Writer’s Music: Mychael Danna

 

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I use several of Danna’s albums when I write, The Sweet Hereafter especially when I need an atmosphere of unsettlement. There is no orchestra here; often only a few string or woodwind instruments play at a time. Percussion is limited. Harmonies come and go like sunlight beneath a breaking cloudbank.

My protagonist flees an abusive home. She finally is in control of her fate…until a bizarre accident wrecks her bus. No one questions the circumstances, nor does anyone think it strange when another bus, empty of passengers but filled with everything the stranded travelers need, just so happens to come along on an otherwise abandoned stretch of interstate. Only the protagonist feels the wrongness of it all, from the ground beneath her to the sudden stillness of the trees.

I could not have closed my eyes and worked this through if not for Mychael Danna’s The Sweet Hereafter. I visualized the empty road easily enough, but I enjoy the quiet of Wisconsin’s empty places. I could not make myself uncomfortable. And then I put the tracks “Bus,” “Bus Stop,” and “Why I Lied” together, and found myself shivering inside my protagonist’s skin.

Danna’s music also makes a writer’s point: use only what you need, and use it well. It’s all too easy to dive into sweeping descriptions of the world’s logistics. Background, right? Context? Readers need it!

No, no they don’t. Keep it simple. Share just enough to catch the reader’s eye, keep him following you a few steps behind, and broaden the reader’s vision as the story advances. Danna’s “A Huge Wave” is the perfect track to reflect this idea.

I include here a sample of The Sweet Hereafter. If ever you need your characters to feel unsure of the world about them, lose them in Danna.

Selection: “Bus”

Album available for purchase through Amazon, link below. Music file shared with permission of Mychael Danna. Yes, he is that awesome.

Sweet Hereafter, composed by Mychael Danna

The Machete and the Cradle

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Jason Voorhees first took up residence a few months after my daughter was born. Most think Voorhees = hockey mask and machete. Well, our relationship didn’t start that way. He came as he did in Friday the 13th Part 2, an ogre of a being with a bag over his head, one cut hole for a yellow eye to peer through. He came in, sat on our couch, and stayed there. No machete, just a second bag and some twine. He sat quietly as my daughter and I played, fed, or worked. If I turned to him, he’d hold out that second bag.

One evening, my husband arrived from work to see our daughter in her bouncy seat, bored, and me sitting next to Jason Voorhees with a bag over my head.

“What’s wrong?”

I tried to open my mouth, but the burlap felt coarse and painful against my lips. So I said nothing, sitting there with one eye on my daughter to make sure she was safe, and the other eye lost to woven doubt and self-loathing. My husband undid the knot, took the bag off my head, and handed it to Jason. Jason shifted himself down to make room. My husband held my hand and slowly worked me off the couch back to our family.

This routine continued on for a few months. All three of us grew tired of Jason, sitting on the couch, filling the hallway, losing the books and movies that we enjoyed for a little escape, hiding our daughter’s favorite snugglers so we couldn’t get her to sleep.

I’d show him the door. He’d hand out the bag. I’d take the bag.

In a rare outing where I actually sat somewhere with no baby (but with Jason), a friend revealed her latest endeavor in the classroom: NaNoWriMo.

“Nano-what?”

“NaNoWriMo. National Novel Writing Month. It’s a challenge to write a 50,000 word story in thirty days. My kids are pretty excited.”

Something shifted in me. It had been years since graduate school, where I struggled to write proper literary stuff. If I could write what I really wanted and do my online job and raise an infant…

Jason’s single eye darted between us quizzically, coffee spilling onto his overalls.

I ignored him. “When’s it start?”

At 10:30 on the night of November 30th, I reached the 50,000 word mark. The door to our apartment clicked shut. I found a bag outside my workroom with a small length of twine.

Two years later, I gave birth to twin boys. Within the first month, in the midst of mud and lightning, Jason Voorhees resurrected, and this time, he came with a machete.

How do I describe what it’s like to fantasize killing my own children?

Jason said nothing, but that machete glistened in the softness of the boys’ nightlight. It sparkled like a magical wand. It promised peace with a mere knick knack, paddy-whack. I had to pass Jason nearly every hour of the night to feed one boy, then the other, oh of course one woke up, damn he shat everywhere, which one is this again?

Sometimes Jason held out an oven mitt above a boy’s face. Sometimes his machete pointed towards the stairs. Sometimes I heard a whisper, which could not have been me yet Jason never speaks so…If he wants to scream, give him a reason. Those fingers are so small, no one’ll notice if one’s broken. Drop the little fucker. These could not be my thoughts. But I knew they were me, they sounded like me when I’m thinking about what shirt to wear or what to make for my daughter’s lunch. And with every thought comes a lurch inside, an Honest-to-God turning of the stomach that made me want to take that machete and cut myself open to find whatever was whispering these things so it couldn’t hurt my sons, who in only one month of life had already shown such mischievous spirits.

Then came the colic. Jason Goes to Hell comes to mind.

The lowest moment: driving my younger son to the emergency room. A Wisconsin winter night, bitterly freezing, the road coated with black ice, and my son won’t stop screaming. We called yet again trying to understand why one boy’s colic subsided while the other’s grew worse, and finally a nurse said with a yawn that it could be acid reflux. Of course, there’s no good way to fight acid reflux with infants. You have to wait it out. Fuck you. We’re not waiting it out anymore. Give me meds to shut this kid up or…or…

Jason rode shotgun.

Dump him. Dump him and go home. He’ll freeze fast. He’s baptized. He’ll be happy in Heaven, away from you. You never wanted twins. You don’t want this one. He’ll always be like this. Stop there and dump him.

Silence.

I stopped the car.

My son, asleep. His torso shook up and down to the jerky rhythm of his exhausted breathing. It was, by my meager standards, a miracle.

A few days later, another miracle: all three of my kids napping at the same time.

I opened my novel, the NaNoWriMo project from my daughter’s infancy, and started to read. And revised. Revised some more as I nursed my sons. Wrote notes while I played with them, brainstormed ideas with them aloud. Continued the story in whatever free minutes I could find.

There stood Jason, his machete’s sparkle gone. I came forward with dragons, trolls, shapeshifters, and goblins at the edge of darkness, where my worlds began. I held out my hand, and let the bag and twine fall to the ground at his feet.

My twins are two now, and adorably terrible to everyone, especially their big sister. Jason’s still out there, hacking at the darkness, bursts of spark-light about his face, a fragment of nightmare that will never vanish completely.

The boys climb up my legs while my daughter wraps her arms around my neck. I am bombarded with giggles and toddler tickles. I am armored with a love that no blade can nick.

I am also trapped in the chair.

My daughter bonks me with a hard cover. “Let’s read a story!”

Let’s.