Muse of Fresh New Mornings

Muse of Fresh New Mornings

“The record company didn’t want a hymn on the album,” explains keyboardist Rick Wakeman (of the progressive rock band Yes). He was talking about the song, Morning Has Broken recorded by Cat Stevens (now Yusuf Cat Stevens). Brevity was but one of the problems/ challenges they encountered when they started recording at a  London studio infused with Stevens’ gentle acoustic guitar chords and Wakeman’s cascading piano riffs arranged for the album “Teaser and the Firecat” in the early seventies.

“It’s one of the most beautiful pieces ever written, but it’s just a verse,” Wakeman said in the same video, as he describes the creative process behind the song.   It was Wakeman who helped Stevens stretch the sparse 44 seconds to the full-pop-radio requirement of three minutes. They added a choir and even a harmonium, among other touches to expand the sound.

As is so often the case in creative pursuits, Stevens and Wakeman needed to create new material out of the old for a new purpose.  Given the producers resistance, you have to wonder at the pull the song with gentle lyrics like, “Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning,” exacted on Stevens, who, despite all protests, made sure the song was included on his album by the time of its release.

The hymn appeared at just the right time when Stevens recalls feeling “dry” and “looking for inspiration.”  He entered the religious section of a bookstore and picked up a hymnbook. As he flipped through the pages, there it was:  Morning Has Broken.

Written  (happy women’s history month!) by an English woman named Eleanor Fajeon, Morning Has Broken was commissioned by a vicar who was looking for a song of universal praise, one that would speak to everyone, no matter their background.  In fact, Farjeon was not a musician. She was an author who had earned the Hans Christen Anderson award in 1956.

My personal connection to Morning Has Broken takes me back to a room of eight people or so, all different kinds of people, all ages, who looked around at one another at a creativity workshop at Barnegat Light in Long Beach Island, New Jersey, at Minerva’s Bed and Breakfast.

I remember my heart was in my mouth the whole weekend. It was my first creativity workshop. I didn’t know what to expect but from there on out I was hooked on the very word, creativity.   My non-dictionary definition of creativity is any pull inside your stomach where that morning light starts to get in. It’s not always positive or negative. In fact, that hard morning light might start with a feeling of emptiness, but don’t let that fool or scare you. Keep looking.

That weekend, we all cleared the space for each other by listening and “catching” the goals and vision of each other’s work. This is the circle quality I love about the finest workshops.  One of the participants talked about the lyrics to Morning Has Broken. I can still picture the quiet awe of the room.

The humble Morning Has Broken conjures up a Cinderella song-fairy-tale. The record company never even planned to release it on the airwaves. But one day, the single was finally allowed to dress up and go to the ball, according to Wakeman. (They’d run out of options and wanted a last-ditch effort to squeeze out more cash! ) The rest is history. The song topped the charts for nine weeks, more than any other single on the album. As for Farjoun’s adapted hymn? It has now been listened to over a million times in the above YouTube clip alone.

Song Muse: Journey to the Past – Thanksgiving & Theresa’s Journal

Song Muse: Journey to the Past – Thanksgiving & Theresa’s Journal

During this Thanksgiving week I’m grateful for an old black soft three-ring-binder in the back of my attic. It had been lying dormant in the corner for three years.  In fact, by the time I bumped my way to the stacks of cardboard boxes full of papers and photos and even war-ration cards, the contents had crumbled pieces of ceiling and grit all over it. But one day last month, I dusted off the top of the box and reached inside.

There was nothing to look at really. No dramatic seals or locks. Just an incredibly plain black journal written in 1967 that prompted me to start a new project.

You see, when I opened up the yellowed pages in which a 78-year old woman reflected on her life, I met my great-grandmother, Theresa Hacker Mostny.

Theresa left Vienna, Austria, in April of 1938 for Le Havre on a ship called President Harding. When she boarded, accompanied by her husband and son, she was forty-nine years old. That ship, which began its trip in Hamburg, would pass after Le Havre, France, through Southampton, England, and Cobh, Ireland, to finally dock in New York City. Theresa, like her husband Richard and son Herbert was categorized as “Hebrew” on the ship manifest but unlike both husband and son, who spoke only German, she spoke three languages–German, English and French.

In Theresa’s journal, I discovered her passion for words (and all languages) that endured and satisfied her through the decades, and I smiled through tears when she noted her hunger for more word play during what she did not yet know would be the last year of her life.

What occurred to me is how deeply thankful I am that I got to meet all of Theresa now–on the inside. That is, not just through what she might have talked about over coffee or some kind of censored or contrived positivity but rather her deepest layered thoughts. There were political thoughts including her rage about an American Nazi leader to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery ( “Imagine!” she lamented), her fervent interest in philosophy and psychology (she attended Freud’s lectures while in Vienna), along with her notations about headaches and stomach aches–and her frequent loneliness. I also discovered to my delight how overcome by emotion she felt in arranging a simple breakfast when my mom, dad and I came to visit.

In Theresa’s journal, the loss of her family life comes up a lot. I relive Theresa’s grief that her husband and all three of her children died over a decade before she wrote in 1967, but I also tasted her frequent delight in the latest book on her shelf and her devouring of the Wall Street Journal.

Ilona Kimberly Nagy with her great grandmother Theresa Hacker Mostny Grant 1967

It seemed as I opened the pages of her journal that Theresa extended an invitation to me. She invited me to get to know my father’s side of my family (but also my mother and father as young parents) from the inside out, from the texture of her thoughts and worries and elations.

