Firstly, along with everyone involved in the publication of my novel, I was overwhelmed by the response to the cover and first page reveal on Monday – many thanks to all who got in touch! This is a busy time as I adapt to the strangeness of talking about my own book in guest posts and interviews (they’ll go live in June when it’s released) when I’m used to writing about other people’s, but it’s a lot of fun.
Fortunately Louisa Treger, a writer of many talents, has stepped in this week to tell the story of her enforced career change from violinist to writer. (Although not musical myself, Louisa’s piece was timely and relevant, as one of the guest posts I’m working on is my Undercover Soundtrack for Roz Morris’ excellent series.)
It’s a whole year since I read and enjoyed Louisa’s debut biographical novel The Lodger, story of the impoverished and unsung modernist author Dorothy Richardson, peer of Virginia Woolf and lover of H G Wells. It’s a fitting testimony to a life of creativity and complex desires in which the happy outcome of Louisa’s transformation from musician to author is evident in lyrical and melodious prose, brimming with emotion and atmosphere:
Before pursuing a career as a writer, I was a classical violinist, working as a freelance orchestral player and teacher. This stage of my life came to an abrupt and traumatic end when I was in my early twenties: I caught a virus, which turned into the debilitating condition ME. For the best part of a year, I was confined to the house, suffered from overwhelming fatigue and limbs that ached as though I had flu. Playing the violin was out of the question. I didn’t have the strength to lift the instrument to my chin, much less perform on stage.
Though it was a shattering experience, something incredibly positive came out of it because the enforced rest gave me an opportunity to rethink my life. I woke up one morning and had a Eureka moment: I realized that I wanted to work with words, not music. Actually, I think the desire to write was always there, below the surface: for most of my life, I kept diaries and scribbled short stories. I got diverted onto the track of being a musician because it is a non-verbal form of expression, and in some ways, this is easier than having to find the right words. Though of course, music holds its own challenges.
I now look back on my time as a violinist as a sort of extended writer’s block, and I believe that my illness was my body’s way of telling me I was on the wrong path. It was time to stop and change things.
Yet nothing in life is wasted. Music was fantastic training for being an author, not least because it taught me the discipline to glue my bottom to a chair and spend hours alone every day, honing my craft. Also, music training is all about precision. It sharpens the perception of minute acoustic differences that distinguish sounds, and this heightens one’s attention to the nuances of language.
Thinking about it, there are numerous parallels between music and writing; numerous ways in which my grounding in music was helpful to writing my novel. Firstly, rhythm: there is a relationship between linguistic stress and musical metre; shared aspects such as pace, duration and intensity. When I write, musical rhythms are in my ears and I draw on these patterns – probably more unconsciously than consciously – weaving them into the fabric of my words. Secondly, dialogue: the give-and-take between instruments in a Mozart string quartet is a perfect example of the kind of musical conversation I take inspiration from. Sometimes, the voices are blended; at others, two or more instruments have an exchange, or a single voice stands out.
There is also tone, colour and mood. Major and minor chords have different shades and colours, as do different key signatures. They evoke atmospheres and states of feeling that are nonverbal, but thinking about the mood of a particular piece of music often acts as a catalyst, helping me put emotions into words. The parallels between music and writing go on: alliteration, onomatopoeia, refrains, to name a few. Space doesn’t allow me to discuss all of them here.
Music lifts us into a different realm; it allows us to enter a place where our emotions flow freely, in a way that transcends ordinary experience. The best writing comes from this same deep internal place. Some mysterious essence that is beyond conscious thought takes over and words flow out. This is the place I am always trying to reach. Some days I am able to, some days I’m not; my ability to tap into it is unpredictable and intermittent. I only know I must sit down and write every day in the hope of finding it.
Music was, and still is, a huge part of my life; it informs every word I write. But nowadays, I hardly play the violin because it sounds far worse than when I was at my peak and it’s frustrating. There are many things I miss about being a violinist. I miss the feel of the instrument in my hands, so much part of me that it was like an extension of my body. I miss being able to express things there are no words for. I miss the adrenaline rush of being on stage. Frankly, I miss applause.
Still, I listen to music all the time. Not while I am writing because music is too powerful; it’s like a magnet, drawing all my attention to it. It shuts out the words. I listen in my car, while walking the dog, or doing chores at home. Also, I have musical daughters: one plays flute and piano, the other violin and electric guitar. The musical gene has found its way through, and this makes me happy.
Thank you to Louisa for this moving and inspiring piece – such a good illustration of the positive developments that can sometimes result from adversity.
Next week I’m planning to examine the possible reasons for the reluctance to discuss good sex (scenes) in fiction, prompted by my current reading of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D H Lawrence.