worthier at the end of the year than he was at the beginning.
I feel much like Thoreau. I’m cooking on this new thing, spring has come to Texas, and I want to be worthy of my life and all I’ve been given. I know I don’t deserve it, but I want to work in a way deserving of it.
Two years ago, Sarah Manguso wrote a letter of recommendation for singing in the choir:
…in a choir, I can make sound, focus the mind, enjoy myself and forget myself, all at once. There is an old choristers’ adage that goes, “When the music is marked forte, sing so you can hear yourself; when it’s marked piano, sing so you can hear the others.” After enough practice, you can learn to feel the vibration in your skull and tell by the sensation whether your pitch is right, your timbre true. It is a kind of listening without hearing. Perhaps this combination of experiences is as common as what psychologists call flow, a state of complete absorption in an activity.
I feel an additional pleasure, though, greater than flow, when I sing in a choir. It’s a mode of singing that strikes a balance between feeling necessary — each voice must participate to achieve the grand unified sound — and feeling invisible, absorbed into the choir, your voice no longer yours. I can work hard, listen hard and disappear, let the ocean of sound close over me. It is comforting to disappear into all that sound and to know that no one else will hear me, either. The performance feels like a secret.
A year before that Oliver Burkeman wrote in The Guardian:
Group singing is a perfect case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. For entirely non-magical reasons – such as the averaging out of flat and sharp voices – a choir can sound far better than its individual members’ talents might suggest. The result is self-transcendence: the thing only works on a level bigger than oneself. “As long as I’m singing,” writes Stacy Horn in Imperfect Harmony, her memoir of singing in a Manhattan amateur choir, “it’s as if I’m inhabiting another reality. I become temporarily suspended in a world where everything bad is bearable, and everything good feels possible.”
And way back in 2008, Brian Eno wrote:
I believe that singing is the key to long life, a good figure, a stable temperament, increased intelligence, new friends, super self-confidence, heightened sexual attractiveness and a better sense of humor….there are physiological benefits, obviously: You use your lungs in a way that you probably don’t for the rest of your day, breathing deeply and openly. And there are psychological benefits, too: Singing aloud leaves you with a sense of levity and contentedness. And then there are what I would call “civilizational benefits.” When you sing with a group of people, you learn how to subsume yourself into a group consciousness because a capella singing is all about the immersion of the self into the community. That’s one of the great feelings — to stop being me for a little while and to become us. That way lies empathy, the great social virtue.
Sing, sing, sing.