Sell Out

I had an odd experience in February 2009. I went home to see my mother, about a month after the end of my last long-term relationship (I’ve had two). When I walked into her kitchen, she said in surprise, “It’s nice to see you… I haven’t seen you in a long time…” She didn’t mean physically. She meant my spirit, my being, my inner self. I asked her how long it had been since she had seen ‘me’.

1993. Sixteen years. Before I sold out.

I knew what she meant. Back then, I intentionally changed who I was. I hated who I was. I wanted something more, something different, something that I thought was better than what I naturally am. I gave up being an artist in favor of a technical career.

I am a sellout.

No, it’s true. I am a musician, a pianist. Most people don’t know that because I gave it up many years ago. I used to bleed music. I could read it before I could read language. Mom says I wrote my first song at age three… musical notation, not lyrics.

My sister taught me to harmonize when I was very small, in the bathtub while washing my hair so that we could sing together in the beautiful acoustics of the bathroom. From that moment on, I bled music. When I would hear melodies, I would write accompaniment in my mind and sing harmonies. I thought that was what I was supposed to do. I knew very few melodies to songs for I’d only sing in harmony.

I was in band, choir, and theater. My mom provided me with piano lessons. But I was terrified of performing solo. I did not excel at playing instruments because I was afraid to practice and I didn’t do it enough. I think the only way I got through being a lead in the school musical was because I was pretending to be someone else. That and the stage lights and being a natural ham…

By the time I went to college in 1990, I was listening to music no less than 12 hours a day. It was all I ever wanted to do as a career. Music was my first major in college. I practiced and practiced and my abilities flourished. But I had to face a soul crushing truth. While music easily flows into me, it does not easily flow out. I have such horrible musical performance stage fright that it crippled my ability to be a professional musician. It broke my heart.

When I finally gave up hope, I stopped playing music and singing altogether. I refused to even look at a piano for five years. If I walked into a room and there was a piano in it, I would intentionally turn my back on it. It had defined who I was for so long that it crushed me thoroughly to give up my dream of being a professional musician. I could not face it.

I switched over to writing, an English major in 1992, but soon the voice in my head that told me I wasn’t good enough took its toll and I turned to a technical career. Many people told me it was a good thing to put away frivolous and childish things in favor of real work, that I was better off this way. Welcome to the machine.

To me it was a betrayal of my ideals, my belief that one should pursue one’s passions, one’s calling instead of money. I justified my choices by thinking that I was getting a great day job so that I could afford to do what I wanted to do the rest of the time. That has turned out to be true at this stage of my life. This is in fact what most artists must do in order to survive. The problem was that I wasn’t pursuing my arts at all and did not for many years. It took its toll on my psyche and my relationships.

My last long-term relationship was with a drummer who played out at clubs with friends. Watching them stirred up the call in me to play music again. The greatest gift I ever got was a keyboard in October 2000, celebrating my 28th birthday. I did play it for some time but never got over my trouble of playing in front of others. I got ‘caught’ by friends once playing Bach’s ‘Toccata and Fugue in D minor’. They told me they thought the classical music station was on… so sweet.

In 2005, I made a conscience choice to stop playing music in favor of writing. To play the piano at that level took a lot of time and practice. I felt like I could either be OK at piano and writing or give up one to excel at the other. I chose writing. Now I bleed ink instead of music. Music comes in, words go out. Mom says I wrote my first poem at age six. Of all the great many gifts with which I have been blessed, I believe writing is my greatest. I believe it is my calling and strangely, my crippling stage fright with music has forced me to write instead.

But I know in my heart that my fear of performing music is a personal challenge associated with my inability to accept myself and allow myself to be vulnerable. In 2014, I started to take on that challenge. I took voice lessons for the first time at age 41. That experience with my wonderful voice teacher Julie broke up a lot of my stage fright. I sing out now with much greater ease and joy. I sing out publicly and willingly participate in karaoke. You can see a video of me singing ‘Natural Woman’ here:

I guess my point is that we take many roads to find ourselves, even some that lead away for a time. But ultimately, we do eventually point toward home. And it’s never too late to find joy in those things we truly love. My music may not look today like I wish it could have but I do have it. It is forever part of the artistry that I am.

