Words and music

This week I’m underlining the link between music and the written word, mainly by the shameless use of other peoples’ words to prove my point.

Music and words have in common that they are both made of small separate parts that can be placed together in a variety of ways to produce a greater whole, one that reveals meaning and emotion to the listener or reader.

But it’s not only poetry that has a rhythm or musical, melodic features. Prose whether  fiction or non-fiction makes use of rhythm and even tempo to draw in the reader, whether it be repeated use of phrases or words to prove a point in a speech or a polemic article or essay, or whether it is a deliberate use of stylistic elements to lull the reader into a certain mood or to create tension and dramatic emphasis.

But don’t take my word for it, let’s hear from some notable people much better equipped to comment than me.

Music expresses that which cannot be put into words, and that which cannot remain silent. Victor Hugo

Okay, true he has just unproved my point there but bear with me. He created a link between words and music and the emotional power each of them seek to demonstrate.

And those who were seen dancing were thought insane by those who could not hear the music. Friedrich Nietzsche

We all dance to our own (unheard) music, at least, I hope we do, inside if not actual dancing. But I believe it’s true that as a reader it’s hard to completely capture the author’s vision, and as an author, it’s hard to put onto the page in concrete terms something you’ve only glimpsed in a dream. Not everyone will hear your music.

Most people die with their music still locked up inside them. Benjamin Disraeli

Don’t be one of these people! I think creative expression of all kinds can only enhance and beautify an otherwise difficult life. Reading—and listening to music—promotes good mental health, stimulates creativity, positivity, intelligence, compassion, socialisation and arguably conversation. So it’s a good thing to surround yourself with artistic endeavours and to enjoy them.

Here are a few more, in case you still need convincing. Read books, listen to music and prosper, as Mr Spock probably would have said if a writer had given him those lines.

It is always fatal to have music or poetry interrupted. George Eliot: Middlemarch

Poetry, plays, novels, music, they are the cry of the human spirit trying to understand itself and make sense of our world. Laura Malone Elliott: Annie Between the States

A fine work of art – music, dance, painting, story – has the power to silence the chatter in the mind and lift us to another place. Robert McKee: Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting

If you were music, I would listen to you ceaselessly, and my low spirits would brighten up. Anna Akhmatova: The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova

Poetry is prose bewitched, a music made of visual thoughts, the sound of an idea. Mina Loy: The Lost Lunar Baedeker: Poems of Mina Loy

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People watching

file0001711682994I don’t advocate, as a writing tutor in Brisbane once told me, that you should actually follow people to get ideas for your story or to experience what it’s like to ‘shadow’ someone. BUT I must admit I do covertly eavesdrop and watch people, especially in a coffee-shop situation.

I remember overhearing one yoof talking to another about his baseball cap. Yoof 2 was admiring the cap and trying it on. Yoof 1 said, rather anxiously, ‘Don’t you lose my cap, man. That cap is my identity.’

And what I see and hear often gives me ideas for a story. Here’s what happened one day. I must just add, as a disclaimer, that all I saw were two people in a coffee-shop—my imagination, tawdry and cynical, and my love of detective fiction did the rest!

So I was sitting there with my cappuccino and my triangle of ‘tiffin’, in a Coffeebucksta Emporium in the town where I live. And I saw this:

A smart young man, late twenties, in a very modern suit, latest hair-do etc., all smiles and full of conversation and with him a frail and bent old lady in a wheelchair. She was also smartly dressed and her white hair was also short and chic a la Dame Judi Dench. But she was way too old to be his mother. Grandmother? Great aunt?

I’m already plotting a story around them. He parked her at a table and went to join the queue. She was reading the paper. Maybe she’s not a relative but his Sugar Mommy?

The idea appeals to me. I can remember several detective novels where scandal ensues due to an inappropriate attachment between a favoured young man and an older, vulnerable woman. I like the idea that even in this day and age, a young man can still cash in on his good looks, and an old lady can still enjoy having someone to dance attendance on her.

I think she’d have someone at home to help with her personal care. And also the cooking and cleaning. I’m picturing a large sprawling mansion, empty of people but stuffed with suits of armour and gloomy, grimy portraits of people who have been dead for hundreds of years. Lots of wood panelling. Surrounded by vast expanses of grass and tall dark trees. Maybe some peacocks? An old uneconomical car, with her cosseted in the back under blankets, and him in front at the steering wheel.

And I don’t want to think there could be anything sexual involved (eww!) but that he acts as chauffeur, secretary, assistant, companion and entertainer. He flatters her, makes her laugh and she pays him for his smiles.

I think of the people that know her, local villagers? I imagine them talking to me. Or to a policeman sent down from Scotland Yard to investigate some awful crime. Perhaps she’s been murdered? Or him? Perhaps he’s the victim, not the perpetrator? Over our coffee, my informant tells me, “Well of course she gave out that he was her great-nephew, though I’ve never believed it. But she said it—you know—for appearance’s sake. He certainly is a charmer. And so patient. Well all I can say is, he’s worked damned hard for the money she’s left him. If there is any money. No one seems to be too sure about that.”

Was he a little too friendly with the nurse who looked after the old lady? Is that what they’ll say when her body is discovered? Did the old lady resent him giving those smiles to someone else?

