‘Music goes to a part of the long-ago brain’
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week’s post is by poet, playwright and physician Wolf Pascoe @WolfPascoe
Soundtrack by Michael Stears, Enya
Music (Roz’s words:) freezes the hurricane.
I find nothing more surprising than sound—all sound, music or otherwise. It goes to a part of the long-ago brain, the brain older than words, older than thought. Directly goes, not passing Go, not collecting $200. In that place, what you find is pure reception.
Breathing for Two is an odd little book, a somewhat lyrical meditation on anaesthesia from the point of view of the anaesthesiologist (that would be me). In its creative heart rest two pieces of music: Planetary Unfolding by Michael Stears, and Orinoco Flow by Enya.
Nothingness fills with metaphor
Most people, when they think about anesthesia (if they think about it at all) think scary thoughts. Perhaps the scariest thought is nothingness, and nothingness, being hard to think about, fills with metaphor.
‘Sail away,’ sings Enya in Orinoco Flow. I would listen to this piece in the O.R. at the start of an anesthetic. It provisioned me with a kind of joy and promise that I wanted to share, though I didn’t, for years, know how.
Planetary Unfolding, a work of genius in my view, is different. Here the metaphors are felt, not stated. At 1:44 into the piece we hear three notes, A,B,C, which repeat for several minutes. Begin at the beginning; travel up the scale, again and again. Jacob’s ladder? The portal to Andromeda? All I know is I am embarking, bound somewhere unsettling and hard to understand. I leave it to you where that is.
After I finished the first draft of Breathing for Two, I sent it off with high hopes to a fancy New York editor. I waited a month for the reply, looking forward to a few tweaks that would put a shine on my near-distilled prose. Then her response arrived.
‘It’s too personal,’ she said, and listed ideas for turning the book into something like You and Your Gallbladder.
I was crushed. She was New York, after all; I was St Elsewhere. I sat in my study and thought back to the impulse for the book. I played both pieces of music.
The problem is not that it’s too personal, I reflected. The problem is it’s not personal enough.
Out of nowhere rose the memory of a lecture, long forgotten, that I’d heard in medical school. It concerned a strange affliction called Ondine’s Curse—a condition where the body forgets to breathe during sleep. At the time the idea terrified me. I would begin with that. I had to tell the reader: this is a personal story, a ride worth taking.
I don’t speculate head-on about mysterious things in Breathing for Two. I tell stories which operate alongside of mysteries. I want the questions to be in the pauses between breaths.
After I published, I realized that Breathing for Two itself could never provide the experience I had in creating it. Of course it couldn’t. A book is a literary making after all, a thing of words. But I wanted a way to show the process I’d gone through; better, to regenerate it. What if I put together a trailer, a trailer with music? Maybe that would serve.
But what music? Neither Planetary Unfolding or Orinoco Flow quite fit the rhythm of this new context, to say nothing of the what they would cost to use. Where to turn? With the optimism given only to the uninformed, I composed my own score in Apple Logic. The result, one minute and 20 seconds of images, narration and music, is here: Breathing for Two Trailer.
Does it take you somewhere? I hope so. I leave it to you where that is.
Wolf Pascoe is a poet, playwright, and physician. Breathing for Two, his short, poetic dissection of life at the head of an operating table, is available as an ebook and paperback from Amazon. He blogs about fatherhood and his attempt to get the problem right at Just Add Father. You can find more about his writing at wolfpascoe.com. Contact him on Facebook and Twitter @WolfPascoe.
GIVEAWAY Wolf is excited to give away three e-copies of his book, in all formats. To enter, as ever, leave a comment here, and if you share the post on other social media that counts as extra entries (but don’t forget to note that in your comment on this post)
32 thoughts on “The Undercover Soundtrack – Wolf Pascoe”
Intellectually and emotionally seductive trailer. I was interested in the ‘too personal’ accusation, because I come across that a lot…several would be reviewers too inhibited by the responsibility of what they imagine is a raw beating heart. Yet what is a writer for if not to probe the deeply personal and find there the universal?
Totally, Philippa. I applaud the way Wolf decided to make the book even more personal as a response. Some readers might be scared by truth, but those who respond to it will value it deeply.
Many critics rightly fear sentimentality (Freud: all sentimentality is repressed brutality.) But one must never confuse sentimentality with heart. Without heart, what’s left?
Ah, very true. It’s a fine line; emotionality for its own sake, not building it in the reader too. Ursula Leguin said that one of the magical things about writing is that you can make readers feel they have lived another life (or that’s a paraphrase of something she actually did say). And often writers are feeling the emotion but struggling to pull the reader genuinely into it. I see a lot of misfires in drafts I edit. But the will to involve the reader is there.
I find it difficult to enjoy stories that don’t have that heart. I want to feel the writer wasn’t afraid to excavate. I want to feel I’ve had meaningful connection. It doesn’t have to be a deluge; exquisite restraint is just as powerful as a towering catharsis.
