For many years now, I've earned my way as a theatrical lyricist and librettist. It's a curious kind of writing. In real life, you don't often encounter people singing and dancing in the rain. But it's my job to make an audience in a darkened theater accept that this is exactly how real life is—a place where we burst into song and dance when we can't contain our emotions any longer, and where an orchestra swells, even under the spoken word.
Except for a stint as an advertising copywriter, songwriting has been the only kind of writing I've ever done. But in 2005, one of my shows, an unusual little folk opera, Dessa Rose, produced by Lincoln Center Theater in New York City, opened to poor reviews. It was a blow. Everyone thought the show deserved better. But for me, having worked for many years to bring the piece to fruition, it triggered an emotional meltdown. I told my collaborator, the composer Stephen Flaherty, that he'd better start looking for a new lyricist. This work was too hard. Too painful. Too public. Unable to face anyone I knew, I slunk out of town for the summer.
Over those long, self-pitying months, I began to feel unmoored from the act of writing. I was at sea. I gardened. I cleaned the house. I read books halfway through and put them aside. One early morning, sitting at my computer and answering emails, I remembered an old man I'd noticed in the supermarket, wearing a cowboy hat and loudly singing a Johnny Cash tune. An idea struck me. I began typing.
I started out in the first person, because it felt natural. I found myself writing in the voice of an old woman, someone who'd been the man's lover when they were teenagers in Abilene. Now, here they were, meeting in a D'Agostino's in the middle of Manhattan, sixty years later. Voices were speaking to me, just as in the theater, but without music. Characters made their entrances, only there were no actors. The intimate, specific details of a relationship were being revealed on a page, not a stage. I felt inhabited by spirits.
Soon, I found myself reading lines out loud, rolling them around on my tongue, allowing my ear to discover the pauses and sonorities. I began to adjust the way one word flowed into the next, making them easier to say, just as I had learned to make lyrics easier for actors to sing, by singing them myself. I found I was writing not only for the characters and the plot, but also for the pleasurable sounds and rhythms of the words themselves.
Lyrics tend to be spare, dictated by a limited set of musical notes; every single word you choose is a life or death decision. Now I began to pare away excess words in my story, imbuing each line with lyrical imagery as best I could. I tried to make the dialogue ring true. And, as I do in a musical libretto, I tried to write with a sense of drama, building tension and conflict from one line to the next and from one paragraph to the next—creating, in effect, a series of tiny cliff-hangers and reversals, leading inexorably to a dramatic climax.
You may not realize that a musical contains hundreds of details and decisions per square inch. Some are technical, such as, "We need to cut one word in this line so the singer can take a big breath before holding the long note." Others are intuitive: "The words are fine—but she's not getting a laugh because that damn hat is obscuring her face!" and still others are editorial: "It's a gorgeous moment, but the audience is restless—they already know he won't marry her. We need to cut the most beautiful song in the show!" Thanks to the brutal and demanding craft of rewriting and editing a musical, often while racing against the clock, I realized that I could also self-edit my prose with a dispassionate eye. Just as I do in the theater, I tried to feel the moments where I was getting restless, and where a reader would, too. Sitting alone on a porch in upstate New York, I had become my own audience.
Ever since that summer of self-appraisal, I've continued to write stories and essays, have studied the craft of writing, have read and re-read the works of others with new eyes and ears, and have been published myself. And as hurt as I am at times by the theater, I heal quickly, too. I've recently had a new show produced by Lincoln Center Theater, and the revival of my show Ragtime has just premiered at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, and looks like it's coming back to Broadway this fall. Simultaneously, in a confluence of music and words, I will have a short story, "Rendition," published in Glimmer Train Stories. It's perhaps the most lyrical—and musical—story I've yet attempted.
I understand now, more fully, that nothing we experience goes to waste. One form of writing informs another, and one kind of writer can become a different kind, if only we trust what we know, if only we listen to the music of the words, if only we notice the old man in the cowboy hat at the supermarket, singing.