How James Brown’s Music Taught Me That Creativity Is Work

Photo credit: Lam Nguyen

Sergio Lopez is an author, columnist, and historian. His work has been published in Teen Vogue, America, Geez, and Hanif Abdurraqib’s 68to05. He graduated Yale University and currently attends Duke Divinity School, and he proudly serves his hometown as City Councilmember. Read more of his creative work here or follow him on Twitter @LopezForCA.

Whenever I need some inspiration to get to writing, I look to music. So I was thrilled when I spotted a new James Brown record I’d never seen before, 1966’s Handful of Soul. Its bright red cover, featuring a grinning James Brown, was held together by yellowed Scotch tape; a name scrawled in one corner in ballpoint pen attested to the fact that this record had been loved. I got home, took the record out of its sleeve, placed it on my turntable, and dropped the needle. The horns proudly announced the arrival of Brown’s band, guitar and bass locked together to lay down the groove, and flawless drumming formed the foundation. Then I waited for Brown’s distinctive voice—and kept waiting, all through the first side of the record. Grabbing the cover, I finally read the fine print on the back: “Handful of Soul, featuring James Brown—on the organ.”

I felt, personally, like I’d overpaid just a bit for the record, considering he wasn’t even featured as a vocalist—but curious about the unusual find, I started doing more research on Brown, his life, and his work ethic.

James Brown rose up from working in the fields of Georgia in the hot summer sun. Where he came from, what you did was work—something Brown and his childhood friends never forgot. While music was his craft, it was also his job—and he took that work seriously, putting out over the course of his career fifteen live records, fifty-nine studio albums, and one hundred and forty-four singles. He took the same approach to his live shows, telling members of his band, “if you’re performing for ten people or 10,000, you perform the same way. You don’t slack off, ever.” Marketing materials in the mid-60s began billing him as “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.” That discipline helps account for his rise to the pinnacle of his craft—because sometimes there’s no better practice than simply working.

Reading about Brown, I wondered what it would look like to rethink my own relationship towards work and my creative practice. I had grown up dreaming about what it might look like to be a writer, and in the years since I had read plenty of pragmatic tips and advice before from other writers—to always write at a particular time, or to reframe expectations to just get some words down on paper each day. But I was less interested now in these practical aspects of creating than in thinking about the spiritual dimension behind work—the ways in which work can confer dignity and purpose to those who participate in it. The concept, for me, also implied a relationship—the idea that work was ultimately meant to be produced and consumed by an audience, at which point it was no longer solely the property of the artist.

The Handful of Soul record, I learned, was actually a bit of a side hustle for Brown. Starting in 1964, the Godfather of Soul had been involved in a legal dispute with his longtime label, King Records. Since his contract banned him from performing as a vocalist on another label, Brown immediately turned to a smaller label, Smash Records, to release a series of instrumental albums of mostly cover songs of hits, giving him a stream of income while he dealt with his legal issues. These instrumental records—I soon had to have more—have the feeling of a production line; Brown’s band was unmatched in the business, but these records consist mostly of covers rather than James Brown originals, and they were turned out at a rapid pace, with four releases in 1966 alone. James Brown and his band the Famous Flames, I thought, could probably record these albums in their sleep. 

But as I listened more closely, I found an important lesson that lay hidden in the vinyl grooves: the immense skill and experience that went into each track on the album. On each and every record he put out, Brown set the highest of standards for himself and his band, practicing each part ruthlessly and relentlessly, locking in those rhythms and grooves until nothing else could get through, nothing but his signature sound, with all the precision of and power of a locomotive. 

While this could easily have been a fallow creative period for James Brown, in some ways it ended up being one of the most important for his artistic development. That’s because, although few of these cover instrumentals will make anyone’s list of top ten James Brown recordings, they were essential to his development of funk—perhaps his greatest musical impact. In 1966, when Handful of Soul came out, James Brown had gotten funky, but he was still a couple of years from truly laying down the funk—the tightly woven blend of guitar, bass, and drums he invented and for which he has forever earned a place in the pantheon of true originals, one of the most creative and singular artists America has produced, influencing everyone from 1970s funk groups to rap and hip-hop artists who took those sounds as the foundation for countless freestyles. That history traces its way back to these instrumental cover records, where, if you listen closely enough, you can hear James Brown on these instrumentals developing new creative ideas, drawing out a beat or a groove for as long as possible, stretching the sound to its limits—working out the beginnings of what would become his signature sound, and one of the defining sounds of the 1970s. The realization demonstrated for me how no work is wholly without value or purpose, as it’s often precisely when we quit overthinking and simply create that we are most free to progress and grow.

