Open Wide

Image by Erich Westendarp from Pixabay

Nope, not a post on eating, or on embouchure (a new favorite word meaning lipping, or using the lips, face, tongue, and teeth to play an instrument–including our first instrument, our voice). But close.

Today I’m going to talk about singing. Yep, on a reading and writing blog. Stop me. You’ve heard me say here before that my next-life career plan is to be an opera singer. I feel pretty confident my lack of planning for the rigors of this job isn’t going to bite me in the ass, since I’m pretty sure my next-life ass will be incorporeal.

Lack of planning for this-life careers can hurt, however. Which is why I want to talk about the glories of hobbies and my new hobby. Wait for it…

Backstory: I was never one much for hobbies. By the time I was in middle school, ballet had progressed from hobby to vocation, as serious as a religious calling in my mind: all time-consuming and all identity-consuming. I was not a girl with hobbies but direction.

When injury knocked me off that career path, I briefly considered going to culinary arts school. I mean, I liked to cook–it was fun. Why not make a job of it? (Truth be told, I think I was just excited to, finally, eat.)

Next stop: English major. And here I am, writing for my job-and-passion.

However, it’s only as I’ve gotten older that I’ve been able to start separating job-and-passion and realize I don’t have to make a gig of everything I’m passionate about.

So, we arrive at singing. My mom and her mom both enjoyed singing, both sang with their church choirs, and plied Christmas carols at the piano on the eve. (Can you hear my children groaning at the very thought?) Neither woman conspired to rise in the ranks of the choral world or make a single cent off their voices.

Is it me, or does today’s gig economy-mindset encourage us to turn any talent, penchant, or hobby into a job? To monetize passion. And in doing that, does the passion remain? (I’ll let you know from the afterlife how the opera goes.) Here and now, I have to say, I started this blog as a little passion project and have rejected the idea of making money from it–maybe, partly, because it would make blogging a job. (And I have one of those already.) Do hobbies now smack of privilege?

They say that if you do what you love you’ll never work a day in your life—but what if what you love becomes nonstop work?

From “The Truth About the Gig Economy” by Julia Tache

Who has time for hobbies? Maybe none of us. Maybe we all should be striving to monetize every facet of ourselves. But, really, no one is ever going to pay me to sing.

Yet, that didn’t stop me from belting out the carols as the newest member of the soprano 1 set in my church choir. (Don’t laugh–or do. Either way, I loved it.) I loved it, even when I messed up the last few stanzas of “Come Join the Angels Singing.” I loved it when I probably didn’t quite hit the high note in “Carol of the Bells.” I loved it so much that when my boys hugged me after the concert, I didn’t think to turn the moment into a photo op.

So…jobs, passions, hobbies, gigs. What’s your take? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

But first, Merry Christmas, if you celebrate it. I hope that all the voices you hear sing sweetly as angels!

Aloud: Off the Page, Into the World

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In my next life, I will be an opera singer. This is not the first time I’ve made this declaration and it won’t be the last. (Mind you, the next-life gods need to suit me up with a better voice and the ability to read music, at the very least.) It’s not that I believe in next lives, but such a dream–belting out “o mio babbino caro” a la Maria Callas–is more of a this-life mantra. The hot stage lights, the costumes, the adulation–none of this is what appeals. It’s the voice. Our first instrument. When I tilt to strains of a violin, it’s because it reminds me of singing or crying, even keening. Same for the clarinet played in a minor key, like a folk singer’s lament.

Still, my voice is generally reserved for the rote songs of Mass, a little shower-singing, and belting out Whitney’s “I Wanna Dance…” with one of my boys. Fairly private venues; certainly not performance-grade.

As a young adult, I went from one silent art form–ballet–to the next–creative writing. We college-age fiction writers kept fairly quiet–our work was there on the page–until our monthly reading series held at a local art gallery, called Movable Feast (after Hemingway’s memoir and the relocatable series, which featured brie-and-crackers and grocery store sushi, when my friend and I were in charge of said feast).

My friend did–and does–write poetry, an art form more suited to recitation. Mic-ed, there were those poets at our Movable Feast, whose words took flight on the strains of their voices, some breathy and soft, some staccato and sharp, some exotically-accented. Sometimes, the words all but disappeared in the song of those poets’ voices.

Tone. Mood. Interesting language and turns of phrase. Even a surprise rhyme scheme. Moments. These are the elements that shine in recitation and are perhaps more dense and readily-found in poetry than fiction.

How to recite fiction? It’s not an easy task: Plotlines and plot points. Character names and descriptions. Landscapes. These details are easily lost to the ear when recited and best read on the page, in the quiet.

I know now that my success and failure (I don’t remember what I read aloud in grad school, and I’ll bet no one else does, either) when it comes to readings is less about my actual voice than choice.

My actual voice is not breathy and light; I cannot master the soothing monotone of an NPR announcer. My accent might grate on some more gentile listeners. Still, to read our work aloud is an exercise in performance we writers should seize–and so I do.

It’s been a year or so of finding my reading voice. There was the audio feature I recorded of my short story “Recruit,” for Flock literary journal. Then, I read a piece of flash fiction at a literary festival near where I grew up, where I felt at home, where everyone’s voices sounded something like mine. Most recently, I read at Little Patuxent Review‘s issue launch event from my short story, “While Our Grown Men Played.”