Loved the piece and the subject of emotion. Why do publishers fear it? I think it’s a problem with many books because if a book leaves me cold, I stop reading. And then I don’t buy future books by that author.
In 2010, I met and then wrote about memorist Mary Karr. So I went back to my piece and copied what Karr said:
“With memoir, even a bad memoir, whoever is writing it is very emotionally invested. There is warmth, I think, with the reader and a sense of connection with the material that fiction writers just aren’t ponying up with—they just aren’t. … I think memoirists are writing about how you continue to love people who have broken your fucking heart, how you maneuver in the world and show the inside, the complicated psychological insides of human relationships.”
And I agree with what she said. (Sorry about the f-word, but it’s hard to quote Mary without catching one or two or three.)
I also agree with you Roz that it is a fine line. A deluge of emotion tends to make people hurry away (think of a child throwing a temper tantrum in public). Compare a foot-stomping, screaming child to one catching your eye. You see his lip quiver, his eyes tear up. And your heart goes out to him. In revision, if you think a scene is too emotional, ask if your having a pity-party, screaming fit or showing genuine emotion. Is it necessary to “purge” or show “exquisite restraint”?
Now I’m off to buy Breathing for Two. And I can’t wait to read it.
Mary Karr. My hero. Interesting point about fiction writers not “ponying up.” I just re-read Anna Karenina and can’t stop worrying about Anna. I don’t think Tolstoy had a ponying up problem. I wonder if Karr would connect the problem to graduate writing programs? I don’t believe Tolstoy had an MFA 🙂
I love what Paul Simon said about all this in a 1984 interview:
“I try to open up my heart as much as I can and keep a real keen eye out that I don’t get sentimental. I think we’re all afraid to reveal our hearts. It’s not at all in fashion, which I think is one of the reasons I don’t like fashion. It’s very heartless. So I feel I should try to reveal. And when you hit it right, you produce an emotional response in the listener that can be cathartic. And when you’re wrong, you’re soppy, sentimental. Or you can go the other way and try to be more enigmatic. When it works, that’s good. It mystifies, like a good puzzle or a magic trick. When you miss, it’s pretentious. I find it very painful to miss on either side.”
Maybe with the rise of the publisher-author, we’re going to see a lot more of both brilliance and slop.
Yep, Mary Karr is my hero, too. If you ever have a chance to see her, go. She does not disappoint. Not sure what she would say about MFA programs since she is teaching (oh, to take her class!). But I think some programs (not all) could play a part. It’s more likely publishers, the final decision makers. And I agree we will see both brilliance and slop in the future.
Best of luck with your book. Should arrive here in a few days.
Oh this is so interesting. Is it a question of how much is covered up? Tension is more gripping than splurge. The monster we build in our imagination is more terrifying than a monster described – or shown – in its full horror. (Hitchcock understood this to a masterful degree.)
Reminds me of an old acting lesson–it’s more interesting to play an opposite. To see someone crying on stage is one thing; to see someone struggle to hold back tears–that’s heartbreaking. Watch Juliet Stevenson at the beginning of Truly Madly Deeply.
Wonderful example, pmp. And I love that film!
Hitchcock is a great example, Roz. Co-writing Dee’s memoir, I could look at the painful, emotional parts of her life objectively. I was able to suggest we leave a few things out and tone down a few of her monsters. When she was a child and in her teens, she was suicidal. We had to show that but not dwell there too long. I also tried to infuse humor thoughout the book whenever possible because, without it, it would have been too depressing. Since I had to do the revisions, I needed to lighten things up or I would have jumped off a pier. It’s one of the many reasons it’s important to find a good first reader and editor. We were lucky to have Dave Malone on board.
Humour works wonders with otherwise miserable characters, doesn’t it? And that’s a fascinating example with Dee’s book. You must have built a trusting rapport with her to feel you could suggest that. In many ghosting situations the biographed person often isn’t able to understand the instinct that is making you suggest you leave out certain passages. They can think you’re trying to play down their significance or deny the truth of them.
You had Dave Malone as a first reader? That is awesome. Your book was on my list anyway!
Personal for me is vital, otherwise I feel I am reading something entirely manufactured to sell. You can’t fake passion and emotion for the discerning reader. I’ve seen a lot of *fake* feeling in books; I have my patented bullshit monitor which goes Meep! Meep! Meep! when I spot it.
As for anaesthesia, I’ve always had a bit of a problem coming back from generals, but turns out that’s also part of my hitherto undiagnosed condition (as is bruising at the slightest thing), but I also get very scared each time I go under. I wish hospitals I’d been in had allowed music. Have retweeted and Fb’d this.
Oh and just for Wolf: every time I have had to have general anaesthetic, I ask the person administering a question, after they’ve told me it’s nothing to worry about. The question is, have you ever been under anaesthetic yourself? if they have, I feel much more assured of their skill.
