Long before my first crush, I had a first love and it was music.
I was nine when I heard “Classical Gas” by Mason Williams in the late 1960s played over a loudspeaker in my school auditorium and I remember how it stilled me, insisting on my listen.
A few years later, at 11, I was away at overnight camp when I first heard “Little Green” by Joni Mitchell played by my guitar teacher. That was it. I was in love with how much sound – and how much could be said – with seven notes.
Decades later when I discovered the personal essay, I had the sense that these two word-art forms were deeply connected, that they were like prose cousins. Both forms are personal narratives that rely heavily on voice, pitch and pattern, sound and rhythm as well as pause. So many gorgeous ways to communicate, tell stories – make art – in only 26 letters!
Just a few years ago, in the midst of a songwriting workshop at the Old Town School of Folk Music, my hunch was confirmed. Words like hook, intro, bridge, refrain, outro and melodic line, chord cycle and lyrical phrase began to take on more meaning. These were terms that applied not only to songs but essays, too.
Since then, I’ve been collecting song-like essays that are essay-like songs. Just this week, I led a one-night workshop on this topic with a group of writers at StoryStudio Chicago. We talked about how the elements that make a song pleasing and satisfying to us are also true of the successful essay. Essay writers can borrow the tools of the songwriter to infuse their work with more dimension. To make their words sing.
Elton John got us started in this video where he explains his writing process for “Tiny Dancer.” Our musical readings included works by Bruce Springsteen, Joni Mitchell, Rufus Wainwright, Loudon Wainwright and Simon & Garfunkel. Our essays included work by Bernard Cooper, Abigail Thomas, Brian Doyle and Chloe Caldwell.
I fretted that there might not be enough to say – or enough material – to fill our time together but during the workshop, song and essay suggestions continued to spill from the writers in the room. There’s more than enough to get me thinking about a multi-week workshop on the topic.
Stay tuned. If you’re interested, email me and I’ll let you know when I can make that happen.
The Spring Issue of Thread has just been released!
Six new essays by six magnificent writers: How freedom smells. A light goes on – and off – in a marriage. Springsteen as a salve for the soul. A life-changing ride in an MG. The summer of Dahmer. Courtship with a cat.
Threadaversary! An Evening of Personal Stories
Join us as we celebrate five years of Thread for an evening of storytelling at Skokie Theatre.
What: A special one-of-a-kind evening featuring nine amazing Chicago storytellers and some special guests.
When: Thursday, May 2, 2019 at 7:30 pm
Where: Skokie Theatre
How can I get tickets? Here.
Writing for Personal Discovery: Making Art from Life
Spaces still available for my final writing workshop of spring.
What: A five-week writing workshop focusing on the personal essay.
When: Monday evenings, April 1-29, 6:15 – 8:45 pm
Where: Ice House Gallery in Evanston
How can you register? Here.
And yes, that’s yours truly in the photo above at 11 or 12. Check out that Marimeko bedspread!