Riffing on Riff

Riffing on Riff

This post is Riff’s 50th.  

We’ve only been around since late October of 2020, but already have posted some “Greatest Hits” with topics ranging from the gratitude of whales to “pop ops” about Harry and Meghan. 

We’ve been given sweet and salty slices of life by Nick Carbó, Rick Moody, Cornelius Eady, Owen Egerton, Ellen Sweets, Lee Martin, Ruth Pennebaker, Wang Ping, Jim McGarrah, and many others. They’ve shared quick-to-the-blood experiences; plumbed arguments; advised writers; and revealed questions behind questions (sometimes pretending to be answers).

In this epic time, compressed like a haiku written by Homer, we’ve watched the fall of Trump and the rise of human decency. Filling the vacuum left by binge tweeting, we now have substantive dialogue about science separate from opinion, infrastructure, climate change, and the impact of white privilege on black lives. We can again admit that problems exist and need creative solutions. As we rejoin the global community, we recognize the humility of leadership. We are regaining our dignity and owning our shame. American Democracy proved frighteningly fragile. 

Behind it all, driving both action and inaction, nationally and world-wide, has been the beating drum of the pandemic.

And RIFF has been there the whole way, aiming for crafted, fast reads on the themes of the day. While the word “riff” is rooted in jazz, we can apply a literary meaning, “To improvise in the performance or practice of an art, especially by expanding on or making novel use of traditional themes.” Apt, especially when one considers the etymology of the word as a “quickening” of the word “refrain.”

The literary appropriation of musical “refrains” seems about as natural as adding lyrics to song.

Milan Kundera in his astounding novel of ideas, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (which somehow survives translation admirably), blends philosophy, romantic love, history, and human values as seamlessly as brass, percussion, strings, and operatic trills. He then pilfers Beethoven’s motifs for his own character, Tomas:

“Tomas shrugged his shoulders and said, Es muss sein. Es muss sein. 

It was an allusion. The last movement of Beethoven’s last quartet is based on the following two motifs: Muss es sein? Es muss sein! / Must it be? It must be!

To make the meaning of the words absolutely clear, Beethoven introduced the movement with a phrase, ‘Der schwer gefasste Entschluss,‘ which is translated as ‘the difficult resolution.'”


This fusing of philosophical and musical imperatives feels right to me. Kundera’s characters find themselves driven by fate and thwarted by political and historical pressures (e.g., The Prague Spring) that challenge and then push their personal stories.

RIFF gives us similar pursuits in smaller bites. While not a full-scale novel, RIFF posts are no less driven by their dynamic context: whether the pounding of the pandemic drum, the rise and fall of shrill voices, or the slow, comforting downbeat of a returning refrain.

Which brings us to my first bloggish 45-degree turn at break-neck speed–my eager affinity with musical metaphors, which is more than a little odd since I’m far from being musically inclined.

My singing sounds like the offspring of a crow and a cat in perpetual heat. I snap my fingers and tap my foot mid-beat.  My overbite kept me from forming a tight enough “O” even to whistle well. My second-grade violin lessons never made it past two weeks of a screeching “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”

We didn’t play “air guitars” when I was growing up, but hairbrushes made great microphones. From my bed-stage I’d shriek Beatle songs to an imaginary audience, a year later the Monkees, then Grand Funk Railroad, and by mid-teens, Jesus Christ Superstar and Neil Young.

My unrequited passion for music took vicarious turns. In college I went with not one but TWO jazz guitarists, both of whom had albums in the day. And, truth be known, I don’t even like jazz guitar.

But, I did love jazz and its steamy, twilight world: the low moaning sex of the sax, the tinkling piano keys, the swish of the brush across a drum . . .  I’m naturally a night owl—and here were my peeps . . .  a whole subculture rising under the dark, moon-shaped gel spots and nimbus clouds of smoke, nights that synched with Manhattans, chilled straight up.

Jazz and its whole heady lifestyle colored outside the lines, yet, like graffiti, told it like it is.

Conversely, scat singing took the human voice and turned it into an instrument, escaping the L-R confines of sentences, blending nonsense syllables into pure music. Having belonged to a Jesus-Freak cult for one of my teen years, I remember the swaying and harmonious stupor of speaking in tongues until (we were sure) our blood flowed God.

Three cocktails and a little Coltrane can do the same thing.

Or so it seemed.

In the day.