I’ve been under three times. The first, when I was five, was open drop ether. They held you down with no explanation, or at least they did me. I’ve written about it in The Sun. Sometimes I think I became an anesthesiologist just to overcome that powerlessness.
I’ve lost count now. the first time was fine, but the second time, I began to get nervous, and started telling a joke, but since it was a Jewish joke (told to me by a rabbi, in fact) and the anaesthetist started looking at me very stonily, I started to get panicky, and I was trying to say, I’ve changed my mind when he put the mask very firmly over my face and turned the gas on. I woke up in a panic attack that had begun before I went under.
Only time I haven’t felt scared since then was when the chap I knew as my pain expert was in charge and I felt totally at ease because I trusted him entirely; he was one of the few medics I’ve met with a therapeutic personality.
I recall Michael Bentine talking about having his tonsils removed at five, on a kitchen table, with drop ether and similar being held down. Not nice.
How you go to sleep is how you wake up. The time between doesn’t exist for you–which opens up a lot of metaphysical questions about consciousness.
It does. There is an episode of Due South where all the mounties but two on a train are gasses asleep mid song. They wake, and continue from the bar they conked out on.
This is something I could discuss for days or more but this is Roz’s thread so I’ll desist!!
No worries, Viv – I’m loving this discussion!
Why would an editor say a book is too personal? That’s not a reason to reject a book.
Lovelyn, this is how the publishing industry works sometimes… The reasons for acceptance can be just as mysterious. They often carry undercurrents – eg ‘would I stake my job on that?’ Especially if a book is too different. But then again, how do you categorise art? Sometimes it defies classification.
Wolf, Viv, I’ve run out of space in your very interesting discussion of anaesthesia. I’ve had GA just once, but I’d always been insanely curious about it. When people at school had operations I always wanted to know what it was like while they were under. They would reply that it was ‘nothing’ and I thought there was something they weren’t telling me, or they thought I was too nosy (entirely possible) or they hadn’t understood what I was asking.
It couldn’t be ‘just nothing’, surely. Time would pass. Stuff was being done.
It turned out, when I had it, that it was exactly that. Like being reset. One moment you’re there, next moment you’re there, only time has passed and you don’t know it. It does indeed raise some very interesting questions about consciousness, death etc. A friend of mine maintains that being under GA is brain death – although he’s perhaps not being as scientific as Wolf 🙂
This is one of the reasons I loved his book, that he’s tackling this mysterious process. It’s not just mysterious on a physical level, but as an experience – for both the patient and the physician.
I read the sample last night and if I don’t win, I shall be buying it. It’s like the pause button being pressed, you resume at the same point. I find the whole experience very frightening, and it takes me months to recover.
I found this to be truly inspiring and thought provoking. Thank you for sharing
Good to see you here, Wendy. I’m so glad I managed to persuade Wolf to guest.
Thanks all for the responses. As I mentioned in my post here, I skate gently around issues of consciousness in Breathing for Two. I run smack into them in a novel about anesthesia I’m working on, which I hope will be out next year.
There is a rather long quote I love from Alan Watts germane to all this, one that should be read very slowly:
“Perhaps I can express this Buddhist fascination for the mystery of nothingness in another way. If we get rid of all wishful thinking and dubious metaphysical speculations, we can hardly doubt that — at a time not too distant — each one of us will simply cease to be. It won’t be like going into darkness forever, for there will be neither darkness, nor time, nor sense of futility, nor anyone to feel anything about it. Try as best you can to imagine this, and keep at it. The universe will, supposedly, be going on as usual, but for each individual it will be as if it had never happened at all; and even that is saying too much, because there won’t be anyone for whom it never happened. Make this prospect as real as possible: the one total certainty. You will be as if you had never existed, which was, however, the way you were before you did exist — and not only you but everything else. Nevertheless, with such an improbable past, here we are. We begin from nothing, and end in nothing. You can say that again. Think it over and over, trying to conceive the fact of coming to never having existed. After a while you will begin to feel rather weird, as if this very apparent something that you are is at the same time nothing at all. Indeed, you seem to be rather firmly and certainly grounded in nothingness, much as your sight seems to emerge from that total blankness behind your eyes. The weird feeling goes with the fact that you are being introduced to a new common sense, a new logic, in which you are beginning to realize the identity of ku and shiki, void and form. All of a sudden it will strike you that this nothingness is the most potent, magical, basic, and reliable thing you ever thought of, and that the reason you can’t form the slightest idea of it is that it’s yourself. But not the self you thought you were.”
You’re writing a novel about anaesthesia? I was hoping you’d say that. Looking forward to hearing more.
I’m glad you directed me here, Roz. Another beautiful piece of his writing.
Thanks, Barbara. When I read a post by Wolf on another blog, I decided I had to see if he’d be willing to write about Undercover Soundtracks. To my delight, he agreed.
Oh, shucks. Thank you both.