Take Note

by Robin Russell Gaiser

Musician-author. Or is it author-musician? I was, of course, a musician first since I could not yet scribble a word and I'm told I could match vocal tones at seven months old. But the latter information came from my mother, herself a musician wanting more than life for me to follow in her musical footsteps. I leave it up to you to decipher the truth. No doubt, I am a singer and a multi-instrumentalist with a width of musical experiences ranging from opera to old timey music, singing the Bach B minor on the vast Kennedy Center Concert Hall stage or performing “My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains” on the wooden platform stage at Colvin Run Mill in Great Falls, Virginia, with the Mill Run Dulcimer Band.

My mother's intention for me to follow in her footsteps did not materialize in the way she planned. She was a classically trained musician in piano and voice. I often called her “paper-trained,” since she required the written scores in front of her, her road map. ( I don't think she got the joke.) I took the musical road-less-traveled and although I enjoyed traditional music lessons, my gifts lay in playing by ear, improvising, composing and arranging. Sheet music was more a suggestion than a map. I memorized easily and left the pages behind. My mother held ideas that I was not a “real musician” until my CDs decorated her coffee table.

Where does author enter? My eager young self wrote stories and poems in grade school. I entered every writing contest and usually won prizes like a free ice cream cone, a book, or a $25 War Bond. And my works were published in the community newspaper. Even then seeing my byline in print was a thrill.

As an English literature major at William and Mary, my love of music seeped through the ivy-covered walls. I not only played, sang, and composed in a folk rock group, but I also wrote papers that intertwined with music. In Shakespeare 202, I likened the characters, their voices, their interactions in Midsummer Night’s Dream to the form and presentation of an Elizabethan madrigal. I recall Puck being the counter-tenor dancing above the other voices. In a paper for Poetry 301, I demonstrated that the newly released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album by the Beatles not only fit the form, but also carried out the arc and themes of an epic poem. Creative writing was not taught at William and Mary, but I took the leap and was happily rewarded for my efforts. As president of the College’s Women’s Honorary Literary Sorority I continued to write poetry, which was published in several literature reviews during my undergrad years.

Fast forward through teaching high school English, marriage, family, and a second career in high school guidance counseling where my job was to write letters of recommendation for my students’ college applications. While other counselors slaved over multiple pages, I delighted in composing short, one-page letters, choosing just the right descriptors to get my points across. Writing those letters re-awakened my sleeping creative writing urge.

While music continued to weave its glittering thread, often calming my wild imaginative sleeplessness, it often provided a first line of a story or a poem. I kept notebook and pen nearby so I could immediately scratch out emerging stories—the first ones about my grandfather, my father, and our extended family. The safety of third person omniscient point of view kept me out of myself and away from the forbidden use of the pronoun “I,” as instructed by my college professors. Writing was about others’ stories, I thought.

An MFA student-friend read one of these pieces and suggested I read Bird by Bird. Anne Lamott’s words became sacred text. She gave me permission to write, really write, and use “I” doing so. I heard a new voice, a new rhythm. I re-read Bird by Bird annually, my pilgrimage to the site of my nonfiction baptism. I must admit I felt like a bad girl at first, writing through my own eyes, using the first person. Would there be red marks on my papers?

At the same time, my father, who was ill and dying, and a music lover himself, responded profoundly to music that I offered when I sang and played for him in the hospital. I was primed for I discovered NEST: a program for training bedside musicians to play music to the critically and chronically ill, elderly and dying. I applied and was accepted and after two and a half years became a Certified Music Practitioner (CMP). My experiences with patients, usually at their most vulnerable, often near the ends of their lives, deeply moved me. After sharing one of my patient encounters with a friend, she said, "You ought to write about that."

And so, with a move to Asheville with my patients’ stories held tightly in my memory, and more entering my experience as I continued to offer bedside music, I started to write short vignettes, one per patient. The details came easily; my presence in those hushed moments provided rich sensory details that fed amazing narratives. I continued to churn out more music and patient stories and then put them together in what might have been called a novella. The music and the memories continued to guide my pen into that state of ecstasy we writers yearn for.

A neighbor encouraged me to read my story collection to a writing group at Barnes & Noble. I was advised to expand each vignette into a chapter and turn it all into a book. A book? I signed up for Christine Hale’s Great Smokies Writing Program memoir class. For the first time I heard the words creative nonfiction. Chris and the class wanted more detail, more truth, more of me in the pieces I submitted. (I was raised to keep those kinds of details to myself and I fussed about whether I could share them.) I literally shook all over as I dared to include the sights, the smells, the touches, the unsavory details of my life in the pages I re-submitted. I admit I still tremble when I’m way down in there, writing from the well. But these days the shaking is a good sign that I’m telling my truth.

