Words and Music By…

My friend, Linda Ceriello, asked me interesting questions about writers and creativity the other day. She’s one of my oldest friends, dating back to third grade, though we suffered a vast chasm of difference starting with seventh-grade angst that lasted twenty years. It’s funny that we were really only friends for four years, which should be negligible in the grand scheme. But the friendship was an intense meeting of like minds then and I find I enjoy the same things about her now.

I’ve been mulling her ideas since — whether writers like to analyze their artistic process so much because words are our medium. As opposed to, say, painters. She elected to leave musicians out of the equation, as a whole other kettle of fish, and I can appreciate her point. I’ve long been interested that authors will frequently choose painters as protagonists in books, usually in a transparent metaphor for the writer herself. There’s a certain two-sides-of-the-same coin aspect to writing and painting. Whereas musicians feel to me like the writer’s antipode. They seem to understand a world that has no words. Even though lyrics can be part of a song, the music part is this whole other aspect that, while it speaks to me, is also impenetrable to me.

David and I have this long-standing conversation that revolves around his hearing the music and me hearing the lyrics. The new Nickelback song, about the girl on the dance floor being so much cuter with something in her mouth, I don’t like so much. It irritates me, that whole attitude that a woman is most attractive with a piece of anatomy shoved in her mouth — and we all know it’s not the thumb. David, who used to play lead guitar in a band, likes the song, but didn’t know what it was about until I told him. And he still doesn’t care — and, no guys, not because he agrees with the sentiment — but because that’s not a relevant part of the song to him. Conversely, he gets frustrated with me when I can’t tell that a song is using the same melody played at a different rythm. I just can’t hear it, I tell him.

I have an Irish harp and I’ve been taking lessons for several years now. I did this deliberately, to learn to understand music. I have this idea that I can get to the point where I look at a sheet of music and all the notes will mean something to me in the same way words do. It’s hard for me, to both read the sheet music and watch my finger placement on the strings. I frequently lose my place on the page — something that has never happened to me at a reading. The words are there for me in a way the music isn’t. People think I’m being modest when I tell them I don’t play the harp well at all. Believe me, I don’t.

Frankly, I doubt I ever will.

A writing friend told me yesterday that she believes anyone can be a writer. That with enough study and dedication, everyone can learn to write a book. She’s also big on learning the rules of genre fiction and gave me critique on my novel based on how many words I have on a given page. And I don’t think she’s wrong. I think it’s probably good advice. But when she describes longer paragraphs as daunting mountains for a reader, it makes me think that I don’t see words on the page in the same way.

I don’t see paragraphs and lines of words, I see the images they evoke, the sounds and smells of the story. But then, I don’t hear the music when I look at a sheet of music.

I’ve often said that writing is a funny art to practice because pretty much anyone can write something down. I suppose anyone can plunk on a guitar or scribble a drawing. But in some indefinable way, it’s harder to discern when the writing achieves something more than stick figures and chopsticks. So, Linda, maybe that’s why writers spend so much time talking and writing about creativity and process. We’re trying to find how to define our art.

I feel certain (no qualifier) it’s not by the number of words on a page.

One Reply to “Words and Music By…”

  1. It is interesting how something so hypothetically common as text can be filtered so differently by our sundry perspectives. In my case, deep conditioning from years as a word-processor and then a computer programmer has left me virtually unable to even acknowledge the actual content of written words until I have mentally parsed the syntax and checked off the format. First and foremost, I see a character string that ought, to my mind, to follow certain rules. Only secondarily can I get to the ideas being represented.

    I can’t even go anywhere near any e e cummings.

    PS – I’m very glad that you and Linda are connecting again.

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