Workshop update!

Or, an alteration

Hear ye hear ye!

The first session of the 2022 Creative Writing Masterclass Series, presented by Berlin’s very own Soul and the City, is postponed from Saturday 26 March…to Sunday 27 March!

The time is still 11:00-12:30 CET (Central European Time); the place is still Zoom. The theme is “Workshopping Berlin,” as I figured I’d put the ‘city’ in Soul and the City, though we’ll make room for whatever cities we participants live in. It’s a creative nonfiction class, is what you need to know.

Click on the link to register—only 10 days left! And it would mean a whole lot to the teacher. *bats eyelashes*

Happy weekend. Sleep off that St. Paddy’s Day hangover.


Hang onto your ego…

…but I know that you’re gonna lose the fight!

So, remember when I started that podcast about Pet Sounds? Well, in the process of researching for it, I kept coming across articles that mentioned it or had something to do with it. Eventually I made a concerted effort to track down these and more pieces, and compiled them into a list.

And a lovely editor at Longreads has published that list.

This project was great fun to undertake. Also challenging, because Pet Sounds is challenging—even after all this time, it challenges me in new and diverse ways. Given that this latest phase of my relationship to the album and the band and the songwriter(s) began with what I discussed only about this time last year, it seems my progress has been distinct, and greater than I could have imagined.

I’m blessed to have so many outlets and vehicles for my ideas. I’m blessed to have access to so many of the great ideas of others, which inspire lesser ideas of my own. If you’re hunting for a good weekend read, the people and essays I enumerate in this article provide a pretty fair start.

Meanwhile, I’ll just be here, waiting for Brian himself to read it. Is he my best friend yet?

News of the Soul: February

I’ve become the in-house reporter for the Berlin arts collective Soul and the City. Check out our first monthly roundup of events, workshops, and things to look forward to here. I took the photos too!

(Psst—a certain masterclass with yours truly is featured. 😉)

Take care of yourselves this Winterspring, folks!


I’m movin’ out!

Or, good luck movin’ up

Among other recent life changes, most of which have been for the better, I’m in the process of moving from more central Berlin to more woods- and lake-adjacent Berlin. I’ll miss my current neighborhood, to be sure, but I’m looking forward to spending the warmer months closer to nature.

Packing gets a little harder with each move, despite my consistently renewed rule not to acquire too much stuff (and it isn’t even that much stuff, just more than I can transport by myself in one trip). In any event, here are some thoughts I had while re-organizing my life in material possessions.

  • I knew I had more ibuprofen somewhere! Didn’t need to buy that extra pack for a whopping €4 after all. But now I’ll carry some in my purse and be the one in the group who comes to the rescue in time of need.
  • This will be the drugs bag. More supplements than drugs, really, but they’re all going in one place now that I’ve gathered them all.
  • I officially have enough bags to fill one bag with the other bags. Is this the bourgeoisie?
  • Finally, a purpose for the giant empty Twizzler box (don’t ask)—to hold all my cards/letters/programs/ticket stubs from the past 2.5 years! Oh man, the memories.
  • I guess I should stop by that coffeeshop a few streets over that I’ve been calling “this coffeeshop I really like” and have only been to once. For old times’ sake.*
  • How fortunate was I to inherit this set of wooden hangers from a previously departed friend? With the rod for pants and skirts. That’s right, baby, the works. I’m hanging on to these like my life depends on them. Good hangers, it turns out, are very hard to find.
  • When in doubt, one more strip of masking tape.
  • I’ve never had to sit on a suitcase to get it to close. It seems my real life still has not yet turned into a full-on musical.
  • If the Great Donation to Ukraine had started up 72 hours earlier, my bag of clothes and books could have gone there. Ah well. That’s what I get for being ahead of the times. The charity I gave it to may well be arranging its own drive anyway.
  • Does this container have a lid???

<24 hours to go—wish me luck!

