Guitar Theory

For the last while, as I’ve carved out time to learn more guitar here and there (believe me, this is tough as it is), I’ve felt drawn to the need to learn more about theory. By theory, I mean musical theory specific to navigating guitar, which is quite concrete and not as “theoretical” as it may sound to anyone unaccustomed to the term. In other words, from a structural perspective, how might a guitarist understand the greater relationship between strings, frets, notes, chords and modes? The hope, not unlike consulting a grimoire, was that this might allow me a key to understanding music, structurally and compositionally, and that it might make my relationship with guitar easier.

The reality is that learning theory, for me at least, is a slog. My guitar teacher used to avoid getting into the weeds of teaching theory because he felt that it was too easy for the student to lose interest — and he’s not wrong! Not unlike mathematics, it’s dry, with rules that are seemingly arbitrary. And an entire lexicon (“Here’s a Lydian riff in F”) that, unless you are truly dedicated to learning, so easily leaks from your ears the minute you put your guitar down. And yet, while my teacher would say this in one breath it wouldn’t stop him from commenting on the arcane ways in which whatever song we were playing was structured. Why, I thought, are you dangling this thing in front of me while informing me that it was hard to teach? I thought “feel” was hard to teach.

And to make my frustration solidified, this year in particular I happened to have at least two people — both of them musicians and one of them a guitar instructor — upon hearing that I was studying theory, simply ask: why? They seemed sort of dumbfounded, to be honest. Why not, was the implication, just learn [song] and have a good time? Theory was useful if I was hoping to do arrangements, a friend told me, but otherwise wouldn’t have many practical applications for the average musician who simply wanted to play.

I took this to heart, and put my theory-driven interests aside. The book I’d bought and was woodsheding my way through, Lee Nichols’ Music Theory for Guitarists, was left untouched on my desk, as I sought to learn guitar from an organic perspective — that is, by figuring out songs on the fretboard and generally relying on my curiosity. But when I went back to a YouTube video spotlighting the work of blues guitarist Willie Johnson recently, specifically his work on the Howlin’ Wolf track Mr. Highway Man (which is honestly one of the best guitar solos ever), I was once again confronted with theory-talk. “If you can play the G9th chords and the G6th chords…”and I’m like SHUT UP! I DON’T KNOW WHAT THOSE EVEN ARE!

And here’s perhaps the crux of my frustration, where I feel ground down between those who casually attempt to explain/demonstrate what a musician is doing via theory (because, honestly, why not?) and those who downplay this approach in favour of, say, finding the tabs for whatever it is you’re trying to figure out and going from there. I think it’s also complicated by the fact that it’s easy (for some) to talk about a musician’s approach from a theory perspective, which ends up making it sound, from my perspective at least, as if everyone who has come before them (and me) MUST have known theory. Right? Willie Johnson OBVIOUSLY must’ve been a keen observer of music theory. As well as Link Wray. And Pat Hare. And hey, maybe they were. I don’t mean to suggest that they shouldn’t be afforded that benefit of the doubt, but I guess where I’m coming from is that it’s easy, after the fact, when someone is describing a musician’s playing through the lens of theory, to assume that the musician in question would’ve approached it the same way (theory-driven), as opposed to something more organic (“Hey, I like how this chord shape sounds when we’re playing an uptempo boogie.”).

Anyways, welcome to the way my brain works, and the crap I quietly wrestle with. I hope I’m not the only one who struggles with things like this.

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Retreat

I had the pleasure of spending a week as a guest (and sort of alumni) of The Pouch Cove Foundation, an artists’ retreat located in Pouch Cove, Newfoundland. While only about twenty minutes outside of St. John’s, it might as well be in the middle of nowhere, in the best possible way.

I went there to work on final changes to Book Three, and it was very productive. So much so that I’m hoping to hand off the book to my agent at the end of the month (fingers crossed). I was also happy to be sharing the retreat with a handful of visual artists who were preparing for a showing of their water-themed paintings in-progress. Writers and painters are different kinds of artists, insofar as painters come across as regular people when they’re not painting and writers tend to remain mumbly introverts when they’re not writing, not that we weren’t able to get together for the occasional beer and a chat in the evening. The good news is that we were all there to work and the setting was ideal for our tasks. And when we weren’t working, it was easy to step away and go on a hike along the East Coast Trail (in the course of one hike I spotted a pod of whales nearby and found myself tracked by a fox), or simply go down to the shore and admire the many gorgeous views.

Pouch Cove is one of the most beautiful places I’ve had the pleasure of visiting, and this marks a return for me after 20 years. Back then I was still working in film/TV but trying to get my act together as a budding author. A work colleague suggested I check out the retreat at Pouch Cove which, it turned out, her father operated. I was only able to get away for a long weekend at the time (because broke), but it was my first introduction to an artists’ retreat and I was able to develop some of the ideas that made it into my first novel, The Society of Experience.

