Music, my healer

October 22, 2014 § 6 Comments

A couple of weeks ago I walked into a local shopping centre and my heart skipped a beat. It was a Saturday morning, bristling with the hustle of crowds with weekend agendas, and yet I was completely entranced.

Because there, between two escalators, sat a man with an electric piano, his fingers dancing over the keys. Suddenly Saturday morning was serenity, not stress, and the tension of my working week began to leak away .

I wish I had the words to tell you what live music does to me. I get choked up at my children’s choir and orchestra concerts, because there’s just something about watching a small boy in long socks and flannel shorts play a rockin’ trumpet solo with his school jazz band, his feet dangling several inches above the floor.

When the notes from a real pipe organ swell and swirl through a wedding or funeral, I can barely breathe at the beauty of it all. The power of an orchestra in full flight suffuses me with liquid heat. When I sit in a dim corner at a small live music venue watching my favourite musicians sing and play together like they occupy one body, I go home with a stupid grin on my face, a grin so broad it keeps me awake till the wee hours.

Yes, I have music on my iPod and I can plug in my earphones and listen to it any time I like. But often it’s too clean, too sterile, too perfect. It lacks the grit, the authenticity, the creativity and humanity of a live performance, and that’s what I crave.



It’s complicated

June 18, 2014 § 4 Comments

I was scrabbling around for a topic for today’s blog earlier, and my friend Cath suggested I try to answer a question she’d been asked: “Why do you write?” It’s a question I’m asked fairly often, and I’m never quite sure how to answer. Because mostly, it’s complicated.

I’m supposed to be in television journalism or production – that’s the stream I chose during my journalism degree. I didn’t see myself as much of a writer, to be honest. So I learnt how to zoom, track and pan a camera, switch between cameras on a vision mixing board, and edit pictures and sound.

I ended up writing quite by accident – the only job I could get vaguely in the television world was at a trade publication for the TV and film industries. And here I am today, several steps later, a freelance journalist who writes about health. It’s a funny old thing, life.

But it’s a complicated question to answer because I do so many kinds of writing, so I thought it’d be fun (for me, anyway) to look at the four main kinds of writing I do, and explore each one. If you read any further than this, I’ll be impressed. I’ll also keep it short for you two, dear readers…

1. Health journalism: I love health journalism because I love the challenge of taking complicated medical and health science information and making them accessible – yet accurate – for readers. The thing is, there’s a lot of misinformation out there when it comes to health. A lot of fads, a lot of unadulterated crap. So I see my role as that of questioner on your behalf. I ask the difficult questions, get second and third and fourth opinions where required, and always, always ask for evidence to back up the claims people make. I come across as evangelical, crusading sometimes, but I’m okay with that. It’s my job.

2. Blogging: This here weekly ‘column’ I inflict on all of you is purely self-indulgent; my challenge to myself to produce a piece of non-work-related writing once a week. I’m having fun with it, because it’s one hundred percent my space. And no-one is more surprised than I am when anyone reads it. So, thanks, if you’re one of the people who reads my meanderings – you amaze me on a weekly basis.

3. Fiction: Yes, like all those writers who think they have a novel inside of them, I’ve recently completed one. The thing is, I didn’t think I had one in me and then I went on a creative writing course and discovered I could write small scenes quite well. And then I realised that a novel was no more than a string of scenes, so if I just wrote one scene at a time…

A couple of years and 86 000 words later, it is currently doing the slush pile sashay. We’ll see if any publishers bite: you can be sure I’ll let you know with the appropriate fanfare if they do. But let me say this – it is by far the hardest form of writing I have ever done. I’ve published a non-fiction book, ghostwritten another and I can churn out a magazine feature in record time, but fiction is really, really difficult, and yet, utterly addictive.

4. Songwriting: If I could pick one form of writing to do all day, every day, this would be it. Nothing gives me more joy than finishing a song I’m happy with. Music is my healer, and I love the challenge of writing beautiful lyrics that match a melody, that rhyme and scan without seeming contrived, underpinned by music that rises and falls in just the right way, at just the right time. It’s so constrained, yet so creative. Songwriting is the writing my heart does. It fills me up like nothing else.

But if I had to give a general answer, I suppose it would be this: I just love words. I love the way you can bend them to your will, expand, contract and manipulate them till they sing – literally sometimes. I love the way they roll off my tongue and onto the page. I love the mini-mazes they make on a page if you blur your eyes and look for the white spaces between them. I love how you can give a bunch of different writers the same language, and the same topic and each will produce something completely different. I love their weight, their lightness, their darkness and shade.