*Update: I did go, and ordered a peppermint mocha. Really old times’ sake. Like 2011’s sake.

Image: taken on the valedictory neighborhood walk

Register for a session of the 2022 Creative Writing Masterclass Series!

Ways to #StandWithUkraine

Or, resources

You’ve probably heard by now that the diplomatic efforts to dissuade Putin from sending Russians forces into Ukraine failed and an invasion began on Thursday. There’s been violence in the big cities, most notably Kyiv, and people are fleeing the country, looking for any passage out, as happened in Kabul hardly six months ago.

One of my closest friends has extended family still living in a small town near the capital and is very occupied maintaining contact with them. Since my involvement in the UFFB last fall, I have several more friends and acquaintances with extremely tight ties to, if not whole lives in, Ukraine, and have witnessed their pain and distress up close.

So today I’m following their lead and forwarding resources for providing aid to the Ukrainian army and people. Whatever you can give or do really does make a difference.

Germany, and Berlin in particular, has expressed solidarity with Ukraine. I wouldn’t be surprised if we in the city see an influx of refugees akin to the mid-2010s. But then, a post-Merkel age is underway, and this is a different sort of crisis (and may yet turn into another sort of crisis), so I can’t pretend to say for certain. In the meantime, wherever you are in the world, take a look and see what you can contribute. This is likely only the beginning.

Image: photo taken by the author at a demonstration last weekend—see more here

Register for a session of the 2022 Creative Writing Masterclass Series!

A POD SOUNDS special!

In which we interrupt our regularly scheduled programming

This past week on the pod I got my act together (well, the timing was somewhat planned, as we just finished the album portion of season 2) and released an episode I’d recorded back in mid-December. With our first-ever guest. Who isn’t a blood relative!

On this episode, “Justice for Rock & Roll Women,” I chat with Natalia Cardenas, host of the She Loves You Podcast and manager of the Instagram account @cynthialennondaily, about the Beatles and the many women in or adjacent to their lives. Natalia is a delight to listen to, so passionate and knowledgeable. She gave me two opportunities I realized I’d been seeking for a while: 1) to talk at length and in depth about the Beatles on the podcast; and 2) to talk to someone with a deep affection for Cynthia—that’s the lovely blonde you see in the photo, which I point out because there is a chance you don’t know her—about our evolving relationships to her over the course of our Beatles fandom. Well, and 3) to make a new Beatles friend, which I am never ever opposed to.

If I may, then: recommended Sunday listening. Kind of ideal Sunday listening, actually, as it provides a gateway to the Beatles, who are any-day-any-time listening. Putting together more episodes as we speak, but there’s quite a bit going on in my next few weeks, so if I make myself scarce on the web and the (air)waves until the end of February, it’s only because of all the ch-ch-ch-ch-changes.

Love & headphones—Cecilia

Image: from the Evening Standard

Register for a session of the 2022 Creative Writing Masterclass Series!

Workshop alert!

Or, who’s Zoomin’ who?

Happy Galentine’s Day, all!

I’m chuffed to share that I have partnered with the great Berlin-based arts organization Soul and the City to lead their 2022 Creative Writing Masterclass series.

They take place on the last Saturday of every other month, 11:00-12:30 CET—via Zoom, so you can join from anywhere in the world. Each one focuses on a different aspect or genre of writing and features opportunities to learn about theory, practice the craft, and share work.

Here is the schedule:

26 March: Workshopping Berlin

We begin with soul…and the city! Recommended particularly for those who either live in Berlin or want to learn more about Berlin (and who doesn’t fall into the latter category?).

28 May: Forging Your Writer’s Voice

As you read more and write more, it can be hard to discern what styles and approaches feel most genuine to you, or how best to represent yourself in your work (of any genre). This class will provide a foundation for tapping into the most unique and compelling thing about your writing: your own voice.

