Friday, April 20, 2012

What Lies Beneath

Nearly everything I write has a musical sub-text.

Funny, I didn’t notice that until a friend said asked if some of her students could interview me for a class project. She gave me a list of questions so I could give some thought in advance to my comments.  One of them was, “you always write about music—could you expand on that?”

My immediate reaction was—that is so not true. Not that there is something wrong with having music in the background of everything I write. It’s that it wasn’t so.
Then amazed, I thought about all my published work. Music anchored Come Spring. Music is a vital part of the Lottie Albright mystery series.  “The Family Rose,” a short story first published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, was republished in two anthologies—Murder to Music, and Death on the Verandah. It featured a broken down old country western singer.

Bette was right!

Years earlier, another friend had commented that all the pictures in my house (other than family pictures) were that of young girls. I hadn’t noticed. The music questions brought back that surprised reaction.
I was already aware of “the house” and the part it played in shaping my psyche. When I was four, my parents bought a farm in Lone Elm, Kansas. A magnificent three story house, part of the I.K. Reeves estate, was part of the property. It was filled with precious antiques that my parents didn’t appreciate. They tore out marble fireplaces, marble bathroom fixtures—and trashed walnut furniture.

I adored this house and my yearning for an old house--with five staircases--comes up in my work over and over again. Through the years, I’ve come to understand this is actually the yearning for childhood when adults knew what was going on and could guide children through complexity.
Did/do writers have some unconscious themes that simply come up from the deep? Do we dare trust it?

Absolutely, and I’ve decided these unconscious themes are the truest part of who we are. And it’s the only thing worth trusting. Themes can be tangible such as my love of music, my curious affinity for pictures of young girls on the verge of womanhood, or my adoration of old houses with many, many rooms.
Or themes can reflect a worldview, even if one’s outlook is somewhat sunny in the real surface world. I’m always surprised when people in positions of authority turn out to be liars and crooks and murderers. My books have heroes, and villains, by George, and folks who get their just desserts.

Nevertheless, many of my best characters are all shades of grey. I understand them a little too well. It’s distressing to know how well I understand liars and con artists and charlatans and shady ladies and…well, you get the drift.
I can spot “contrived” books. I call them “fake” books. These are produced when writers consciously set out to create a real hum-dinger. Ironically, the books never do very well. The best books rest on a good deal of psychological exposure. It’s critical to banish one’s mother, priest, principal, best friends, anyone saying “are you sure you want to write that? That’s not very nice! Why don’t you write about good people?” It’s paralyzing when these ghost look over your shoulder.

So beware, those of you who are beginning and hope to gain some insight through Type M. Beware of what lies beneath.
Be warned. Writing can stir up all kinds of muck.

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