Monthly Archives: March 2013

Mentor and Learn: It’s music!

Chair feet

 Caption: My Young Friend Chair Dives in the Goddess Gathering Room

Essay and photo by Janet Grace Riehl

 I find myself mentoring as I mosey about in the world.  It turns out that mentoring is the cycle of teaching, learning, teaching and learning. What a joy it is to find out that I know something I didn’t know I knew as I draw out something that the other person didn’t know they knew. At that point learning and teaching fuse.

One of my good friends is a nine-year-old neighbor, and I love it when he pops by. Here’s the knock. Then I fling open the door, swing my arms wide, and he runs into my bear hug. Out in the hallway we play ball. (Quietly, of course!) As we throw, kick, dribble, and dash to retrieve the ball, we talk. We’ve been working on an informal Create Original Music project. In school today he’s found out how Garage Band transfers what he plays on the keyboard into written music. Not that he can read sheet music yet, but documentation is never a bad idea.

The composing thing just fell from the sky for both of us. Last November an electronic keyboard joined their family as a big birthday present for his sister. Fortunately their piano-playing grandmother happened to be visiting just in time to launch them into the world of music. Within a week they could play more tunes than a convocation of birds can sing.

Even after his grandmother went home at the end of the holidays, he kept at it. Patterns emerged under his fingers as he pounded on the black keys, and he asked me to listen. He had a riff down, but now what?

“Oh, that sounds dark and heavy. Like Dracula.”

He agreed, and continued playing. His finger slipped and another pattern emerged.

“ Do that again. This one sounds happy.”

Thus “Happy Dracula”—a basic four part theme and variation—was born:  Happy 1;  Dracula 1; Happy 2; and Dracula 2. It ended on a leading tone.

“It wants to go somewhere. Do you want it to, or do you want to leave it like that?”

“I want it like that.”  His “Happy Dracula” thus ended on an unresolved note—perhaps like its namesake.

A complete instrumental composition had emerged. Could I play it? No. Could I chart it? No. Could I explain the underlying music theory? No. But by working with feeling tone and mood I could help him explore and invent; I could help him develop his talent naturally and intuitively. He’d become a composer.

Here comes the knock. Here comes the hug, and the invitation to visit. He played his latest tune.

“That sounds like oompapa music. I hear tubas and accordions in it.” He’d never heard oompapa before, so I pulled out my phone to find a sample. But it wasn’t a music night; he really wanted to show me his video game. I watched in amazement as he built walls and put up obstacles to stay ahead of the pursuing monster. Would I like to play? I could sign in. Nope.

And so we became an ad hoc plugged-in family while his mother ran errands. His 11-year-old sister relaxed in an easy chair with headphones and her e-reader as she heard and read the words simultaneously. He played his video game on an iPad. I played oompapa music and classic jazz  as video game background music. Maybe these songs would become an internal mix-tape: Thelonius Monk, Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker, and Dave Brubeck.  My young friend lives in his body, and his music in its raw rhythm feels most like Brubeck’s.  He’d heard Brubeck’s best known tune “Take Five” before. I thought he wasn’t listening, but he knew Brubeck when he heard it. My theory seemed to be working.

Another evening; another knock; another hug and invitation. That night he was ready to focus on music. He played a riff (again on the black keys), and we were off.

“That one sounds like a spider.” I walked my fingers up his arm like the kindergarten  itsy-bitsy spider.  “What would happen,” I asked “when the spider gets to your shoulder?”

“I’d look around and splat it!”

“What would that sound like?”

The piano keys immediately splatted the answer, and just like that we moved from mood to story—discovering another tool. He continued to experiment and develop the tune. This time he tried different octaves—and even a Blues walk-down—until we were both satisfied that “The Spider” was complete. We were on a roll.

Now we had three tunes with titles. We went back to the first pattern he’d made up (before “Happy Dracula”). “What does it sound like?” We decided it felt like a walk in the woods and called it “Dark Woods.”