30 July: Crafting Characters in Fiction

The most effective fiction, whether short- or long-form, is character-driven. So, what does that mean exactly? In this class we’ll explore the qualities that make for characters we want to read about, as well as the personal narratives that make for great story arcs.

24 September: Memory & Menda(city): an intro to memoir & personal essay

Self-reflective creative nonfiction is a fraught business. When do you tell the full truth versus fudge the details? When do you take artistic license? What if you want to probe a person/place/event in your life that you don’t remember much about? How do you even choose what to write about? This class will attempt to answer all these questions and more! #ambitious

26 November: Notes on Notes: writing about music

If you’ve read the blog for any amount of time, you absolutely could have predicted this. If not, go have a scroll and get back to me. We’ll parse musical analysis and influence on nonfiction, with a little fiction and poetry thrown in just for funsies.

So what are you waiting for? Sign up and come hang out with me in cyberspace! It’ll be actually lit.

Oh, and while I’m at it: we discussed the last song of Little Criminals on the podcast this week—take a listen, and keep an ear out for a special interruption to our usual programming next week!

Have you guys heard of the “Checkers speech”?!

Or, “Show me the money!”

It’s been an educational week. Between this oratory byte and the hitherto-unknown exclamation “Great Caesar’s Ghost,” I have realized that I know absolutely nothing about American history, political or pop-cultural. So, as long as I’m back to square one, I thought I’d start it off right!

What’s really weird about uncovering what I would call mid-tier history—events that were big at the time but not often talked about today—is that I don’t know just how uninformed I am. Has most of my generation heard of the Checkers speech? It even entered the vernacular as a phrase for a while, but I hadn’t ever heard the phrase either, or I imagine it would have prompted me to look up the history behind it. So, has none of my generation heard of it? If I asked someone, let’s say, Gen X or younger, mid-conversation, “You know about the Checkers speech?” would I sound egregiously pretentious or totally nonsensical? It makes me uncomfortable that there’s no way to gauge.

(I will refrain from enumerating my issues with the American public education system at this time.)

But on with the story. The year is 1952. A California senator named Richard Nixon, ever heard of him, finds himself on the ballot as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s running mate. Side note: I guess I’m terrible at predicting which state people come from. You’re telling me this guy is from the sunny, laid-back land of the Beach Boys and Randy Newman? No way. Just like McCarthy—Wisconsin? Really? How could a senator from a state nobody cares about create such a mess? (Apologies to my Wisconsin readers.)

Anyway. Dickie gets a campaign staff and accumulates a number of supporters who establish a fund on his behalf. And the gang starts shelling out. Dolla dolla bills y’all. In fact, some of the money seems to just disappear. Imagine the scene in The Great Gatsby where Gatsby is showering Daisy with his shirts, except instead of fabric it’s all legal tender from the U.S. Mint.

Now, plenty of politicians spend through the roof, enabled by financial backing from sources both well-known and anonymous. Unfortunately, Nixon’s entire political career disproves the old adage that there’s no such thing as bad press. After “the Fund,” as it’s known, comes up in passing on a TV appearance, reporters start to ask questions. He claims to know nothing of the particulars, but do they believe him? And there’s plenty of opportunity for them to get on his case about it, because his tour, on the Dick Nixon Special, is making the rounds of the American West.

As the media’s indignation spreads to the public, Eisenhower begins to consider dropping Nixon, and the campaign staff plots damage control. I literally feel as if I am summarizing an episode of a prestige HBO show. In mid-September, they hit upon it: a televised speech laying to rest all fears and rumors of the money having been used improperly. On September 23, in Los Angeles, the plan goes into effect. Nixon sits onstage at the empty El Capitan Theatre (pandemic seating way ahead of its time), his wife Pat nearby, and says thirty minutes of nothing, during which he mentions that the one gift his family received that they intend to keep is a cocker spaniel named Checkers.