James Baird, who runs the Pouch Cove Foundation, has been a tireless supporter of the arts community in Newfoundland for decades and is an extremely generous host to artists from all corners of the world. I’m very appreciative of his support and enthusiasm, and grateful to have had the opportunity to return.

It was hard to leave.

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Three Books

I asked for (and received) a couple of books for last Xmas: When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut, and The Rigor of Angels by William Egginton. The first is a wonderful collection (sometimes interwoven) about the weird and wonderful (but weird) world of of physicists, mathematicians and chemists as they flirt with madness trying to come to terms with things like the would-you-believe basics of quantum theory. The latter is about the intersection of three great minds — philosopher Immanuel Kant, physicist Werner Heisenberg, and author Jorge Luis Borges — and how their shared interests in the struggle to understand how it is that we can’t always comprehend certain aspects of the world — were informed. I should mention that I received a third book at Xmas, from my partner, who thought I would like a collection of short fiction and essays from…Jorge Luis Borges.

Let’s just say that it’s been an intense ride, twisting my mind not only around the paradoxical ideas that quantum theory suggests, but also some strong narration and themes that rise from well-drawn portraits, the intimate (and wonderfully weird) lives of otherwise brilliant people.

Those first two books, by Labatut and Egginton, are very well done and I highly recommend them, by the way.

Speaking of Borges, I am truly amazed sometimes at his ability to distill entire universes with such economy; some of his work left me flabbergasted and dizzy. Some of it can also be front-loaded with a lot of geographical or historical weight and so it’s not exactly “diving in” literature; it’s a little like going to the gym, to be honest. But boy, the rewards.

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Charmed, by Σtella

This came out a couple of years ago and it seems to be seeping into the playlists of places I frequent. It’s got a great vibe: atmospheric and haunting, yet sexy and dance-able.

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Interview: The First Thirty, courtesy of Junction Reads

This is super last-minute, and I apologize for the late notice, however tomorrow (!) I’m going to be interviewed live (!) on Instagram. Junction Reads is an established (since 2014) Toronto reading series that brings attention to so many great authors. I’m going to take part in Junction Reads’ cool offshoot, The First Thirty, which is designed around speaking with authors about — you guessed it — how the first thirty pages of their published work came about.

From their website:

Writers know, and readers too, the first pages are the most important in any novel, memoir or story. And I want to talk about it.

The First Thirty is an Instagram Live series where I will meet authors for a quick chat (30 minutes) to talk about writing, and how they shape those first pages to be a warm welcome to the reader; to include the hook that makes a reader want to keep reading, and to give us the characters we either want to love or really hate.

You can hear me talk about my latest novel, Radioland, tomorrow (Monday, May 27th) night @ 7pm EST on Instagram by tuning-in to @junctionreads!

UPDATE: You can watch the interview here. I’m really impressed with the depth of Alison’s questions and if this is the last bit of promotion I do for Radioland then I’m happy to have it be this.

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Goodbye April

I haven’t had the opportunity to post here, however I hadn’t realized that it was over a month since posting something substantial. I wouldn’t say that there’s anything different going on in my life, so much as that, upon reflection, perhaps I’m spending a bit more time seeking comfort where I need it.

I got back into a martial art that I started before the pandemic, called baguazhang, or simply bagua (pron. bahg-wah). It’s a little idiosyncratic compared to more mainstream forms like karate, taekwondo or BJJ. I’d say it’s somewhere between what we in the West call “kung fu” (external) and tai chi (internal). Let’s just say there’s a lot of walking in circles. That said, I needed something that allowed me to move/train my body in a way that was different than going to the gym or distance running, which can feel static. Bagua is anything but static. Also, crucially, the very place that teaches it is literally across the street from my office in Chinatown. It centres me and its choreography is demanding enough without the more wild kung fu-style kicks etc. It’s also nice to do this with other people — something I was also sorely needing (ie a form of socializing that wasn’t chatting with someone at a pub)

I also started Book Four (I know, I know), which is coming along. I can’t really say much about it because it’s very early, however I’m liking its shape. What’s funny is that my previous long-form entry here was about not wanting to be stuck with Author/Psychotherapist in publicity material…and yet the protagonist of Book Four is exactly that. It’s also nice working on a book where the protagonist is a woman. Radioland had two protagonists — male and female — and The Society of Experience had an intermittent female narrative in the form of Seneca’s diaries, however I’m looking forward to keeping things female this time around. Book Three is in revision-mode now, for the last round I think.

