My Writing Life – The Beginning
January 5, 2011 § 5 Comments
If you’ve read the “About MLS” page, you know that at one time, while in high school, I considered becoming a writer. I loved books and since my parents restricted TV watching to one hour a day (literally) during the school week, I read a book a day for years.
I’ve never been sorry I chose music as my major in college. I certainly had a successful performing and teaching career as a singer. But, I never left writing behind. I wrote research papers, a thesis, and the required dissertations supporting two lecture recitals – the graduation requirement for the DMA (Doctor of Music Arts).
I learned a great deal about myself while writing these scholarly tomes. I found I enjoyed research and writing, but I also needed a thick skin – criticism of my literary skills was far harder to take than of my singing. Well, almost.
The DMA is a performance based degree and I chose two composers to showcase in these two books – yes, books – and their accompanying recitals. I had no doubts that I could perform the music well. But the writing – could I do that?
The first book, The Soprano Cantatas of J.S. Bach, I consider a good, if not brilliant, paper on the well known works of a much written-about composer.
I did the research and wrote the work. I thought I had done a credible job. However, I had played it too safe. I had added few original thoughts to the volumes of observations made by others during the past 250 years, a fact that became the focus of my faculty committee. Their criticism surprised me. After all, who was I to disagree or contradict the masters’ works on “the master”? But I took their words to heart.
For my second book, on American composer Ned Rorem’s sacred solos, I determined to be forthright, original and so thoroughly researched that my committee couldn’t criticize me again – unless they disagreed with my findings.
And so I began. I didn’t just read every book that even mentioned him just once, I read him. Over the years Rorem has published at least six volumes of his memoirs and I bought every one of them and read and re-read. I took copious notes. By the time I was ready to analyze the music itself, I knew what every single critic and music literature authority in the world thought of Rorem’s music and I knew what he thought of how he had composed each piece.
Then I began to study his notes – the musical ones. I analyzed not just the sacred solos I would be writing about, but all his solo works. In the process, I came to some startling conclusions of my own, and they didn’t always match those of previous authorities. Determined to enlighten my doctoral committee with new discoveries and original thoughts, I took the proverbial bull by the horns and delved in. By the time I finished writing I had refuted most experts’ opinions of Rorem’s work.
Ready to polish, I decided that I needed an interview with Ned Rorem himself (I hadn’t been able to interview Bach, so I thought this would add a nice touch). I wrote to Rorem, asking him for the telephone interview and included the questions I wanted to ask. I received a polite but short note from him which ended with a “no” to the interview because “I can’t write your dissertation for you.” Ah well, I had tried.
I typed the tome; made the copies (each with a copy of my letter to Rorem and his response); submitted the work to my committee; gave the recital; and waited to defend. In the end the committee’s response was most gratifying. I had become the expert they wanted me to become. Their student had become the professor and they the students.
The DMA was conferred upon me in December 1982 by the Church Music School of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. I spent Christmas with my family, then headed back to Brazil where I would continue my career as a music missionary teaching young people everything I knew of singing, the art of teaching singing, and how to use music to the glory of God.
Meanwhile, my father received the 3 bound copies of The Sacred Solos of Ned Rorem from the seminary library. Only four bound copies were required by the school – 2 for the libraries, 1 for my committee chair, 1 for me – but Dad wanted two more. He sent my copy to me in Recife, Brazil. He kept one for himself, and, surprise, the sixth copy he sent to Ned Rorem with a note saying he thought the composer might like to read it. Within a month two letters arrived from Rorem – one to Dad, thanking him for the copy, and a second, to be sent on to me, praising my work and congratulating me on my accomplishment.
I will remember this as a turning point for me. I have always been a good performer – opera roles, oratorio soloist; recitalist; theatre director and producer of operas and musicals in colleges where I taught. I still love to perform! But now I had another venue – the written word. I could research and write informative works and I liked doing it. Furthermore, others liked reading them.
I didn’t quit my day job, though. I only really retired from music a couple of years ago. But soon after my marriage in 1986, I was asked by my mother’s editor to write Bible study curricula for children. I jumped at the chance. After a few years I branched out to the secular children’s magazine market in fiction and nonfiction. Lately I have concentrated on historical middle grade novels. Nothing is published yet, but I have hopes!
And in every new publishing road taken, I’ve drawn from that first success – the Ned Rorem experience. If the work is nonfiction, I delve deep into the research and analysis, put it on paper with (gulp) new conclusions contrary to other writers’ opinions, and get it out there for all to see (we’ll talk about ‘separation anxiety’ later!). If the work is fiction, I delve deep into the research and … you get the picture.
Recently, a writer I met at a conference told me he didn’t need to do research because his book’s setting is contemporary. No, no, no! Research is the heart of everything written and after the initial creative story line, must go hand-in-hand with you through the process. Research must be done so well, and the results must be woven into the story so smoothly, that the reader absorbs it with the drama and nary a blink.
Be brave. Be daring. Read everything. Analyze everything. Write, write, write. And then push the fledgling out of your nest and let it fly!
Mary Lois – what an interesting read! I’ve known you for ten years but didn’t know about this doctoral experience. Thanks for sharing!
I am impressed with your pathway to the writing life, Mary Lois. Knowing about and hearing you read from your middle school novel writings, I know you are bound for success with publishing your work.
You are so right about research. And I find the best tool for learning how to write well is to read, read, read–writers like Jodi Picoult whose metaphors and similes are so original. Her novels teach as well as entertain.
Thanks for sharing this story about forming your own opinions (after thorough research) and then owning your voice. It rings very true with what I know about you.
Great story with a great approach spelled out for us!