One of my daughter’s favorite Broadway musicals is Anastasia and we both sing at the top of our lungs when Kristi Altimore leans into the notes of the character’s homage to her lost family’s past. “Home, love, family…”

The song is about a young woman who is suffering from amnesia and struggling to piece together her past. The song struck a chord with me –partly because it’s one of my daughter’s favorite songs and we love to sing together– but also because this month marks my important journey into the past and the thrilling discovery of my great grandmother’s inner world. It also marks my commitment to bring her past alive on the page.

So, this week, I invite you to discover a metaphorical box in your attic… Where does your journey to the past begin?

Got a Wall? Three Ways to Scale It

Got a Wall? Three Ways to Scale It


Music and lyrics are the gasoline fluid to my writing engine. I never know which song is going to help me write that first sentence that I feel deep in my blood. That’s why I decided to devote one blog a month to songs and lyrics that can get me writing and lead me to breakthroughs in my work.

When I am at a certain point in all of my writing and promotional work as well, the music must be turned on.  At others, once I’m firmly in the substance and energy of a piece, and usually the closer I get to the final deadline, it’s equally important to turn all sound off.  And luscious silence creates thread-the-needle concentration music of its own.

This throwback by Kansas members Kerry Livgreen and Steve Walsh (Walsh was suffering from Writer’s Block during the production of the album LeftOverture) is one I always go to when I am stuck at a metaphorical wall, struggling to connect the dots on a vision with concrete and specific business plans and/or I just want to to break through in the richest soul of  my work, life, or a day of feeling lost-ness.

The song, the Wall, is all about embracing the whole of oneself through the trials of spiritual transformation, which might look different for each one of us. The song is infused with electric-keyboard heavy, violin-sweetening, drum riffs that heighten the feeling.  But what I especially love, for my purposes here, is that the lyrics remind us to rehash the big picture why (and the how) of what we really want beneath the surface–when faced with feeling stuck. We all have trouble walls in our work and our psyche, the ones that block our larger vision, cloud certain days with chaos and infuse us with a sense of paralysis. I regularly break up my work with “scaling” exercises that often bring my work home, especially with a good playlist in the background. I’ve framed just a few of them below around some of my favorite lyrics in this song.

1. “I’m woven in a fantasy.” Where is your mind wandering and distracted or lost? Livgreen was struggling with the surface (soul-less) pleasures and pressures of success. But whether you are experiencing success or failure or somewhere in between, go beyond where “gold and diamonds cast a spell.” I’m talking to you–all hot-air overnight-success fantasies or Facebook time-oil-spills! Instead, beyond the momentary thrills and chills of imaginary thinking, approval numbers and/ or miscellaneous comments which will distract you, stay in the zone through the itch. Don’t get me wrong. I have helped my clients use social media to plant, water and grow their message and reach thousands of new readers over time. Social media can be a powerful place to connect with and expand your audience personally and authentically. But, there is a time and a place.  I typically recommend dedicated slots of time to social media rather than long attention-dragging trawls. Digital quick-hits can scatter your attention and dilute your writing voice without a strategic time-management approach. (More on that in a forthcoming blog post, Managing the Creative Force and Social Media).

To get to your big picture: What is the soul-seed of your fantasy that you can actually make more real? Then once you have cleared the psychic space to climb up that steep wall to the interior world of your writing, ask one hard question where you made an assumption–maybe where you were afraid to research or hear the real answer.  This can be excruciating but consider yourself a rock climber gaining your foothold.  It will feel good when you reach a sense of stability through your own sweat. I promise it will save you time and show you what’s what.  It will also mean you will start on solid ground.

2. Struggle with the weight of indecision.  We spend most of our time avoiding tension but acceptance of strain is the perfect way to deepen all of your creative work. Sit still all the way through the “weight of indecision in the air.”  What are you having trouble deciding on?   Indecision can be taken to an extreme and certainly is distracting if you are in a car and need to make the right turn. However, in front of your keyboard, indecision can mean you are invested enough to give questions appropriate weight. Where will that turn take you? What are the consequences of your decisions? Why are you pulled in two (or more) different directions? We know the right direction when we take the right turn.  It’s an earned and deliberate energy that has looked at all of the options with care and has weighed the pros and cons.  When you give your project its natural complexity, heavy doubts, mixed motives, shadow sides and valid problems, it means you are laying the groundwork for a more intimately human and often more resonant final product.

3.  See it through. “Those are few who’ve seen it through to glimpse the other side.” I wish I could tell you that growing and realizing your creative dreams came without any losses or sacrifices or spells of confusion. No can do.  In my experience, you know the projects that you MUST return to again and again.  Your gut will tell you and you should listen to it. There are so many ways to approach the most elusive of creative dreams, but returning, consistency and perseverance matter the most.  Then, only once you struggle, make a plan and stick to it.  Get out a big sheet of paper and plan for your larger goals and outline concrete action steps.  Are you where you need to be to make your dream happen in a year, two, three? What are three things you can do per week that will work to sustain your long-term plan? Name three people you can contact to make it happen next month?  My experience is that once you make one hard decision, other choices will become easier. As Lisa Cron, author of “Story Genius” writes: “Specifics beget specifics.”  Your priorities will begin to reveal themselves.

So, to recap: What walls are in your way of achieving your writing or business goals?

How can you map out a step by step plan to breakthrough? What support do you need to get there?

I know the answers are all right there, inside you.