Diana Renn

Mysteries that Matter


How do writers keep writing amidst the many distractions of the holiday season? I admit, it’s tough. Especially when your mom is visiting from the West Coast, and your child’s school vacation days hit, which means more creative desk time scheduling. But over the past week, I gave in. I actually crawled out of my writing cave to join the merry makers. I drank some egg nog, strung Christmas lights on two shrubs, saw the Rockettes Christmas Spectacular, sang non-denominational seasonal carols at the Solstice Assembly at my son’s school (seriously), set up a Christmas tree, decorated for Hanukkah, and participated in several other seasonal festivities.

Here are two highlights:

I took my mom and little guy to a wonderful exhibit at the Concord Museum here in Massachusetts. Concord — home of literary luminaries Emerson, Alcott, and Thoreau — has a strong literary tradition, which is honored every December in their stellar Family Trees exhibit. Thirty-six Christmas trees are displayed throughout the museum, each decorated by a professional artist, and they all honor children’s books, picking up on images from the book’s illustrations or storylines. Every tree focuses on a particular book. This year, my favorites included a Pippi Longstocking tree with red yarn hair braided throughout, a Polar Express tree with a streamlined train spiraling down on a track, and a Hundred Dresses tree that actually wore a dress (pictured on the right). The trees are placed throughout the old building, amidst historical artifacts, and often integrated into the exhibits themselves. The Little Women tree was in an recreated 19th-century bedroom, for example, and the Polar Express tree made a strikingly modern contrast to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s study. Place by each tree is a tiny antique chair and a copy of the corresponding book. My mom and I had a wonderful time letting my son choose what trees to sit by and we read about eight picture books during our visit.

The other big event for me this month was my taiko drumming performance. The group I study taiko drumming with stages a Winter Extravaganza every December. It’s fun to hear what other classes have been working on all semester, and to share our love of this art form (a combination of martial arts, music, dance, and vocalization) with fellow drummers as well as people who’ve never experienced it before. I survived the song my class played — it was a difficult one — and we had amazing solo artists perform with us. That was a new challenge for me, keeping a beat going while soloists did their own thing. It’s a lot harder than it looks! I’ll post a video once it’s available.

TOKYO HEIST also made an appearance at the taiko show too — on the silent auction table! I donated one galley copy to see if it might help raise some money for our organization. I was thrilled to see people actually leafing through the book and bidding on it, and the pre-published copy went to a classmate of mine. It was also fun — and kind of surreal — to see the book on the table next to things like an autographed Red Sox baseball, an art museum membership, theatre tickets, and Japanese art objects!

Despite some lost work days, I’m glad I fought my usual winter impulse to be a hermit. After logging a lot of computer hours this year, it’s been good to get out in the world, to experience other forms of art, and to reconnect with family and friends. I’ve fed my imagination in various ways — for zero calories!

What are your highlights of the holidays so far? What’s fed your imagination and your soul?

For many years, I had no hobbies. Not a one. I pursued work, grad school, and, above all, writing, with gritty determination, leaving little time for anything else. I lived on little sleep, piled on the freelance work, and was generally unpleasant to be around. Around 30, I realized my life was way out of balance. I started carving out time for hobbies and recreation. Took up yoga. Tried knitting. (Which was hopeless — sorry, Mom). Went back to ballet for a bit. Took up long distance bicycling with my husband and even did a couple of 200-mile charity fundraiser rides.

I’ve always been so stingy with my writing time, but I’ve come to find that devoting even two hours a week to something else, something that does not involve staring at a computer screen, is a wise investment. It gives me more stamina for sitting at a desk. I also encounter people who are not in my usual orbit. And when I leave my daily routine to become totally immersed in something else, my brain shakes loose new ideas.

A year ago, I found a new activity that made my heart soar: taiko drumming. A combination of martial arts, dance, voice, and percussion — with a little Japanese language thrown in — taiko is like taking five classes in one. It’s also strangely addictive.