It’s a smash. The American people rally behind him. Eisenhower lets him stay on as VP candidate, and in so doing botches the country’s last chance to get rid of Nixon, because he’s back eight years later to run against Kennedy, and eight more years later to actually win the presidency. By which point it should be abundantly clear to all involved that old Dick is a man of many talents, but that leading the free world is not among them, and that he is exceedingly unlucky when it comes to the media, and that the ensuing administration sets him—and with him the ‘world’s’ ‘greatest’ ‘superpower’—up for nothing but failure and disgrace.

Checkers had his work cut out for him with these people.

Hindsight is 20-20. I’m aware of that. But I can’t help thinking it must have been obvious even then that all this could have been avoided. Here is what should have happened:

Nixon gives the speech. The people love it. Eisenhower acknowledges the skill and tact and planning necessary to pull off something like that. However, they strike a deal for Nixon to resign—and then they stage it. In a moment of theatricality, old Ike declares, “Well, Dick, you may have proven yourself a modern-day Pericles, but it’s too little, too late!” and gives his running mate the boot. The people are galled. Nixon continues his tour, and they turn out in droves to see him, demonstrating as only the masses can that they’re on his side after the terrible injustice he has suffered at the hands of the ruthless electoral machine. He then announces his departure from politics and smoothly transitions into show business. By the end of this same tour, he plays the piano (however badly), delivers standup routines (mostly politics-themed), and brings out famous friends like Sammy Davis, Jr. for endearing double acts. After that, he’s credited with singlehandedly reviving vaudeville. There’s a one-night-only engagement at the Apollo (sold out, recorded for RCA), a two-week residence at the Sands (so successful it becomes a recurring stint every few months). He’s bigger than Sinatra! Speaking of, he even helps Sinatra’s career get its second wind after he signs with Capitol. The man’s recording again, he’s doing movies, and what else? He becomes a fixture in his new buddy Dick’s road show. They do a series of TV specials called Albert & Milhous. And best of all, Sinatra never has to meet Spiro Agnew.

Now, doesn’t that sound like a much happier version of events for everyone? They used to say history was written by the winners, but anymore it could even just be written by the people with a writing routine. (I love inventing history. I think I’ll do more of it.) Reading about the Checkers speech was a wild research experience, but it was kind of a downer to connect it to everything that came after. Context matters, kids.

We did get a lot of great pop culture out of Nixon’s antics, though. Seriously, how has a movie of this formative moment not been made yet?

Image: the menu on the “Dick Nixon Special”

Just saw FUNNY GIRL for the first time…

Or, oy!

…and it was weird, man. I’m gonna put all my thoughts in a list, because that’s the kind of time and energy I’ve got this week.

