12 Days of Earworm-Worthy Christmas Music

It’s mid-December. You know what that means around here! It’s time for me to share a dozen holiday songs with you that do not suck. I’ve taken some requests this year, but all of the songs I share with you are guaranteed to be better than 98% of the tired drivel they’ve been playing on the radio in Houston since the weekend before Thanksgiving.

And since the holidays are all about traditions, I like to kick things off every year with one of the cutest and peppiest Christmas songs I’ve ever known. If you’ve been around this blog before, you know what’s coming. (And so you know, I do try to find other videos of this song each year, but it’s hard to find a good one. I did, this morning, run across a Spice Girls edition that was pretty crappy since it didn’t have any bass. Srsly???)

Enjoy.

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Monday Earworm: Crowded House

I’m teaching Ray Bradbury’s short story “All Summer in a Day” in my sophomore English classes. Ever since I put it on my assignment sheet this song has been stuck in my head, no doubt triggered by the similarities in their titles and maintained by my fondness for singing this song. There are many videos of Neil Finn (and others performing this song live), but I couldn’t decide which one to post, so I’m just going with this abstracted art piece because it is beautiful and slightly melancholy just like the song is both beauitful and melancholy.

NaNoWriMo 2017 Wrap-Up

So today is the last day of November, and I’m ecstatic to report that my NaNoWriMo project is worth calling a success.

You might remember my post a few weeks ago when I launched my NaNoWriMo project for this year. In case you don’t, I’ll recap: it’s utterly ludicrous for me to expect, with my current life circumstances (teaching high school full-time, two young kids), that I can write 50,000 words in 30 days. I don’t even try that. (You can listen to an interview I gave, which aired on November 23rd, about this subject on the Pacifica radio show LivingArt by clicking here, but the archive will be easily available for just a few weeks, so I suggest you do it soon.)

So what do I try, if not the traditional NaNoWriMo? I attempt to make a commitment to writing something significant or furthering my writing career every day in November. This year my goal was to write 350 words a day on my current WIP (a new novel) or some other manuscript. A couple of those days I made or supplemented my word count with a blog post, and I took a few days off — one after my grandfather’s death and a few for Thanksgiving, which I hosted for my family. These were just things I really needed to do.

But the rest of the time? I made (and usually exceeded) my word count. I added almost 7,600 words to my WIP, which brings my current total to almost 22,000. I’d say I am good and well writing this book now, even if the plotting has been spotty at best. I’m suspect I’m just a pantser at heart, and trying to manage 350 words a day, allowing myself to write weak sentences now and then and stopping myself in the middle of a scene when I hit 400-500 words, has really facilitated the ease with which I’ve been able to meet my daily word counts. I learned this nifty trick from my dear friend and writing partner Sarah Warburton: if you stop writing in the middle of a scene, when you start up again, you already know what to write; the added bonus is that you’ll have the urgency to keep going if you had to interrupt yourself in the middle of things the day before.

Well, dear reader, it works.

Aside from the solid and satisfying progress on my novel, I also wrote an essay about Grendel, which still needs revision and editing, but which I then hope to be sharing with you relatively soon.

So all of this progress is lovely, of course. But now what? With the end of November, is that the end of my writing for a while? Holy canoli, I hope not.

Much like a Lenten fast or a fitness challenge can be used to cultivate good habits and purge unhealthy ones, my bigger goal in doing my modified form of the NaNoWriMo is to make myself get into the daily habit of writing practice. It’s all kinds of miserably hard to write books while you’re also teaching English and Creative Writing and raising kids. I mean, if you also want to sleep. I spend what sometimes feels like an inordinate amount of time grading papers, but I also recognize that’s the job. Understand, though, managing creative, generative energy is tough when I’ve pushed that part of my life, the artistic self, to the end of my to-do list. It’s not tenable, and it’s not healthy. As much as I love and appreciate all the other aspects of my life — and I do — I need that artistic pursuit if I want to be a whole, healthy person.

My hope is that when November is over, I will still keep trying to write 350 words a day (or night, as the case may be). Will I be successful every single day? I can aspire to that, but I also have to give myself permission to be human. That means not a robot. That means not rigid and inflexible. That means that sometimes I will make a compromise or two: I might not write 350 words every night; some nights I will write 475 or 632 or a thousand. I’ve even been thinking that perhaps a weekly goal might be better.

We’ll see how it goes. I mean, look at tonight: I just wanted to do a blog post to wrap up this project, and I’m already at nearly 800 words. And maybe that’s enough for tonight. After all, I’ve still got some grading to do.

Happy December, tomorrow. You’ll get an earworm on Monday, and later in the month you’ll get 12 Days of Christmas Music That Doesn’t Suck. Probably one or two other blog posts as well, if things go smoothly.

