“Go away, you rainsnout…” NOVEMBER! (30 days with the inner critic)

photo of Gaunt park at sunset

Dear people,

I am issuing a gift/challenge/invitation for the month of November (a month I love to abhor, by way of Tom Waits’ “November,” which you can hear him perform here and read lyrics below.).

(If you read this after November, it’s never too late. Start anytime! And this does not have to be elaborate. You can simply do a 2 minute power pose, then write “Dear Inner Critic” across the top of a page, and write a letter. Or skip the power pose—though if you’ve never tried a power pose, it might be useful. It might help you feel stronger as you approach the letter.)


Every day, for 30 days, communicate with the inner critic. (If you miss a day, okay. But do as many days as you can.) (If you don’t know what the inner critic is, good for you! You don’t need this practice. If you do need it, read on.)

This work involves free-writing without stopping, without editing. The general rules are to keep writing for a set amount of time (or one page), and if you don’t know what to write, just write the words “tick tick tick” until you get back to what you are writing. If you only have 5 minutes, that’s fine! It can still be very useful. (The “tick tick tick” is courtesy of Lynda Barry, whom I’ve blogged about here.)

OPTIONAL PREPARATION (Not mandatory, but helpful):

DAY ONE: Get paper and pen.

Imagine, describe, SEE the inner critic. (If you watch Lynda Barry’s video, you might think of the inner critic as the mom with the bacon, interrupting the kid in the middle of his playing to say, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”) It’s fun to start by drawing the Inner Critic—use the Lynda Barry method using a random shape, then making it into a monster or character. Whatever works! But don’t think it in your head. Instead, move pen on paper to make the thing come to life (and to get it out of your body). Set a timer for 2 or 3 minutes if it helps. You can describe the inner critic with words if you want to. The point is to somehow embody (on paper) the inner critic. When you’re done drawing or writing the character, take a moment to name this thing.

Then on a new page, write Dear Inner Critic… and write a letter, as long as you want. Sign your name when you’re done. (I’ve done this with young people who have asked “Can I use bad words?” Yes. You can use bad words.) 


Write a letter to the inner critic/monster/thingy every day for 30 days. You can also try any of the activities below if you get bored with letters. But remember, boredom is often good and necessary! I’ve done a letter every day for 30 days. One page at the beginning of my morning pages. (If you don’t know what the morning pages are, go here.) When I wrote a one page letter to my inner critic for 30 days, I arrived at some plateaux where I thought I was saying the same thing day after day (and thought, This isn’t getting me anywhere!). It got a little boring. But I kept doing it day after day, and noticed that things began to shift. I gained some pretty nuanced understanding of the dynamic between “me” and the inner critic (which is part of me, of course, which is part of the point). Among other things.

Alternatives to the daily letter (use any or all, combine, okay!):

  • Write the GIFT that you would give your inner critic. (It’s my suspicion that there is something the inner critic is lacking.) Describe the gift in great detail, how you would wrap the gift, etc. Really give time to What’s missing? What do they need? You might try: Dear Inner Critic, if I could give you a gift, it would be… (What is his/her/their/its deepest unmet need?) (You can also give them something you want to give them, but which they would not necessarily want!)
  • Write a dialogue between you and critic—you get the first line and the last line!
  • Write a physical fight scene!
  • Draw a one-page comic! Color it in! Good, good good!

If you know some friends who want to do this together (every day, or at some point in the month) maybe after you write, someone will want to read back what they wrote. If so, while the person reads, everyone else must draw a slow, careful spiral a la Lynda Barry’s practice, and listen quietly–MOST IMPORTANTLY, GIVE NO FEEDBACK!

Take care of yourself. This inner critic practice can be hard and upsetting, so please do figure out what support you need. It can bring up stuff that might need more time and attention than you can easily give it. Have a cup of tea or some sitting and breathing (or whatever nourishes you) as needed, and be extra generous with yourself now.