If you had asked me a two months ago if I could help someone (anyone—but especially a young one) how to compose, I would have said a rousing “No.” But now I see that we are all that we have been. My young collaborator mentored me as I moseyed around this world. I sing the praises of a young composer who has taught me a lot.


Read more at Riehl Life: Village Wisdom for the 21st Century” ( Creating connections through the arts and across cultures.

Characters Are the Heart of a Memoir

BC with DadMemoir is story about people and experiences, both inner and outer. It’s about relationships, connection. And characters — the people in our life stories — are at the heart of it all.

When we know a character, we tend to care more about the story. I see some of my students and clients writing memoir that often suffers from a focus on describing incidents one after another, neglecting the important fact that the reader doesn’t know the characters in the story.

Part of the reason popular memoirs are popular is because the writers of them don’t make those assumptions. They flesh out the people in their memoir so they become as fully dimensional as characters in a novel — or as real as the real people in our lives.

As storyteller, you are the one to give your characters life on the page. If your characters are flat, your writing will be too.

And one of those characters, believe it or not, is YOU. Just because it’s you who’s writing the story doesn’t mean your reader knows you at all of the various ages you’re writing about. When you see yourself as the multidimensional, 3-D character you are, you populate your own story more fully, all of the scenes and the narrative that moves the story forward is infused with you in your many dimensions —your style, your values, your habits, your inconsistencies.

Let’s take a look at how to draw those dimensions.

1) Don’t put someone in front of a mirror and describe what they see. It’s as flat a method of showing someone as the mirror they’re looking into.

2) Don’t list character features: hair color, height, weight, eye color. The details may have a place somewhere, but forget the list. It doesn’t belong in a narrative, it belongs on a driver’s license.

3) Sprinkle in  details here and there that show you and others around you in the time and place you’re writing about.

4) Too much detail can look heavy-handed, overly conscious, make the reader aware of you as a writer instead of feeling like they’re in the story and you’re the invisible guide. You don’t need to put in everything you know and certainly don’t need to do it all at once.

How much is too much? Notice what other writers you like do with this and read over your drafts for too much or not enough. It’s like adjusting the spices when you’re cooking.

In real life we get to know people gradually. Character details reveal themselves over time, whether we know a person for two hours or twenty years. Similarly, characters are best revealed in memoir through progressive scenes, as time passes. And by the details you give about them, their layers unfold and the reader gets to know them more deeply than they would if all the character detail came in a single paragraph.

Mannerisms and habits, personal style and personality-revealing actions show character. When you intersperse these sorts of descriptive details throughout your writing the reader gets to know the characters through her encounters with them. They begin to live on the page. She probably won’t remember from three chapters back that Grandpa had hazel eyes and was balding, but she will remember that he lit a fat cigar after every meal and relit it at least ten times during an hour’s sitting.

Sensory details are helpful too, as they draw us viscerally into a scene and help us  know a character in ways we wouldn’t without them. Kim Chernin did this  beautifully in her memoir, In My Mother’s House: She was a woman who woke early, no matter how late she went to bed the night before. Every morning she would exercise, bending and lifting and touching and stretching, while I sat on the bed watching her with my legs curled up. Then, a cold shower and she would come from it shivering, smelling of rosewater, slapping her arms. She ate toast with cottage cheese, standing up, reading the morning paper. But she would always have too little time to finish her coffee. I would watch her taking quick sips as she stood at the door. “Put a napkin into your lunch,” she’d call out to me, “I forgot the napkin.” And there was always a cup with a lipstick stain standing half full of coffee on the table near the door.

Sign up for my free teleseminar for more about writing three-dimensional character, including tips on how to show yourself as one of them and for some valuable tools you can use: Thursday, March 7, 4 pm PST / 7 pm EST. Go to If you can’t make the teleseminar Thursday be sure to sign up in advance so you can get the recording of it and listen to it anytime. My website also has lots of good info on writing, so be sure to stop by: