Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Mary Karr, Nelson George, and a Story Sorta Song

On Sunday, I attended the Brooklyn Book Festival. It was quite a treat to be surrounded by so many books and authors. To celebrate books so close to home. The amount of panels and signings were overwhelming. Unmanageable really. So, like everything in my life these days, I had to choose carefully how to spend my time.

I decided to attend a talk with memoirist Mary Karr and the author and music critic Nelson George who were there to discuss music and literature. I'm embarrassed to admit that I have not read any of their work -- soon to be remedied because I actually felt real fear that Mary Karr would smack me or eat me alive if I didn't read her books, no real basis for that, just a feeling -- but the topic interested me more than any other on the schedule.

Among the many things discussed, there were musings on the rhythm and movement of cities, how each place has a specific music history, and the way musical styles influence writing styles. For example, George feels that Karr's writing sounds like whisky and honky-tonk. When he writes, he is attracted to a style that is concise but forcefully expressive, like James Brown.

Karr told a story about waiting for a singer to show up to a recording session for a record she is working on. When the singer did arrive, four hours late, she nailed the song in one take and left everybody in the room so overcome with emotion, they were sobbing.

Both Karr and George think that this rush of feeling, this immediacy, is what writers try to capture when they write.

Since music is important to the story I am telling right now, since I'm working with two singing fools in my novel, poor Adelaine and Luna, this discussion sent my brain into overdrive. I apologize, in advance, for the brain dump that comes next.

As many of you know, I love musical theater. But I know that a lot of people do not. They dislike the idea of telling a narrative through music and spectacle. I argue that musicals are not always about the big happy-clappy-snappy numbers. They rarely follow that show within a show structure anymore. The musicals I love are the shows that allow characters to speak and then step out into an actual and metaphorical spotlight and express their feelings through song.

I want to write a book that feels like that kind of musical. A story that steps away in those big moments and assaults you with the emotion, the way a powerful ballad does.

I don't think it's possible to take the feeling of live music and trap it inside the pages of a book. How could it ever feel the way a real voice or instrument feels? It can't be possible to tame the beat and measure it in words instead of notes.

But, in the same way that cities have their own music histories, I think that people have their own music histories. Music must flow through a life the way it moves through a space. Without getting too heady, too out-there (too late for that?) I think there must be a way to make music run through a character and come out in a way that feels a little bit like a recording, at least, of a song.

So I'm going to try to get my story sorta song right. I'll most likely fail. But, it seems I can only do one thing at a time these days (try as I might to do a thousand.) And this is time well spent.


  1. Melissa, what you want to write sounds like something I want to read. You are so right about music running through one's life and when (notice I said when, not if) you capture that, it will be magical.

  2. All right, now I am even more eager for you know what. And this is so interesting, to read right now, because tonight I'll be doing a bit of a voice workshop with Elizabeth Mosier. We are going to be talking about the sound that voices make on the page. I so wish you could be there, help us think it all through.

  3. Music and writing totally belong together! I have no idea how many "writing soundtrack" threads show up in the writing forums, but they're everywhere. I think you have a great idea for a story, and as someone who grew up inside the music industry, I truly appreciate how emotional both music and quality narratives can be.

  4. The arts -- music, creative writing, visual arts, etc. -- "speak" in ways ordinary language cannot, don't they?

    I've awarded you with The Versatile Blogger Award. If you're interested in participating, check out my blog for details.


  5. I love what you're proposing to do with your novel. Go for it, and don't anticipate failure! (I.e., don't rain on your own parade, and if you entertain self-doubt, just sing yourself that song from Funny Girl!) I also love it that you got a chance to hear Mary Karr speak. I attended one of her engagements last year at the L.A. Library. She's amazing, and SO funny. I've read all three of her memoirs, and after reading Liar's Club (which I read second, after Cherry), I thought, "Hmm... she writes the way Scout Finch would have written if she'd grown up to publish books (and if she were real, of course!)." Great voice! And I love it that she uses "overmuch" as an adverb.

  6. I agree that music and writing are entwined, at least for me. I get so much inspiration from music.