Reframing my relationship toward creating and work allowed me to let go—to not just dream of being a writer but to actually become one in my own mind and practice. I found it easy now to sit down for an hour and simply write. I’m grateful to be able to write, but it’s still work—and there’s dignity and honor in any kind of work.

And when I do find myself stuck for the right word or sentence? I can just switch on the turntable and spin Handful of Soul.

In Which I Start Writing Fiction Again

Nicole Dieker is already thinking about the ways in which solving the problems in her novel are like solving the problems in a Mozart piano sonata.

The first big change, after I came back from vacation, was the way I ate breakfast. (The hotel had this thing that was essentially a giant bowl of fruit with a handful of nuts and cheese cubes mixed in, and I ate it every morning I was there and have been recreating it every morning since I got back.)

The second big change was that I (finally?) broke the cycle of going to bed between 11 and midnight, waking at dawn, and taking a nap in the middle of the day to make up for the fewer-than-eight-hours-of-sleep. Our hotel room had blackout curtains, and because of that I got into a sleep cycle that took me from about 11:30 p.m. to 7 a.m. — and even though we don’t have blackout curtains at home, I have somehow broken myself of the habit of rising with the sun.

Which, I mean, thank goodness. I was wondering how long the nap routine would last, and it was getting tiring (pun intended) to lie down in the middle of the day, every day, for a 45-minute sleep.

The third big change is that I started rewriting a novel.

L and I were talking, as we are wont to do, about what we’d like to do with the rest of our lives. We both want to become absolutely exemplary pianists, even though we always immediately modify those ambitions with “I mean, I want to be the best pianist I can be,” giving us the possibility of sub-exemplarism if that’s what our best turns out to become, and then I jack the ambitions back up again by saying “and I want to compete in the Van Cliburn amateur competition and the Paris amateur competition before I turn forty-five.”

We also want to continue working towards polymathery, with our chess study and our Gödel, Escher, Bach and so on. Between now and when I turn forty-five, we’d like to study chess, math (neither of us learned calculus the first time around), Go, bridge (we started getting into bridge last summer, but there’s only so much you can do if you don’t have a second set of people to play it with), origami, and drawing. Maybe a language or two. Maybe ballroom dancing.

“I guess I could figure out how we could become chess grandmasters,” I said, “even though the internet says that the best way to become a grandmaster is to start studying chess when you’re three years old. But we could come up with an action plan to get us there, and even if we only won some local tournaments, we’d still get to keep everything we’ve learned.”

“I’m ready to put a good chunk of our free time into studying chess,” L said, “but you know what I think you should do instead of trying to become a grandmaster, right?”

“YES I KNOW,” I said, in exactly that tone of voice. “I SHOULD WRITE ANOTHER BOOK.”

“Yes,” L said. “You should write another book.”

And then I told him that I had these two novels that I had drafted in 2018 and 2019, neither of which I was completely happy with — though one of them had potential, and I just happened to have the first chapter printed out and tucked into my bag because I had already known he was going to bring this up, and now I was going to read him the first chapter and maybe he could please tell me if he thought I should continue working on it.

He definitely thinks I should continue working on it.

This is worth noting, because when I was doing some musical composition work earlier this year (and, like, earlier last month), L essentially said “this is competent but kind of derivative,” which was fair enough, we both trust each other to say whether or not something is any good, and my compositions were at least as good as a college-level final project but not much better than that.

When I read him the beginning of my story, he said “I want to know what happens next.”

Luckily, I have most of it already written — so he won’t have to wait very long. ❤️

What I Dreamed, the Day I Came Back From Vacation

I had a dream, as the poets say, which was not all a dream.

I was at some kind of literary convention, and Louisa May Alcott was at one of the booths, and she told me that my writing was promising enough that she would introduce me to her publisher. This publisher, she assured me, would be eager to purchase whatever my next project happened to be, even though I told her that I didn’t have any new ideas at the moment.

