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May the Story Sing

When I sign copies of my debut novel, The River Witch, I almost always say, “May the story sing for you.” I’ve never stopped to really wonder why those words came to me or what they might mean, except that I have a love of music. While I was on book tour, I asked the Grits and Soul Band to come along. Those were my favorite events. Then, earlier this year, I was honored to learn that music will be a special part of the life of my book. The River Witch has been chosen to be part of a fascinating exhibit called TRIO, sponsored by the Southern Independent Bookseller’s Alliance, which will debut at the 2017 trade show in Savannah, Georgia.

The exhibit pairs a novel with a visual artist who then creates a piece inspired by the book, and also a song writer, who composes a piece of music. I can’t imagine the artwork or the song that will come from this collaboration and the anticipation may kill me before September. So much about the influences of story and song on our lives, intrigues me. Somehow, for me, they are the same.

Before I wrote this blog post, if you’d asked me why I would choose just those words to bless a book for a new reader, I probably would have told you I thought it was evocative of the Sacred Harp music that plays a role in the novel. That’s true. Music haunts my characters, as it haunts me, with memories and emotion. But as I take the time to reflect, I realize that I have been inscribing those title pages with a sort of philosophy that runs through everything I write – a good sentence is a song.

Language has a cadence, a measure, a rise and fall, a rhythm that we recognize as our own. And I don’t just mean that reading a well-written page is a pleasant experience or that it keeps the reader turning the page, because we all learn the importance of crafting our words in such a way very early along in our writing journeys. For me, there’s something beyond esthetics, something visceral about language when an author gets it right.

Here’s what I mean: it’s raining just now and I can hear the water filling the gutters outside the window behind my chair, the silver pinging of the drops on the roof, the smooth hush of it, quieting the day. I’ve seen other writers posting on social media today, in other places where it’s raining. They all say it’s a good day for writing, or reading. They’re all settling in, the same sound over their heads, getting down to the work of words. If you ask me, I think it’s the song they hear, same as me, their own song, first in the rain and then, if they listen, inside themselves. It’s what we are searching for when we read and what we long to convey when we write, a call and response that we answer from some primal part of our minds and souls.

When I consider my favorite authors, I can see that in some similar way, they understand language as the song of humanity. Open a book and read aloud any sentence and you will discover that whether it is written or spoken, it should ring true to the ear of the reader and the listener. Alice Hoffman is a genius at composing her song. Barbara Kingsolver knows the secret.

I’ve learned that the music I choose during the course of a project influences the beats of my words; reading aloud teaches me to listen. If I get it right, these innate rhythms will infiltrate the work and carry the words along, establishing a pace. But there’s something more going on, a mysterious element that comes from learning to listen to the music around us with all of our senses.

Language is the expression of everything from the flight of our dreams to the aging of our bones, inside and out, the motion of our universe, a score composed of patterns and wonder. We know when a story breathes with it because we fall into the inhale and exhale, the ebb and flow. These are the stories that move us. They resound and echo and act as a sonaric compass, telling us that what we are reading – or writing – points true north.

Think of it – our mothers’ first words to us are often lullabies heard in the womb. Our first lessons are delivered as nursery rhymes. We learn our letters by songs. We celebrate the years of our lives, the depths of our faith, our greatest loves, and the rage of our losses, with song. The beats of our hearts are captured best in the lines of sonnets and soliloquies. When we read them, they are singing, Here I am. Here I am. And we sing with them.

For the song is the secret and illusive hearts’ desire of all writers. Song is Voice. I think maybe song is the point of it all, the reason we follow a sentence to its end and a story to the last page. Song is the solidarity of our stories. And so I’ll continue to say to my readers and all the writers like me who long for that reassuring refrain, may the story sing for you. And it will.