Writer’s Brock – “…I owe these distracting delusions to NELP”

There are periods of time that are supposed to change your whole life that invariably do, such as Freshman year at college or your wedding. One particular period changed me more than any other. It made me remake myself as a musician and songwriter. It made me realize that writing songs on demand is perhaps a rarer gift than writing most other things. I was poet when I got there and a troubador when I left. This had something to do with impressing women, of course. It had more to do with my ego however. Among the poets I was just another clever guy. Among the songwriters I stood out for my ability to crank out material. I felt I was the best, which is how I always like to feel. I wrote eleven or twelve songs in the six weeks that I was there. They were beloved and I became infatuated with musicianship. This was the begining of a bad habit that continues to this day. It never got me the girls I wanted it to get me. It never got me the fame I was sure that it would. But in those beginning months, at the age of 20, both of these felt attainable. For better or worse, I owe these distracting delusions to NELP. NELP stands for the New England Literature Program. It is a writer’s retreat run through the University of Michigan. In 2001, I undertook this program, which meant moving to New Hampshire for six weeks starting May 1st. We stayed in a campground on Lake Winnipesaukee, near Alton Bay. The place was spread out over six-hundred acres of lakefront forest. I spent most of my time on the porch of the dining hall. I would sit in one of the two green Adirondack chairs set in the front corner of the hall’s covered porch. There were no drugs or alcohol allowed at NELP, only cigarettes and coffee. This made the program feel like rehab for the first few days. The heavy drinkers were shaky and bitchy. Once they cleaned up, however, there was clarity to the experience that would surely have been missing otherwise. Adding to this strangeness was a ban on recorded music. The only way anyone could hear songs was if someone played them. I had brought sheet music for every Beatles song and could fumble through any of them at a given time. The demand for my limited talent was enough to make me feel as if my music were important. I didn’t have to be the guy who carried the acoustic guitar in social situations where it was inappropriate. I was asked to bring my guitar everywhere. This made me feel important, which is my favorite way to feel. A transformation overtook me accordingly. I went from focusing on poetry to writing song lyrics. Just about everyone there could throw verse together but that didn’t do the trick that music did. There were other changes as well. Most importantly was an introduction to recorded music I had hitherto ignored or been ingnorant of. Ironic because I could not hear it until NELP was over. I asked a new friend to list the five albums that I should buy as soon as I got back to noisy and drunken reality. So I was given these titles, which were to change the music that had become the focus of my life:
1. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea – Neutral Milk Hotel
2. The Soft Buletin – The Flaming Lips
3. The Lonesome Crowded West – Modest Mouse
4. Keep It Like A Secret – Built to Spill
5. Fevers and Mirrors – Bright Eyes
I look at this list now, ten years after it was made, and my friend feels like a prophet. I was seeing the future in a way. I set my mind on becoming a hipster as soon as possible. Indie or die. That was ultimately how those weeks changed me most – they made me seek to be rock star. Toward the end of the program I played a concert of sorts around a fire. I went through all tweleve songs I had written and a handful of covers as well. Underwear and bras were thrown at me. The girl I wanted called me a friend. There were dips and hills like that. After the cheers I first found one of the worst feelings I know. I felt the stage hangover. Everything I had I had given and still I was alone. I wish I could say that that pain from numbness left me with more experience playing music. It has not. I feel the absence of feeling still when my emotions are released until I am empty of them all. Even watching the sun set over Alton Bay could not move me. I was undead, a vampire who has sucked his own blood, another nocturnal freak wandering the night, hunting with game for game. After that summer I didn’t change into someone else. I only became myself, deliberately living out the image I wanted, as if a new identity were my Walden cabin. Who you are finds you even if God does not. I think of NELP whenever I hear those five records then still nascent in their fame back then, whenever I bang six strings with my fingernails, and whenever I remember when music seemed like something other than a cruel joke of corporeal fate lying to me, telling me I could make love of songs. I resent only that I never could.