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June 22, 2016

Book Notes - Robin Black "Crash Course"

Crash Course: Essays From Where Writing and Life Collide

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Robin Black's essay collection Crash Course: Essays From Where Writing and Life Collide is an engaging and insightful book about craft and the writing life.

Celese Ng wrote of the book:

"In these essays, Robin Black is simultaneously a wise teacher, an encouraging mentor, and that friend who gives you the real dirt on what the writing life is like. Crash Course is an invaluable resource and reassurance for any writer."

In her own words, here is Robin Black's Book Notes music playlist for her essay collection Crash Course: Essays From Where Writing and Life Collide:

My book Crash Course: Essays From Where Writing and Life Collide is a hybrid, part memoir, part craft book, part some things that are neither, and then some things that are both. It's a book that grew out of my sense of life, daily life, as overlapping into my writing, not because I write (in fiction) about myself, but because so much of my own coming of age, at a somewhat advanced age, had to with finding the ability to write, with making the most of whatever impulses I had along those lines. And as I learned about craft, I perceived more and more ways that those concepts apply to "real" life, as well.

Louis Armstrong, "West End Blues"

There are a few strands that go through the book, topics addressed in several of the 43 short essays. My late father is one of those topics. My poor father whose emotional difficulties made him, inevitably, a difficult parent, if one who evoked a complex mix of anger and then also pity and then also, at times, adoration. It is impossible to think of my father and not soon think of Louis Armstrong's "West End Blues". It was played at the memorial for him, fifteen years or so ago. And it was playing, surely, in my heart, as I wrote about the daily torture he faced, waking up, slowly, painfully, after nightmare-filled nights. And it is there when I write about his insistence, so hurtful to me at the time, that only work that might be termed "genius" is worth doing— the rest, the stuff we are almost all doing all the time, just a little bit sad.

"A Hundred Years From Today" by Victor Young, Ned Washington and Joe Young, performed by me and my Dad

"West End Blues" was solely my father's song, and in fact we had songs that we shared. A part of my childhood, my teen years involved singing with my father, as we walked, or in his jeep, top down, driving through town. There were so many songs, but the one that I think captures what I wrote about is "A Hundred Years From Today." I can't reference the recorded version I have in mind, because it's our two voices I hear, all these decades later. What would have been my father's 100th birthday came and went while this book was still being written, and my mind was filled with thoughts of what it is we do leave behind, the traces of ourselves lingering in and around other people.

Anna Nalick, "Breathe (2 am)"

I write too about my daughter who has learning and social disabilities. And in those essays, I hear the song Anna Nalick's "Breathe(2 am)". Not every word of it is apropos, but there are a few in there that really hit me, every time. "No one can find the rewind button, girl." I suppose for many of us parents of kids with "stuff" there's always that fantasy - being able to rewind the tape and make it all go away, for our child. Also my daughter's coping mechanisms, her perspective, her courage, have taught me to calm down, she has helped me learn not to fly off in panics when little things go wrong. "Just breathe." It never fails to make me weep. But mostly, I admit, I hear it in my essays because it's a song I first heard while watching Grey's Anatomy with my girl – which, perhaps oddly, has been one of the most tender, most meaningful things we do together, though we surely do a lot.

The Counting Crows, "Catapult"

There's an essay in which I write about listening to a Counting Crows CD on an endless loop, while driving somewhere as a step in breaking through my agoraphobia. It was what we used to call a mix-tape back in the day – songs chosen by a friend of one of my kids. Those songs, especially "Catapult" which was first on the disc, will always evoke the Dewey Throughway for me, always evoke the trepidation I felt driving on a highway alone, leaving the safe prison of my home, where I had hidden, scared, for so long.

My Endless "Loop Songs":

Elvis Costello, "Veronica"
Pete Yorn, "Life On A Chain"
Soundgarden, "Black Hole Sun"
Adele, "I Found A Boy"

I write a lot in Crash Course about my ADD, and one way I can work while dealing with the odd attentional needs of my brain is to play endless loops of songs, until I don't hear the words anymore. Elvis Costello's Veronica – for its poignancy, its understanding of passing time, of age. Pete Yorn's Life On A Chain. "I was waiting over here for life to begin." That line has always hit me hard, because for so long I was doing just that. Soundgarten's Black Hole Sun, which I listen to to capture a certain bravery, I suppose, about facing life's harder truths. It drags me down, and drags the tough stuff out of me. And Adele's I Found A Boy – one of the songs that accompanied me through writing my novel, too. An anthem to ditching people who are bad for you. An anthem to telling toxic folks to piss off. And so, also, woven into the memoir portions of my book.
It's an odd collection, I admit, ranging from West End Blues to Black Hole Sun, but perhaps that's the point. The book is a hybrid, because life is as well. Or it's a collage. It's surely a puzzle composed of pieces that shouldn't fit together, but do. And so is Crash Course. And so is this playlist.

Robin Black and Crash Course: Essays From Where Writing and Life Collide links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

JMWW review
LitStack review
Work-In-Progress review

CarolineLeavittville interview with the author
Electric Literature interview with the author
Monkeybicycle essay by the author
RadioTimes interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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