And I?

I will get some writing time in, as often as possible.

Forbidden Cookbook: Pumpkin Cream Cheese Muffins

I cannot take credit for this recipe, which is a Starbucks hack from somewhere on the internet. I don’t even know where I found it originally, several years ago, but it’s a delicious one.

Starbucks has been selling pumpkin cream cheese muffins for a few years now — although I haven’t seen them yet this year, so maybe they aren’t anymore — and it was always so difficult to get them before they sold out that I went looking for the recipe online. I found it and now I don’t know where, although perhaps you might find one similar if you went looking.

Either way, here is the recipe I found, lo these many pumpkin spice seasons ago. So I’m not taking credit for coming up with this. But I have *made* this recipe a few times, and it’s quite yummy.

Just a warning: this one takes a couple of hours, and that’s if you’re organized and maybe have a helper. So read through the whole thing before starting and make sure you aren’t trying to whip these up an hour before you need them. No need to make things stressful on yourself! These muffins are for enjoying.  🙂

Just so you know, I tend to be a bit more generous with the vanilla extract, cinnamon, and nutmeg when I make these. Also, if I were going to modify this recipe further, I would probably double the cream cheese mixture because, wow, that’s, for real, my favorite part. And if you have extra candied pepitas, they make a delightful snack and would probably go well mixed with some popcorn.

Happy Thanksgiving!

***

Pumpkin Cream Cheese Muffins (Starbucks Copycat Recipe)


Cream Cheese:
4 oz cream cheese, softened
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

Candied Pumpkin Seeds:
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup pepitas (raw shelled pumpkin seeds)

Muffin Batter:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 eggs
3/4 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup canned pure pumpkin puree
3/4 cup vegetable oil
12 cup muffin pan
paper muffin cups

***

Cream Cheese: Using an electric mixer combine cream cheese, sugar, and vanilla extract until smooth. Cover and chill until firm. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 12-cup muffin pan with paper muffin cups.

Candied Pumpkin Seeds: Spray large baking sheet with cooking spray. Heat seeds in a medium saucepan over medium heat, stirring frequently, 5 minutes or until the seeds begin to pop. Add sugar, and stir constantly about 1 minute or until sugar begins to liquefy and caramelize; add cinnamon and salt. Spread seeds on prepared baking sheet, and cool. Break apart the seeds that are stuck together, once they have cooled.

Muffin Batter: Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, allspice, and salt in a bowl. Set aside. Using an electric mixer, combine eggs, sugar, and vanilla; mix on low speed just to combine ingredients. Add pumpkin and oil, and continue to mix about 1 minute. Add the flour mixture to the wet ingredients, and mix until batter is smoother, about 30-60 seconds.

Baking Muffins: Spoon batter into paper muffin cups, making batter level with top of the muffin cup. Add approximately 1 tablespoon of cream cheese mixture to the top of each muffin and press cream cheese down into the middle of each muffin cup of batter. Sprinkle muffins with candied pumpkin seeds. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until slightly browned on top. To test for doneness insert a toothpick into center of muffin (not cream cheese); it will come out clean when the muffins are done.

Monday Earworm: Matthew Sweet

In 1991, Matthew Sweet released an album which got enough fanfare for music’s casual fans to take note of its titular single, “Girlfriend.” The video showed Sweet singing to the camera in the dorkiest, most self-conscious way imaginable and a lot of footage from the anime film Space Adventure Cobra. I haven’t seen the whole film, but from the music video, it appears that SAC, like a lot of anime, isn’t probably meant for children. What the video utterly fails to capture is the impressive fact that Sweet played all the instruments on the album himself.

In 1991, I loved this song. I still do like it a lot, but my perhaps less exuberant feelings about it now are less from the song’s not holding up after a quarter-century — because musically it absolutely does — and more from probably reading too much into the lyrics, into the situation, into Sweet’s socially inept deadpan singing during the video, into the dramatically excerpted clip of the anime cartoon, and from being unable to escape this world which is too much with us.

Regardless, the song is kind of catchy, and the music itself is fantastic.

 

Monday Earworm: Trent Reznor (and friends)

I have now seen Thor: Ragnarok twice. My husband and I saw the first weekend it was out, and we took our kids to see it this weekend. Wow, it’s entertaining. But one of my favorite elements is the use of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” The two scenes in which this song is used are worth the price of admission all by themselves, but the movie is also really, genuinely funny.

