Sing a New Story
by Mary Ellen Stepanich
I was flipping through the April issue of The Writer magazine when the title of one of the articles immediately caught my eye – probably because I am a singer. The essay by JoAnn Stevelos was titled, “Sing a New Song.” The author, whose work has been published in the literary journal Arts and Understanding, recounted a tale of awakening one morning with an inexplicable thought: “If I learn to sing, I will sell a book.”
That line caused me to let lose with a derisive, “Yeah, right,” because I’ve been singing almost since I drew my first breath, and I can’t sell enough copies of my book, D Is For Dysfunctional…and Doo Wop, to make a down payment on a 10-year-old Geo. Upon closer examination, however, that strange juxtaposition of two seemingly unrelated events – learning to sing, and selling a book – began to make some sort of sense.
Ms. Stevelos described in vivid detail the arduous process of researching voice teachers, walking long city blocks to the local college, then descending into the bowels of the music building to struggle through weeks of physical and vocal exercises, none of which involved actual singing. I must admit that, to my mind, none of it seemed to have anything to do with writing a book that sells, either – until the voice teacher shared her instructional method with her student. “My intention,” she said, “is to help you develop your voice until it becomes consistently accessible and expressive.”
And that’s when I “got it,” the point of the essay, why Ms. Stevelos had to learn to sing in order to sell a book. As writers, we always strive to find our unique “voice,” and to infuse our written work with a voice that is true and real, a voice the essay’s author says she has to “dig down deep into the bottom of my belly to find.” As a singer, that is exactly where I find my breath, my soul, and my intention whenever I perform. JoAnn Stevelos approaches her writing with her own voice in mind so she “sounds” like herself and not anyone else.
A friend of mine was critiquing one of my short stories recently. She apparently didn’t think too highly of it because she told me, as she tossed it back to me, “You write like you talk.” On the other hand, the highest compliment I have received about my writing style came from a member of my current critique group. After reading the latest chapter of my novel about my barbershop quartet’s hilarious misadventures on board a luxury liner, she told me, “I can hear your voice in every word.”
When the singers in my quartet, Lilac Crazy (“we LIE like crazy”), are interpreting a new song, we often debate the issue of where to take a breath. I usually tell them, “We won’t breathe until we come to the end of a complete thought, usually at a comma or a period in the lyrics.”
When I submit a new chapter to my writers’ critique group, the ones who slavishly follow their high school English teachers’ guidelines for comma usage insist I put a comma where I have intentionally avoided one. To them I say, “I always read the passage aloud, and if I don’t breathe there, I don’t put a comma there.” Apparently, Stevelos agrees with me. She acknowledges that singing “teaches grammar, phrasing, and storytelling.”
So, dear writers, the next time you are struggling with your story project, I suggest you try singing it.
Dr. Stepanich is a retired professor of organizational behavior. She told her students at Purdue, “I’m very organized, but my behavior’s a bit wonky.” Her publications include academic journal articles, comedy show scripts, stories in Good Old Days magazine, and an award-winning radio play, Voices From the Front. Mary Ellen blogs on her website at maryellenstepanich.com, and can be reached via e-mail at DrStep@cox.net.