News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Walking the 'write' path

Last Saturday, I had the honor of joining my fellow songwriters and musicians Lilli Worona and Mike Biggers in presenting "Songs from the Shelf" for the Deschutes Public Library. We spent an hour at Sisters Fire Hall with a wonderful, engaged audience serving up original songs inspired by books.

We introduced each song with a little exploration of what inspired them, and how we built them: Greek mythology, history, the etymology of common phrases.

I've always been lyric-driven. A tune and its instrumentation and arrangement serve as a setting for the words, for the story. The artists I most admire - Steve Earle, Guy Clark, Tom Russell, Corb Lund (see story, page 3), are ace wordsmiths.

Music doesn't need lyrics to live, and I am moved by instrumental and orchestral music, too. Even so, it tends to end up being a writing tool. I can pretty much guarantee that any piece I create for The Nugget is hammered out to the sounds of Bear McCreary's "Black Sails" or "Outlander" soundtracks, or Trevor Jones' epic score for "Last of the Mohicans."

Writing comes out of reading; the deeper the reading, the better the writing. None of what any of us do is truly original. As Cormac McCarthy said, "The ugly fact is books are made out of books, the novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written."

McCarthy, regarded by many as the most important novelist of the late 20th and early 21st century, died last week at 89. He left behind a body of work that will surely be immortal. This edition of The Nugget features two appreciations of McCarthy's work. That's no surprise, and no accident. Some of us around here are flat-out intoxicated by his incantatory prose, his evocation of landscape, and his bleak and often violent themes.

I found McCarthy at Paulina Springs Books in 1994. My song "Once We Moved Like the Wind" jumped off the shelf at me in the stacks at the Bend Library, the title of David Roberts excellent book on Cochise, Geronimo, and the Apache Wars. His title -and mine - derived from the Bedonkohe Apache Geronimo's words upon his surrender to U.S. forces in 1886: "I give myself up to you. Do with me what you please. I surrender. Once I moved about like the wind. Now I surrender to you and that is all."

We are incalculably fortunate to have an independent bookstore in Sisters that celebrates and nurtures the writing and reading life, and a robust, region-wide library system with staff that would think to put on a program such as "Songs from the Shelf." Our music festivals carry the fire of creativity and pass it to coming generations.

I've got an obvious interest in saying so, but I think it's pretty cool to operate a weekly newspaper that gathers together so many voices of so many people who share a love for the craft of writing, and who thrive on telling the stories of our community.

These things aren't found just anywhere - and they are under threat everywhere.

Part of that is on us. As a society, we don't read much, anymore. Our attention span has shrunk. We're told that anything much over 300 words will draw a TLDNR (Too Long, Did Not Read) response. Ugh.

We're told that people prefer video. I love video, too, but there's no replicating the depth of experience you get from intensive reading. And, anyway, video attention span has shrunk, too. Gimme that 90-second Reel...Ugh.

We've conditioned ourselves - a couple generations of us, now - to expect to get the content we love for free. That's not sustainable. Sure, creative people create for the love of it - but we also have to eat and pay the mortgage. If you value content, support it. Moral support is wonderful, and always appreciated, but we need to pay for what we care about it in the coin of the realm. Buy the books, download the music, and buy the CD. Purchase the ticket; subscribe to the Substack; sign up to that artist's Patreon. Oh yeah, and send a supporting subscription to your newspaper.

Another threat is existential. Artificial intelligence -AI -is not looming on the horizon; it's here, and it's challenging the fundamental meaning of creativity. Optimists see all kinds of opportunities to make creative work easier and more efficient through AI. They're not entirely wrong. AI -with its blinding speed and reach -opens a lot of possibilities.

Mostly, though, I see a threat to humanity. (Not trying to doom-and-gloom you. Like McCarthy, I am a pessimist - but there's no reason to be gloomy about it.) The deepest value in a song, in a story, is its heart. AI, no matter how sentient it becomes (or has become) will never have a human heart.

Regardless of what the very near future holds, I - like all the other ink-stained wretches who are addicted to spinning song and story from the raw material of words - will keep banging away. Though it might not be a bad idea to get our plasma rifles in order for the fight against our robot overlords.

That's a pretty good story.

Author Bio

Jim Cornelius, Editor in Chief

Author photo

Jim Cornelius is editor in chief of The Nugget and author of “Warriors of the Wildlands: True Tales of the Frontier Partisans.” A history buff, he explores frontier history across three centuries and several continents on his podcast, The Frontier Partisans. For more information visit


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