  • Reminiscent of other musicals of the era in that the first act contained much more singing, and was much more lighthearted, than the second. But I think 1776 is much better, composition- and adaptation-wise, and I will always consider it one of the tops, no matter what the stupid AFI says.
  • People don’t do this show, right? No one mounts productions these days? Because any actress in the role of Fanny wouldn’t really be playing Fanny Brice, she’d be playing Barbra Streisand, and not succeeding. Even the Marias (The Sound of Music, West Side Story) have a certain interpretive range, whereas this role seems so closely linked to her originator as to be inextricable.
  • I suppose all that is because Babs’ rapid rise to dizzying heights mirrors Fanny’s ascent almost exactly. On many levels, this was an autobiographical show. So we should probably hold off on productions for the next hundred years, because another career repetition isn’t likely to happen before then.
  • I feel like this is the idea of musicals that people who dislike musicals have in their heads. Now the scrappy heroine sings an “I want” song (and another, and another); now she tries to convince somebody to believe in her; now the side characters do that talk-singing thing about said scrappy heroine. It really hits all the beats, for better or worse, doesn’t it?
  • She is hilarious. Her speech inflection is on point every time. And she looks like she’s having so much fun up there, it’s impossible not to have fun with her.
  • She seems to exist out of time. Not only is the action not set in the ‘60s, but Babs doesn’t seem to really be part of the ‘60s. You know what I mean? The era was defined by these camps that she didn’t participate in; she was a host unto herself. It feels like she belongs to another era, due both to the business she got started in and the way she became famous. Her success story is what every girl who falls in love with musical theatre aspires to. (Every girl? Or am I projecting?)
  • I read that “People” was almost cut after the preliminary round of previews because it wasn’t consistent with Fanny’s character. I agree with that assessment—it doesn’t make sense when Fanny sings it—but my solution would be to simply give it to another character. Her mother, maybe. How many shows’ most iconic numbers are sung by non-principals? “Climb Every Mountain,” from The Sound of Music, sung by the Mother Superior (who is also given “My Favorite Things” as a duet with Maria in the stage version, although we don’t acknowledge the stage version on this blog, because the movie is the version, you’re welcome). “Something Wonderful,” from The King and I, sung by Lady Thiang. “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” from Carousel, sung by…see, I don’t even remember her name! Case in point. I seem to only be able to come up with Rodgers and Hammerstein examples, but whatever. The principals have enough singing to do (especially in this show, jeez). Spread the wealth.
  • This may get me excommunicated, but I’m not sure these songs are very good songs. Considering the Jule Styne catalogue alone, I find this score to be a second-rate Gypsy; and considering the Broadway production’s contemporaries—and, incidentally, Babs’ early film career—I find this show to be a second-rate Hello, Dolly! (a film she should not have been involved in anyway, she was tOo YoUnG fOr ThE pArT). In any event, re: my note above, I feel these songs are trying too hard to be Musical Numbers. Particularly the solo/intimate numbers, but those form the majority of the score, so…
  • Surely this is not the context for the much-lauded (overrated) “Don’t Rain on My Parade”? Surely she’s not about to throw away the career she had so single-mindedly pursued and has so recently secured to go get on a boat with some man?! Very disappointing.
  • And here is where the show becomes, in full, about her relationship with (and to) Nick. This is not what I signed up for. I want to see her be the funny girl onstage! But now she can’t enjoy any of it because he should be there for her and he isn’t. Men.
  • So, at long last, the great Omar Sharif. The first film of his I’ve seen. I like him, he’s funny too. I get good vibes from him; I hope he was one of the good Hollywood guys. I feel like you can tell something about an actor’s personality even from their performance as someone else—like you know how Clark Gable must have just been an egomaniac in real life? Anyway, maybe I’ll have to see this fellow in more things.
  • What an idiot. Turns down a deal to get in on opening a club because he lets his pride get in the way. Men.
  • Babs is such an interesting singer. I’ve never known what to make of her. One second I love what she’s doing, the next I find her intonation just awful. This happens multiple times over the course of every song. What’s up with that??
  • But then, what am I gonna do, not watch her in everything else? Like that’s gonna happen.

Image: the movie poster


Or, Sally Rooney part II

As promised, I got around to Sally Rooney’s debut novel, 2017’s Conversations with Friends. I did enjoy it more than Normal People. For one thing, the title was a bit less misleading: Normal People sounds like it should be about people in their forties, and in fact the action ends at their early twenties; while among the four central characters of Conversations with Friends the age range spans early twenties to late thirties.

But that doesn’t mean I enjoyed it.

Let me just come right out and say it: I’m not at all sure that Rooney writes fiction. Not that she can’t, but she hasn’t yet. She knows how to write about young people in Dublin aspiring to be creative types, because she was one of those people not long ago (or arguably still is), and so sticks to the formula she knows. Her voice and subject matter are what people are thinking of when they say “oh, you’re writing your first novel, is it based on your life?” And I, frankly, resent that implication.

