The Singing Scribe

I was on stage recently, belting out a parody of Bohemian Rhapsody with a group of fellow musical theatre-ites (fortunately it was a paid gig, which made it bearable), and it got me thinking about music and writing and the ways in which we humans express ourselves.

I’m a trained singer and I’ve been involved in musical theatre for many years. That’s me angsting my way through a “Oh God, my husband loves another woman and I’m pissed” ballad as Svetlana in that glorious 80’s train wreck of a musical, Chess. Bombed on Broadway, but hey, it’s one of my favourites.

I adore being on stage. At least, I used to. There was a time when all I wanted to do was audition for show after show and spend my weekends, nights and many days rehearsing, performing, languidly lying about in silk robe and slippers in greasepaint-scented dressing rooms, indulging in salacious theatre gossip sessions and collecting the countless roses thrown at my feet on opening nights. (Ha! So much for that little fantasy. Not a one, people. Not a one.)

Things got harder when I had my daughter. Those late nights aren’t so glamorous when you still have to be up at some ungodly hour, rudely jolted into wakefulness by a little person demanding a poo/her breakfast/a box of hair clips.

And recently, I’ve noticed something new. I’ve become hyper self-conscious about my performances, and have even, at times, started to question my vocal ability. Can I still hit that note? Did I sing that line well enough? Am I losing my technical skills? Will I get sick just before opening night? Will I get enough sleep during the season? The anxiety about being on stage now almost outweighs the pleasure I get from the experience.

These days I am finding that I prefer another form of self-expression more. Writing.

Here is a way I can express who I am, but in a sense, hide backstage while doing it. There is no spotlight, no opening night, no petrifying thrill of the live performance. I can still perform, but “invisibly”, and to my mind, more authentically.

Ironically, I am taking even more of a risk. When you’re singing in a show, you will be judged on your performance, but you can blame the show’s creator for the poor material. (My GOD, LOOK what I had to WORK with! Andrew Lloyd Webber, how COULD you!) No such escape is available to the writer, and that does make one feel rather vulnerable. I am shy when showing people my writing or even talking about it – even if I suspect (or hope) it’s rather good. The writer works in solitude most of the time, in a kind of vacuum where she has no idea, really, whether she’s writing a Booker prize winner or a pile of excrement. There is no regular validation. No standing ovations, no flowers delivered backstage, no flattering compliments after the matinée.

And yet, it feels safer. And more real.

Recently an article I wrote about my personal experience of recurrent miscarriage and secondary infertility was published in a magazine, and while it was a frightening leap requiring considerable courage, I am pleased and proud that I did it. Already it has touched people. That means infinitely more to me than a generous compliment on my vocal abilities.

Having a musical ear is a great advantage when you’re a writer. As I write, I “listen” to the language appearing on the page. I can pick immediately if it doesn’t “sound” right. I read everything out loud to ensure the words sing and that the phrasing and sentence construction fall easily on the ear. The written word must have aural beauty as well.

So here’s my snippet of unsolicited advice to my writer friends this morning: read your work out loud. Listen to your story as well as reading it. You may discover an entirely new way of interacting with language and story telling.

Hopefully I’ll sing for many years yet. I still do the occasional paid gig here and there, and shows now and then. But it’s becoming increasingly important to me to spend my time doing something that feels more meaningful and lasting.

I think…I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.

Ooooo, I feel a song coming on.

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2 Comments on “The Singing Scribe”

  1. James December 5, 2012 at 8:06 am #

    A powerful piece of music works in the way good story does, even if it’s not necessarily narrative driven. Both art forms create an emotional meeting space that can include the listener/reader, and in which they can find their own resonance and even project their own life onto the piece. It’s that meeting space that both art forms allows the audience that gives them permanent currency. That’s why the last song, or the last story, will never be written.

  2. belllettres December 5, 2012 at 10:26 pm #

    Nice. And it got me thinking about one of my earlier posts, Leaving Yourself Behind. I talked about how the writer can never escape him or herself, and how, inevitably, the things that make us “us” – our personal history, our fears and loves and longings, our hatred and passion, inevitably resonate through our writing, often in powerful and unexpected ways. The writer’s life is projected onto the piece. Then he or she sends that piece out into the world and it becomes the reader’s turn to project. Thus any art form has multiple inscriptions upon it, giving it, as you say, life after life after life. (I was trying very hard to get the word palimpsest in here somewhere. It could be an appropriately literary image for this.)

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