Please let me know how it goes! I’m going to do it, too. (Eeek!)

Love, Rebecca

p.s. I’ve written about self-doubt here.

p.p.s. I’ve written about the inner critic practice, including some of my letters, here.

p.p.p.s. If this practice is useful to you, remember: YOU CAN DO THIS ANYTIME! You don’t have to do it for a whole month. Have a job interview? Put the inner critic in its place before you brush your teeth that day! Find the inner critic something else to DO while you do what you need & want to do (without static from the inner critic).


No shadow
No stars
No moon
No cars
NovemberIt only believes
In a pile of dead leaves
And a moon
That’s the color of boneNo prayers for November
To linger longer
Stick your spoon in the wall
We’ll slaughter them allNovember has tied me
To an old dead tree
Get word to April
To rescue me
November’s cold chainMade of wet boots and rain
And shiny black ravens
On chimney smoke lanes
November seems odd
You’re my firing squad

With my hair slicked back
With carrion shellac
With the blood from a pheasant
And the bone from a hare

Tied to the branches
Of a roebuck stag
Left to wave in the timber
Like a buck shot flag

Go away you rainsnout
Go away blow your brains out

Daniel Knox and the “more interesting vegetables”

Daniel Knox opening for Langford et al at Southgate House Revival
Daniel Knox opening for Langford et al at Southgate House Revival

Before I saw Jon Langford a couple weeks ago at the Southgate House Revival, I had read that Daniel Knox was going to open the evening. I went to Knox’s website to orient myself, but as often happens, I was interrupted before I could listen to anything. The night of the show, I wasn’t paying attention when an unassuming guy walked onstage and sat at the keyboard. I didn’t even notice until he began to sing. His gorgeous, haunting voice rippled among the waves of his musical score, working the tension between fancy croon and despair. Daniel Knox has alarming range in his voice. I don’t know what type of person I would expect to have brought those musical bones to the stage, but the contrast between the guy I saw and the revelation of his music added to the wonder. It was one of those moments of discovery when I learn there’s another entire world that has just casually walked into the room.

His set in Newport included the keyboard, supported by four overturned milk crates, and himself. After he played, I stumbled over some compliment to Mr. Knox at the merchandize table and bought his CD Evryman For Himself. On the ride home, I read the CD liner notes: Ralph Carney and others play with Knox. (“Ralph Carney?” I said to my husband. I know Carney from his work with Tom Waits, icon.)

The sound of Daniel Knox is theatrical, so I was not surprised to see he has collaborated on stage productions. Some of his songs make me think of Kurt Weill, some of Fiona Apple (Extraordinary Machine is her album I’m most familiar with, but Knox and Apple also seem to share a certain strain of hopeful bitterness), and there’s certainly some Waitsian sounds involved, too. Knox is another of these fabulous interdisciplinary aestheticians, whom, if I were hiring, I would invite to join the IA dream department. After finishing each song, he would toss the pages of music (which I suspect might have been props) to the floor behind him, a floor salad of inspiration.

Maybe because I had no idea what to expect, the milk crates supporting the keyboard added a layer of secrecy to the moment. It was a little like sitting in a basement in college, listening while a friend reads from her journal, finding perfectly-formed gems of humanity inside each line. Knox’s songs are like little sad 70s movies, minimal but complete stories with haunting soundtracks. His work is raw and fragile, but also strong like a metal building, an eternally-surviving frame surrounding a tiny, exquisite flower of pain. I scribbled some of these notes in the semi-dark as I listened, and one thing I wrote (my memory between the moment of going to his website weeks before and being interrupted and that evening at the church was so blurry), was, “and I don’t even know his name—I sat through the whole set not knowing his name!”

There was once a humble Vietnamese restaurant nearby our town. I used to like to get the noodle bowls there. On the menu, with the listing of choices, there was a note: For 50 cents extra, you could order “more interesting vegetables.” I always ordered more interesting vegetables, and although I can’t now recall which specific vegetables came for that half-dollar splurge, the term became shorthand in my house for more interesting anything, usually to do with books or movies or art or people.

