by Dinah Lenney
“What one strives for is so far away, so deep, so beautiful…” Thea, in Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark
Decades ago, just out of college and living in Manhattan, I signed up for a workshop in a studio on the Upper West Side: Singing for Actors. It was free, first of all—that is, I babysat for the instructor’s son in exchange for classes. Second, though I wouldn’t have admitted it then (I’d have claimed the opposite, in fact), I was a coward. See, what I supposed—having starred in a dozen high school and college musicals—was that I didn’t have much to learn. I figured I’d shine; I saw the class as an opportunity to show off. Not that I was that honest with myself at the time, of course not. I didn’t actually know what I was up to, really I didn’t.
Meanwhile, for the other actors in the room, the stakes were appropriately high. They were there to learn—not just how to sing but how to manage their fear: they’d come to the workshop to develop skills that would allow them to ride the music (and their terror, as well) as if it were a horse; to surf the melody like a wave; to shush up and down the scales as if on skis.
I am not being literary here, not I—blame my old teacher for my muscle-bound figures of speech. It was he who instructed us: “Choose a sport you’re good at—a sport you play so well that the pleasure of playing exceeds the risk.” According to him, we only needed to fool ourselves, to approach singing as if we were athletes, with shoulders down, hips tucked, knees just slightly released, weight evenly distributed in the saddle—or on the board or the skates or the skis—before leaping or stroking or taking the plunge. And you know what happened? It worked. Physically, intellectually, emotionally—the exercise was transformational. Focused as they were on the task, those actors forgot to be scared, forgot to worry about how they sounded; which, wouldn’t you know, allowed them to find their voices. They wound up delivering not just credibly, but beautifully, some of them, by the end of the course.
Whereas, stuck in old notions and habits, eight weeks after we began I’d learned nothing about singing and nothing about myself. And “Nothing is so boring,” wrote Aaron Copeland, “as a merely well-rehearsed performance.” Unwilling to play—to take a risk—I was miserable for the duration. No pleasure for me.
So why am I telling you this? Well, for obvious reasons, but also because it has something to do with that question—the one we keep asking each other and ourselves: Why do we write?
To find out what we think, to find out what we know—to collude, to conspire, to commiserate, to confess, to commune; to get it right; to take control; to leave a mark; to insist that it matters, whatever it is, whatever it was—
but this is a necessarily risky business, yes? Risky to admit you aim to do any of these things. And what if you fail?
Not so long ago, in a classroom in L.A., I asked a group of students, “Off the top of your heads, why do you write?” “It’s a compulsion,” said one. “It’s my job,” said another. Several expressed the desire “to reach a reader.” Two insisted they use language to make sense of their lives. But it was the guy sitting just across the table who got to me: “Why do I write?” he said. “Because I can’t sing.”
Which made me laugh and remember and consider: who thinks she can? Who’s that sure of herself? Be suspicious of her, that’s what I’m saying. Be suspicious of any artist—singer, painter, writer—who doesn’t doubt herself; who isn’t willing to risk what she knows and engage with what she doesn’t every time.
And yet it’s true—if we’re to keep going, if we’re not a bunch of masochists (okay we are a bunch of masochists, but)—the pleasure must somehow exceed the risk.
Back to singing: that is, back to craft. It was years before I was brave enough to admit I didn’t know what I was doing; to understand that I’d been coasting, feigning, indicating talent, but not mining my gift, as it were, for anything deep or true; years before I realized no genuine pleasure in the offing, not ever—for me or the audience, either—if I wasn’t willing to risk.
I opened up an anthology the other day—Why We Write—a collection of interviews, conceived and edited by author Meredith Maran, in which she asks a group of her peers a series of questions about their writing lives. And wouldn’t you know: “I’m almost always anxious when I’m writing,” says Mary Carr. “Writing is not fun for me,” echoes Armistead Maupin. But it’s David Baldacci who nails it: “You get to play,” he says. “Which is terrifying.”
And there’s the rub: how much fun, how rewarding, can any game be, if we know the outcome? So what we can count on? We get to play. If we prepare ourselves, if we practice, if we engage with everything we’ve got, the pleasure of playing is bound to exceed the risk.
Thinking back to my student—the joker (you know who you are, Josh)—that guy who made me laugh when I popped the question. At the time I was tempted to tell him, C’mon, you can sing: drop your shoulders, tuck your pelvis, soften your knees… Except he didn’t mean he’d rather be singing, no—he knows what I didn’t back in the day. Why sing, after all? Not to sound good—that’s not a good enough reason. It’s as Thea says in The Song of the Lark: “…voices are accidental things…” So it’s what you try to do with your voice—how well it connects to image, idea, and story; how supple, how responsive; how it vibrates at the top and the bottom of its range, and what happens when it unexpectedly breaks or soars with joy, longing, despair, truth… And never mind sport, how ‘bout that metaphor, huh?