 

Copyright C.M. Mounts, November 2018

Months in review: Jul-Oct 2018

It’s November and this post was intended to be a quarterly Jul-Sep check-in but then life happened… I’ve had celebrations, out of town visitors, and/or business travel every weekend for the past five weeks. Since I mostly write and blog on the weekends you can understand my absence this past month. But really, who’s keeping track?

I submitted a piece for publication. It’s been over a decade since I last tried. Back then, I was writing children’s stories. If you know me, this fact may come as a bit of a shock- but it’s true. In the early days when I was first breaking out and sharing my work, they were simple, funny stories and did not disturb the deep fibers of my soul. Fast forward to today and you can read the lyrics that erupt when I strum those fibers.

I submitted the story after a friend and someone I consider a writing mentor urged me to do so. It feels like the natural next step to my writing career, such as it is. I have been asked by others why I am not published. And the answer is easy: because I don’t try. But the natural progression of questioning leads to why I don’t try, which I don’t have a good answer for.

You can chalk it up to laziness or perfectionism, but the truth is that it’s just the constraints of a professional working life. Consider our 168 hours every week, minus 56 of sleep (if we are lucky), minus the 60 hours dedicated to weekday work prep, commute, meals, and work day. That leaves 52 hours to rest, clean, shop, exercise, socialize, read, write, etc. Now add in the random universal chaos generator and there you have it. It’s not an excuse, just reality.

There is writing and then there is writing business. Searching for appropriate markets takes time and effort I am not willing to dedicate to my poetry and short fiction. So, I blog it here dear reader. I did manage to post ten times in the last four months, as well as attend open mics around town. This blog is my own magazine, entirely constructed of my work, for free and for my true fans.

But… what are my writing goals? What is it that I want to have accomplished by the end of my days? It’s not fame and fortune. We all know that is the same dream as winning the lottery. Still you can’t win if you don’t have a ticket, right? But I really don’t want that anyway. My dream is more about making a living outside the cube farm from the fruits of my creative writing. Maybe it’s my retirement dream, I don’t know.

My mission in writing is to make my readers feel the way I feel. I want others to know that they are not alone in this world. That the feelings and longings that they are ashamed of are a natural part of this human experience. I find life to be incredibly isolating- some of that by choice and some by circumstance. The difficulty of finding kindred spirits is universal. There are so many paths through life and different kinds of people navigating them. We often face the same trials with different responses and perspectives. I can learn from your experience and maybe you can learn from mine.

But those deep fibers have not rung out yet and finding markets for such stories will require fortitude, energy, and faith that I can and will find my place. That last one… that one fails me too often. Who exactly wants to read about all this crap rattling around in my head and heart? I have no great ego around my writing that makes me think the world needs to hear me, yet I am angered by the suggestion that I am not trying hard enough. I have fantastically wild dreams about my ideal writing life even while I still punch the time card…

The question I ask myself is why publish? Why not remain safe, pouring my guts out in anonymity? Why not leave all the notebooks behind and shock whoever is tasked with putting my final affairs in order? When I was first published in the Journal of Ordinary Thought back in 2002, a publication of the now defunct Neighborhood Writing Alliance in Chicago, I simply could not believe it. Yes, this was the parent organization of my writing group and yes, we were all guaranteed publication (unpaid) once per year, but there was still nothing else like seeing my writing in print. Some unknown someone was going to read it and react to it for good or bad. And in 2003, when I finished the first draft of my first novel, it felt as great as my college graduation. I felt like I could fly to the moon and back again.

Maybe that ride is reason enough for me.

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, November 2018

Perfect World

Wake and journal.
A few pages.

Coffee, but all after
I feed the pets.
They won’t wait for me.

Nor will my muse.
Write anyway.

Breakfast.
Morning, raw creation.

Lunch.
Afternoon, read or edit.

Cats won’t let it be past 4.
They get fed at 5, as do I.

Evenings dedicated to jazz, to wine,
To poetry read aloud to a lover,
To dishes, to hot baths, to hot sex.

Paycheck.
Public speaking.

Finished books.
Finished drafts to be books.
Drafts in progress. Drafts to be.

Cycling, cooking.
Music, dreaming.
Dancing, travel.
Dining, friends.

 

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, October 2017

Popcorn from the Void: one-year anniversary

July 10, 2018 was the one-year anniversary of the publication of Popcorn from the Void– my friend Todd Park’s memoir that I edited from his blog. The proceeds from the sale of this book go to support various cancer charities. It’s been doing well for a self-published book about such a serious topic: the arduous journey of a bone marrow transplant and the untimely death of its author.