Daniel Knox is one of those who deals in more interesting vegetables.

To go skating on your name…again…

“By tracing it twice, I fell through the ice of Alice…” –Tom Waits

Today, I went ice skating for the fourth time in my life.  The first time was in my late teens, and despite back then being a passable roller skater, my recollection of ice skating was that it was somewhat of a disaster.  (After mostly falling, I had no urge to try it again.)  Last autumn, when my daughter’s school had an ice skating field trip planned, they needed drivers.  I signed up.  I was anxious, but thought I would try skating again.

(It was fun!  And who knew I’d have the opportunity, at age 47, to revise my long-believed story that I couldn’t ice skate?)   I went on a second school skating trip last week, and again, had fun.  Both times my daughter skated, she grew more and more comfortable on the ice, as children tend to do when they are learning.  (It was odd but also fun to be learning alongside her.)  I fell once and hurt my wrist, but not so badly that it scared me off that cold frozen ground.

When a friend suggested we take our kids skating today, I thought, Sure!  (Ice skating twice in one week!  And with bruises to prove it!  I’m starting to feel like a jock.)  Today, again it was fun, but alarming (and annoying) how many people had stopped in the flow on the ice, tossing up human obstacles in the way of us beginners.  Why had they stopped?  Posing for photos or taking photos.  

On the ice.

As a novice, ice skating is an activity that forces me to focus on what I am doing at each moment.  The present.  (Remember that old friend, the present?)  On the ice, if I start to have a conversation, or think about something else for more than a moment, if my focus is on anything other than my body and my balance, that’s when I tend to fall.  (“To go skating on your name…and by tracing it twice…” sang Tom Waits, about to fall through.  More about that song here.)

I love taking pictures; I understand the urge.  Like skating, it’s fun.  But there’s a balance to be found, especially as a parent.  Accumulating roll after roll of photographs, as a new parent I realized I can either take pictures, or I can participate in my life.  (Today I wanted to say to the posers and clickers, “Enough with the smart phones and selfies.  Enough.  Stop documenting and live your life.”  But I was polite, and just said, “Excuse me,” as I skated around them.)

Maybe it’s time for a new bumper sticker: Hang up and skate.

Layers of organization, and life

This kind of magpie

Organizing my readings for fall classes, I picked a file folder from the stack I reuse at home.  “Credit card info” was scratched out, and over it, written, in turquoise ink, “Tom Waits.”  That’s what it did last time.

Some questions.

How was my life ever that simple?  (And is it wrong to have a file folder entitled “Tom Waits”?)

(And what on earth did I file in that folder?  Why can’t I remember?)

(To quote Joan Didion, “What kind of magpie keeps this notebook?”)

No noose, please

Tom Waits hanging out with a cat!

Today I have a headache, so I’m indulging in a short, cranky post.  (I know my five true blog fans have missed me!  Mama’s back!)

Today I heard spoken two expressions that, if I never hear them again, I will never miss.  Both were uttered on my local NPR station, one in a national report, another by a local personality.  To wit:

1) “(Just about anything)…comes into play.”  As in, “That’s when the –whatever idea,  trend, or phenomenon, which has nothing to do with a ball or birdie or other piece of sports equipment– comes into play.”  I don’t mind sports metaphors per se, but this one is more tired than I am.  I never need to hear it again; and

2) “To hang.” This was used thusly: “Hang with your friends…”  Call me old school (another once-cool, now-tired label, surely!) but I’d prefer to “hang out” with my friends.  I don’t want to simply hang with my friends or my enemies–I would rather not hang at all.  I am tired, but I am not so tired that I don’t have the energy to add the short “out” at the end of “hang.”  Otherwise, all I can think of is a noose/coming into play, which even on this headachey day has little enough appeal as to be nonexistent.

