“We are all just prisoners here, of our own device…”

I haven’t been writing as much as I’d like lately. What I have written has been pretty good, and I’m happy about that, but I find that when I try to sit down and pound out the pages I’ve been hitting more and more walls. So, as an exercise, I decided to put my iPod on shuffle and write whatever came to mind for the length of each song and then move on, sort of a stream of consciousness plus timed meditation deal. I used to do it in college to clear all the blah blah out of my head before writing a paper.

Here’s the thing, though – I’ve got fourteen or so gigs of music on my iPod, and out of all those songs only about ten of them are happy. I exaggerate. It’s got to be more like twenty. And of those “happy songs” most are not objectively happy, they just make me happy. That counts for something but is a bit beside the point.

No, you know what? That is exactly the point.

When Brick comes on and you hit skip because it’s bumming you out and the next song is Down in a Hole and you’re like “Oh, so much better, what a relief,” you should really reconsider the roots of your emotional reactions.

“You” in this case being me.

A couple of years ago I read a book about time management and how to be organized in a more psychologically healthy way (because I’m a horribly obsessive control freak who doesn’t respond well to deadlines – how does that work?). The writer said one of the things he does is to make a new playlist every few months, so that if he gets in a negative headspace his playlist won’t put him back in that rut. It makes good sense, right? That logic totally tracks. So I tried it for a while, tried to rustle up a happy playlist. That winter was really, really tough, one of my blacker black wave times. Now, almost all of those cheery ditties put me in a foul mood. They’re ruined. The experiment backfired. Bummer songs make me happy and happy songs piss me off.

It’s one of the items on an increasingly long list of shit that’s wrong with me.

But is it “wrong,” really? If the end result of listening to a sad song is my feeling better, isn’t that good? Isn’t that the point? The point of making things? Of liking things? The feeling you end on, no matter which you started on? Something something artistic catharsis? The fact that my iPod reads like a suicide note to an outside observer should really be irrelevant if I’m happy knowing I have all those songs in my pocket.

I don’t have a favorite song. I never have. At best, I could maybe give you a top five favorite bands, with a few runners-up for greatest hits albums (not counting soundtracks). I used to think that was weird, that everyone has a favorite song. Now I’m pretty sure that favorite songs are a bullshit thing teenagers invented to more efficiently size each other up because they’re sociopaths. Or maybe I’m just chronically indecisive and would rather stick to loving a thousand songs that make me dance or laugh or weep or call someone I’m reminded of. On the other hand, I’ve often said that I wish I could cue my own theme music when I walk into a room. In the movie of my life, I know what every character’s song would be.

To that end, a story. Get comfy.


Once upon a time I was a college student. I have a degree in Literature with a concentration in Creative Writing, which just means I wanted to be a writer but have commitment issues. In order to graduate I had to submit a portfolio to the English Department, forty pages of which had to be in one format. I chose fiction, which as you may have gathered, I do not do. But it was the dream, at the time. My thesis adviser read an early draft and called me into her office (prompting a panic attack of epic and unmatched proportions). She told me that I wrote like a screenwriter. That wouldn’t have been a problem, we could have slapped that forty pages into a script easily, except that to graduate with a screenwriting concentration I would have had to declare a theater major a year earlier (which logic I contend makes no sense, but what do I know? I have a lowly literature degree). So I spent my last year of school learning how to not write like a screenwriter. That adviser and I got my bad fiction into somewhat presentable shape, along with another thirty or so pages of nonfiction that was already pretty alright, if I’m allowed to say so. I should have taken the hint at that point and realized that fiction wasn’t for me. I did not. Such a dumbass. I did learn a lot from that experience and from her, and while I obviously harbor her no ill will, I think that must have been some of the worst advice I’ve ever gotten. Right up there with “You look great in red” and “Eat another handful of mushrooms.” I should have learned how to do better what I was already doing. Not because I have any sort of plans to be a big fat Hollywood screenwriter. I didn’t even know I wrote like a screenwriter. But in retrospect, that seems like a skill I could have worked on, rather than squeezing myself into a fiction box where I don’t fit just because fiction is what I enjoy the most. The devil you know, as they say.

Anyway, some time later my sister and I were sitting around one night boozily yacking about The Eagles, something we do more than normal people would think is actually necessary. It started when our dad died. I suppose we were trying to bond with a dead guy by listening to his records. Stevie Ray Vaughan, John Lee Hooker, Rare Earth, Cream, Queen, BB King, and especially The Eagles. All really good stuff, and all stuff we had grown up loving, only now it seemed more important. A message from beyond. The thing about The Eagles is that their songs are like snapshots, vignettes, little peeks into weird microcosms. As, I suppose, a lot of great songs are. But their music in particular has a storyteller-ish quality that my sister and I respond to, probably because we’re both writers. That’s my working theory, anyway. So, we were sitting there trying to break down Hotel California, arguing over whether it’s about Satanists and demons or American classist consumerism and I said that either way it would make a great horror movie. It’s all there: setting, plot, conflict, characters, soundtrack. Everything but an ending. She said I should write an ending. Seemed simple enough.

That was twelve years ago.

I’ve tried. I really have. I’ve started and stopped more times than I can count. I’ve got a fat folder full of drafts, snippets, stray lines of dialogue, character and costume designs, descriptions of sets and locations – none of which, I’m sure, are in any sort of acceptable screenplay format. I can see it all in my head, some weird combination of From Dusk til Dawn and The Shining. And still, I have no ending. Because what the hell does one do with “You can check out any time you like but you can never leave”? I hate to get all meta and lit-major-y here, but that’s pretty much how I feel about this project. “You can write as many endings as you like but you can never finish this goddamn story.” And now, because oh how we do love an inside joke, it’s become a point of reference for my sisters and me.

When are you going to finish your degree?

When are you going to finish your Hotel California script?

When are you going to marry the lovely man you’ve been living with for a decade?

When are you going to finish your Hotel California script?

When are you going to get your shit together?

As soon as I finish my Hotel California script.

This thing is a monument to unfinished business, and rightfully so. Those bitches know exactly which buttons to push, though, don’t they? I feel worse about not finishing some stupid writing project than they do about either of those life decision-y things I mentioned and they know it. To be fair, while I’m being fair, the one without the degree has her dream job and the one with the wonderful boyfriend is blissfully happy, so clearly it’s my hangup and not theirs. It’s not just about finishing the script, really. I’ve got a lot tied up in this emotionally because of my dad. Maybe I’m not ready to be done with it yet. It’s funny how certain things become symbols, touchstones, talismans, and how they’re often weird or unexpected things. I don’t remember ever talking to him about Hotel California. We did talk about music a lot. The last couple of years before he died we talked about music all the time. I suppose it’s safe territory for a musically-inclined parent and a difficult teenager who’s trying to figure out what she likes. One time we stayed up until dawn arguing about who was the better drummer, Mitch Mitchell or Ginger Baker. It remains a mystery for the ages (but largely irrelevant because John Bonham). I am unprepared for those conversations to be well and truly over.

I suppose this story doesn’t really have an ending, either. Seems appropriate.

Meanwhile, I venture onward in the never-ending search for the elusive happy song. A most noble pursuit, indeed.

One thought on ““We are all just prisoners here, of our own device…”

  1. I laughed out loud at work. Maybe that’s the point- not to be finished. I love you.

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