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QUINTESSENCE

The Music in Narrative

 

Alone he is a solo for piano that never comes to an end,

a small plane that keeps flying away from the earth.

He is the last line of a poem that continues off the page

and down to a river to drag there in the cool flow,

 

questioning the still pools with its silver hook.

 

––from "Going Out for Cigarettes," Billy Collins
 
This is the first post in a series of personal "notes from the author" as we head toward the publication of my newest novel, SO LONG AS WE'RE TOGETHER, from Black Opal Books in September of this year. In my books I have frequently written about artists and the drive to produce creative work. A confluence of passion and obsession, and at times sacrifice, that cuts deep to the bone and may be as ruinous as it is successful. In previous novels I have written about sculptors (Loose Threads), and classical cellists and photographers (Exposures). In the process of writing each book I learned something about our fierce and brilliant, if fragile, humanity. In my new novel I delve into the performance world of country music, telling the story of the Stone twins, Andi and Marley Stone, and their rise from the singing kid stars on collapsible fairground stages across the west to complex seasoned performers taking the stage at the Country Music Awards.

 

In researching this book, I delved into the professional and technical aspects of songwriting and vocal performance, the thrill and disappointments of a life on stage, and the ways music like a balm may bring healing to the human heart. I held an image in my mind of an out-of-luck family living on the road; of an eccentric and erratic single mother hellbent to survive. Donna Stone lived on caffeine, her wits, and sheer ambition. She relentlessly promoted the musical talent of her girls –– yet Donna would stop at nothing to protect her daughters from harm. This idea grew to become a story of the bond between sisters, a mother's fierce love, and the dark power of secrets.

 

A story of love and what might break it.

 

In my novel, writing and composing country music lyrics anchor the life of one sister in particular. The synergy––even the synesthesia between words and music––and the transformational power of lyric vocals was very much on my mind as I developed the characters of Andi and Marley Stone. 

 

A few months back, as some of you may have read, I spoke with New York Times bestselling novelist Caroline Leavitt –– This is You, Cruel Beautiful World –– on her blog about SO LONG AS WE'RE TOGETHER, exploring the interconnected power of music and writing. [Link: carolineleavittville.blogspot.com/Burgess]  Here is what I wrote about music and writing:
 
Debussy was said to have painted music, Sibelius heard compositions as a symphony of color. As I worked on my country music novel, SO LONG AS WE'RE TOGETHER, I realized I was beginning to hear unspoken words within the music, not just the music of words. Language has always possessed musicality—and naturally and effortlessly transforms into the lyric, the song—but for me it was a unique experience to think about songwriting, melody, and a novel's narrative all from the point of view of a musician. What story does a line of notes tell when there are as yet no lyrics, when the song says nothing at all?
 
When words do partner with a melody there is a dance between meaning and feeling. We understand words, however we feel music. What becomes important? What is said, or left unsaid? Conveyed through language or simply through the notes of the song? 
 
I determined to make a deliberate effort in my narrative to infuse in the landscape, scenes, and in dialog, echoes of the musical performances of my country music duo, Marley and Andi Stone. I felt the twin sisters' music was as much a character in their story as the lake in the novel, or Donna, their mother. That for some characters, what they seek speaks their piece in the world.  Marley leaves heartbreak at the keyboard, finds hope in an inspired melody. Andi defines a world for herself by singing it into being. Donna pushes back a hard and disappointing life listening to the jubilation in the notes and verses of others. I considered the novel's narrative as a musical composition between all the parts of the story and an original melody took root in the pages, from the opening note to the last.
 
Many writers read their work aloud in draft to catch a lagging clause or repetitive word, dull sections, or run-on sentences. I read this entire novel aloud, by scene and section, and in a series of chapters at a time. Multiple times. Listening to the narrative was quite literal for me. I paced my small study as I read, attuned to the music in the words. The lake country as well as country music defined the Stone girls and I listened for that thread on every page. My hope is that when you read this novel, it will sing for you too.

 

I'm so looking forward to sharing this novel with you. Until then, here's to that "last line of a poem that continues off the page." 

 

May the music of your own words carry you through. 

 


 

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Last Year's Words

"Solitude" by David Lorenz Winston

 

For last year's words belong to last year's language. And next year's words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning.

 

- T. S. Eliot, "Little Giddings," THE FOUR QUARTETS

 

This quote from T.S. Eliot is my way of marking the end of the old year and welcoming in the new. In three beautiful sentences, Eliot expresses the truth about why we must change with the passage of time. Not only leave a part of ourselves behind in the history of the year ended, but define a new perspective for ourselves going forward. Or at least try to, else find ourselves mired in the past, chewing over the husks of old experiences, the things shelved and ended. Perhaps that is the wisdom Eliot wishes to impart: Be fresh. Live forward. The past has put its flame out. In ending, embrace a beginning.

 

Endings are concrete. Beginnings are powerful. Most of us feel the New Year is a time for breaking old patterns and for making fresh resolutions: to set new and better goals for ourselves. Perhaps this sense of opportunity is why we take pen to paper and reflect on what the old year wrought. What we wish to keep going forward, and what is essential to release and finish. There are burning bowl ceremonies and resolution lists, pledges and secret vows, pages tossed in the fire, so intense is our desire to begin anew. A new language, a new voice. We seek a different context and expression for ourselves.

  

What do we need? Confidence and well being light the fires of personal energy. Brianna Wiest wrote a very cognizant essay for Thought Catalog on this topic, "Next Year Let Go of the People Who Aren't Ready to Love You." [ https://thoughtcatalog.com/brianna-wiest/2018/12/next-year-let-go-of-the-people-who-arent-ready-to-love-you/ ] Follow the link and read for yourself what Brianna has to say. It's a short essay, to the point. Brianna writes, What you give time to is what will define your existence. She adds, "...the foremost thing you can do for your life and yourself and everyone you know is to protect your energy more fiercely than anything else." And what is good energy but positive mindset and confidence? A fresh language and a strong voice rising from within; rising stronger from what has come before. We learn by living. We become happier by acting on what we learn. Show up for you.

 

In the past I have shared here the resolutions or changes I seek to embrace in a given New Year. Everything from changing specific habits to expressing grand hopes for the world. But this year my thoughts are simple:

 

To move toward freedom of spirit and joy

To live in an attitude of gratitude

To limit the things that dim my optimism and embrace the things that fill my heart

 

Happy New Year. Please enjoy this beautiful image by David Lorenz Winston beside Eliot's poetry. You deserve the beautiful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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