Mostly, I love the way they are the yarn that knits our stories together. And what are we, if not the sum of our stories? The art – and the joy, for me – is in telling them well.

Making space

May 14, 2014 § 5 Comments

I should not be writing this blog post.

I’ve just returned from a meeting with someone who wants his book edited. I have another book to write by the end of August. I need to send my own novel out to do the slush pile sashay and a recipe book sitting at an e-publisher that I really must follow up on. I have a couple of small bloggy-type pieces to write for one of my clients. I have a business writing course to design. I’m hatching a plot to record some of my songs, and writing new ones in what feels like a mad frenzy. I want to do a life coaching course, but I haven’t had time to look for one. My office is a disaster. My home admin is non-existent. I don’t have the time to write this blog post.

And I am as happy as the proverbial pig in mud.

A little over a year ago I sat in Judy Klipin’s office and sobbed for an hour. I was burnt out – physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. I think I probably sobbed for most of the first four or five sessions while Judy listened and passed the tissues.

At some point I remember her asking me what my ideal working life would look like, and I answered that I’d like to be writing books, predominantly. I didn’t mind doing a bit of journalism, but I loved the substantial body of work that a book gives one, the sense of achievement when you hold it in your hand. I’d like to continue teaching writing as well, I said. I love seeing someone’s face light up when they finally get it.

So, look at my to-do list again. Admin and tidying aside, largely I’m doing everything I want to do, and more. And the songwriting is just the lushest, plumpest, darkest, juice-running-down-your-chin cherry on the cake. Nothing makes me happier than producing a song I’m proud of.

How did I get here? By making space. With Judy’s help I put down all the things that weren’t serving me, all those things that were draining the life out of me, that I was doing out of a sense of duty or guilt or any number of other negative emotions.

I’ve had a fallow period since I did that, one where having nothing to occupy me in the evenings has been the weirdest sensation on earth. Because I’m a doer. Like my grandmother, I always have Things To Do.

But now, after a long recovery period and plenty of time to think and ruminate and plot and plan, I feel like I’m back. Like I’m me. I’m starting to dress like me again, I’m thinking like me, I’m speaking like me, I’m doing the things I like to do. And mostly importantly, I’m giving myself the space – the permission – to be whoever I want to be. It scares the hell out of me, but I’m doing it anyway.

And that, dear friends, is the very best feeling in the world.

Better together

April 23, 2014 § 3 Comments

Two Sundays ago, I stood on my front stoep with my friend (and bona fide professional musician and producer) Lionel Bastos, and sang four of my own songs to an audience of 50 or so people. I didn’t write about it last week, because I didn’t have the words.

It was a beautiful evening. Lionel sang two sets of his magnificent music, another dear friend, Ruth Everson, performed her searing, spectacular poetry, and I bared my soul – and allowed my voice to be heard – in a way I haven’t done for years. It was thoroughly terrifying and utterly energising at the same time. I felt like I was on the cusp of something momentous.

I’ve always been involved in music in some way or another. I learned to play the piano at school, I performed in musicals, I sang in choirs, I taught myself to play the guitar and steeldrum (badly) and even leaned out of the window at my university residence and sang sad songs to the night air during a particularly dramatic phase. But I only realised late in life that the thing I love most about music is collaborating with others.

It’s hard to explain, but if you take singing in a choir as an example, the moment I love best is when, after you’ve rehearsed all the voice parts separately, the conductor raises his hand and you sing together for the first time. It’s often imperfect, but there’s something about the energy of that collaboration and the richness of the sound that creates a kind of magic.

That’s what I loved most about that Sunday evening. Lionel and I had two fairly shambolic, haphazard rehearsals of my songs. We rehearsed none of his. But there was a collaboration that happened – I sang harmonies for him wherever possible; he did the same for me. There was banter, there was laughter, there were little moments of surprise and shared grins between he and I at a faltered chord or a forgotten lyric that the audience probably didn’t see. It was perfect in its imperfection.

And for me, it felt like magic. For me, it felt like the beginning of something wonderful, something new.

I hope I’m right. Because I want to feel like that again. And again. And again.

The entertainer

April 10, 2014 § 9 Comments

I woke up this morning and realised I’d forgotten to blog yesterday. I have a reminder set up on my computer, and yet somehow it passed unnoticed that yesterday was Wednesday, and Wednesday is blogging day.