“That will all be fine,” she said. “Sign the contract now, and figure the rest out later.”

(This seems a very LMA thing to say, given what I know about her career.)

So I let her take me to meet her publisher.

As we were running through what appeared to be subterranean subway-like passages, she in her long black nineteenth-century dress and me in my usual clothes, Don Draper appeared. This did not register as a surprise to me, since L and have been watching (or, in my case, rewatching) Mad Men for the past month or so.

Don Draper was wearing a trenchcoat. We were, after all, technically outside — I mean, we were inside, but we were in the kind of inside that you only go through as a way to get from one outside to another, and if that isn’t a metaphor then I don’t know what is.

“Don’t do it,” he said. “Don’t go to this meeting. The second you start thinking about that kind of stuff — the money, the contracts, the awards, even the potential audience — your story is over. It becomes someone else’s story, and in your case you don’t even know what the story is yet. Why would you turn it over to someone else before you’ve had the chance to create it? Why would you give it up before you’ve gotten to live the experience of doing the best work you possibly can?”

That was the point at which I woke up.

Later that day, I told L about the dream.

The day after that — well, I suppose I’ll tell you about that tomorrow. ❤️

Thoughts From My Office

We are back from Chicago! It was a lovely vacation, we stayed in a hotel that had robots, went to a jazz club, took a few long walks in the rain (simply because it would not stop raining, don’t get the idea that long walks in the rain are romantic or anything, the non-rain walks were much much much much more pleasant) and made our long-awaited visit to the Art Institute.

There is much I could write about the Art Institute, most of it about the conversations we had while we were inside. (One of the more interesting conversations was about art that centered the subject vs. art that centered the artist, which is coincidentally what I had just started writing about before we left.)

But, to keep at least some part of our first-ever vacation private, I’ll only share my half of the very obvious conversation we had while we were in the Art Institute, the conversation I hope everyone has when they are in any art museum of any kind, specifically: “If you could take a single item from this museum’s collection and display it in your own home, which would it be?”

I cheated and picked two, since the first one was inspired by the second one and it would be like separating two kittens that grew up in the same litter. Claude Monet’s Houses of Parliament, London from 1901, and James McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne: Blue and Gold—Southampton Water from 1872.

Also, I was delighted to learn that Monet was inspired by Whistler. If I hadn’t known that, I would have assumed it was the other way around. ❤️

On to WHERE I GOT PUBLISHED WHILE I WAS AWAY:

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Job Opportunities for Writers: July 9, 2021

We post roundups of writing and literary jobs once a week. Here’s our list for July 9, 2021.

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Thursday Thoughts

L and I are getting ready to head out on a much-much-much-much needed vacation.

This means that there will be no posts from me until… next Friday, probably. It’s also why there wasn’t a post on Tuesday; I was using that writing time to get my freelance work done, so we could take a few days off and go out of town.

On that note, here are all the places I’ve gotten published this week!

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Moving Water

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Tara K. Shepersky is a contemplative walker, writer, & photographer based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Her first book is Tell the Turning, a collection of poetry with pen-and-ink illustrations by Lucy Bellwood, to be published this autumn by Bored Wolves.

This is the latest installment in Tara’s monthly column about the creative practice.

If you connect with Tara’s work, consider supporting her Patreon. You can also write her a letter via The PenPalProject. 

Martin Shaw gave an interview* last winter, from deep in the UK’s first lockdown, in the who-knows-anything time before Covid vaccines. Someone in the virtual audience asked about trauma: what do you do with it? “Get to moving water,” he said. “And sit there. And sit there. And sit there.”

On the banks of a creek who wishes to remain anonymous, I am sitting. It is mid-day, it is not cold, and my creekbank “belongs” to a U.S. State Park. Which is to say that it would be crowded — as it is, at its nearby confluence with a medium-sized river — but I have rolled my pants and taken my chances with slippery rapids and teetering log jams. Here upstream I am not alone, but neither are there any other humans in sound or sight. 

I have been here a while: watching dragonflies and hummingbirds, and columbine nodding above an undercut bank; reading a letter from a friend; listening to the breeze changing its mind from downstream to up. 

