An Opportunity for Inspiration from Colm Toibin

It’s not often that big name creatives make their way to the Jersey Shore. Usually, the musicians and writers I’d love to see perform are either in New York or Philadelphia and it’s just too much for me to go. However, my serendipity streak is alive and well, resulting in the opportunity to hear one of my favorite authors speak this week only 30 minutes away from my home, and even better, it was free.

Most people recognize Colm Toibin’s name from his novel Brooklyn; the movie based on his book premiered last spring. If you’ve followed me for a while now, you are well aware of the string of signs that led me to Ireland last year, fueled by what I like to call my spirit guide. Mr. Toibin’s works Brooklyn and Nora Webster both appeared several times along that serendipitous timeline, well before the movie trailer for Brooklyn was released. Mr. Toibin’s breadcrumbs led me to other literary connections, personal discoveries, and further signs along my journey. The fact that I’m almost 30,000 words into my own novel is based, in a very slight part, on his contribution to my timeline.

What most people don’t know is that Mr. Toibin was a journalist before publishing essays and novels. His creative streak came alive later in his life, which is something I can truly relate to and is one of the reasons why I look to him as an inspiration.

When I saw that Monmouth University was hosting Colm Toibin as their final author in their Visiting Writers series this year, I jumped at the chance to attend. It was open to the public. With serendipity once again running the show, I couldn’t believe I had nothing else on my schedule on that particular afternoon during a week of a craziness filled with deadlines and due dates and contingency plans in the event my niece decided to enter the world (she’s smart…she’s still nesting comfortably inside mama as I write this). I even had a friend who wanted to go with me (thanks, C!).

We arrived about 45 minutes before the event was scheduled to begin and were able to get excellent seats near the front. After a short while, my friend went upstairs to check something on her phone since the signal inside the auditorium wasn’t every good. A gentleman began testing the microphone, and it was Mr. Toibin himself. He looked at me and smiled as he walked past me. Within 30 minutes the room was packed with Monmouth University faculty and students, as well as members of the general public like my friend and I, all eager for the program to begin.

Monmouth University’s Dean Michael Thomas began the program by speaking briefly then handing the introduction over to his colleague, Dr. Susan Goulding. After a few moments, Mr. Toibin took the podium, and from his first word, his accent captivated my attention for his whole presentation. He intertwined tales from his own life and his writing process in between his oral readings from both Nora Webster and Brooklyn.

The way he explained how he used real-life elements in his fiction made an impact on me, as I am attempting to do something similar with my own writing. Mr. Toibin said that writing is all about therapy, and that it is sometimes brave yet difficult to write the stories you don’t want to forget. “I didn’t know I was a novelist. If I didn’ I would have taken notes,” he said. Me, too!

Mr. Toibin develops a strong sense of character in his works, which is something I am trying to do in my attempt at writing a novel. He urged adding details during revision, and to do it right, to describe as if you were looking at a photograph. Confusion can be worked out later as you add levels of intensity to the characters. Make the landscapes fully real and have a sense of your audience. Not everything has to be symbolic as you look outwards from self. All of his advice is on point, and I was reassured by his words because I honestly am doing exactly as he said, or at least I think I am.

Mr. Toibin lists Mary Lavin, Colin Barrett, and Claire Keegan as writers who have influenced him. I find it encouraging that two of the three writers are much younger than he is, emphasizing that there’s always a lesson to be learned through the lives and works of others, no matter the age difference.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway was a lesson that combines his own experience with the experiences of his characters Nora Webster and Eilis Lacey: finding yourself is a lifelong journey. I’m even more comforted and reassured after hearing Mr. Toibin’s presentation that I am in the right place at the right time.

Afterward, I thought about the experience for a bit after looking over my notes. I then began fantasizing about the idea that maybe, someday, I would be addressing an audience about my works and my influences. I wonder if Mr. Toibin knows that I’d be talking about him (and others) just as he talked about Lavin, Barrett, and Keegan.

Wouldn’t that be fantastic?

Until next time,

Jill

To learn more about Colm Toibin, visit his website by clicking here.

Staring at the SEA: My 30 Year Relationship With The Cure

Back when I was in high school, circa mid-1980’s, I went to a local mall with my then-boyfriend. We browsed one of the many music stores to see what was new in the music scene. This was well before music downloads provided instant gratification. When new albums were released, we actually had to go somewhere to buy them, usually a mall or an independent record store.  We would then make copies and mix tapes for our friends and boyfriends/girlfriends on dual cassette players.

Anyway, I picked up The Cure’s Staring at the Sea-The Singles and wanted to buy it. I had recently started listening to a local alternative music radio station, WHTG 106.3, and heard a few songs by The Cure that I liked. The boyfriend, Mr. Commander, immediately took the cassette out of my hand and said he didn’t want me listening to “that” music. He was also incensed that I actually admitted to listening to “that” music on 106.3.

Infuriating, right? But my 15-year-old unsure self gave in, and I left with a cassette by Whitney Houston instead of the one I wanted.

I never listened to that Whitney Houston cassette. I just threw it into my nightstand drawer. It might even still be in there.

I cringe now at what an ass I was for not standing up for myself.

Shortly after this incident, I ended up getting a copy of Staring at the Sea from someone in my chemistry class.

And I listened to it.

And listened to it.

And listened to it….

and wore it out. Yes, that was possible, as was the player actually eating the tape.

That was 30 years ago.

