March 15, 2013
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
In the modern golden age of essay collections, Michelle Herman's Stories We Tell Ourselves stands out with its two thought-provoking and sharply written essays about dreams and our own perceptions of the world around us.
Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:
"This slim volume includes two extended essays, incisive and conversational, that…complement each other as if they were two sides of the coin of the unconscious, the former focusing on dreams and how they work and what they mean, the latter illuminating a rare (or is it?) perception disorder that serves as a more general metaphor."
My new book, Stories We Tell Ourselves, is a sort of mash-up of memoir and investigation—the kind of nonfiction I've become most interested in writing. I've been calling it "memoir-plus" (I don't mind reading other people's memoirs, but I'm not in the least interested in writing about my own life without also doing something else). In this case, it's two novella-length personal essays, both of them about the unconscious—"the unconscious in everyday life," I suppose I should say, though Freud said it first. The "ordinary" unconscious, I mean. Dreams, of course (at length, in "Dream Life," the first essay). But also everything else—everything we do that we do without deciding to do, all the "slips" and symptoms and instinctive decisions, the way we make our way in the world, what we're afraid of, what we want.
In other words, the meaning of everything. That's really the only thing I'm interested in writing about, to tell you the truth.
And while this book (unlike my last nonfiction book, The Middle of Everything, which was full of songs, and my next book, which is still a year or so away from publication and is to a great extent about songs, about singing and performance—and is in fact called Like A Song) has no music in it, there is always music in my head. I don't listen to music while I write—not even when I'm writing about music—and I try to keep the music in my head down while I'm writing, but there's always something playing there. And I listen to music—real music, not the imagined kind—every minute that I'm not writing or reading or teaching (or sleeping, I guess). I think about it an ungodly amount. So it wasn't hard to offer up a playlist for Stories We Tell Ourselves. The hard part was keeping it down to a manageable number of tracks (and not seeming completely insane. Because my tastes are notable catholic, and I wander far and wide restlessly, and I don't want you throwing up your hands and saying, "I can't listen to these songs, one after another! This makes to sense!" Try it. It'll be like living inside my brain for a little while).
"Astral Weeks" - Van Morrison
Because this is one of my favorite songs of all time from one of my favorite albums (Astral Weeks) of all times, because it is so gorgeous and mysterious, and mysteriously makes me tearful, every time, and because I hope it captures the spirit of this book. It's kind of what I want the spirit of the book to be. The meaning of everything? This song feels like the meaning of everything.
"Oyf'n Pripetshok" - Li-Ron Herzeliya Children's Choir
Okay, so this is a song my grandmother sang to me every night I slept at her apartment (which was many nights, throughout my childhood). And I write about my grandmother all the time. But I don't write (lord, I hope I don't write) about her in a sentimental, romanticized way (I wrote a novel based on the bones of her biography—my first novel, Missing—and I worked so hard at avoiding sentimentality that there were people who found the portrait of the old woman downright cold, which I swear to you it isn't). "Dream Life" opens with a dream about my grandmother, so I had to include a version of this song. This is the best recorded version I've ever heard—it's entirely unsentimental, clear-eyed, arrow-to-your-heart beautiful. It's from the "Schindler's List" (a movie I have never seen, as it happens) soundtrack. And since I am crazy about choral music, especially as sung by children, and the second essay in the book, "Seeing Things," goes on quite a bit about this (there is a whole section about the Columbus Children's Choir, which my daughter sang in), this song, by a remarkable children's choir in Israel that has as its mission not only music education and performance but the promotion of tolerance and empathy, is an essential part of the playlist for the book.
"Since U Been Gone" – Kelly Clarkson
I'm not going to say that I have a weakness for a great pop anthem (because it's not a weakness, okay?) but I have a lot of them in my music library. And this song, which is on Breakaway, Kelly Clarkson's breakaway from "American Idol" album, is a first-rate example of the genre, if you ask me. That album was released in the fall of 2004, which is a time that I spend a good bit of time mucking around in (Part 4 of "Dream Life," to be specific) in this book. It's when my daughter started middle school and one night we had the same dream. And although my daughter, Grace, has moved on from Kelly Clarkson, she was a shared enthusiasm of ours in those days, and dating back to Clarkson's "American Idol" win (we watched the show compulsively together, from the beginning). And her then-best friend, Kristin—who also figures largely here—was pretty well obsessed too (the girls used to pretend to be various "Idols," and they were forever pairing them off as couples). We've all left the TV show behind, but unlike my daughter—and presumably unlike her friend Kristin—I still listen to Kelly Clarkson, very happily.