I’m trying to keep myself informed of what’s going on in the world, but the world is too big and there’s too much. I think the curse of social media is that there are so many perspectives on so many things that it can be paralyzing to even log-in some days, so currently I’m not. I’m very thankful that I re-subscribed to the London Review of Books this past summer because their coverage of what’s happening in Gaza is extensive and authoritative, without the self-censorship or bad faith arguments that have poisoned coverage of this conflict in much of the mainstream media. I’m not a prolific magazine subscriber, however I can’t help but think of how lucky I felt when I happened to subscribe to Harper’s just prior to the towers falling on 9/11, the drums beating towards a disastrous war. Reading informed, well-written arguments isn’t going to stop the worst of humanity from manifesting, but at least I can form my opinion from a source that isn’t compromised by a fear of spooking advertisers or an editor casting a dark shadow over someone’s shoulder.

Yes, and reading. Lots of reading. Let’s see…Labyrinths (a collection of Jorge Luis Borges stories and essays), Benjamín Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World (which is fabulous), The Rigor of Angels by William Egginton and Audit Culture: How Indicators and Rankings are Reshaping the World by Cris Shore and Susan Wright.

I hope this finds you well.

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Psycho: Marion & Sam, by The Lord


So, yeah, typing in that title felt a little awkward, so let me unpack this. The artist in question (The Lord) is Greg Anderson, who’s better known for his monstrous doom metal outfit sunn O))). This is a solo project that takes inspiration from the works of film composer Bernard Herrmann. You might not be familiar with sunn 0))), but you’ve probably heard Herrmann’s scores for Taxi Driver, North by Northwest and Citizen Kane. Thus the title of the album “Worship,” as Anderson takes inspiration from Herrmann’s work. The piece I’ve shared is from a theme taken from the soundtrack to Psycho.

Not for all ears, yes, but I love the intensity of it!

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What You Do vs What You Write

I had the occasion to be asked to do an interview with a Canadian podcaster recently, which I agreed to without hesitation. Firstly, their independently-produced program seemed perfectly legit, and secondly (more pragmatically) there are so many authors chasing interviews and fewer and fewer venues to provide exposure that — all combined — the decision was a no-brainer. That said, the week leading up to the interview my partner asked what I was going to be interviewed about. I had just assumed I’d been chosen based on my being a published author of two novels (etc), however she raised a good question: was it going to centre on my day job?

A backgrounder…

When I was preparing for the publication of Radioland in 2022 I felt more comfortable, perhaps because the book’s characters expressed behaviours of those who are traumatized, making mention of my day job in the lead-up promotional material. My day job, for those who don’t know, is as a Registered Psychotherapist in private practice. It didn’t seem to hurt to make mention of this, insofar as, personally and professionally, I was writing from a place of understanding. So, when the interview requests began to roll in — and believe me, as an author with an indie publisher, I’m grateful for every opportunity I get — I began to notice that, within the interest of Radioland and myself as its author, there was inevitably a tie-in question about my being a psychotherapist.

Some of the interest in my day job was matter-of-fact; there are few writers out there (who are not independently wealthy) who can get by doing this full-time. I had no issues with the professional curiosity. But, overall, a feeling began to grow that — in the way the questions were phrased — my existence as an author and the responsibilities of my day job seemed to be artificially stitched together. A particularly egregious suggestion — one I’ve had to field privately before, even from other writers in casual conversation — was whether I was ever tempted to use my clients’ material for my fiction. I’ve been able to handle this respectfully before, but I find this question offensive. First off, would they ask a lawyer or doctor this question? Well…some people still would, actually. However, most discouragingly, was the idea that I would wholesale take confidential client material and use it for my own creative purposes. Needless to say, this would be not only unethical but illegal.

I’ve been able to handle this respectfully before […] but I find this question offensive. First off, would they ask a lawyer or doctor this question? Well…some people still would, actually. However, most discouragingly, was the idea that I would wholesale take confidential client material and use it for my own creative purposes.

But there’s a more pernicious concern that developed in the way in which my day job was mentioned in the same breath as my work as an author. In the back of my head was this fear that my book was being portrayed as Good For You (because it’s written by a psychotherapist, right?), that it would thus contain Life Lessons based on Wellness Knowledge. In other words, that it was didactic and prescriptive. Radioland, in both form and intent, couldn’t be further from this, and the steady conflation I experienced between what I did for a living and what I wrote bothered the hell out of me as a result. I also didn’t want to be ghettoized, as some can be, where their non-medically-oriented books are quickly forgotten about.