It was a little hard to find a good video of Led Zeppelin doing this song. (I found one live version which I didn’t love.) But here’s a really good one from Trent Reznor which features Karen O and Atticus Ross.

https://www.last.fm/music/Trent+Reznor/_/Immigrant+Song

Little fun fact, too: apparently Led Zeppelin is really stingy wth their songs, not letting very many people use them. It took the entire time of the movie’s production to get permission to use this song. And with the song’s lyrics being arguably all about vikings and laced with Norse mythology, it’s such a perfect fit. I’m not sure I could think of another song that would have worked better, especially for the scenes in which it was used. It was like they were choreographed to fit the song. (And maybe, optimistically, they were.)

 

NaNoWriMo Update: Poopy First Drafts and Trying to Find a Balance

I have never been one to write a garbage first draft of a short story or novel, going from beginning to end in one long vomit of mediocre writing, with the intention that I can fix it all later.

The very idea of that feels like giving up on craft. Yes, many have advised me, the best thing to do is just to write it all down, get the whole story out, and then fix the bugs later. And perhaps if I were the kind of writer who can churn out a few thousand words a day, this might be a feasible option for me.

But that is not the world I live — or write — in.

I deeply appreciate Anne Lamott’s advice about “shitty first drafts,” that they are children on a playground, carelessly exploring the world of the manuscript to see what treasures lay buried in its leaves. And I fully acknowledge that I have never, in my adult writing life and possibly not even in my adolescent one, given myself permission to write terrible first drafts all the way to the end, and that perhaps this is an error.

But to keep writing away on something I know in my gut is terrible seems an awful lot like wasting time to me, and if there is one commodity I do not have enough of to spend it willy-nilly, it’s time. I write slowly. I have all the usual demands on my attention of the modern wife and mother and career-woman (i.e., with a day job). I write slowly, thoughtfully, paying attention to the words I’m using. Blame it on my being formally trained as a poet. Or blame it on my attention to detail. Or blame it on my taking pride in my work, even my first drafts.

Or blame it on my not wanting to be a writer of crap and on my persistent efforts not to be. (I acknowledge I don’t always get it right, but at least I try.) I see very little value in writing an entire story that I know isn’t going to be good, or in writing an entire draft of a story and then throwing it away and starting over. This might be a viable option if I were immortal and had an eidetic memory. Neither of those being likely, well… I try not to waste any more time or effort than necessary.

When I write a story, I want to make sure to get the foundations of it right, to weave the texture in a way that sets up the rest of it for competence, if not success. Most of my fiction lives in the fantasy genre — magic realism, urban fantasy, literary high fantasy, paranormal steampunk — and I know that if I haven’t done at least a little economical world-building in the first chapter, my story won’t teach its readers how to read it. They won’t know the genre or the rules they’re dealing with, and the story could be confusing and end up a non-starter before we’re even out of the first chapter. (And if anyone thinks an agent or editor reads more than a few pages of a manuscript that appears not to know itself, well, that optimism is worth its weight in gold.)

Getting the voice right takes work. And once you have that, the other narrative vectors (like point-of-view, conflict, setting, pace, etc.) had better be on trajectory. This is a jargony way of saying that you need a strong foundation for a story if you want it to stand on its own. For a succinct explanation of the building-a-house metaphor, read this piece by George Dila; it’s a counterbalance to Anne Lamott’s treatise.

So I’m doing the NaNoWriMo again, or a modified version of it that makes sense in my world. My goal is 350 words a day, because I don’t often have more than thirty minutes a night to work and because the level of my creative energy by then is in in the basement. So I’ve set a generously low bar for myself, and so far I’m exceeding it nightly. (May this ever continue.)

But I realized about two days into November that I had to give myself permission not to write beautifully every time. I’ve been struggling lately with writer’s block — as well as Writer Brain (TM) — and sometimes the thought of sitting down to write stuff that I know isn’t going to be beautiful can paralyze me against writing anything. I’m a literary writer, a poet: words fucking matter. And the way I arrange them for others’ consumption is not a responsibility I take lightly.

So I’m trying to find a balance between shitty first drafts and publishable awesomeness. I recognize that’s a wide spectrum, so I’m feeling pretty good about hitting the mark somewhere in there.

Tonight I wrote about 100 new words on the latest chapter in my WIP. I also edited the whole thing (a good seventeen pages) and sent it off to my critique group. They will workshop it next week, and then I will revise it before I get too far into the next chapter, because I work too hard to weave the elements of a story together to have to unravel that tapestry every time.

After that chapter went on its merry electronic way, I wrote (and revised) this blog post, which is almost a thousand words. That means I’ve exceeded my word count again for tonight. Is any of what I’ve written tonight worth its weight in gold? I sincerely doubt it. But I’m not trying to be a perfectionist in a rough draft or a blog post any more than I’m allowing myself to write crap.

I’m just trying to write. And according to my word counts — and my growing readership — I’d say it’s working. Onward and upward.