I am proud that it is still selling copies. Self-published books in general don’t do very well without the assistance that a publishing house provides. Publishers will help with editing, polishing, cover art, marketing, and placement. It is in their financial interest to help their authors sell books. If you self-publish, you have to do it all or pay someone to help you.

Self-published books have a bad reputation that is unfortunately too often earned. There are too many early drafts offered up in the market that still need a ton of work. It’s work that people are not willing to commit time to. There is a lot of excitement around completing a first draft of a book, so I get why people are impatient to share it with the world. But it is still just an early draft and it’s not ready…

Writing, editing, and publication are lengthy and difficult phases of book creation (it can take years) but once they are complete, the really hard part begins: marketing. How do you get noticed in a flooded marketplace with dwindling readership? The vast indifference is deafening.

A self-published author needs to not only be good at writing but also good at the business of writing. Todd was such a good writer that generating a book worthy of publication was possible, though not easy. Then, came the challenge of how to market a book about such a heavy topic. For my part, I ran several marketing campaigns- emailing interested parties; releasing copies for circulation in free libraries across the mid-west; sending a mailer to cancer support groups; conducting a Twitter campaign; and attending a book fair.

It has mostly been a positive experience for me, with the exception of trying to market to the general public at the book fair. The book fair itself was great, but I made a lot of people uncomfortable. I would give my 60-second pitch and watch the look of horror gradually wash over people’s faces. They would take my candy and quickly leave my table. A fellow vendor felt the need to tell me that a memoir about a man’s journey though Leukemia treatment and dying was “a terrible story”. I know that’s about her, not the book.

What can I say? The truth is rarely popular. It’s a niche’ market. It’s a book intended to help friends, family, and patients understand what leukemia treatment is really like. And it continues to sell. And it has helped people. It has even helped my mother. She was diagnosed with MDS (Myelodysplastic Syndromes), a blood cancer sometimes referred to as ‘pre-leukemia’, in May 2018. The serendipity of life is strange at times…

I have learned so much that is invaluable from the entire process- from the actual production of the book, to the effectiveness of various marketing avenues, to interacting with people around the topic. It was my apprenticeship, the gateway to producing my own books.

As a philanthropist, I am proud that the work I have done will continue to produce money that will be donated to help people like Todd, people like my mom, to have access to better treatments and prognosis and quality of life. That alone has made this journey so worthwhile.

Happy anniversary, Popcorn.

 

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, July 2018

Mid-year review: Jan-Jun 2018

It’s July. About this time six months ago, I was scanning the sooty remains of one of the drafts of one of my novels through optical character recognition (OCR) software and importing it into Scrivener. If you write long works of fiction but have not heard of Scrivener before, check it out!

I spent 1.5 months (Jan-Feb) organizing that mess into chapters and scenes; character, scene, and conflict sketches; vague ideas and lists of topics to research- all to find the holes. And Lordy, there were canyons. So, I spent the next 1.5 months (Feb-Apr) ‘shoveling gravel’ into the gaps, to the order of about 25,000 words of new content. It is a pittance to all you NANOWRIMO’s out there but it is realistic progress for a full-time working schlub like me. I can’t apply the brakes on life and focus solely on my book in the way that the November National Novel Writing Month requires to reach that 50K goal.

Then came silence. No progress on the book. Apr-Jun were all about the ‘Spring Thaw’ of my social life. I took a cooking class that ate up my hours with kitchen adventure. I took a couple trips, one for business and one for pleasure, plus had out of town guests. But mostly, writing became about poetry, poetry events, poetry classes, and connecting with a wider writing community which has been wonderful and revitalizing.

But books don’t write themselves…

Time and energy are limited resources and unfortunately, my mother is in cancer treatment now. I have to get real about my stress levels and where to focus myself. Someone wise once said, “I can’t control the wind. I can only adjust my sails.” So, as I reef the mainsail, I pull back on the social side of writing, miss opportunities to read, and classes of interest. It’s just where I am at today.

Still, over the last 6 months, I produced 27 blog posts: 15 poems, 7 essays, 2 travel logs, and 3 posts about the poetry readings I had in the spring. Poetry writing will continue because I can’t help it. And my blog remains my weekly ritual as this is the only place I talk about my ‘writing career’, such as it is.