The ocean doesn’t want me today

Swimming beyond the breakers, being lifted gently, interpreting light and shadow on waves, a practice, being the human working and being carried by water and letting go of every possibility of knowing.

Feels like writing a novel.

In 2000, on my first trip to the beach with my then not-yet-husband, he and I went out swimming.  I kept trying to see if I could stand, kept trying to know where I was.  His advice: Don’t try to touch bottom.  It will only scare you if you can’t.  Just swim.  I am from inland, from clear chlorine pool swimming.  In that dark North Carolina water, full of who-knows-what, I learned about a certain kind of faith.  The kind of faith that teaches a body to trust that it will know what to do, that it will tend to survive.  Floating and swimming and rolling in those waves, I realized the novel I was beginning to write was like that.  Don’t try to touch bottom.  It will only scare you if you can’t.  Just swim.

This seems the only way of making something when you’re trying and there might be nothing there.  The cliched leap of faith, the answer to the question, “What else would I be doing with my life if not this?”

Twelve years later, still swimming, still trusting that a body will know what to do.

On the waves, writing another novel, still.


Or, says Tom Waits:

The ocean doesn’t want me today
But I’ll be back tomorrow to play
And the strangels will take me
Down deep in their brine
The mischievous braingels
Down into the endless blue wine
I’ll open my head and let out
All of my time
I’d love to go drowning
And to stay and to stay
But the ocean doesn’t want me today
I’ll go in up to here
It can’t possibly hurt
All they will find is my beer
And my shirt
A rip tide is raging
And the life guard is away
But the ocean doesn’t want me today
The ocean doesn’t want me today.

Three winter songs

These people know how to deal with winter...

The other day when the sun didn’t shine, and didn’t shine, and didn’t shine, and all my clothes that are not in the attic weren’t warm enough, I got jittery, wondering how I would make it through winter this year.  People say as you age, cold weather becomes harder to endure.  But the grey is too soon this year.  The rain.  Drear, she came early this year.

So as I do when I prepare for winter, today I listened to Dead Can Dance’s Toward the Within.  The live album includes perhaps the saddest song ever, Lisa Girard’s transcendent “Sanvean.”  You can see a long, beautiful version here.  (Her gown is worth a look, too!)  Lisa Girard just breaks my heart, and then fills up the broken pieces.  This week of grey skies needed true keening like hers.  It’s been a hard year.

Another cathartic winter song on the same album is the traditional, “I Am Stretched at Your Grave,” sung here by Brendan Perry.  (For a version with a funky backbeat that you might have heard, try this one.)

And now for something completely different.  This might be obvious to you raindogs, but “November” by Tom Waits is a worthy winter anthem.  Who else but himself could sing, “Go away, you rainsnout, go away, blow your brains out…”

Here’s hoping the sun shines soon.  But if not, you know what I will be listening to.

What will get you through the chill this year?

Raising a Raindog

This morning, my daughter was pushing the play button over and over again to hear the beginning of a song on a mixed CD that my husband made for her.  On the CD are various of her favorite songs, but all are real “grown up” music that this child’s parents like to listen to.  (There are a few kids CDs in the house, and  some aren’t bad, but we like her to listen to music that won’t sound icky-sticky to our ears.)

The song she kept replaying was “Filipino Box Spring Hog” by Tom Waits.  She likes Tom Waits.  She’s enjoyed this song for a while, even sang it spontaneously one day awhile ago, but today, she was studying on it.  Asking me what instruments were in that musical stew.  I tried to identify each bang and clang as I could (it’s hard–you try it!).  I explained that sometimes Tom Waits just bangs on things, like cans and other things–his percussion is not only drums and the usual stuff.  And as I reveled in the idea of Tom Wait and Marc Ribot et al making that song, I realized my daughter was trying to find the guitar in the song and play along on her beat-up dulcimer, which she calls her banjo.