I find I am saying to myself it’s time to go. It does not feel like time to go, it just seems like the next thing. I’m addicted to progress. But I have got here, to moving water. My own wellspring, in fact. I slide my feet in the creek, skin on stone. Sit here. Sit here. Sit here. 

I came here to write poems. Here, in this case, is a wider locality: a particular gathering of river/forest/ocean margins, my favorite place in all the world so far. I cleared a space on my calendar, found a one-room cabin, and hung on by my gritted teeth until the day arrived to make the journey. I am writing a book — no one is surprised — and so I have told myself that is the purpose of the trip. 

I came to write poems, and I am writing poems. Creating is a primary way I encounter and explore; I can’t not do it. To do it well, I need space. I write from spaciousness. Here is space. Here, in fact, is home. This place is a great love of my life. I am writing poems; of course I am writing poems.

But I cannot only write poems, only be a poet. If I didn’t have to make money, this is what I say I would want to do—but poet is an identity that cannot exist alone. A writer of any kind must have something to write about, or all the love and skill and dedication have nowhere to flow, no work in the world to do. 

I have plenty of work in the world. I’m conflicted, confused, frustrated, or downright despairing about all of it. Some of it is worthy, I don’t doubt. Much of it is pure garbage: concerned only with money and obligation. I am looking for more that fits in the first category, yet I can’t imagine taking on more, period. I’m exhausted. I’m traumatized. I’m depressed. I’m ashamed and angry even to write those words. How can they be me? I’m better than that. 

So. My obsession with progress says I’m here to write poems, to make something I can point to with my name on it. But really, I’m here to sit by moving water. I am here to rest. I’m here to excavate — patiently, kindly, bravely, if I can — who is this person who is not, in fact, better than, or even okay. 

The several voices of the creek are just what I need. I listen to them — really listen, separating them mentally, and noting their pitch and volume. They’re not saying anything. They’re saying everything.

Possibly this is not a time to make sense of things. But I — like humans everywhere, and especially like humans who find their deepest work in art, in priesthood, in leadership — am a meaning-maker.

Just now, I was gathering stones. This beach is 98% stones. The longer you look, the more interesting they get. I would name aloud one of my roles or labels, and search for a stone to match it.

A palm-width stone, shaped like a lightning bolt and faced with quartz.

A slick black circle, split almost in two, like a broken-heart emoji.

A smooth and water-polished oval, warm brown and soft grey whirled togther.

A tiny, tumbled pebble, red as a berry, vivid. I perched it on top of a deep green rippling globe.

Each stone I held let me hold at arm’s length a role I inhabit or a label I’ve acquired: things I am, things I am called in certain contexts, and things I kind-of-am, because words for our experience are a collective obsession of a culture trying to re-found itself.

When I ran out, finally, my hand was overflowing: a strange beach offering, word and rock balanced on palm and fingers. I picked them back up, one at a time, and cast them to centerstream, saying to the stone and its label: You are loved here. You are held here. You are worthy. It’s okay if I don’t understand you. You are anchored here. 

I am home on this creekbank: sitting, walking, resting. Making up rituals and scratching out poems. Not figuring myself out, just watching me be. Asserting that’s okay, and learning to believe it — a process, not an accomplishment I am claiming. 

This creek, its river, its woods, its ocean-perfume — this is the one landscape where I belong, in a way I’ve tried to understand all my life, and I no longer need to. I cannot only belong here, only be here. Home and belonging must have some work in the world to do, too. 

For this long summer moment, though? I can rest awhile yet. 

*This is a fine introduction to Shaw’s work, if you’re not familiar. Though the quote I’m referring to comes from a sort of joint interview with Paul Kingsnorth, moderated by Point Reyes Books.

Thoughts From My Office

I have two thoughts to share with you this week:

  1. For me, “rest” means getting to choose the speed of your own thoughts. This is why I rarely find TV or movies restful, and why conversations are often energizing, occasionally draining, and rarely relaxing. Looking at art is restful. Reading is restful. Walking, without music or podcasts, is restful. Being in nature, especially when you can be quiet in nature, is very restful.
  2. I have no problem getting things done when I’m tired, as long as I already know what I’m supposed to be doing. (I can even parse BlooP, if I absolutely have to.) That said, I’m starting to believe that rest, as described above, is an essential part of generating original thoughts. Or creating something new.