I think it’s because I’m having so much fun at the moment, and that’s good, right? Because I’m organising a casual soirée at my home on Sunday night – an evening of poetry and music and community – and it has consumed me.
Why? Well, partly because I love hosting gatherings of people and deciding what to feed them, how to make them feel at home, anticipating their needs as much as possible. I’ve hosted birthday parties and baby showers and book clubs and bridal showers for other people just because I love entertaining so much.

But mostly it’s because there’s another sort of entertainment I love too – put me on a stage and I’m in a very happy place. And this weekend, for the first time in many, many years I’ll be on a stage, singing a handful of my own songs, for a paying audience. Not just that, I’m singing with someone so talented and experienced and accomplished I can scarcely believe he’d agree to sing with me. It literally takes my breath away.

I cannot wait.

And I’m simultaneously neurotic, terrified, panic-stricken, anxious and filled with self-doubt – but in a good way. It’s messing with my sleep, and with my focus on my day job a little, but it’s the best feeling in the world.
Now all I have to do is pull the damn thing off.

A beautiful noise

February 19, 2014 § 6 Comments

I am a compulsive singer. I am that annoying person who hums along to the movie theme. I burst into song at the slightest provocation; my brain makes lyric associations with almost anything people say. It’s got so bad that my children throw words at me as a challenge. Yesterday’s word was ‘yoghurt’ – I haven’t come up with a song for it yet.

Last night I was walking around the house screeching bits from Bohemian Rhapsody in my best imitation of Freddie Mercury’s falsetto; I took a walk around my neighbourhood in the afternoon and belted out some show tunes. Right now, I’m singing River Deep, Mountain High at my desk because someone posted a video of Ike and Tina Turner singing it on Twitter. I know. I’m certifiable.

My late mother told me I started singing at 18 months. One night, after she’d put me to bed, she heard a little voice coming from the darkness of my room. A familiar hymn we sang at church, horrendously mispronounced, but perfectly in tune, issued forth from tiny me. And thereafter, every night, after story time and kisses, I sang to myself quietly in the dark until I fell asleep. And I did that for years.

My waking hours, however, are a little more raucous. Sometimes I sing along to things, sometimes I sing harmonies. Sometimes I sing softly, sometimes loudly, which raises epic eyerolling from my kids and giggles from their friends. I have been known to sing harmonies with buskers I pass on the street, or reinvent lyrics of silliness on the spot. And even when I’m not singing out loud, I’m singing in my head. There is a constant melody – a personal playlist – always about my person. I just love to sing. 

When I tell people I’m like this (just in case they haven’t noticed) often they shake their heads and say, sadly, “Oh, I can’t sing. If you heard me sing… I’m tone deaf. I sound too terrible.”

Well, here’s what I think. “So what? Why does it have to be about what it sounds like? It’s not a performance, it’s an activity. And if it makes you happy, then let rip – who cares if it’s slightly off-key or your voice sounds like Leonard Cohen with a razor blade lodged in his vocal chords? Were you planning to release an album or play at Madison Square Gardens? Of course you weren’t.

So forget about what you sound like. Just sing. Open your throat, open your heart and let it out, and bugger what anyone else thinks.

Go on. I dare you. Make a beautiful noise.

Ticket to write

January 30, 2014 § 3 Comments

I finished writing a song today. It popped into my head as I sat under a tree in one of Johannesburg’s city parks yesterday afternoon, ants gnawing at my legs. And it wasn’t even the song I’d planned to write – that one is still being evasive and resisting capture.

But I love the accidental song. It’s light-hearted, slightly silly, the kind of song I picture being sung in a musical comedy or perhaps a Disney cartoon. And when I sing it, I beam so broadly that I battle to enunciate my words, or I collapse into giggles halfway through a chorus. My friend says that’s joy. I think he may be right.

The sad thing, though, is that I know it’s never going to go much further than being posted on Soundcloud and a few shares on social media. That will be it: not because it’s a bad song, but because it’s slightly old-fashioned. It’s not the kind of song you’ll hear on the radio. It belongs to the 70s, maybe the 80s at a push.

And that’s something of a conundrum for me, because as much as I write for myself – from songs to blogposts and magazine features to the novel currently languishing on a slush pile somewhere – I confess I need the feedback of an audience. At heart I’m a performer, and the page is my stage. Without an audience, the work simply echoes through the auditorium, leaving a hollowness in its wake.

And the irony of it all is that for the first time in many years I’m beginning to believe in my ability as a writer of things. All kinds of things. Things I’d like to share. And yes, things I’d like to be recognised for writing.

So I’m standing behind the velvet curtain, pacing on the boards, just waiting for that buzz from the audience that tells me it’s almost time for the show to start.

What if nobody comes?

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