I attend the class at great inconvenience. The class meets on my husband’s one late night at work. I have to arrange a complex trapeze act with a babysitter to cover the lag time, which also means added expense. I am frequently late or must miss classes due to competing demands on the home front. Yet I’ve kept at it, with the following thought process: “I just want to be strong enough to drum for twenty minutes straight. Then I’ll be happy.” Then it was: “I just want to learn the song Kokyo. Then I’ll be happy.” Then: “I just want to play in the winter concert. Then I’ll bow out.” Then: “I just want to learn this really cool, complex song, Hiryu Sandan Geishi. THEN, I swear, I’ll hang up my bachi — my drumsticks — and retire, because this Tuesday night thing is a HUGE PAIN.”

No can do. I just performed Hiryu Sandan Geishi with my class, in my second show, “Spring Thunder,” and I’m still giddy over the fact that I successfully did this, despite missing some classes this winter and catching endless illnesses from my preschooler. And good news: the instructor said I can move up to a more advanced class this summer. This new schedule will solve my babysitting problems. But I’m also thrilled to move up because I watch the Styles class with awe, marveling at all they can do: the tricks and tosses with their bachi, their stamina, their energy. That little voice in me is still whispering. “I just want to take one session of the Styles class. Then I’ll be happy!” Yeah, right.

Here are a few pictures from the Spring Thunder performance. (I’m on the right, front row).

I think one big reason taiko works for me is that it’s an area of my life where I can see progress. If I show up, if I practice, if I commit to it, I get better. I’m sure this mentality translates to my writing too, but with drumming it’s so tangible. If you miss a note, it’s obvious. When you hit the drum right, it sings.

Also, I get to pretend I’m a real musician. Even better, I get to hang out with some truly amazing musicians, like the members of Odaiko New England, pictured below as they break in a brand new odaiko (drum):

If you’re in the Boston area, Odaiko New England can be seen performing next at a benefit concert with two other local taiko groups on Saturday, June 4. The event, Artists for Japan, will support the Japanese Disaster Relief Fund and Japan Animal Rescue and Support. I’ll be out of town, but drumming along with them in spirit! (Saturday, June 4, 2:30-5:30, Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church, 1555 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge).

In a quiet, working-class town outside of Boston, behind a bowling alley and an electricians’ school, next to a Brazilian church, inside a nondescript building housing a Chinese cultural center, I’ve discovered a wonderful little slice of Japan. It’s a dojo, a practice space for a taiko drumming group, and it’s my escape hatch on Tuesdays.

This week I started my third semester of classes  with Odaiko New England. I figure I must be hooked, as I drove out to this place in the sleet, over icy roads, with a head cold and a pounding headache. Nothing like the sound of 25 drummers to ease a pounding headache, right? And yet as I got out of my car, joining fellow drummers wielding bachi (long wooden sticks), my symptoms miraculously dissipated. Taiko on Tuesdays always hits my reset button.

Here’s a quick overview, since most people, when I talk taiko, stare at me blankly. In Japanese, taiko means “drum.” Most of the drums we use are tall and wide, but there actually several different types of drums, drum stands, and drumming positions. The type of drumming I’m learning with Odaiko New England is called kumi-daiko, or ensemble drumming. It is at once musical, artistic, and athletic, combining fluid movements with vigorous rhythms. Borrowing from martial arts as well, drummers cultivate a community spirit and give each other energy (ki) through the practice of kiai (vocal energy, or shouting, while playing). They also try to give energy by making eye contact. And, on occasion, smiling at each other. Which is actually really hard to do if you’re trying to remember the phrase of a song, or learn a complicated rhythm, and not take off anyone’s head with a drumstick.

The noise and the interaction with others couldn’t be more different from the writing life. I think that’s largely why I’ve come to love it. The contrast feels necessary. I’m not alone in this, I suspect, since I’ve met other fiction writers through drumming. (And quite a lot of computer programmers. I think this is an intriguing topic for another post someday!)

But I also find discipline and routine in taiko. Predictability mixed with bursts of improvisation. In this sense, it couldn’t be more similar to the writing life. At the beginning of taiko, we bow before entering the dojo. We sit in a circle and greet one another in Japanese. We bow again. We warm up in a predictable manner, gradually building our energy and focus. I don’t do the same rituals when I enter my home office and sit at my computer, but taiko has helped me cultivate a sense of discipline and focus that I try to apply to my days at the desk. I view my office as a dojo, a practice space. I work to clear my head before entering, to warm up before hitting the novel-in-progress, and to minimize visual distractions. I’m not always successful, but taiko prompts me to try.