More on that next week. ❤️

On to where I got published this week!

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Don’t Write Alone | Catapult

Upcoming Submission and Pitching Opportunities: July 2, 2021

We post submission roundups once a week. Here’s our list of literary magazines and freelance opportunities for July 2, 2021.

Job Opportunities for Writers: July 2, 2021

We post roundups of writing and literary jobs once a week. Here’s our list for July 2, 2021.

On Experience, Part 2

Nicole Dieker is already looking forward to the forthcoming “On Experience, Part 3.”

On Tuesday, I asked the question “how do you create an artistic experience in which the work takes precedence, and audience and creators build a memorable, temporal relationship around a shared idea?”

Then I told you that I’d give you an example.

Here’s a clip from the 2012 Shakespeare’s Globe production of Twelfth Night, directed by Tim Carroll:

I love everything about this performance, but what I love most of all is that the production itself is based on a single unifying goal — to produce Shakespeare as closely as possible to the way it was done in Shakespeare’s day, from the staging to the instruments to the buttons on the actors’ clothing — and yet it is in no way exclusive. It doesn’t ask the audience to know these details, and it doesn’t even necessarily ask the audience to appreciate them as details.

This Twelfth Night simply asks the audience to pay attention and enjoy the story.

And they do.

There are other performances of Twelfth Night that ask the audience to pay attention and enjoy the concept. L and I watched pretty much all the available film and television and bootleg stage recordings of Twelfth Night we could get our hands on, and we were astonished at how many of them minimized the text in favor of an additional artifice — most often, a “unique” setting or time period. One production in particular seemed to assume that the audience wouldn’t be able to follow the text, and so the performance didn’t have to either. The actors could say words words words while their actions and faces demonstrated entirely different things, because it was too much work to get it right and a lot easier to put a gimmick on top of it.

This isn’t to say that every modern Shakespeare, or every “Shakespeare but in the nineteenth century,” is gimmicky. After we watched this particular Twelfth Night, for example, we immediately went back and watched clips of Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo+Juliet (because we couldn’t watch the entire thing for free on any of our streaming channels) and the entirety of Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (because we could) just to remind ourselves that you can do the extra thing and still make a story-based connection.

That is, you can still do the modern time period thing or the Shakespeare In Space thing or the gender-bent production and put the work at the center.

The real question is what makes Branagh’s Hamlet, which does this so very well, different from Branagh’s Twelfth Night, which falls just a bit short. (At a certain point we had to stop Branagh’s Twelfth Night to say “Okay, they either didn’t understand what they were saying or didn’t think we’d understand it, so they decided to make the actors do rude gestures with their hands instead. It got a laugh, good on them, but it wasn’t an integrated laugh.“)

I mean, the answer is probably that Branagh had eight years of additional experience between his 1988 Twelfth Night and his 1996 Hamlet. He probably had a few more problem-solving tools at his disposal. He might also have had more directorial freedom with Hamlet than he did with Twelfth Night; certainly he had a stronger cast and a larger budget.

At this point I’m remembering that Kenneth Branagh is a real person with access to the internet who could be reading this right now, and I feel kind of bad for assuming things about him.

So enough about that.

More on how to create a work-centered experience — including my own story of staging a non-integrated laugh in a production of Tartuffe — next week. ❤️

Why I Started a Podcast With My Writing Partner

Hillary Moses Mohaupt is a listmaker: she’s a writer, social media strategist, communications consultant, museum enthusiast, baker, traveler, and francophile.

She’s also a writer, podcaster, and very recently a new parent.

Not long after my spouse and I brought our newborn son home from the hospital, I found myself sitting on the couch with a week-old baby in one arm and my laptop balanced on my free knee. I opened a program called Audacity and — with my free hand — I tinkered with the audio files of my voice and my writing partner’s Emilie’s voice, the two of us discussing the 1961 movie The Defiant Ones.

For the last five years, Emilie and I have co-hosted a monthly podcast, the Screen Sirens, about women and social justice in classic Hollywood films. Neither of us is a film historian in any formal sense, and neither of us considers film studies as part of our writing repertoire — Emilie is an essayist and memoirist and I’m a fiction writer and essayist — but it’s partly that disconnect from our serious writing practices that has made our podcast a success.

