I knew my song-muse for this month when I kept circling back to a recent album, “The Mystery of Me” by Hopewell, New Jersey-born, Danielia Cotton. The New York Times describes the first song in the collection “as dramatic and soulful enough to fill a revival tent.” I’ve always been struck by Danielia’s range. She not only composes her own rich and layered original songs but brings any cover to its knees with her passion and voice. You name it, Purple Rain by Prince, Can’t Find My Way Home by Blind Faith, Sweet Dreams by Eurythmics, Gimme Shelter by Rolling Stones, Back in Black by ACDC.
I learned about her latest album of originals, (“The Mystery of Me,” featured in the New York Times in 2017) when I saw Danielia play at The Hopewell Theatre last winter. But I didn’t get a chance to sit down and really listen to the songs in sequence until a few months later. I often put a playlist on when I organize my office or when I cook and clean on the weekends. A designated Sunday playlist or mix makes any chore much more easy and truly joyful. But when I queued up Danielia’s latest, I found more than belt-out-loud delight in helping me sort out my bills, wash my kitchen floor, clean the fridge and chop up veggies.
I also found three great (“let me grab my laptop!”) writing prompts.
Danielia Cotton got me thinking about how mystery is often the “elan vital” force of emotional depth –the true raw voice– that is mandatory for strong creative work. There is an inherent emotional investment in our willingness to encounter the unknown– a road we might not have walked before. The dictionary definition of mystery is: “something that is difficult or impossible to understand or explain.” It is the way we don’t know what is around the bend or underneath that google search or interview question or library stack (or the next). It is that new kind of assignment that stretches us, so we can discover the full extent of what we are capable.
Yes, knowing our structure and goals is hugely important and a source of the truest creative freedom. I’m a strong believer in planning and firm deadlines that draw out articles and chapters with predictable seed + plant = bloom awe. But at some point, usually many, the creator must dare to sit in the midst of a blind, often lip-bitingly frustrated “I got nothing” or “I just can’t connect these pieces” puzzle of the M word.
Thus, gleaned from my two favorite songs (of many) on the album, “Rising” and “The Mystery of Me,” I’ve listed just a few lyrics from two songs that touched me. Of course, these are just my interpretations. I urge you to download The Mystery of Me and discover it for yourself.
1. “Mother says don’t let the world tell you you’re not allowed to make sound…” That’s a refreshing sentiment in a meme-driven world that too often regurgitates the same kinds of homogenous stories over and over again. Your sound matters. A regularly visited inner life on the page is the perfect place to begin to raise your voice and allow for the urgency of your message to be released and better understood. It is a place to plant seeds by defining and articulating what’s most important to you. Once you walk out on that limb, you can follow the breadcrumbs back to your most prolific and fully acknowledged self from there. What message must be heard that only you can deliver? Does it come from a place that feels washed in relief in your notes or journal? Don’t hold back. Write from your gut instincts–and more visceral words will arise in your work. I have watched this process in so many writers and experienced it myself. It’s powerful.
2. “Run through the halls of the school of your life and yell loud.” This is a vivid metaphor and a powerful memoir writing prompt, right? What do the halls of the school of your life sound like? Look like? Smell like? I love the way Danielia infuses the concept of deep cumulative learning into such a potentially locker-slamming corner of our lives. For more real peace inside, yell there in your writing practice. (From the track, “Rising”)
3. “Most answers will come over time.” The answers to trust usually emerge slowly, over time. I’ve come to recommend designating specific journals and/ or notebooks for different projects or time periods. If it is your inclination (I’m print oriented so I depend on many physical notebooks I later scan) check out online file folder systems (Google “apps for note taking” — there are many to choose from). Whatever you choose, make time to sequence or rearrange your notes to grow into full-blown writing assignments later. This process always helps me write. What I’ve noticed is how much I can draw off of these seemingly random notes when I need them. They accumulate! Give your answers time to build and inform you. Are there larger patterns that might offer you (and your readers) insight? (From the track, “The Mystery of Me”)
The blank page of “I just don’t have anything to write today” is a natural if drier occasional kind of mysterious force for writers. I laughed with relief when I heard the editor of the New York Times “Modern Love” column, Daniel Jones joke with a gracious smirk during his keynote speech for the American Society for Journalists and Authors last May that there is no writer’s block. There is only lack of patience.
The blank page can either paralyze us or render us rainmakers. Likely both. It helps to begin with one little “let me try this” sentence. One tiny chord first. Think of your fingers on a sweetly-tuned piano timed to an internal steady drum bass. And then badump badump badump, right as you find your way IN, suddenly you are on a roll. At that point, it won’t matter what it took to get into the zone. Instead, we can relish the mystery of our process, the mystery of ourselves.