By the time The Cure’s Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me was released, I was no longer with Mr. Commander and purchased it without any sort of fight from anyone.

I wore that cassette out, too.

Disintegration?

Yeah, I wore out two of those tapes before I had a CD player, and when I did get a CD player, the first CDs I bought were those 3, followed closely by Wish.

Unfortunately, I went through another “I’m Letting a Male Run My Life” phase when I, again, put someone else’s desires and interests before mine. Similar to Mr. Commander, he also had a disdain for The Cure for some reason and would only play music that he liked. And I went along with it. Again. Oh asshat of asshats I was…

That relationship ended with a costly legal battle and the changing of my last name back to its original version.

Once I stood up for myself, I turned right back to The Cure, adding each subsequent album release to my library and each song to my playlist.

Out of all of my music favorites, The Cure has been most influential throughout my life. Every song is meaningful, and some of the meanings have changed as I’ve grown and matured. I find the lyrics full of wisdom, empathy, and comfort. Something I love about The Cure is how each album has a distinctive sound and feel, different from the others, while the mainstay of Robert Smith’s unique voice soothes, cries, encourages, understands, and excites.

I obviously love The Cure, but I only saw them in concert once. That was during my heydey of being a party girl. I have little to zero recollection of the concert at all. I don’t remember who I even went with. Proud moment for me right there.

When I saw the announcement that The Cure was going on tour this summer, I knew right away that nothing was going to stop me from seeing this concert. Not my health, not my schedule, NOTHING!

I immediately talked to friends who were also fans of The Cure, and we agreed to try and get tickets for their show at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Well, we were all disheartened when the show sold out almost immediately. Not to worry, as The Cure knew that a lot of their fans weren’t able to get tickets, so they added two more shows.

When those tickets went on sale, we got them and were in! Sunday, June 19, baby, and our concert date was here before we knew it.

I am so thankful to have had four wonderful friends along with me for The Cure concert adventure. Three of us took the train in, while the other two met us in front of Madison Square Garden. We had dinner and putzed around, and soon enough, the doors were open and we made our way inside.

What are the odds that the vendors sold not only pins but postcards? It was kismet! I also purchased a quintessential tour T-shirt too and immediately put it on. I’m actually wearing it right now.

We were in our seats well before the opening act, The Twilight Sad, took the stage. They were excellent, and I’m glad to have found another group of real musicians to add to my playlist.

There was a brief intermission, then as the stagehands made the final instrument and set adjustments, the lights dimmed and the audience began to cheer and clap.

Two minutes later, The Cure took the stage. I couldn’t believe that Robert Smith and the band were right there, in front of me!

The band began an opening riff, and I simply was in disbelief: NO WAY! It couldn’t be!

The Cure opened with “Open.”

A little sidebar here: if you read the lyrics to “Open,” you’ll get the gist of what the song is about. “Open” is how I felt pretty much during my entire 20s: “The way the rain comes down hard, that’s the way I feel inside.” I did not like who I was during that time in my life, and to hide that, I drank way too much and way too often. Bad decisions all around for years.

Today, the song shows me what I’ve overcome. It’s on constant playlist rotation. I intentionally listen to it often to remind myself about how far I’ve come, and how much further I’d like to go.

Hearing The Cure open the show with “Open” reassured me that I was exactly where I needed to be at that moment, and I took it all in. I felt like Robert Smith was singing just to me…empathizing, encouraging, and understanding as always. I’ve now resolved to be OPEN with what life hands me and to following the cosmic signs that are surrounding me every day. It’s a true adventure every day, with The Cure always playing in the background.

I was amazed at how great The Cure sounded. Everything was authentic, and real, and wonderful. The musical talent combined with that distinctive voice played favorite after favorite, including “Pictures of You,” “Hanging Garden,” “If Only Tonight We Could Sleep,” “High,” “From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea,” “Just Like Heaven,” “Love Song,” “Primary,” “Cut,” “Snakepit,” and more. So incredible, each and every song.

It was simply euphoric, and one of the most meaningful experiences of my life.

Even though I was sharing this experience with friends and a sold-out crowd of over 18,000 other fans, I was also alone.

It was me and The Cure, alone. As I listened and danced and sang along…

I was that 15-year-old girl who wanted to buy Staring at the Sea with the song “Primary” on it.

I was that 17-year-old girl dancing to the junior prom song “Just Like Heaven” with my classmates.

I was that 18-year-old soon to be high school graduate playing “Snakepit” as I drove around the Inlet.

I was that 19-year-old girl listening to “Pictures of You” and “Love Song” in my college dorm.

I was that 21-year-old listening to “High” when I got ready to go to the local watering hole for the night.

I was that young woman facing divorce who listened to “Cut” for courage.

And I was that 45-year-old woman, finally looking back with acceptance and forward with excitement while singing along, word for word, to “Open.”

Even though they will not read this, I would like to thank Robert Smith, Simon Gallup, Jason Cooper, Roger O’Donnell, and Reeves Gabrels.  I’m only one tiny speck of their following, but this tiny speck is eternally grateful their influence. Their music, vocals, and lyrics have been the soundtrack for 30 years of my journey here on earth so far (that about 70% of my life), and will always be on my playlist until my journey ends.

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Thank you too to my friends Heather, Dan, Jennifer, and Noah. And if anyone with local radio power is reading, PLEASE bring back the classic WHTG 106.3 radio station! We NEED it!