This success, as we define it, has nothing to do with monthly download stats (relatively tiny) and our social media presence (small but mighty). Rather, the podcast has been a winning strategy for us because it’s kept us connected creatively for all these years when it would have been easier to end our writing partnership and sideline our individual writing projects. For the last five years, producing and promoting the podcast has kept us both in pursuit of inventive, artistic endeavors, even when major life events (like newborn children) distracted us from other creative commitments. 

Emilie and I met while working at a non-profit organization in Philadelphia. Our start dates at the organization were close enough for us to attend orientation trainings together. Our work teams were separate but interrelated and it didn’t take long for us to start looking for opportunities to collaborate on work projects.

It took longer, however, for us to connect over writing. I think we were both wary of being open to each other about our writing lives. After all, what if one person wasn’t as committed to the craft as the other? Then Emilie had the brilliant idea to invite some of us at the office to join her in a daily writing practice during National Novel Writing Month. A few other colleagues joined us in the stuffy conference room or in a nearby park for lunchtime writing, but it was soon clear that Emilie and I were the die-hards.

Once November was over we both knew the other was serious about sticking with it. We kept up a twice-weekly writing date for months after that, taking our journals or laptops to coffee shops near our office building and splurging on matcha lattes and premium pourovers. The writing dates kept us both on task, and sometimes we put down our pens or looked up from the screen to talk through a story idea or share a pitch. Meanwhile, we peppered our office Instant Messaging app with links to calls for pitches or ideas that one of us thought would be a good fit for the other. Our writing partnership was, and remains, a commitment to supporting each other’s writing, to serving as a sounding board for each other’s ideas, dreams, and goals.

In the meantime we learned we shared another passion: classic Hollywood movies. 

I don’t remember which of us suggested that we start a podcast about old movies, but I’m certain Emilie was the brains of the venture when we were first exploring the possibility. In workshopping the idea, we laid out several ground rules: the movies we discussed on the podcast had to explore women and/or social justice topics in some way, and they had to have been made prior to 1962. Above all, the podcast had to be fun. We both had enough stressors in our lives; the podcast had to fuel our creativity and our friendship, not become just another obligation that kept us from artistic work. 

And so in July 2016 we released the first three episodes of the Screen Sirens podcast. Back then we recorded the episodes twice each month in a conference room down the hall from our offices. As other commitments and opportunities emerged and we each moved on to other jobs, we began recording the podcast monthly and remotely in the evenings after our kids’ bedtimes. 

Ours is a partnership that’s based on mutual support and encouragement, rather than on collaborative writing projects a la Rodgers and Hammerstein. The podcast’s regular schedule has reinforced our original intentions to support each other’s writing life. We continue to share calls for pitches, hold each other accountable for deadlines, celebrate submissions, commiserate over rejections, and report when we’re having a breakthrough on a particularly difficult piece or element of craft. We exchange texts and emails, but we also talk about writing — our struggles, plans, and goals — before we hit the record button during on our monthly podcast recording calls. 

Preparing for and producing content for the podcast has given us both the opportunity to engage with storytelling techniques outside of our usual genres and forms, and promoting it forces us to practice balancing deadlines and flexibility. 

Treating the podcast as a purely joyous joint venture has helped us both see it as an act of self-expression for its own sake. Except for our own loose parameters, there’s no one telling us which movies we should watch and discuss, and so we enjoy the act of researching, watching, and creating. We also enjoy the end product. 

Most importantly, the podcast keeps us accountable to each other. In each episode, Emilie’s role is to keep us moving through the basic script and my goal is to make Emilie laugh. Together, we produce something succinct and fun every month, giving us a sense of accomplishment in having completed something together.

This spring, we switched podcast platforms (no small feat for a couple of amateurs!). I found myself one Saturday morning double-checking all the new connections and feeds to make sure everything was working correctly, and I was struck with a feeling of pride. Despite job changes, moves, and new babies — not to mention a global pandemic and its many long-lasting consequences — Emilie and I have stuck with our joint project for five seasons, and at this rate we’re not likely to give up any time soon. The podcast and our partnership might shift and change to accommodate future life changes, but the Sirens, like the movies, are forever.