I had five minutes. Five minutes–to a fiction writer who trades in thousands of words on the page, sometimes daily. Five minutes for time and place and character and mood and theme and… voice.

As it was when I was a dancer on the stage, the during part is a blur. But I remember the after-the-reading discussions with several fellow readers at that issue launch, including local author and poet, Alan King. Thinking on it further, I have a few takeaways. Here are five ways to deliver a good reading:

  1. Forget the frame of a story; keep it short and tight.
  2. Pick a pivotal scene.
  3. Sensory description lets the audience in.
  4. Humor helps, when appropriate.
  5. Use your own voice (accent be damned).

I’m coming a little late to spoken word, poetry meant to be read aloud– performed really, rather than simply recited. But I think it has a lot to offer, not only in and of itself, but as inspiration for writing–and reading aloud–works of fiction or anything else. Check out spoken word artist “little pi,” who I met at the LPR issue launch event. And many thanks to Miami University Press in Oxford, Ohio, for introducing me to Janice A. Lowe, poet and composer of musical theater and opera(!), whose collection Leaving CLE: poems of nomadic dispersal, I’m currently devouring. People, I dare you to “unhear” such compelling voices, even if you only get to read them to yourself on the page.

Do you attend poetry, spoken word, or fiction readings? Listen to podcasts? Is there a poet or author whose voice speaks volumes to you? Have you read your own stories or poems aloud?


The sound of your story

 

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“Your voice sounds even weirder than normal.”

That’s my son talking, razzing my recorded voice again. (Yep, we’ve been here before.) For some reason, my resplendently nasal Northeast Ohio accent shines through especially when recorded.

No, I don’t sit around vanity-recording, but I conduct–and record–a lot of interviews for my job. (Luckily, I’m on the end that talks less.) And, then there’s something new on the creative/publishing front:

I’m recording a flash fiction piece of mine to divert my attention from work for a day submit for publication (and a nice award) to the Missouri Review‘s 11th Annual Miller Audio Prize.

Truly, I thought about having a friend read my submission (talking about you, R.!), which is allowed. This friend is a poet, and so she has had more practice reading aloud (in that soothing NPR announcer kind of way), but she also just has a lovely speaking voice–clear and pleasing to the ear.

Then, I thought, no, this story of mine takes place in my native Cleveland; the characters are Clevelanders. The voice should sound like it.

And so, for authenticity’s sake, I sought out the digital recording and editing app, Audacity. I’m learning to loop sounds for background (of seagulls; yes, we have seagulls–or lake gulls, anyway–on Lake Erie). And I’m re-learning how to cut out the extra-long pauses and goofs and “ums” in a sound file. My only previous experience editing sound files was during an internship with the online journal, Blackbird, in school, which was a long time ago.

What struck me this time around is how instructional it can be to look at the patterns of sound, like here:

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The flat lines are pauses between sounds, so I can quickly see when a pause is longer than the others–and decide whether that’s intentional, for dramatic effect, or not. (Like, I was sipping my coffee.) The blips are sounds, and to look at them can help me decide whether my phrases tend to be of the same length–and whether I meant it that way, or not. The higher the blip the louder my voice. Do I get a bit louder at the climax? Or softer? Did I do that on purpose?

This is a work in progress, so I’ll let you know how it goes.

Have you ever tried to see your writing in a different way–by hearing it in a different way? How’d it go?

 

 

 

 

Name your bliss

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Is it weird to mourn your mom on Valentine’s Day—with the holiday’s declarations of love, its overtures and SWAKs? This is love stuff, yes, but this is also word stuff.

In the dozen years since my mom left this life, I’ve become more fluent in the language of loss—and of life. Do not pity this post. I happily speak for me and her now, tell her stories to my kids who never knew her, keep her voice alive in mine.

This is mother-love, reborn, but it’s also language-love. Foreign at first and then familiar—even taken for granted—and all the more cherished when it’s gone.

Who among us writers doesn’t ascribe to “show don’t tell?” We illustrate and demonstrate; we craft a tactile scene. But let’s not forget to tell, while we have a voice to do it.

Did you see this coming?

Call your mom. (Or dad or kid or other love.)

Really, I can’t close without sharing some of the language I love most at the moment. If my mom were still alive, I would call her and read aloud this following passage. It’s from Michigan writer Bonnie Jo Campbell’s story collection, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters.

In The New Midwest, author and critic Mark Athitakis says Campbell’s stories “operate as both reportage and intimate human portraiture.” It’s this combination of stark tale and depth of character that draws me to Campbell’s work. But a well-turned phrase certainly doesn’t hurt. Try this on for size, this Valentine’s Day:

From Campbell’s story, “My Bliss”:

First I married the breakfast cereal in its small cardboard chapel, wax-coated, into which I poured milk. Then I married a cigarette, for the gauzy way the air hung around us when we were together, then a stone, because I thought he was a brick or a block, something I could use to build a home.

From my home to yours, wishing you a Happy Valentine’s, a Good Lent, and bliss in love and language, every day.