A sound, barely perceptible. Musical notes, quite high, shimmering in strings. So begins the Prelude to Richard Wagner’s opera Lohengrin, which I recently saw at the Metropolitan Opera.
Among Wagner’s many contributions to music was the development of the leitmotif, a recurring musical theme that represents an element in the story. For example, Lohengrin has leitmotifs for the Holy Grail and the Forbidden Question, among others.
You’ll hear leitmotifs in movie scores—assorted melodies crisscrossing throughout the show, giving psychological undercurrents to what you’re watching.
Writers, too, can make effective use of leitmotifs (or motifs) with words and images.
For example, in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, colors are used as a leitmotif, showing how characters fight against the deadly reality of slavery, even after freedom. Sethe, a mother, buys colorful ribbons and bows for her daughter. Beloved, that daughter, sleeps with a quilt that has two orange patches. And so on.
In Barry Jenkins’s movie Moonlight, there’s a leitmotif of water, representing change or perhaps rebirth. The movie opens and closes with the sound of water, and water appears at other points, most memorably when Juan teaches the boy Chiron how to swim—Chiron unaware that Juan is the drug dealer supplying his mother.
Moving on to another legendary composer: Burt Bacharach recently passed away. His music makes me smile inside, always has. It goes down easy, but is rather sophisticated, blending influences of jazz, classical, pop, and bossa nova into something unique.
A distinctive feature of a Bacharach song is the tricky rhythm. Lots of syncopation and shifting meters. In other words, it runs, then skips, then slides, then switches direction.
Playing with rhythm is an excellent way to wake up your words in writing.
In this passage from Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club, the narrator describes his soul-sucking office:
Everything where I work is floor-to-ceiling glass. Everything is vertical blinds. Everything is industrial low-pile gray carpet spotted with little tombstone monuments where the PC’s plug into the network. Everything is a maze of cubicles boxed in with fences of upholstered plywood.
A vacuum cleaner hums somewhere.
Notice the repetition of the four sentences starting with Everything, then a sharp break with that distant vacuum cleaner.
One of my favorite celebrity sightings happened about ten years ago. I’m riding the subway in NYC. And Burt Bacharach is sitting across from me. He was in his mid-80s, looking cool as ever. As I recall, he was chatting to a young woman who seemed to be a stranger.
Hey, let’s celebrate Burt and NYC with Burt’s “Arthur’s Theme,” from the movie Arthur.
Bentley: What is it, Major Lawrence, that attracts you personally to the desert?
Lawrence: It’s clean.
You might think of the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia as an adventure story, or an epic drama, or even a hagiography of colonialism, but try thinking of it, instead, as a romance between a man and the desert.
It’s a story grounded in topophilia.
Topophilia, perfectly illustrated in the above exchange between Peter O’Toole and Arthur Kennedy, is a profound and deep love for a landscape, a location, a geography. It is a love for place.
Are you thinking of grandma’s kitchen, or your college campus, or the street corner where you fell in love?
Yeah, that’s not it. That’s place attachment, which is love for A Place. Place attachment is “a cognitive-emotional bond individuals develop toward places.” It’s love borne of experience and memory.
Topophilia is more mysterious and more challenging to describe. It doesn’t require much experience, and memory is optional. It defies logic and explanation, as love so often does.
And it’s so rewarding, and fun, to write.
Start, of course, with the landscape that brings you the most joy. Again, not a place you love because of special moments, but that you love, because it exists. Maybe it’s the plains, or the Sawtooth Wilderness. Maybe it’s Michigan. Maybe it’s anywhere with a waterfront.
Next, take novelist Chuck Wendig’s advice, and avoid describing the terrain and the climate and the feel or smell of the breeze. Instead, “Think of setting as just another character. It looks and acts a certain way. It may change over the course of the story. Other characters interact with it and have feelings about it that may not be entirely rational.”
Sarah Broom did this in her Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir The Yellow House, describing summer in New Orleans: “The malicious New Orleans heat could seem to crawl inside, affecting your brain so that walking felt like fighting air. New Orleans humidity is a mood. To say to someone ‘It’s humid today’ is to comment on the mind-set. The air worsened the closer you came to the Mississippi River and wet you entirely so that by the day’s end, my hair was zapped of all its sheen and my clothes stuck to my body in all the wrong places.”
Last, don’t explain; swoon.
“For most surfers…waves have a spooky duality. When you are absorbed in surfing them, they seem alive. And yet waves are of course not alive, not sentient, and the lover you reach to embrace may turn murderous without warning. It’s nothing personal. Wave love is a one-way street.” — William Finnegan, Barbarian Days.
Your turn, writers. Write us a love letter to your favorite place. Tell it happy Valentine’s Day from me.
A few months ago, a longtime Gotham teacher, Jon Gingerich, informed us that he wouldn’t be teaching for the foreseeable future as he adapts to something new: he was going blind.
Here’s a wonderful essay he wrote about the experience. In this passage, he uses a cane for the first time:
The sun’s hard glare met the pavement as I walked down 40th Street. The cane felt good in my hand. Blindness is a lonely world, but in that moment the future was an uninhabited planet coming into view. I felt relief that no one batted an eye. Why would they, anyway? The cane stuck in a crack on the sidewalk. This adaptation, this new skin, would take some getting used to. I reminded myself that change is rarely handled gracefully. Then the walk sign on Madison flashed and I continued west.
The World War II General George S. Patton Jr. said: Courage is fear holding on a minute longer.
Jon was devastated by going blind, but one day he got that cane and began walking with it.
(A distinction is often made between courage and bravery, the latter being an innate state, the former something you muster within yourself.)
And recently an old friend of mine, Carole Healey, passed away after a long bout with cancer. When she announced on social media there was nothing left her doctors could do, people sent messages and gifts. She faced her new reality with great grace, as seen in this post about a gift:
It arrived just as I was recovering from one of the worst bouts of sickness I have ever experienced. Like the rainbow after the flood, these beautiful blossoms give me hope and made me feel so loved.
This kind of courage—fear holding on a minute longer—makes for good storytelling. See how you can use it in the things you’re writing.
It doesn’t always have to be courage against illness or death. Even the minor things in life require courage. Meeting a stranger for a date. Making that long-delayed trip to the dentist. Eating toast in the morning, steeling yourself for a day you don’t want to face.
Show your characters (or yourself) wavering as they face the fear, perhaps even failing to summon the necessary courage. The more challenging it is, the more we will be moved by it.
You know about courage. Did school ever present hell to you? Did you shop in a grocery store in the early days of the pandemic? You probably need to rustle up some courage for something going on this week.
I’m rooting for you. Maybe you’ll do the same for me.