On the Secret Music and Math I Tuck Into Most of My Writing

All right, you asked about “the secret music and math I tuck into most of my writing even though I know most readers won’t know it’s there,” soooooo…

Well, with The Biographies of Ordinary People the music was obvious. I literally gave you every piece the Gruber sisters played or sang or listened to, and tried to give you enough context to understand the story even if you didn’t know the music (though I secretly hoped you’d listen to at least some of it on your own, and if you were part of my Patreon when I was drafting the book I gave you an actual playlist).

The math was less obvious, though it was also right in front of you if you knew to look for it.

The story begins on Rosemary Gruber’s 35th birthday and ends on Meredith Gruber’s 35th birthday.

There are four parts, each with 35 chapters.

Part 1 covers three years (1989–1992); then we skip five years.

Part 2 covers three years (1997–2000); then we skip four years.

Part 3 covers five years (2004–2009). It was only supposed to cover four, both halves of Biographies Vol. 2 were supposed to cover four years each, but I really wanted the three Gruber sisters to meet up at the Obama inauguration, which I mistakenly entered as “January 2008” in my initial outline. (When I realized it had really taken place during January 2009, I thought about making the inauguration its own little section, so I could keep the two parts at exactly four years each. Then I decided nobody would care about it but me.)

Then we skip three years.

Part 4 covers four years (2012–2016).

YES I KNOW THAT’S NOT “MATH MATH”

IT’S JUST NUMBERS

But that’s what I do when I make stuff (writing or, in my previous career, songs). There’s always some kind of scaffolding holding the thing together — go read the author’s note at the end of Frugal and the Beast if you want to see how I constructed each of the stories in that collection, for example.

Now let’s go even deeper.

I read everything I write aloud. In fact, I say most of it aloud before I ever put it on the page. Say it to yourself, if you want:

The last night before they left was Rosemary Gruber’s thirty-fifth birthday.

It’s in 4/4 time.

“Rosemary Gruber” has the same number of syllables, and the same stresses, as “thirty-fifth birthday.”

I took a first-page critique class while I was drafting the novel, and one of the other students helpfully suggested that the opening sentence would be tighter if it were “The night before they left was Rosemary Gruber’s thirty-fifth birthday.”

I’m not going for tight. I’m going for a line that you can speak as though it were a song. So it has to be last, to keep the rhythm of the sentence and the assonance with left.

Next we have “It had, of course, been her birthday since the morning, and the girls had duly remembered to call out ‘Happy birthday, mommy!’ when they came out of the bedroom.”

It had

Of course

Been her birthday

Since the morning

You see the rhythm, don’t you? It’s right there. The words couldn’t be anything but what they were, or it would spoil it.

And the GIRLS had DU-ly re-MEM-bered to CALL out. Read it aloud. Read the whole thing aloud. You’ll hear it.

And that, my dear readers, is the secret music.

Are you glad you asked? ❤️

On Storytelling and Tension

We’re in the final week of rehearsal for the Brahms Requiem, and I was going to use this blog post to share the lyrics to the piece and make an observation about how Brahms crafts a narrative arc that takes us from “I am mourning a loved one who has died” to “This mourning reminds me that I am anxious about my own death” to “I have accepted death by accepting God’s love.”

Of course, this particular narrative arc requires a little bit of interpretation on the listener’s part—I mean, Brahms doesn’t come out and say any of this in his lyrics, he just drops in quotes like this:

Lord, teach me
That I must have an end,
And my life has a purpose,
and I must accept this.

Translation © 2010 Ahmed E. Ismail

And then he lets us put the piece together (literally).

So I was all ready to write about what I thought Brahms meant to do with this piece and how it fit in with the Hero’s Journey, and then I had a conversation with our conductor.

Basically I babbled out a bunch of thoughts about whether Brahms was a character in his own piece, and whether Brahms-the-character was discovering that death had no sting or communicating something he had already discovered, and whether we, as a choir, should treat it as a revelation we’re just now learning or a statement meant to comfort others.

“Treat it like a release of tension,” the conductor said.

And my immediate thought was of course, that’s exactly what it is, I should have realized it myself.

Not just because it’s difficult, if not impossible, to do something like “sing the Requiem as if you were Brahms discovering its message in real time” in a way that effectively communicates that to an audience. (You could always write a note at the beginning of the program telling everyone how to interpret your interpretation, or put up some projections of an actor playing Brahms as he walks back and forth and worries—but if you have to explain it in a matter extraneous to the text, you’re failing at your job of performing the text.)

Nor because everyone in the audience is going to come up with their own interpretation of the piece, the same way I created my interpretation of Brahms’ narrative arc. (In other words: if you’re listening to the music, you’ll understand that it is about coming to terms with death. Any additional thoughts or emotions you experience while listening are your own.)

It’s because of this: when I attended Maggie Stiefvater’s Portraits and Dreams writing seminar, she explained that storytelling, at its core, was about tension and release. A good story has the right amount of both, and puts them in the right places.

Tension and release are what provide the emotional journey—and after you’ve experienced that journey, you can sit back and ask yourself whether Brahms meant to write himself as a character in his own Requiem, or what Sean wished for in The Scorpio Races, or whether The Wizard of Oz is really just a giant allegory about the gold standard or whatever.

I feel like a bit of a goober for not having figured that out on my own.

But I’m glad I’m thinking about it now. ❤️