In retrospect, now, seriously sober and watching CNN, and reflecting on life carved into years, themes, blog posts, it occurs to me I really don’t know what I’m talking about, except that I am drawn to extended metaphors, to analogy, as are salmon to spawning waters.

Unable to sing or whistle or play an instrument, I found that soul-thumping sumpin sumpin through words and their craft. I could choose, instead, to become a conductor of all those off-beat, truant voices and braying instruments inside myself that want to play on stage, piped into elevators, alone in the shower.

Music and reading. Music and writing. Of course! I am in thrall to Kundera’s brilliant overlay of Nietzche with Beethoven.

Think Ragtime, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, Amadeus.

From yet another prespective, who hasn’t walked down the street to the beat of a sound track playing behind us? Or found an ear worm thematically informing our every decistion for the day (“That’s the way, uh huh, uh huh, we like it uh huh, uh huh. . .”)? Or replied, almost singing, “Que sera sera“?

Music also gives us literary folk a wealth of metaphors where even poetry sometimes fails to deliver. “Harmony,” “Discord,” “Movement,” “Counterpoint,” “Accent,” “Cadence,” “Motif,” “Chord,” “Tone deaf,” “Composition,” “Genre,”” Croon,” “Phrase” – what writer or teacher of language hasn’t shared these terms to describe a voice, a brand of discourse, a form of writing?

After a few other hairpin turns, I’ve finally riffed my way back to RIFF. What a great word. Like “truffle,” “quip,” or “praline,” it’s just fun to say. And the meaning of “riff”–an improvisational or inspired refrain–is spot on what we hope to achieve.

Social media has taken on a life we didn’t expect. Why not use its existing infrastructure, like an autobahn, to drive readers back and forth between the blog, writers, and each other?

For those of you with Facebook, we’ve set up a RIFF group that acts as a reception lobby to chat it up with writers, other readers, literary professionals, and students. We share literary jokes, comment on RIFF blog posts, and try out some “riffs” of your own. Readers and writers are instantly interchangeable peers.

If you are not a member, but would like to be, join us here.

If you are new to RIFF, below by month is an entire table of contents with links to past articles and multi-media “jam sessions.”

Two forms, two motifs: Muss es sein? Es muss sein! / Must it be? It must be!


Jam Sessions: Vlog / Streams, Interviews, performances, talks, multimedia


JAM SESSION with Kathleen Rodgers | Interviewed by Jan Morrill

JAM SESSION with Dennis Bock | Interviewed by Michael Merschel

“In this epic time, compressed like a haiku written by Homer, we’ve watched the fall of Trump and the rise… of dialogue . . .”


Wagon of Books

Now, the brevity of childhood is no longer in my imagination. I know it all too well, which makes the hugs even more precious and dear.

– Jan Morrill


COVID Has Made Me Old Before My Time | Marcia Smith

Of Cattle Crossings, Barbed Wire, and Cuddle Corners | Natalie Walston Abbott

The Ineffability of a Hug | Jan Morrill

Jam Session: 2020 NYE with the Cornelius Eady Trio | Riff by Writers at Large

Wagon of Books

“Twilight is the hour of the Motherless Child / Another man gone, gone down that lonesome mile . . .”

–Cornelius Eady

April is still in the making

Featured pieces can be found on the RIFF main-page carousel. Posts range from traveling tips in the real world to the unexpected benefits of rewiring our own lives in response to the Pandemic.

Watch for new pieces coming from Joy Harjo, Lee Martin, Debra and Josephine Decker, Kenna James, Ivica Profica, Laura G. Owens, regular contributor Ellen Sweets, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Wang Ping, and others.

We’d love to have you involved, whether as a contributor, a reader, a committee member, editor, WordPress assistant, and / or volunteer.

RIFF has many such helpers, some of whom you may never see on our carousel.

  • Special thanks to Zeke Fritts, whose contribution to making RIFF a reality has been nothing short of essential.
  • Heather Zacny, too, makes RIFF possible–amazing artistry and website skills. You continue to amaze me.
  • Also BIG thanks to Debra Levy, Beth  Riemenschneider, Michael Merschel, Jeanne Devine, Michael Puttonen, and Jan Morrel.

We would love to hear from you. Please check out our many topics, read some of these posts, follow the guidelines, and send us your own work. You can try out your ideas first on our Facebook group if that makes you more comfortable. Or watch from afar for as long as you like.  RIFF really is for “Today’s Fast-Paced Word.” RIFF‘s Contribution page link–here.

