January 8, 2020
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
I have long admired Nancy Davis Kho's Midlife Mixtape blog, and her book The Thank-You Project impressed me as well. Deftly examining the power of expressing gratitude in writing, this book is empowering.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Blogger Kho debuts with this heartfelt and empowering memoir and treatise on the power of gratitude and the joy of conveying it in written form."
For my fortieth birthday, I celebrated big. I threw a dance party in my living room, served a signature cocktail, and wore a gold dress. I also painstakingly curated a four-hour playlist dance on the iPod nano (complete with a big sign that said DO NOT TOUCH THE MUSIC.) It took me three months to create that playlist and it was sublime. People who hadn’t danced in years threw off their shoes and danced until the hardwood floors were slick with sweat. Someone lost their underpants. Two women played air pan pipes to Shakira.
But ten years later, approaching fifty, I felt far more introspective about the approaching milestone. What I realized as I rounded the bend into that year was that I had only reached that point in my life with the help of others: my family, friends, mentors, bosses, etc. I decided the way to celebrate my birthday that year was to send a thank-you letter each week of that year to someone who had helped, shaped, or inspired me to that point.
That “thank-you project” became a profoundly helpful practice when that fiftieth year turned unexpectedly rocky, an effective way to remind myself of the support network I had, the hard things I had overcome in the past, the goodness that surrounded me even in difficult times. The Thank-You Project: Cultivating Happiness One Letter of Gratitude at a Time is my effort to give readers the tools and the motivation to undertake their own letter-writing projects, whatever their age.
Much of the book is devoted to suggesting to readers the type of recipient to whom they may want to send a letter. Because of the way I am wired, I asked my editor early on if I could include a playlist for each chapter. I mean, who writes a letter to a friend and DOESN’T hum, “Thank You For Being a Friend” by James Taylor, or “Best Friend” by Queen? I am told those people exist, but I have never met them.
When my editor waved the checkered flag, I finished the first draft of the book and sent if off to her. Then, while I waited for her comments, I sat down to create my chapter playlists.
In subsequent editorial revisions, I probably spent as much time finetuning the playlists as I did polishing the narrative arc and excising superfluous prose. The reason is simple: there are so many songs in the world that I just don’t know about, and each one of them might be the perfect song to accompany a chapter about writing letters to a favorite teacher, or a doctor who has been kind, or to your soulmate.
I mean, just when I thought I had the perfect song list for the “Lessons from Loves” chapter, which encourages readers to acknowledge the positive aspects of past relationships instead of just dwelling on why they ended, Ariana Grande releases “thank u, next” and oh my god what if I had published The Thank-You Project without that perfect song in the book? Each time I sent back edits, the playlists were a mess of new song additions and rearrangements.
Eventually the editor called a halt to further edits. She said the book was ready for the world; maybe she just saw that I’d never stop shuffling the song order on the drawing of the cassette listing for Chapter 6.
But I will never feel done with the playlists. I read so much music writing that I have a clear-sighted understanding of just how much I don’t know about music. When this book hits the shelves, smarter music-heads than I will say, “why didn’t she include X?” or “how could she have missed out on Y?” and I will say, “I KNOW I KNOW I KNOW.”
So consider this an addendum to my book, the embodiment of playlist perfection that is always just over the horizon. A book may be done, but a playlist never is.
The Playlist That Never Was
1. “When You Were Mine”: Prince
I’m throwing myself under the bus right from the jump. I failed to put this song onto the playlist about ex-loves, a song with a title that speaks directly to the topic and is by one of my all-time favorite artists. I blame the fact that I had already included a song with the same title by Night Terrors of 1927 that has possibly the best lyric ever about a doomed relationship on which we nonetheless look back with real affection: “when you were my waste of time.” Still! Does that beat Prince? Nothing beats Prince! What was I thinking?
2. “One of These Days”: Neil Young
Oh, it’s a song about sitting down to write a long letter to all the friends you’ve known, you say? Released in 1992, so I don’t have the excuse that it came out too late? By one of the best known musicians on the planet? Super. In my defense, I have a long-standing No Neil Young rule in my house, because my husband loves his music, and it give him something over which to try to persuade me. After 27 years of marriage, you have to find ways to keep things interesting.
3. “Locked Up”: Avett Brothers
As I considered my rubric of “who has helped/shaped/inspired me?”, I knew that my physical therapist would be getting a letter. Since that 40th birthday hootenanny over a decade ago, Dawn has helped me get over plantar fasciitis, knee pain, and a fun case of frozen shoulder in which my arm was so locked, I couldn’t get plates out of the kitchen cabinet for a year. Who released a song that includes a frozen shoulder lyric, just after I submitted my final draft? My favorite musical brothers from North Carolina.
4. “Teacher, Teacher”: 38 Special
I racked my music library and the internet and my network looking for songs appropriate for the chapter playlist about writing to teachers and mentors and other inspirations, and all I found was songs I’d be mortified to associate with Mrs. Green, my stellar AP English Teacher: “Hot for Teacher” by Van Halen, “Teacher Teacher” by Rockpile, “Brick in the Wall” by Pink Floyd. Last week, I mentioned the dearth of G-rated teacher-themed songs to my brother, who took all of 0.05 seconds to come up with this one. Well, now ya tell me. (It’s not perfect, but it’s less skeevy than my other choices.)
5. “Message to My Girl”: Crowded House
This would have been a two-fer. First, it’s by my favorite songwriter and someone to whom I wrote one of my fifty thank-you letters, Neil Finn. Second, I co-opted this song as a lullaby when our daughters were infants, and sang it approximately eight million times in the darkness of the nursery. At its heart it’s about giving in and letting love overwhelm and overpower your defensive instincts - and if that’s not the definition of mothering, I don’t know what is. Would have been great to include in the chapter about writing thank-you letters to our closest family members. Key phrase is “would have.”
6. “The Rising”: Bruce Springsteen
While my experience, and actual science, show that writing gratitude letters will make you feel happier in the long run, sometimes revisiting memories from current and past relationships can feel uncomfortable. Maybe you want to write to someone who is no longer around to read your letter, or maybe you realize you could have treated someone in your life better. That’s ok and normal and once you get past the sadness, the gratitude can really settle in. I wish I’d included this song that makes me cry every. Single. Time. I hear it. Sometimes we need a little push to get the waterworks out of the way.
My mom, who received the first letter I wrote in my Thank-You Project, is in her 80s and has significant memory challenges. I write in the book about the durability of her devotion to John Denver - not the real JD, but to a John Denver impersonator who performs in her town occasionally. When he’s not around, she sometimes bosses her kids and grandkids to do John Denver sinaglongs with her, and I feel like "Calypso" is really where I shine (hint: it’s all about the yodel.)
8. “Soulmate”: Lizzo
One of the sneaky things about writing gratitude letters to all the people who love you is that, at the end of the process, you are reminded that you are a person deserving of all that support. The songs on my playlist called “Now, It’s Your Turn” could all double as baseball walkup music, telling the world that you believe in yourself and they ought to, too. Lizzo, if you had just released this song a smiiiidge earlier in my writing process, “Soulmate” would have been a grand slam.
9. “Thank You”
Finally, even if Matt the Electrician had released this beautiful song with its fitting title before the book went to print, I’m not sure I would have included it. Because it’s the TL;DR version of my entire book, about thanking people who’ve given us a hand up and helped us along the way, sung with a sense of gratitude and humility. It’s pretty much perfect.
Nancy Davis Kho and The Thank-You Project links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists