Thursday, July 16, 2009

Not Dying Today

Talk Amongst Yourselves

I’m sure our legions of dedicated readers are wondering at this very moment what the heck has become of the semi-regular, wit-crammed, intelligent posts on this blog from the likes of your humble scribe and the creator/founder of this blog, Duke Altum. No doubt hundreds of you are suffering from withdrawal and probably breaking out in hives at the suspense of not knowing more about how the strenuous progress of my first “novel” is coming along (poorly, see below). And other subsets of you are surely holding side-meetings and online colloquies to discuss the apparent demise of Duke’s “Poem of the Month” series, much-admired in the (way)underground channels of the literary world, and lamenting the death of his occasional posts on whatever corner of the world he has conquered in his international reading. (Don’t believe me? Two words: Rabindranath Tagore.)

Well, the good news is that reports of this blog’s death have been wildly exaggerated. We’re not going away. But “real life” still has a way of imposing itself on grownups, especially those of us who are responsible for little kids, and both Duke and I have been pulled away from this page recently to focus our attention on other pressing matters unrelated to literature and film anyway, if not the spiritual life.

Poor Duke Altum, the driving force behind and surely the soul within this blog, was already getting thumped repeatedly in his “day job” before recent events, but is now doubly taxed with the far more important and emotionally burdensome task of helping to guide his 11-month old baby daughter through a grueling recovery period following a scheduled surgical operation. Anytime you put any loved one’s well being in the hands of doctors, however accomplished, there is certainly an element of nerves involved. But with a child young as his daughter is, it’s that much more of an emotional journey. Needless to say, The Secret Thread wishes Duke’s daughter all the best for a speedy and complete recovery, and we trust that with God’s help and Duke and his wife’s unconditionally loving care, she is already well on her way there. Good thing Duke was boning up on how to raise girls right (see “What We’re Reading”, left) before this occurred so that he can be there body and soul for his little woman of the future. No doubt Duke will one day, hopefully soon, make a triumphant return to this page with a new film review or post on one great book or another.

As for the present scribe, unfortunately my novel has hit the skids yet again. This time some external pressures in my life are really impeding on my creativity and fictional writing process to the extent that I have been forced to “table” the current chapter until I feel a little better grounded to continue. This is the first time I have really felt that way about this story. Many times I have hit what felt like a blockage but I didn’t think it was a large enough problem that I couldn’t muscle through it. But 2009 has been a difficult year in my household for private reasons, and I have discovered that even the little time I have to devote to developing my writing craft has to be sacrificed more frequently than I want it to be. So be it; I am responsible for my own household. It’s a hard thing to feel like I have devoted three years to writing this story only to reach a temporary place where I cannot continue. But it is nonetheless the case, and what I need to do is focus on overcoming some of the burdens that have put me here.

Me and a Girl

Nonetheless, if you know me, you know that I am not able to completely stop doing some form of creative writing. The day I do that, you can lay me in the ground and cover me up; it’s over. And while I am unable to get into and sustain a long-term fiction project for the moment, I can at least report that I am hard at work – although I have even less time to devote to it – on a shorter piece of writing that falls into, I guess, the critical essay category. Once again I find myself writing a serious piece about a musician who has made an impact on my creative life, following two previous critical essays, both of which were published, on singer-songwriter Bill Mallonee (“Lonesome Traveler”, Rock & Sling, Winter 2006) and The Innocence Mission (“Hope on the Wing”, The Other Journal, Issue #11, August 2008).

This time though, maybe for the first time in a nonfiction piece I have written, I am taking on a subject that I do admire and respect artistically, but that I do not find myself sympathetic towards in terms of their worldview/attitudes/beliefs. I thought it would be an interesting challenge to write about an artist that I had difficulty connecting with on moral grounds but still found myself drawn towards. And I found the perfect subject for this in my new piece, tentatively titled “Me and a Girl: Investigating my Abnormal Attraction to the Music of Tori Amos”.

I’ve been listening to Tori Amos’ music for about 15 years. I have always enjoyed a great deal of it, and have marveled at her astounding musical and composing abilities as well as her fierce independence and creative audacity over the years. In terms of pure creative gifts, I believe she is arguably a genius. She has always taken risks and stretched the boundaries of what one would expect from just one woman and her piano, and those are aspects of her career I can look upon with admiration. However, anyone who spends any time listening to Tori’s music knows that she is very aggressively anti-religion, and provocative in most senses of the word. She is famous for her passionate and complicated femaleness, her spacey lyrics, her vehement posture against what she perceives to be the “Patriarchy”, and her semi-suggestive physicality in live performance.

Tori Amos goes to uncommon lengths to hold onto a life-long grudge against organized religion and continually hammers on what many Christians in particular hold to be sacred in her lyrics and public statements. Yet at the same time she is a self-described “daughter of the Christian Church”, having been raised by a Baptist minister. One story about her is instructive: when her father got after her for never writing a Christmas song or even sending a Christmas card, she suggested that a much-discussed photo of her suckling a piglet in the CD booklet of her 1996 album Boys for Pele was as close as she was ever going to get to fulfilling that wish for him. (What that may have to do with Christmas is classic Tori.)

And lest you think she has mellowed with age, this is her discussing some of the motivation behind her latest record, Abnormally Attracted to Sin (as if this doesn’t prove the point!), from her website: “I'm a minister's daughter. The power of the church is insidious, and it permeates everything. A lot of what the Church discusses is not about the compassionate path of Christ, it's about what kind of lifestyle is acceptable and approved of by the Church when god knows what they're doing behind closed doors.”

Those who know me know that I do not subscribe in any way to this point of view. So why spend time being inundated by it? For me it’s three-fold: 1. it’s to get outside of my “comfort zone” as a writer, writing about people who do not share my ideas. In that sense it’s a literary exercise. 2. Although I find a lot of her ideas unappealing and offensive, and even feel resentment towards her for her sweeping generalizations about religious communities, I am still considerably drawn towards her music, and want to explore why. 3. I have a theory that there may be a kind of Hazel Motes-quality to Tori Amos, for where would she be if she had never had men or “the Church” to hammer against? And who spends an entire career pounding on the same ideas they feel opposition towards without also spending a lot of time contemplating those ideas, thinking about those ideas, and indeed being engaged, even negatively, by those ideas? Is Amos’ journey a real-life search for the “Church of Christ Without Christ”, as Flannery O’Connor’s Hazel Motes put it in Wise Blood? What is really going on in her art, anyway?

These are the answers I am seeking in my writing about her. I may not find them, for Tori Amos is an extremely complicated and tough nut to crack, but going after them is a challenge, and writers have to take on these challenges. Sometimes your subjects choose you, and you have to accept the gauntlet if they hurl it down in front of you.

Wish me luck.

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