Guest Blog Posts

Music: Food for the Writer's Heart – guest blog post by Sister Lou Ella Hickman

It has been both a blessing and a burden. Music, that is. For years I carried my secret around like I was the recipient of King Tut's curse. Friends knew I wrote prose and poetry but they were unaware that I was also a very frustrated wannabe composer. Then I woke up and I realized I was already one as I discovered music laced throughout my poetry and prose. Now I am no longer a wannabe.

It was also a blessing as music was a simple fact of life in my family. My mother had majored in voice at one of the highest rated music schools in the nation. That is, until she decided teaching children was also music. I took piano lessons in grade school. I sang in the church choir as well as in my junior high and high school choirs. One year, when we went to a statewide music contest, we were the only junior high choir to compete against high school choirs. Our prize: sweepstakes.

Why all this background? Because I know music is the soul of writing. Sad to say, most people pigeonhole the arts into nice, neat little categories and fail to consider any connection between them. As a result, aspiring writers won't find listening to music on advice lists in magazine articles.

However, you don't need to take my word for it. One of America's greatest lyrical poets, Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote, "Sweet sound, oh beautiful music, do not cease. . ." Once I thought opera was boring until I made time to listen to what Millay described. When I did, I heard passion soar. Take note, writers, to help you develop that elusive almost mystical quality called voice; emulate opera's demanding Olympic-style voice training when you write, rewrite, and rewrite again.

Speaking of voice, the movie biopic of Jane Austen, Becoming Jane, uses music in various scenes to weave a thread through the storyline. As the movie progresses, music serves as a metaphor for Jane's struggle to find her own voice as a writer. Jane attends a voice recital during the concluding scene and the audience sees a Jane who has matured into the beloved writer many readers have come to know.

Style wise, what can listening to music on a regular basis do for you as a writer? While you don't need to know the difference between 3/4 and 4/4 time, you can learn a sense of rhythm as well as phrasing. With or without lyrics, music can also help you tell a great story-be it in prose or poetry form. Music is universal. I have heard Oriental orchestras play Western music. I have also heard music by Western composers who have expanded their craft by studying other cultures. One of my favorite musicians and songwriters is Paul Simon who later in his career incorporated South African music into his own.

You also don't need to know about pitch or the different names for how loud how soft the music is to be played. Again, listening to music can help you have a style sense, in this case when certain words or phrases need to be stressed. Last of all, music can teach you the precision of word choice. Mark Twain gave writers one of the great insights into our craft, "The difference between the right word and the almost the right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug." Thus, the difference between the right note and the almost right note . . . any serious composer can tell you is usually hard work.

Writers, don't just listen to music; let it nourish you. That is, listen with your body and as you listen, embrace the beat. That is, dance. Agnes de Mille, the famous dancer and choreographer, once said, "The truest expression of a people is its dance and its music. Bodies never lie." So dance as if no one is watching. If people do notice, they may think you are crazy; but, oh, the words you will write.

If you still don't believe me, heed what great poets and writers penned about the influence of music. Naturally, William Shakespeare had something to say on the subject, "How sour sweet music is . . . So it is in the music of men's lives." Miguel de Cervantes wrote, "All music jars when the soul's out of tune." Perhaps my favorite quote is, "After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music." Its author--Aldous Huxley.

If you think most of today's music is not worth listening to, you have a good point. However, there are other music styles other than the loud, hard-core type. Listen to a golden oldies station in your car. Beat out a rhythm to light rock, blues, or all-American jazz. By the way, jazz, like many books, was banned in Nazi Germany. Music indeed has power as many young people nicknamed "swing kids" risked their lives to play it anyway. Dance to country western or a waltz. Sway to the sounds of something Hawaiian or let a march stir your thoughts as you tap on your computer. Ethnic folk music can also stretch your horizons as well as jug bands, Zydeco and blue grass can make that stretching fun. Religious chants come in a variety of flavors to suit a variety of tastes. Oddly enough if you need something sad to inspire your writing, there Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings. Finally, don't forget the sound track of your favorite movie can inspire be it as classical as Amadeus and Les Miserables or as playful as the any of the Disney films like The Little Mermaid and Frozen. Ah, movies. If you are a buff like I am and even if you're not, why not watch a few films that explore the power of music in people's lives. Check out Playing for Time, Music of the Heart, or The Road to Paradise at your local library.

Sidney Lanier aptly combined music and writing in this fashion, "Music is Love in search of a word." Great writing is more than magazine guidelines, spell check, and word count--critical as they are. Great writing has a soul. Music can help give voice to your words.

Do you have something say about poetry? An essay on being a poet, tips for poets, or poetry you love? is now accepting pitches for guest blog posts. 

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Sister Lou Ella is a former teacher and librarian. She is a certified spiritual director as well as a poet and writer.  Her poems have appeared in numerous magazines such as America, First Things, Emmanuel, Third Wednesday, and new verse news as well as in four anthologies: The Night's Magician: Poems about the Moon, edited by Philip Kolin and Sue Brannnan Walker, Down to the Dark River edited by Philip Kolin, Secrets edited by Sue Brannan Walker and After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events edited by Tom Lombardo.  She was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2017. Her first book of poetry entitled she: robed and wordless was published in 2015. (Press 53.)

6 replies »

  1. Sister Lou Ella is one of my favorite people and a lovely poet. I was thrilled to see she is your guest blogger today!

  2. I really enjoyed this writing about writing. I studied music for a number of years, and am glad I did.

    I am first and foremost a writer. Primarily a poet. Being able to sense the music and rhythm in a poem

    is vital to a poet. I have worked with poets who seemed to have no sense of the music or rhythm in a poem. As a poet, you have find your own voice, the gold nugget we seek as poets.
    I have always remembered the lesson of a teacher at Bennington College who had us listen to Lorca in Spanish. I mean, if you do not know Spanish, just listen for the musicality shot throughout each poem.
    The is an amazing thing. Lorca has a poem, “green , how much I want you green.” I love those lines so much! All of the arts can reflect on each other. A poem can be spangled with sequins that reflect the light!

  3. I so enjoyed this! It was sent to me by poet Christine Higgins. No doubt she knew I’d love it because I had just told her about an experience that surprised me–a poem that seemed to emerge almost whole–when I put in my earbuds one day. Here’s my little story: I had this raw material. It was powerful and I didn’t know how I’d manage it. I brought myself to complete stop by fussing over what “form” to work in. I got so frustrated I put in the earbuds as an act of giving up–just to block out everything with the songs (songs I love) on shuffle. And bingo–the poem began to emerge on the page.

    So thank you, Sister Lou Ella, and thank you Trish for providing the platform.

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