I realize I bear some naive responsibility for providing this information initially, and yet I feel like it can’t be overstated: I am not my job. I am not my fiction. Of course there’s going to be a whole lot of Venn shared by my interests, my work and my writing output — I would probably be an anomaly if that wasn’t the case. But here’s the important part: what I write is not the product of a psychotherapist so much as that my choice to change careers 12+ years ago was the product of the same person who’s been writing since he was a kid. What I won’t allow myself to be is pigeon-holed, and so, coming back to the podcast interview I had scheduled, I prepared a brief statement which I planned to make if I felt that the same conflation was about to occur. To my relief, the interviewer focused almost solely on my writing with only a brief acknowledgement of my day job, with no attempt to draw the two together (note: I haven’t listened to the final, edited interview yet, which won’t be available for a few weeks). There is always hope.

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An Excerpt on Populism and Protest

From James Butler’s excellent A Circular Motion (London Review of Books, Feb 8 ’24). Here he references Vincent Bevin’s book If We Burn which asks why the monumental protests of the decade following the 2008 financial crisis bore so few dividends:

“Populism has various paradoxes. Why does it so often produce a politics of personality? Why do the masses so often turn out to be Potemkin armies? If anti-corruption is such an important rallying principle, why do populist movements often elect crooks, and its politicians abandon their principles when in office? […] The lessons [of] defeated [Occupy Wall Street and similar-minded] protesters bear repeating: plan for the day after; progress isn’t inevitable, and a better world doesn’t automatically emerge from protest; hierarchy isn’t an enemy; if you reject representation, someone else will represent you; cultural visibility and political power are separate things; power rushes to fill a void.”

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First Drafts

When I wrote my first novel — not the published one, but the one that came before that — owing to the fact that this was literally my first time tackling such a thing, I adopted a rather brutal style of writing the first draft. Like I said, I didn’t really know what I was doing, nor did I understand how difficult I was making things for myself in writing in the way I did.

My style, if it could be called that, was edit-as-you-go. Doesn’t sound that bad, right? And, to be honest, there are many writers out there who take this approach. I say this because I would be wrong if I said that this was a “bad” way to go about things. However, what it did was front-load a lot of analysis during a part of the work that really (really) should’ve been purely creative, in the playing-in-the-sandbox sense of the word. Editing as you write requires a writer to switch between two hats within the same writing session, which is (among other things) strenuous.

That book, it should be known, no longer exists in any form except for some files I have backed up. It simply wasn’t worth the amount of work that I realized, as I began to take submitting it to publishers/agents seriously, it would need. Like, a lot of work. And I’d just spent a number of years already on it, and its imperfections (and various forms of writerly immaturity) became harder and harder to ignore. So, into the figurative fireplace it went. A few years back my sister-in-law sent me a photo of the manuscript I’d sent her to read, asking if I wanted it (they were moving house and had to ditch things). I told her to burn it.

From the point where I started what ended up being The Society of Experience (originally titled The Improv Class), I chose a much more practical style of getting the first draft down, and that was simply getting it down. Didn’t need to be perfect. Didn’t need to necessarily match whatever chapters came before or after stylistically. The rule of a first draft, as I saw it, and mostly continue to see it, is to get it on paper (or on a laptop) as quickly and painlessly as possible. Then, and really only then, though there are points in the process where this might have to come sooner, will I get the editor’s hat out.

Revising is drudgery. I was at a retreat a few years ago, and was asked by a couple of painters what I was up to process-wise. I attempted to describe what revising was, and inquired what a painter’s version of this might be. They looked at each other and back at me and said: “Backgrounds.” That said, the important thing is that revising is where the magic really happens. The first draft is really just a proof of concept. It could be solid. It could be 70% of the way “there” (wherever “there” is), but it’s just not done yet until you revise. And revise. And revise.

The only problem I encounter with this style of writing is that the prose in my first drafts can end up being very (very) compressed — in the process of getting everything down I will often elect to not elaborate or flesh things out unnecessarily, feeling that this can be done on the next pass. I sometimes describe my first draft style as being “dehydrated prose,” as in “add water and it will expand.” Sounds good, but sometimes I’ll read something I quickly jotted down, and I’ll end up sitting there and asking myself what exactly it was that I was thinking about when I wrote it — sometimes the subtext gets lost when you’re writing in a fast and compressed style, especially when I’m coming back to it weeks later.

I must regretfully admit I notice this a lot with this blog. I don’t have a lot of time to blog, so my style here tends to be of that compressed first draft style, which can lead to comprehension issues in retrospect. I’ve had several incidents where I’ll go back the next day and read something I’ve posted and freak out, namely because what’s there isn’t really clear. Or worse, it’s open to misinterpretation (especially if I’m getting more explicitly political, where I need to add lots of context for rather forward opinions), which can be embarrassing. I once submitted a short story to a publisher, and when I went back and looked at it I went pale it was in sooo much need of revision. Lesson learned.

Writing is work, which is fine because I like writing. I’m good at it. But, creativity aside, it’s also a skill which requires a necessary amount of tradecraft in the process of making your workflow, well, work for you.

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