Back in the real world, I’m picking up on tiny details. He returns with a coffee for her. Nothing for himself. Odd. He sits. She leans forward and says something to him, and he takes her cup and has a sip of the coffee, and shakes his head. He returns it to its saucer. Too much sugar? Not enough? Does this taste a little odd to you? I’m not sure what is going on, but she doesn’t drink it.

They don’t stay long. I think he was actually in the queue longer than they sat over the drink that went almost untouched. Why didn’t he have anything? Does she hold on a little too tightly to the purse-strings?

Even though he is smartly turned out, perhaps his shoes are showing signs of wear? Not quite as new or of such good quality as they first appeared? Perhaps she doesn’t pay him so well after all? Are there arguments over money? She thinks he spends too much, or asks for too much. He thinks it’s unfair that he has to beg and plead and justify what he needs, thinks she is too keen on having power over others. Perhaps it’s not worth it after all? Perhaps it’s time for this ‘arrangement’ to come to an end?

For one mad moment I think about taking her cup for analysis before the table is cleared. Then I remember. Only in my imagination am I a detective. Here in the real world, I’m just another person sitting in a cafe. But in my mind, and in my notebook, I have the bones of a story.

***

Choices, choices, choices – or, How To Be Your Own Worst Enemy

I’m stuck between two equally appealing choices.  Do I stick with the first draft I’m working on that has finally, after 18 tricky chapters, begun to gather speed and a life of it’s own, or do I set that aside for two or three months and go back to begin rewriting a completed first draft, which I’ve rashly announced will be available to the public by the end of September?

This is not normally a problem for me as I don’t usually work on two books at once.  But this year I’ve had more time for writing and things have got a bit out of hand.  I remember years ago, a writer who wrote two distinctly different series under different names (who was that woman?) used to have two desks, one for each author/series.  She would ‘become’ the appropriate writer, according to which desk she sat down at.  She used the different physical spaces to inform her creative ability.  So does this mean I need a second desk?  I don’t know if I’m the right sort of writer to do that.  I mean, it might work for some of the time, those days when I woke up and I just knew who I was.  But most of the time it just wouldn’t work for me.  If I had two desks, I absolutely know I would end up writing somewhere else completely, because I hate making decisions, i often find it paralysingly difficult to make a decision between two choices.  Maybe it’s because as a Libran I can see both sides of the argument, I’m a pros and cons kind of gal.  The problem with seeing two sides to things is that you never actually get anything done.  Like a rabbit caught in the headlights, you are trapped between two choices.  What I need is for someone to tell me, this is what you’ve got to do.  But then, sometimes, that little rebel in me says to itself, “well, I’m not going to!”

In the end, what happens is that my inner editor pounds the desk (any desk) in frustration and shouts, “just pick one, dammit!”  and so I do, and I get on with it, all the time glancing back over my shoulder and wondering if the other story is greener.  I haven’t got to that stage with this current dilemma yet.  Still got another couple of days of paper shuffling and doubt before that happens.

carries messy mini desk

Why?

Why do Writers Write?

I’ve often asked myself why.  Why do I do this?  Why do you do this?  Why do we spend hours every day – or most days – engaging with the blank screen or blank page and labouring to produce words – words with meaning, emotion, information?  Words.

And why words?  Why not knit, draw, bake, garden, make model planes, breed dogs, or even just do a nine to five Monday to Friday job with a salary you KNOW is going into the bank on a set date, then go home each day and barbecue some steaks or sit in front of the TV or go to a nice restaurant with your family?

I used to think it was just because I was screwed up.  Or because I was an only child and not used to company or because I had to make my own entertainment, or because putting my thought-words into actual vocalised words was hard.  Part of me still thinks this might be true.  Even though I have a family, I’m still a very solitary person.  I don’t mean to be, I don’t even like to be alone that much, but it’s a kind of a habit, I’m used to it.

But that isn’t the whole reason.  And I suspect (haven’t actually checked!) that there are a number of sociable writers out there from large, boisterous families, writers who enjoy engaging with others.  So why do they write?

When asked why as a mother of a growing family, she had stopped writing, Winifred Watson, author of the wonderful ‘Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day’, said “you can’t write if you’re never alone.”  Watson was a hugely popular author in the 1930s and very successful, but now she is almost unknown.  If she wrote purely for personal fulfilment, then once she was married and raising a family, I can understand that the need to write may have gone, or been satisfied in domesticity.  But for myself and for many writers, I still don’t think this is the whole story.

There is something about creating another world, something about purging myself of all those words that need to be put onto paper.  But it’s not just about escaping reality, not just about unburdening oneself.  Yes, it is often – but not always – a compulsion.  There is an urge to create in an abstract way sometimes, a need to make something with your mind, your hands and then be able to step back and think, ‘yes, I did that’.

There is also a desire to communicate with others.  Often as writers we wonder if other people – our readers – will see and understand the message we are seeking to bring to them, and if they will see it in the same way that we see it.  Often they do not, and they find something new in our words.  Literary Criticism shows that reading is an active process as is perception, and that there are many ‘truths’ hidden in a text.

One well-known writer whose name escapes me at the moment said, when asked why she wrote, said that the question should really be, “why doesn’t everyone?”

The jury is still out on this question.  I think it may be one of those how-long-is-a-piece-of-string type questions.  So I will close with a quote from a book that has been the most influential on my writing career:  Dorothea Brande, whose book ‘Becoming A Writer’ was published in 1924, said this: “A Writer writes”.

End of.