As I left my car the other night and hurried across the ice to the dojo, already drawn to the vibrations of early drummers warming up, I realized one more thing I love about taiko — especially doing taiko in the suburbs. It cultivates my inner rebel. I love that on a cold winter night, when a lot of us should be home with our families, or watching TV or tidying up the kitchen, we’re in a dojo drumming our hearts out. I love that in this quirky location, people might pass us as they head out to restaurants or bars, or to the bowling alley or the electricians’ school, and wonder what the hell is going on in there. As a YA writer, it’s important to get in touch with that inner rebel now and then, to relight that fire, even for two hours. It can’t be a coincidence that Wednesday mornings are my most productive writing times. The thunder is still in my ears.

Here are some pictures of my class performing at the 2010 Odaiko New England Winter Extravaganza. I’m in the front row, just to the right of the dark drum in the center. (Faces are blurry — you’ll have to take my word for it!)

And if you’ve followed me this far, here are videos for two pieces from the 2010 Winter Extravaganza. My beginner class is the first video; a more advanced class can be seen in the second.

What physical activities or hobbies fuel your writing life?

Beginning a blog, something I’ve intended to do for years, now feels like arriving late at a party. Everyone’s already engaged in fascinating conversations, working the room, and I’m hovering by the cheese dip, clutching my plastic wine glass with both hands, wondering whether to stay or to bolt. Everyone seems to have fancier party clothes — custom-designed templates, frilly CSS, lush backgrounds dripping with multimedia accessories, while I’m wearing stuff from TJ Maxx — the sale rack at TJ Maxx.

Entering the blogosphere in late 2010 can also feel daunting simply because all the best blog names are already taken. I had about ten excellent titles in mind, but when I saw the table with the good name tags here, they were gone.

But there, in the corner of the table — there’s an untaken title. Writing the Distance. As someone who loves to travel and to write about travel, it feels appropriate. I also try to “go the distance” in my writing, to cross the finish lines I envision for myself and accomplish my writing goals. My biggest finish line lately, a bright yellow line not too far off in the distance, is the publication of my novel, a life dream of mine. I hope you’ll come along for the ride on my journey to publication in 2012. But I have smaller finish lines I race toward as well, every day. Some days it’s completing a chapter on my new novel. Or a scene. A paragraph. A page. Or it’s submitting an essay to a magazine and getting shorter material in circulation again. The point is, I decided a while ago to be a writer who gets things done, rather than just talking about writing or lamenting my limited time. It’s a choice I have to make daily, as so many other things clamor for attention. I hope this blog will attract other writers — and artists in other media — so that we can share tips and motivate each other along the way.

On this blog, I’ll be writing about books that have inspired me or that have fueled my creative process. I’ll also be interviewing and profiling writers and artists in different media, as I believe writers can learn a great deal from people who aren’t primarily wordsmiths. There will be a bit of travel writing; stay tuned for dispatches from Norway in Summer 2011. And there will be some blogging about taiko drumming, a newfound passion of mine. (Don’t know what taiko is? Come back. I’ll explain it). Now and then I’ll throw out some writing prompts or some questions, and I hope readers will feel comfortable sharing their responses and coming into a conversation. (OK, I used to teach, and I guess the urge to motivate class participation never really goes away!)

I’ve added links here to pages and blogs that I find useful and/or inspiring. I’ll be adding more to these lists and updating them as I go, though will try to keep them to a manageable size. I don’t know about you, but I tend to feel overwhelmed by long lists of links — and by the amount of information on some web sites in general — and I hope to minimize the need to scroll endlessly up and down. (Besides, that endless scrolling, and diving into other websites, ultimately takes us away from our own work, right?)

So thanks for keeping me company over here at the cheese dip. I think we can move on to crackers and crudites and make our way into this party. And your name is . . . ?