Music, Words, and Community

A slightly later blogpost this week… I’ve been down with a cold for a few days, and my brain has been pretty scrambled. Working on getting back into gear.

cat trio sickbed
Feline nurses on duty

This week I thought I would explore the “ministry” aspect of writing again; it’s something I’m thinking about a lot. One of the fascinating, and challenging, things about this profession is that there are so many possible paths to take in it. You can want so many things: different things, sometimes conflicting things. It can be hard to organize priorities, which makes it hard in turn to focus on and reach for particular goals.

A lot of my focus over the past few months has been on publication, and figuring out how to get my second novel out into the world. The process continues to move along, slowly. Meanwhile, I keep trying to maintain a balance between the drive and desire on that side, and the fact that writing has other aspects I also want to immerse myself in. Especially on the teaching side.

I’ve written before about how fascinating the writing craft is for me, and how much I like working with other writers. Helping people tell and develop their stories feels like a type of ministry to me. Sharing stories allows us to see each other as people: I always come back to that as one of the most valuable functions of writing, and teaching writing.

Sometimes, though, it takes a little extra effort to start a story rolling and get words on the page, and sometimes it takes a little extra effort to help someone share his or her words. I ran into both of those situations recently at a particular workshop I teach, and the outcomes were exciting and encouraging. The experience got me thinking more about how music, my “other side,” could open up new and creative possibilities when it comes to helping people tell their stories.

The workshop was with Baltimore Bridges, a program for kids in Baltimore city schools. Kids start the program in junior high and continue through high school. They’re paired with adult mentors who help them think about future career options and prepare for college applications and job interviews. Once a month, the high schoolers have a day-long immersion program that focuses on college prep. As part of the day, they can choose electives to take. Creative writing is one of those.

The kids are smart and energized. They’ve impressed me again and again with their creativity and willingness to experiment. A few weeks ago, though, I was especially impressed with the way they responded to a storytelling prompt using music. It brought out a new kind of creativity and built a sense of community in the classroom that I hadn’t experienced before.

I played them a recording I’d made at home of one of my favorite pieces: a movement from the suite Estampes, by Claude Debussy. Debussy was a French composer from the Impressionist era, late 19th century into early 20th century. His music explores all the colors and tone-combinations the piano can create, and plays with dissonance in startling and lovely ways. Estampes isn’t a piece most people would be familiar with, and I was interested to hear what the kids thought of it. I asked them to listen to it and write whatever it made them think about. After we did that, I asked them to share what they’d written.

It was a group of five girls: high school freshmen, sophomores, and one junior. At first, it took a little bit of work to get them to share. They were more worried than usual that they hadn’t done the exercise “right,” even though we have a workshop policy that there’s no “wrong” way to do anything. Finally one of them jumped in, and talked about how she’d heard music like the Debussy when she was visiting an arts-focused school in Baltimore that she was thinking about applying to. Another said that the music made her imagine being outside in the woods. A third had written a beautiful, improvisatory poem about trees and sunlight and flowing water. She was especially hesitant to share hers because it was different from what the other girls had written, but when she read it, everyone was wowed.

The exercise got the students’ imaginations going, and I loved seeing what the music tapped into for them. The rest of the session felt especially inspired. The girls worked collaboratively on other prompts, weaving one another’s fictional characters into their own stories, joking around and cheering for each other, making the kind of community that I think is the best kind of writers’ workshop. At the end, I felt like we’d done something valuable and lasting.

In a time when, in the wider world, we run so often into argument and division and boundaries between people, I love the fact that storytelling does have that power to let us see one another. If collaboration and reconciliation can start with that seeing, I think writers, teachers, and writing communities can play some role in bringing people together. A small role, maybe, but a potentially powerful one. This is something I think about all the time: how can I best use the tools and abilities I have to do some good in my corner of the world?

I have some ideas, and I’m brainstorming all the time. For today, I’ll close this post with the Debussy recording I shared with my workshop. If you have a chance, give it a listen and see what it sparks in your imagination.  

[P.S. If you’d like, please share your response to the Debussy in the comments, or with me by email at]


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