But I have already recommitted to the 5am wake up for the 5:30 writing hour before work, dedicated to my novel. I am typing up my hand-written notes and charging once again into the breech. Book writing is not glamorous. It is a long, arduous, mostly thankless journey through a writer’s personal hell.

I have books to read and write, my friends… Happy summer!

 

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, July 2018

Month in review: May 2018

May 2018 was a tough month for my writing. I question the logic of this ‘month in review’. Months fly by quickly enough during normal times. When the stress from work projects and family issues increase, life happens, and life gets in the way. A quarterly review might make more sense, though a monthly tally forces me to reflect on my commitment to this passion of mine. Am I taking my writing seriously?

I took it seriously enough to apply for a writer’s residency back in March for the upcoming fall. It was a long shot and I was denied. *SIGH* I produced three blog posts but not much else: ‘Soaked in Crimson‘ (poem), ‘I See You‘ (essay), ‘Usual Early Morning Stuff‘ (essay). Finding a balance has always been difficult and my writing is slotted into my ‘free time’- 5:30am before work, on my lunch hour, late in the evening, or waiting in line on whoever or whatever is next. I am journaling a lot.

I have not read my poetry publicly in a month. I have discovered that attending poetry readings in the evening is a bad idea. I sometimes cannot fall asleep for hours. Poetry writing in the morning is also a bad idea. I walk into the office a bit crazed and distracted. I want to be somewhere else writing. But there is no money to be made writing poetry.

I hesitate to call myself a poet though I have been told that if the shoe fits… It is out of respect for those I consider to be ‘real’ poets. I haven’t studied it, dedicated the time to it that others have, and it sort of has this high falutin legacy that my earthy self could never live up to. I write journals, essays, stories, and long fiction. Poetry peels off of me like the bark of the birch trees and just about as rough. It is the stuff of longing, of paper dreams not yet forgotten.

I cannot read poetry before bed anymore. It keeps me awake. It keeps tears running down my face. It keeps my heart broken in the ache of my dulled daily living, in my wish for love to return to my life.

These poems are written by people in love, people who somehow learned to make it last, to let it go, to forgive, to return again and again and again. I so envy them. I so appreciate their ability to transfer that intense desire and joy to me, years later, thousands of miles away, with my second pillow cold and the breath of my animals the only other living sound in my apartment.

But it will strum the deep fibers. It will allow me no rest.

 

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, May 2018

Usual Early Morning Stuff

It is 5am. I fight with the alarm. I fight with the cat. It is hard to leave the bed soft, fresh sheet, downy blanket hugging me back to slumber. He won’t let me sleep in and the 10-minute snooze won’t either. My choice. I set the alarm. I keep feeding him.

I sit up. I strap on the robe and sandals. I set about the usual early morning stuff. The cats weave around my legs as I pee. There are two cats, but she is much quieter, so I don’t complain about her in the morning. The gurgling coffee pot calls to me from the kitchen. I set about feeding us.

Shredded fish and gravy for them, OJ and coffee and ink for me. He eats, and naps curled in the chair next to me. She disappears again. The coffee has been poured into a weekday cup of average size. I put on a blanket against the chill from the degrading kitchen windows.

I begin to empty my mind of anger or poems or scene sketches for a novel I am months from completing. It is slow at first, unsure of my characters. What if I make bad choices for them? These are someone else’s kids in my care- no? They’re mine? Even worse. The white space fills with black ink, mostly legible, with circular patterns of character self-discovery and bad descriptions.

The paper and ink raw messy dirty dish reality of my kitchen conjures the best times of my life- food and wine and people I love. The space I write and create, the space of warm ovens and cold drinks, of turning spice into curry and flour into bread. It is fertile ground. It soothes my aching soul when the pen digs too deep into the flesh of all that is hidden.

Later the computer will sterilize this but not too much. Only enough to make it appear I am not completely uneducated though my reading list is long and impossible. Writing my flesh then clothing it in gauze. My living room editor life of electronic square blinking screen, cold and efficient, symbol of productivity and work.

The alarm on the stove beeps. The pen and paper are closed. Night clothes come off, day clothes come on, different. Hair different, hot and pasted into place. Breakfast, commuter bag, lunch bag, journal, calendar, coat, hat, boots, mittens… power off, locks on, out into the ally to the street to the bus to the bumper car traffic to the place I spend most of my days, not writing, in a cube farm.

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, February 2018