Later when I asked her what she was up to, she said she was trying to find out why he said, “Kathleen” (as in “Kathleen was sitting down in Little Red’s Recovery Room, in her criminal underwear bra…”)

“T’ain’t the mince meat filagree
T’ain’t the turkey neck stew
T’aint them bruleed okra seeds
though she made them especially for you…”

I’m fighting the urge to expect her to like everything I like, but I’m hoping that putting her around really interesting music will at least be good for her curiosity which will be good for her soul.

Optimist and Pessimist: A Light Operetta

Is it my imagination, or does this guy look like Tom Waits?

OPTIMIST: Sung to the tune of “Singin’ in the Rain“:

I’m mowing in the rain, just mowing in the rain, what a glorious feeling, I’m mowing again!

PESSIMIST: Sung to the tune of “Misery’s the River of the World

If there’s one thing you can say
About Mankind
There’s nothing kind about man
You can drive out nature with a Mower
But it always comes roaring back again


Splashy and head up 

With rain in my ‘do
Why is each new task
A trifle to do?
Because I am living
A life full of dew.

(And I’ll get a blog post out of this yet!)


Misery’s the River of the World
Misery’s the River of the World
Everybody Mow! Everybody Mow!
(Bandana’s soaked, Bandana’s soaked)
Misery’s the River of the World
Everybody Mow! Everybody Mow!

A proud moment

This morning, completely unprompted, my daughter said, “Filitino Box Spring Hog,” then further clarified to say,  “Cookin’ up a Filitino Box Spring Hog!”  (Naturally, I made her repeat it for the camera.)

Indoctrinating her into the world of cultish/semi-obscure music is working.  I’m so proud!  (Can “Chocolate Jesus” be far behind?)

And here they are, the lyrics of Tom Waits’ “Filipino Box Spring Hog” pasted below, thieved (along with the photo of Little Red’s Recovery Room) from Tom Waits Library.  And here’s a live video. Boy do I wish I’d seen that Mule Variations tour!

Filipino Box Spring Hog

(Mule Variations studio version, 1999)

Well I hung on to Mary’s stump
I danced with a soldier’s glee
With a Rum Soaked Crook(2) and a big fat laugh
I spent my last dollar on thee
I saw Bill Bones, gave him a yell
Kehoe spiked the nog
With a chain link fence and a scrap iron jaw
Cookin’ up a Filipino Box Spring Hog
Cookin’ up a Filipino Box Spring Hog
Cookin’ up a Filipino Box Spring Hog

Spider rolled in from Hollister Burn(3)
with a one-eyed stolen mare
Donned himself with chicken fat
Sawin’ on a jaw bone violin there
Kathleen was sittin’ down in Little Red’s Recovery Room(4)
in her criminal underwear bra
I was naked to the waist with my fierce black hound
And I’m cookin’ up a Filipino Box Spring Hog
Cookin’ up a Filipino Box Spring Hog
Cookin’ up a Filipino Box Spring Hog

Dig a big pit in a dirt alley road
Fill it with madrone and bay
Stinks like hell and the neighbors complain
Don’t give a hoot what they say
Gotta slap that hog
Roll em over twice
Gotta baste him with a sweeping broom
You gotta swat them flies and chain up the dogs
Cookin’ up a Filipino Box Spring Hog
Cookin’ up a Filipino Box Spring Hog
Cookin’ up a Filipino Box Spring Hog

Rattle snake piccata with grapes and figs
Old brown Betty(5) with a yellow wig
Tain’t the mince meat(6) filagree
And it ain’t the turkey neck stew(8)
And it ain’t them bruleed okra seeds
though she made them especially for you
Worse won a prize for her bottom black pie
The beans got thrown to the dogs

Jaheseus Christ, I can always make room
Cookin’ up a Filipino Box Spring Hog
Cookin’ up a Filipino Box Spring Hog
Cookin’ up a Filipino Box Spring Hog
Cookin’ up a Filipino Box Spring Hog