Simply staying open can be one approach to the Beethoven / Nietsche dilemma of the “difficult resolution.” Writers rely on solitude to write, as do readers to read, but we’re also hard-wired social creatures. Writing is our most intimate art form, as we can get inside another’s pattern of thought, and connect on a genuinely deep level. WHAT IF this connection we create together here becomes “group telepathy,” only each of us can choose what and why and when? Privacy or revelation remains our own.

Many of us have been listening and tapping our feet a long time, both to the beat of discourse and also in impatience for what’s to come. We don’t know the answer. 


Maybe never.

Muss es sein? Es muss sein! / Must it be? It must be!

Humanity’s Super Power – Part I

Humanity’s Super Power – Part I

Writers at Large (W@L) came to me by climbing through the basement window—not walking through the front door. Three highly unlikely, unrelated, literary influences shaped the passions of my heart and mind: comic books, The Miracle Worker, and The Diary of a Young Girl. More specifically, Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Lois Lane; Helen Keller; and Anne Frank. Falling in love with each of them and their uniquely feminine powers, transformed me into someone who needed to transfuse their lifeblood into others.

While I was growing up, Samantha and Jeannie represented TV’s top heroines: two beautiful blondes, one with a hubby and the other a “Master,” red-faced yelling at them every episode if they dared use their super-human powers.

Wonder Woman and Supergirl were the antidotes to this feigned weakness: The first, an immortal Amazon and WWII war hero, never suffered the cultural contamination her young readers encountered daily; Supergirl, other-worldly, could stop a locomotive with her baby finger. Then we had Lois Lane, a mere mortal, yet star of her own comic book, using her brains every issue as reporter-sleuth, with beauty mostly incidental.

No one was telling these comic-book heroines to play dumb or weak. Even the sexy, slinky villainess, Catwoman, fueled my imagination more than those two neutered TV blondes.

My first really close friend who died was Anne Frank. This thoughtful young girl, who packed her wit, charm, and energy into every page of her diary, has been the best friend of millions of tender-aged girls since her death in WWII, just weeks before the Nazis’ surrender. 

In 5th grade I wrote a letter to her father, Otto, expressing my grief over the loss of “Miss Quack Quack,” as she was called in school. I begged him to tell me it wasn’t true, that she was really still alive, that her belief in the essential goodness of man wasn’t a mistake. I was only ten when the memoirs of a young girl had taught me the horrors of the Holocaust and the value of human life. This book, this experience of intimately knowing a pre-teen embarking on her journey into womanhood, changed me forever. Her experiences became my own–nurtured empathy, curiosity, compassion–gave me a compressed understanding of life beyond what my limited years could provide.

“This thought, if a wordless sensation may be called a thought…”

Even after many readings and viewings of William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker, I still get chills down my arm when Patty Duke, as Helen Keller, drops the water pitcher, transfixed, searching back to her infancy for the word “water.”

The miraculous Helen Keller believed this moment, this remembering of that single word–“water”– marked the precise instant when she became, fully, human.

In Helen’s own words: She [Annie Sullivan] brought me my hat, and I knew I was going out into the warm sunshine. This thought, if a wordless sensation may be called a thought, made me hop and skip with pleasure.

Gibson’s dramatic scene captures the actual event verbatim, with young Helen Keller excitedly patting the ground, the water pump, the chest of her own mother: I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned into the house, every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me.

Even as a child lacking sophistication and subtlety, I intuited that language, a vessel for moving meaning from person to person, was utterly profound. Writing and reading harnessed even further the power of knowledge, storing it for future use like some infinite battery, whether echoing back to the inception of the universe or rocketing forward into our imagined future. Inside this sprawl, our tireless desire to share stories connects us all.

In a nutshell, Supergirl and Wonder Woman modeled for me that women can be heroes, too; The Miracle Worker led me to understand in my bones how language IS our Super Power; and Anne Frank showed me the intimate and eternal relationship between reader and writer. Through reading, we can love beyond death, escape our bodies by entering another’s mind, and transform our own lives and the lives of others by sharing our common humanity.


So, these three sources shaped the passion I feel for words–written, read, and spoken—to the point where facilitating their craft became my life’s calling. These literary influences may have brought me in through the basement window, but I dashed up the stairs, short of breath to be sure, and can now unlock the front door to invite each of you in to join me at Writers at Large.

Part II will continue in upcoming weeks with the practical, program outcomes of all these lofty words and notions. Hint: One of them is RIFF.