"For Your Love" – The Yardbirds
This one is for my friend Vicki Lebenbaum, whom I write about here, and who I wrote about in The Middle of Everything at greater length, and who is gone. This book comes out almost exactly fourteen years to the day since she died, when our children were both nearly six years old. Back when we first knew each other—we were in high school together—we used to sing "For Your Love" together. Listening to it now still brings her back to me fully, startlingly, with joy.
"Gracie" – Ben Folds
And this one is purely for Grace, my daughter—who is so present in just about every page of this book, she might as well be its subject. She is always the subject, one way or another. And this song evokes her arrival in the world, which changed my life—and my writing—completely. And I love the song. And she is wild about Ben Folds. And I would never have discovered him if not for her. And so—of course it's here.
"Lullaby in Ragtime" - Barbara Cook
The version I am thinking of is a live one, from It's Better With A Band.
The music I was listening to when I first began to write "Dream Life" was almost entirely standards. That's because I had started taking voice lessons—a dream (if you will pardon the expression) long-deferred—and that was mostly what I was singing. Because I was singing these songs, practicing them daily, I listened very closely to recordings of them. I was listening mostly to jazz singers (Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday) whom I'd been listening to since I was a teenager, but I'd never listened this hard. And then I discovered Barbara Cook, whom I'd never paid any attention to. She isn't a jazz singer but is, I quickly realized, the greatest living interpreter of the American songbook. She was roughly the age I am now when this was recorded at Carnegie Hall. And I love her voice even more now—decades later than that. I could have chosen—I had a terrible time choosing between—any number of her recordings. But this one is about going to sleep. And in the process of writing this essay, I thought more about sleep than I ever had before or since—and possibly more than just about anyone else ever has. I also read every single thing anyone had ever written on the subject. This song is way more fun.
"White Winter Hymnal" - Fleet Foxes
One more that has to do with Grace (a theme emerges, does it not?). It was fall 2006 that I began working on the first draft of "Dream Life." It took a long time to write, and I kept putting it down and picking it back up. I wrote "Seeing Things" in the meantime (and I also started a novel, which I am only now getting back to). By August 2007 I had decided that I need to do a lot of research, and I stopped writing and started reading those books I mentioned above. I also had a sort of writing breakdown that summer, so it was convenient, I suppose, that I had all that research to do. It wasn't until the summer of 2008—which was when this song hit the radio—that I returned to the writing of this essay. My daughter had just turned fifteen (which I write about too, here). This song evokes everything about that period for me. And it's also pretty dreamlike itself. And four-plus years later, I am still listening to it, which says something.
"White Rabbit" - Jefferson Airplane
Because this list would not be complete without at least a gesture toward psychedelia.
I spent a long time thinking about this. In my teens, I was—I don't know why this feels like a confession—a reasonably committed Deadhead. Not the most dedicated one (I never left the East Coast in my quest to see them play), but I went to a lot of shows. I listened to a lot of Grateful Dead and a lot of Airplane (for a while, I thought I wanted to be Grace Slick)—it's amazing, really, that I never even thought of running off to San Francisco.
I am offering up this song instead of any of the (great) many other possibilities—I considered and rejected "Dark Star," for instance, and "Playing in the Band," to mention Dead songs at opposite ends of the musical spectrum—because I have so many associations with it. For one thing: I finally hit my stride and understood how "Dream Life" fit together in 2009, and then I was off and running. I don't know, really—I don't keep great records, or multiple drafts anymore—how long it took me after that to finish it (and I was already working on two other books by then—Like A Song, which is another set of linked essays, and the novel I've already mentioned) but I do know that during this period I also began (and then kept on) performing on a semi-regular basis. And while I started out singing the jazz standards I loved, and had been practicing for so long by then, I also gratefully embraced the songs I'd sung in my teens and twenties. I wondered if I could sing them better, now that I'd had all those voice lessons. I could, it turned out. And one of my first public performances—at a bar, as part of a benefit for the mid-Ohio food pantry—was of this song. My accompanist was the brand-new boyfriend of my best friend (he is now her husband). She had found the happiness she had long been seeking, at last—with him. It felt like a joyful song, as Philip and I performed it, in a way I'd never thought of it before.
And the symptom, the visual distortion, that opens the essay "Seeing Things"—and which is the central focus (so to speak) of that long essay—is the manifestation of something known as Alice in Wonderland Syndrome. And so it all comes together, doesn't it?
Michelle Herman and Stories We Tell Ourselves links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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