(It wasn’t until after I wrote this journal entry that I realized that I’ve written about much of this already. At least I’m coming at it with a different lens.)
Last week, I had the opportunity to see a beautiful performance. Michael Cunningham read from his novel, The Hours. I’ve seen him a couple times before—once when I was in grad school, and then again at Elliott Bay Books shortly after Specimen Days was released. His writing is quite powerful, and has been a huge influence on my own writing, particularly with Unplanted. The timing of his performance couldn’t have been better. Nor could the nature of his performance. He spoke a bit about writing to music, and some of the pieces that truly influenced his writing while he worked on The Hours. Cunningham was joined by the Northwest Sinfonetta—three violinists, a cello, a bassist and a pianist—which first played works by Motzart, and Schubert’s Death and the Maiden ,and, in the second half, played pieces from Philip Glass’ score to The Hours. It was absolutely incredible, one of the best performances I’ve ever seen.
I’ve thought a lot about what I’d write about this event. I imagined penning ever detail. I’ve thought quite a bit about how I could tell you about every bit of that performance, the way I closed my eyes as he read, the way I felt the echoes of the music beneath the surface of my skin, the fact that the performance took place in Seattle’s Town Hall, which was once a Fourth Church of Christ, Scientist church, and how it was, in some strange way, the perfect venue for such a moving, almost spiritual experience. I could tell you about the timbre of Cunningham’s voice, the way he read, and how I imagined him reading my book.
Some of the details, though, I want to keep to myself. In some ways I suppose it was as though my muse was on stage. Maybe that seems a little much, but it’s true. Two of my greatest influences for my novel were together, in front of me. In some ways it felt this event was made just for me.
I listen to Philip Glass while I write Unplanted. I’m listening to him now. The rhythms, the sort of compassion and urgency that comes through the piano are sort of the soundtrack to my own writing. The music brings back those voices in my head—the voices of Mattie and Joe and their world.
My one disappointment about the performance is that it was advertised that Cunningham would be signing books. I have only asked one person to autograph a book for me (and that was only because he was once my instructor long ago and I felt awkwardly obligated to ask him.) I believe that an author’s book is the gift, and I don’t need for him to give me any more than that. I don’t need someone’s signature to authenticate the work, or to make it any more special to me.
But I wanted Cunningham to, at the very least, touch my copy of The Hours. I just wanted to know that his fingerprints were on it. I can’t explain why. I imagined telling him how much I appreciated his performance, how perfect it was for me to see it at a time when I most need inspiration for my own work. And I imagined him asking me what I was writing about. I craved the opportunity to sit down with him and talk story.
Unfortunately, he was not available to sign books after the performance and I didn’t get to talk with him. I had to keep running my imaginary conversation with him in my head. I still am.
I am reading The Hours again. I keep it near me as I write, and I look carefully at each page, as if it may contain some sort of secret, something that will tell me how I should write Unplanted, what I can do to structure the story the way it should be.
I’m finding no answers, though, and I am quite frustrated. I still do not know where the book opens and I am still stuck. My next assignment for myself is to read what I have so far, to find openings and fill them in. And meanwhile I will continue my research on mental illness and migrant workers.
And while I am working on these assignments, I will listen to Philip Glass, and think of the timbre of Cunningham’s voice and read passages from The Hours, and hold on to my own secrets as I try to find more in music and prose.