Before writing this book, the longest piece of non-fiction I had written was a ten page paper on the Brahms Horn Trio in graduate school. My process for writing this book was very much informed by my musical training. I considered the various forms that would best suit the material and decided to set my memoir to Bach’s Goldberg Variations. It’s a beautiful piece in G Major that begins and ends with an aria and is followed by thirty variations that cycle through three smaller forms (genre piece, arabesque and canon), ten times.
All but three of the variations are in G Major. There are two short but strategically placed arias in G minor and then an extraordinary G minor variation, the 25th, which is the most extended and profound moment in the piece. I knew starting out which stories I wanted to include in the book (events, conflicts, resolutions, descriptions of each kid, etc.) and my faith in Bach and music as the ultimate template gave me the confidence to begin.
The picture of me lying on the floor was my first attempt at matching the vignettes to the score. Once I could see the shape of story, I began writing (the hardest part, right?) by putting a lyric to the opening of every variation. Here are some examples:
Hearing the words to the tune of each “chapter” helped me set the pace for each chapter as well as word choice (short words, hard consonants versus softer and longer syllabic words, etc.). This draft was the musical equivalent of transcribing my experiences.
I approached the second rewrite as if I was composing my experience rather than recording (writing rather than telling?). I was still incredibly loyal to the form at this point, each chapter divided into four sections consistent with the eight bar repeated sections of the variation.
This picture of me at the irrigation ditch is my effort to arrange the chapters not by length or word count but by my perceived emotional content and weight of each variation. I felt I needed to see visually the emotional journey the book versus the Goldberg Variations was taking – high points, low points, advancing the narrative versus reflections, etc. in order to keep it all in my mind at once. I felt I could risk more and be more expressive when I was most closely adhered to Bach’s metering and balance of intellect and emotion.
I approached the third and final rewrite like a performance, which is what my actual training is in. It was at this point that the great composer Sheila Silver took me aside and said, “Now you have to let go of the form. It’s time.”
I panicked and resisted it even in the moment that I knew she was right. I love performing on my instrument but somehow putting that same energy and pacing into my writing felt very scary. Everything was suddenly literal and I felt very exposed. My friend and great performer Lily Holgate worked with me then, coaching and helping me own my first person voice.