Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Writing on Writing, Part Twelve

An article in the March 1 edition of The American Prospect by Elizabeth Benedict got me to thinking about writers and writing. It also got me thinking about the foundation of where I come from as a writer and what forms my expression in words.

Twelfth in a Series

(Part One) (Part Two) (Part Three) (Part Four) (Part Five) (Part Six) (Part Seven) (Part Eight) (Part Nine) (Part Ten) (Part Eleven)

I was setting up my little stereo system last week after unpacking. To test it, I pulled out an old CD that I hadn’t played in a long time; Nether Lands by Dan Fogelberg. The title song is the first cut, and my response, as always, was immediate and overwhelming. For a few moments I was glad I was alone in the house because I was sobbing uncontrollably.

That song always has that effect on me. I connect it with so many memories of living in Colorado (the album was recorded in Nederland, Colorado, up the canyon from Boulder), of spending my summers in Rocky Mountain National Park, and the lyrics get right to me, especially the line,

I’ve seen the bottom and I’ve been on top, but mostly I’ve lived in between.

And where do you go when you get to the end of your dream?

I used the song when I directed a production of The Hunter in 1984 along with the second movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony. To me, both pieces added a great deal to the telling of the story, even if they only meant it to me. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wondered where I will go when I get to the end of a dream.)

I’m not particularly musical. I like listening to it, I have a decent collection of albums ranging from Bach to The Police, and I know enough about it to prefer listening to a good classical radio station over some of the crap that’s out there now. I took voice lessons as a part of my theatre training and I can get by passably if I have to in a solo. I took folk and classical guitar lessons when I was in high school and did well enough to play at camp in groups and by myself, and I took piano lessons when I was ten or so to the point where I can sit down and thump something out if it’s in C.

So what does that have to do with my writing? I don’t know the conscious connection, but when I look back at my work, I find that music is threaded through the stories as a part of the element. It seems to set the tone, as it were. When I wrote The Hunter, Dvorak’s plaintive tunes suggested mountains and wilderness, and the first line of Nether Lands, “High on this mountain, the clouds down below, I’m feeling so strong and alive,” conveys many of the feelings of the main character. Dark Twist, the play about the boarding school, cites The DoorsStrange Days, an album that got me through many lonely times at St. George’s by pretty much summing up how I felt about the place. The title of The Purer, Brighter Years is drawn from a line in a hymn that is sung every Sunday in the chapel near where my family spent our summers.

It is the winds of God that dries my vain regretful tears,

Until with braver thoughts shall rise the purer, brighter years.

If cast on shores of selfish ease or pleasure I should be;

Lord, let me feel thy fresh’ning breeze,

And I’ll put back to sea.

The play is about an elderly woman who gives up living in a retirement home to spend her last years living in her house on Lake Michigan, so I thought the sentiment was perfect for Bessie as she took up her life in the northwoods.

The connection, then, must be what we called in acting class “sense-memory recall.” If you want to evoke a memory of something, use something from another sense – a smell, a sound, an image – to bring it back and work from there. The sense of smell works best, according to psychologists, but since Smell-O-Vision doesn’t work on the stage or the page (no, I’m not going to include Scratch-n-Sniff in my manuscripts), sound is the next best thing to pull out the memories. Radio stations have figured this out, especially in targeting the baby boomers; why do you think the “Classic Rock” format with hits from the ’60’s and ’70’s is so widespread? Play a cut by the Beach Boys and suddenly it’s the summer of 1967 when you were young, strong, and in love: pliable to buy whatever the advertiser wants to sell you.

When I sit down to write I hear music in the background – either real or imagined – just as I hear the dialogue and see the movements of the characters. It’s part of finding the Muse and including her in the process of turning thoughts to words. It’s an incredibly personal thing – I never know exactly what feelings will come through. But just as Nether Lands brings out my own memories, maybe in some small way the words and images it helps form will convey those feelings to the reader. And that is the whole point.