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 writing workshop facilitator and novelist Kathryn Craft @KCraftWriter
Soundtrack by A Great Big World, Christina Aguilera, LeeAnn Womack, Pentatonix, The Civil Wars
When Roz first asked me to write a post for The Undercover Soundtrack, I didn’t think I had one in me. I can only escape into story, it seems, while writing in silence. It soon dawned on me, though, that music had played a rather mystical role in the development of my newly released second novel.
The Far End of Happy is the story of three women who must make tough choices and face shameful secrets while awaiting the outcome of a loved one’s daylong suicide standoff. Sadly, the novel is based on true events. Frustrated by my husband’s insistence that I stay in a marriage he was unwilling to contribute anything toward saving, I felt I had no choice but to break my marriage vow to save our young sons. In 1997 I determined to divorce; he pre-empted that action with a more desperate move.
I waited a good long time to gain the perspective I needed to tell the story, and got the book deal in the fall of 2013 after turning in the manuscript for my debut novel, The Art of Falling.
Music first entered the story in 2014—or so I thought—when I was driving a few hours to Harrisburg, PA to do a TV taping to talk about my debut. Surfing the radio to find something new, I came upon the kind of expectant airspace that can only mean a song is about to begin.
The odds against tuning in at that exact moment are great enough to make you think that the Universe is about to speak.
It brought to mind another time that had happened—the day I woke up for my husband’s funeral.
I woke up at 5:30 am habitually on our small Pennsylvania farm, but due to the deviling notion that I may have been able to prevent my husband’s horrific act, sleep had eluded me. It was a morning service, so to be safe, I set the radio alarm. My eyes opened as I heard a soft pop from the clock. A simple opening of the airwaves. A connection to something greater. Again, that expectant silence.
I listened to the new-to-me song—Leeann Womack’s You’ve Got to Talk to Me. The futility it evoked rang through loud and clear, as if in absolution: you can chase someone with your hand extended all you want, but if he never turns back to take it, there’s nothing you can do.
Little did I know that in 2014, after the expectant silence on my drive to Harrisburg, I was about to hear that message reiterated.
Cue music, take two
The song was so quiet, at first: plaintive piano, small breathy voice, strings that added a wealth of emotion. Its difference from most of the songs you hear on popular radio grabbed me right away. Sad yet determined harmonies that built to the point they demanded to be heard.
Later that day, on the station’s website, I looked up the title: Say Something by A Great Big World and Christina Aguilera. The similarity to You’ve Got to Talk to Me struck. Only this time, the point of view was not of one who is chasing or begging: it was of one who is walking away. By bookending the painful arc of my decision to end the marriage, these two songs anchored me to the inner conflict from which I needed to write. A conflict without end, thanks to my husband’s unforgettable act, so perfectly evoked by the haunting refrain of yet another tune I discovered at that time, Poison & Wine by the Civil Wars.
A few months later, in the final throes of the novel’s development, I stumbled upon a Pentatonix cover of Say Something that I loved even more. This time the sombre mood took on an anxious edge through the plucking of a cello.
In the video, the singers stand together yet facing forward. Parallel grief. When the others add on to Kirstin’s initial solo statement, they seem to say that vocalising pain is so crucial to our human connectedness that even the sound of ‘oo’ releases sadness that cannot be kept at bay. Switching to the mournful resonance of bowed cello, Kevin vocalises the pulse of the breaking human heart. Avi’s lament on the vowel ‘oh’ at 2:25 is enough to break me to pieces. One imagines that each of them sings from their own pain, but together, they make something beautiful.
Because our emotions are beautiful, and important, and should be shared. They are the heartbeat of story and music and life. They are our bridge to shared experience, and my husband’s final, silent downturn shows that emotions left unexpressed will rot us from within. We see this message inherent in the end of the Pentatonix performance: the one person who has vocalised but not yet sung, Kevin, is offered the final plea.
In the Pentatonix arrangement the song ends without resolution. The same is true with my novel, because one of the great legacies of suicide is the plethora of unanswered questions. To be true to my experience, this 12-hour story could not be tied up neatly and put away. Healing for my family would extend on as we shared our sadness and fear. But the unresolved song, like my story, ends on a rising note, because we also shared our hope.
For those of us who choose life this day: may the expression of your innermost self go on and on—whether through the arts or the glorious intimacy of the human voice—in all its pain and beauty.
Kathryn Craft is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. Her work as a freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she leads writing workshops and retreats, and is a member of the Tall Poppy Writers. Her Twitter campaign, #choosethisday, is designed to empower others with the notion that each day we get up and go about our business we are choosing life. What will you do with yours? www.kathryncraft.com. Find Kathryn on Facebook and on Twitter @KCraftWriter