This is #65 in the series for Writers in the Attic and the final post for 2017. This series has been the most successful I’ve ever started on this blog, in terms of both duration (17 months) and readership (each post has had well over 100 views and some over 500).
It’s been an honour to host so many beautifully crafted and moving essays, and the response from readers indicates how much the posts have resonated with them, too. I’m hugely grateful to everyone who wrote an essay, and to everyone who read them.
Now, I come to my own piece. I don’t think I need to introduce it because it speaks for itself.
For my entire life, music has been in the background but never the foreground. It’s hard for me to write about it because I’m not a musician, and I’m therefore unqualified and feel a little unworthy. I’ve written about the bond I shared with my father through a love of music (Neil and Dad and Me). My father wasn’t a musician either, but we both understood how much it meant to the other.
For many years, I harboured a secret desire to be a singer. As a child, I was always singing and when I started school, my favourite lesson was music. Each week when Sister Bernadette came down to the Prep classroom to play the piano, I sat straighter on the mat and sang each song as loudly as I could. It would have been impossible not to notice me, yet each week Sister chose others to stand in front of the class and lead the singing. I don’t ever recall being picked. Not once. I don’t know how she missed me and, now that I’m older, I suspect it might have been deliberate.
Another highlight of my week was watching Young Talent Time on the telly with my sister, both of us yearning to be contestants or, even better, part of the actual ‘team’. We bought the albums and spent hours in front of the mirror practising our dance routines—hairbrushes for microphones, stepping back and forth and clapping and twirling in time. Because I had long straight hair like Karen Knowles, I was Karen, and because my sister had short blonde hair like Greg Mills, she was Greg. (We were way ahead of our time with gender fluidity.) We prepared concerts for our parents, made programmes and charged an entry fee. We gave our audiences terrific value for money—hours of entertainment, performed with gusto. It’s a shame Johnny Young never got to see us.
There was also mass each Sunday, where the hymns were the only things that kept me going during the dreary hour. When I was twelve, I decided I didn’t want to be Catholic anymore. However, I was forced to still attend mass each week, so I stood mute for the whole hour, my lips sealed. Not reciting the prayers was easy, but not singing the hymns almost killed me.
At school, I was always a member of the choir and, although I rebelled in almost every other way imaginable, I don’t ever remember causing the choir teacher any grief. The opposite, in fact—I wanted her to think I was good. Our choir performed at masses, in Eisteddfods and in concerts with other schools. Somewhere along the line, someone must have noticed I could hold a tune because I did sing a solo or two. A highlight was when a classmate and I were chosen to sing a duet of I Gave My Love a Cherry in front of the Premier and a huge audience in Hobart.
At university a few years later, while on study breaks my sister and I sang duets in our lounge. We sang all our favourites, including ABBA and hymns, especially Amazing Grace. We experimented with harmonies, our voices blending as only sisters’ voices can.
At the end of that year, I sang Amazing Grace at her funeral. Everyone tried to talk me out of it, but I needed to do it—it was the only thing that kept me from crying. As soon as I started singing, I could hear her, too, singing with me.
When I was twenty-two, still without a singing lesson behind me, I was chosen for a role in Godspell. My confidence grew with each performance of our run, but I didn’t follow it up and quickly lost the courage I’d gained.
Throughout university and beyond, I sang with church choirs and, later, to my babies. Finally, after wanting to learn singing for as long as I could remember, at the age of thirty-six I had my first lesson. It was the beginning of my awakening. Using my natural instrument—my voice—to produce melody gave me a boost. Until the day I asked my husband if I’d improved, and he paused before responding, ‘You’ve got louder.’
I stuck with it, though, and over the next few years, I learnt how to use my breath and body to make a continuous line of sound. I learnt to sing in different languages and I even sat exams. I auditioned for the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra chorus where, together with over 100 other voices, I sang the heavenly works of Beethoven and Mozart, all accompanied by a symphony orchestra. To have the privilege of playing the small role I did in bringing that majestic sound to audiences is something I’ll forever treasure.
I loved singing as part of a choir—I never felt anxious. However, singing solo was a different matter. Even though I only ever sang before small, supportive audiences, I spent the hour beforehand on a toilet with anxiety-induced diarrhoea. I tried to tell myself that if I sang a wrong note, no one died, not like in my job as a doctor. But it didn’t work—after each performance I was in tears, even if I’d sung well. I felt exposed, as if I was standing before the audience wearing transparent clothes. There’s no hiding when you sing, your voice is the music, and if you make a mistake, it’s too late—there’s no correcting it.
Writing’s similar—your words are your voice and you feel naked, too. But at least you can edit when writing—the public don’t see your really big gaffes and it feels a wee bit safer.
So, I quit singing for writing. I still go to every opera in my hometown of Perth—it’s not the Met or Milan, but I enjoy the music and hearing those voices soar. My kids have succeeded musically, too, and it thrills me to have been part of their musical growth.
Music has been in the background of my life, but it’s been more than that, too. It says things for which I don’t have words. It speaks emotions I find hard to name. Each time I hear Elgar’s Nimrod or a Bach cantata, I cry at the beauty. It touches a part of me, an exquisitely tender part, that nothing else can reach.
If I could have done anything with my life, it would have been to create music in some way. I suspect I write words because I cannot write music. I’m not sorry, though, with the direction my life has taken—to be honest, I doubt I had the ability or the fortitude to be a singer.
When I started writing my novel, I had to give one of my characters a dream. The choice was easy—it could only be music. And using words as my instrument, I wrote my music into my novel.
Well, that’s it for Writers in the Attic for a while. As most of you know, my book will be released in two weeks time, and I’ll be rather busy and distracted so I don’t know when I’ll start it up again.
Thank you all for following my personal writing journey. It’s been a six-year trek and many of you have been here since the beginning—not long to the finish line now! On the one hand, it feels surreal and hard to believe my dream will be an actuality. On the other, it’s rather anxiety provoking—I’m in breath-holding limbo, waiting to see if the six years I’ve spent working on my novel have been worth it.
I have no idea how my book will be received—I don’t know if people will ‘get’ it, if it will resonate with readers, or if it will be panned. I hope not, of course, but no book has ever been universally liked—readers bring their own tastes, experiences and interpretations to a book.
Already, people have written some lovely reviews and/or messaged me privately to tell me they’ve been touched by it. I can see, too, how different aspects of the book are speaking to different people. I love hearing your reactions to my story, so please continue to let me know.
In the meantime, enjoy a lovely Christmas with your family and I wish you all the peace and blessings of the season.