I took a chance and submitted a new, experimental story called “Yellow” to the first Grateful Steps short story contest and was named a finalist and published. I signed up for Brian Lee Knopp’s creative nonfiction class, also offered by the Great Smokies program, and continued to hone my skills, to learn from his straight talk, and write my heart out, as he encouraged. Brian suggested I apply to Tommy Hays’ advanced prose class and I tried to ignore my “I’m not good enough” nerves as I sent off my writing sample. Tommy invited me in and I committed to write my book, once again being pressed by the class and Tommy for more details, more sensory details, and more personal information.

And so Musical Morphine: Transforming Pain One Note at a Time, a memoir about my work as a Certified Music Practitioner, was born after three semesters and a summer. Tommy directed me to Julie Abbott (The Great Smokies Review Submissions Editor) for professional editing, knowing that her expertise and her approach would match my style. After three full edits and careful application of Heather Newton’s GSWP Saturday class, “Legal Issues for Writers,” I was ready to submit.

I think writing my query letter took longer than writing an entire book chapter. I shakily pushed the “send” button to Beacon Press, which promised to get back to me in three weeks. Despite follow-up inquiries over several weeks, I never heard a word from them.

On a rainy early December Saturday, rather discouraged, I forced myself to drive downtown to the Asheville Independent Publishers Book Fair at the Haywood Hotel. As I wandered among the various publishers’ tables I stopped at Pisgah Press, drawn there by the intriguing, attractive book covers. I guess I gave what’s called an “elevator pitch” to a man standing behind the booth. He turned out to be the editor and publisher at Pisgah, and just like that he asked me to send him three chapters of my book after Christmas; we exchanged business cards and he hastily returned to hawking books.

At another booth, Talking Book showed interest in recording my book, a perfect marriage of the written word alongside the actual music to the lyrics and titles I wove throughout my manuscript. I left the Book Fair high on possibilities.

After sending more chapters to Pisgah Press and learning of the acceptance of my book for publication, after more edits and suggestions to enhance Musical Morphine, it went to press. Meanwhile, Talking Book voice-tested me twice and chose me as the reader of my own book at Echo Mountain Studios over four, five-hour recording sessions, resulting in an audio book as a CD and downloadable file posted on ITunes, Spotify and Audible. Pisgah also formatted my book into an Ebook.

Once Musical Morphine was published, I was invited to give three radio interviews (with reading and live music). I then went “on the road” with the book presenting, reading, and playing music to a number of audiences. In the fall of 2017, I was stunned to learn that Musical Morphine was named a finalist in the American Book Fest’s ”Best Book Awards for 2017” in the Health-Alternative Medicine category.

Last spring a person who read Musical Morphine asked if I would be interested in presenting a TEDx Talk. Through an intense preparation process over several months, I wrote and re-wrote my script to fit into the eighteen minutes allotted for each talk. With my assigned coach and after a series of critiques, my fully memorized presentation (with music) was accepted, presented and filmed in front of a live audience at UNCA on March 3, 2018.

My author-musician status lives on in my new book, Open for Lunch, a memoir, due out with Pisgah in fall 2018. The stories from the strangers I have randomly asked to eat lunch with me over the years when I am out dining alone, surprised me when they began informing me about my own story. Stories of music march across the lunch tables into the manuscript either directly or tangentially. When Open for Lunch is completed, most of it will have been critiqued over four semesters in Elizabeth Lutyens’ GSWP prose master class.

Rather than shaking with fear about being critiqued, writing emotions, telling the truth, reading in front of a group of writers, and mustering the gory details, I now welcome the input of classmates, professors, Beta readers, and editors. Bring it on, as far as I‘m concerned. Already I’m thinking ahead to my next project, a book of poetry chosen from the hundreds of poems I’ve written over my lifetime (I’ll spare readers the ones from grade school). I hear themes emerging, I sense rhythms and internal rhymes, as I read the oldest to the newest poems in my notebooks and on the scraps of paper I grab when I “feel a poem coming on.” (Who said that?)

I took Tina Barr’s GSWP poetry class two years ago while Musical Morphine was being finalized, designed, and formatted. My poem “Kalanchoe,” from that class, jumped out as the book’s Epilogue. I’ll be taking a poetry class again soon, and probably more prose classes in the future. Music will continue to fill me, inspire me, inform my words, and my pen.

Robin Russell Gaiser, MA, CMP, holds degrees in English literature and psychology and a certificate in therapeutic music. She has performed professionally with numerous groups and recorded more than a dozen CDs. As a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist she provides live, acoustic music at the bedsides of critically and chronically ill, elderly, and dying persons in hospices, nursing homes, hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and private homes. As an author, she has published numerous short stories and a book, Musical Morphine: Transforming Pain One Note at a Time (Pisgah Press: 2016), and was a finalist in the Best American Book Awards for 2017. She has presented a TEDx Talk through University of North Carolina-Asheville, titled “Good Vibrations: Less Drugs, More Music,” available on You Tube. Her second book, Open For Lunch, will be released in the fall of 2018 with Pisgah Press.