Molly Fisk: The Opposite of Writing

Photo by Flickr user Carla de Souza Campos (Creative Commons License)

One of the characteristics of being a writer is that you work almost always alone. In a book’s publication stage there may be editors, copy editors, agents, first readers, second readers, and writers with more renown giving you blurbs for your cover. But for the first 99% of a book’s life, you’re in charge. There are great advantages to this, but if you’re a somewhat social person, it can get kind of lonely. Many people write in cafés and restaurants, or libraries, or go to writers’ conferences in the summertime looking for community and a slightly less isolated environment.

I was considering this up on the Nevada Theater’s stage this morning, during rehearsal for an event called “The Musical Book Club.”  Also on stage were my friend Louis Jones, the American novelist, and one pianist, three violinists, two cellists, two horn players, an oboist, a harpist, someone playing the upright bass, someone else with a kettle drum, and two other string players, maybe on violas? Plus a conductor. Tonight we’re going to do an hour-long performance together. Louis will read the beginning of a new novel, weaving in and out of music by John Williams and Gershwin, and I’ll be reading six of my poems during and around three other pieces, one by Hoagy Carmichael.

The mood on stage was pretty casual. People in summer clothes, a little joshing by the Hungarian conductor. We’re performing in front of a stage set-in-progress that has three doors and a lot of naked plywood, so it feels like an impromptu concert set up in somebody’s half-finished house. It feels that way until the musicians begin to play, that is, when all of a sudden vast professionalism and expertise appear. Louis leaned over and quoted something into my ear about classical musicians having to be simultaneously fierce and precise. I thought that was the perfect definition.

Louis and I are very different readers, but we both have a rhythm of our own, with pauses, ironic facial expressions, some conversation with the audience. People get a sense of us when we’re up there all alone. This performance is going to be very different. The conductor, Gregory Vajda, has made us for all intents and purposes into musical instruments for the duration of the concert. We’ll look for his cues before starting, we’re going at the tempo he’s provided. I think this is the closest I’m going to get to being part of an orchestra and participating in something that you can’t possibly do alone, something that’s the opposite of writing.

Even though I sang in choruses all through school, I don’t have any formal musical training and can barely tell a viola from a half note. These musicians have been practicing since they were in short pants. I’m hoping not to get intimidated. And it isn’t like I’ll suddenly have to play the French horn. The concert is a brand new situation, but I already know how to read a poem.

I’m actually a good choice of instrument for that job.


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  • Molly Fisk September 17, 2016 at 9:46 am

    It was so fabulous, Wendl… I’m agog to do it again some day. There is something holy about “doing” music with other people, especially a large group: choral singing, orchestras, whatever. Even to Hoagy Carmichael, whom I don’t think of as all that holy… 😉

  • WENDL in Manhattan September 17, 2016 at 8:20 am

    Everyone there doing what they know best how to do; everyone absorbing each other’s strengths. Sounds mighty special to me.