This story follows Frances and Bobbi, friends/exes and slam poetry partners, as they cross paths with Melissa, a semi-famous photographer, and Nick, her semi-famous actor husband. I imagine Rooney framing the arrangement in her head: “I will create these four characters, all of whom will be mildly annoying at least, but only one will be truly insufferable, and I will make her the narrator.” Frances, whose mind we are trapped in, thinks she can singlehandedly bring down capitalism by not getting a job, and is not “cool-headed and observant” as the blurb claims so much as “completely passive.” The story is not about friendship, of course, it is about who she gets to fuck and why/not. She starts an affair with Nick but refuses to be honest with him about anything going on in her life—the fact that she has no money, her struggles with emotionally unavailable parents—just as she refuses to tell anyone what she is really thinking ever. She idolizes Bobbi: through her eyes it truly does seem as though Bobbi is whip-smart, perfect-looking, and at the top of her intellectual game all the time, which made me wish even more for the narration to be from Bobbi’s perspective, because Frances’ opinion can’t be the full truth. Their prior romance, initiated by Bobbi, was Frances’ first, and it would not surprise me in the slightest if she merely expected it to make her cool or edgy or something shallow like that (her response to Bobbi’s questioning if she likes girls: “Sure.”) Melissa, once Nick comes clean about the affair, is admirably levelheaded and lets them carry on: the marriage has been operating without a sexual component for a while, and neither of them plans to make any drastic changes. But Frances still isn’t happy, because she craves absolute power. If this were the 18th century, she would be one of the first ushered to the guillotine, and not even because she’s Irish.

I’d like to reiterate that this is not a story of friends. Frances loves Nick, and hates Melissa for no reason, and has unresolved feelings from her romance with Bobbi. Friendship happens when people lift one another up. This is not that. It can’t be, when at least one party declines to let herself be lifted.

Anyway. I won’t describe everything. I found myself disappointed in basically all the characters, which is probably unfair, because their lives don’t really seem to mean enough to them to merit an observer’s disappointment. More importantly, I found myself kind of disappointed in the intended—and apparently attained—audience. As I read I couldn’t help thinking, THESE are the characters we want to read about today? This is where our head is at, collectively?

You, meanwhile, might be thinking, wow, and she liked this one MORE than Normal People? That’s concerning. But I thought each character (except Frances) had funny moments, and I especially appreciated Bobbi for calling Frances on her bullshit, which she does most directly about four-fifths of the way through: “You underestimate your own power so you don’t have to blame yourself for treating other people badly. You tell yourself stories about it. Oh well, Bobbi’s rich, Nick’s a man, I can’t hurt these people. If anything they’re out to hurt me and I’m defending myself.” Authentic moments like these threw into relief how worn down I was by all the inauthenticity.

I’m still not going to declare that I dislike Rooney’s writing; I’m still not ready to go there. It’s her attitudes that bother me more. Sex, in her work, is always Tawdry—that word that nobody really knows what it means, but you read her sex scenes and you understand. It’s like the opposite of Nick Hornby: her characters are trying so hard not to care about it that they’re just making their neuroses surrounding it even worse. I happen to know a thing or two about the way a Catholic environment can engender neuroses around sex, thank you very much.

And then there’s her attitude to writing itself. Frances sells a short story to a magazine for an amount that is evidently impressive but about which we hear nothing concrete. Something similar happens to Connell in Normal People. Rooney had something of a magical big break herself, a point at which she transitioned from Somewhat Successful to Officially Undeniably Successful, and she crafts characters for whom things unfold the same way. And what of the rest of us? What of those writers, fictional and non-, whose rise is much less defined, much more incremental?

I know nothing of Rooney’s inner life or world. But creating this expectation, I felt as both a reader and a writer, is playing a dangerous game. (Not to mention that her characters seem determined not to appreciate whatever success they have.)

So, there you have it. Maybe this all comes off unduly harsh. I admit, though, that I just don’t get what people love about these novels. Maybe she’ll write something in the future that resonates more, or in a better way. I hope that’s the case—it sounds like she’s got a long career ahead of her.

Image: published by Faber & Faber, May 2017