King For A Night

The legend of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony goes as follows: The composer, already stone deaf, was commissioned by The Philharmonic Society of London, and, after six years of composing, produced the symphony, which premiered in 1824 at the Kärntnertortheater in Vienna. According to witnesses, at the symphony’s conclusion, Beethoven received five standing ovations. The king only got three, and so the police were forced to break up the proceedings.

As an artist I take a certain glee in this story, whether it is true or not. How delightful that the composer, who was unable to marry the woman he loved because she was of noble birth and he was not, in the end produced something so beautiful it broke the laws of class divide. How delicious that the audience was compelled to reward accomplishment over blood.

But how much more beautiful this other anecdote, that the conductor left his podium to turn Beethoven, who sat in a chair to the side of musicians, so that he could see the applause he could not hear. Beethoven had said of the Ninth Symphony and its climactic Ode to Joy that he wished to give something great to humanity. Yet he was forced to do so while condemned to silence, kept not only from the applause it inspired but music itself.

And so there was the Ninth Symphony heard by the audience that day in Vienna, and the Ninth Symphony heard by Beethoven alone, the one played in the concert hall of his imagination. Looking out into that sea of silent applause, it must have seemed an odd and fitting end to a musical career. Let the same silence needed to compose the Ode reply to its debut. He gave love in silence and received it so.

We put kings in castles, clothe them and feed, arm their guards, and put a pointed crown on their heads so that they might be closer to God, from whom they are now expected to receive instruction for the greater good, unburdened as they are by earthly concerns. But the needs of the flesh can be sated or, in Beethoven’s case, abandoned by necessity – no matter, you return to the soul by either route, and a little wooden chair on the edge of a stage could stand as high as a throne.

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The Nothing We Know

If I could bring only one piece of music with me to a desert island it would be Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, which I suppose is a cliché—but who cares? The heart loves what it loves. I did not know when I first heard the Ninth Symphony that Beethoven was deaf while he composed it; I loved it only because it was a beautiful piece of music. When I learned about the deafness, I loved the Ode all the more.

By all measures, Beethoven should not have been writing an ode to joy. His life was music and he could not hear. He should have been writing an ode to tragic irony, right? Could have, but he didn’t. By the same token, no one would criticize Somaly Mam—who was sold into sexual slavery at the age of 12 and who endured there the kind of nightmare torture most novelists wouldn’t allow themselves to dream—no one would criticize her if she had no love left for humanity. She had seen humanity at its worst, and had had that worst done to her. And yet, what she wishes for the girls she now rescues from this same sexual slavery is love—not vengeance, not even justice, but love. Somehow through her own nightmare, Somaly was able to arrive at the understanding that all her justified hatred would heal nothing and grow nothing. Love alone would do that.

It is easy to look at what we had and what we’ve lost and mourn ourselves. Losses great and small accumulate day after day, and what was the use of any of it if we don’t mourn it? Why did we ever want the job, the house, the child if we are not made lesser when they are gone? This is why I would bring the Ode with me to a desert island. On the island I would have nothing, my truest state, and the Ode would remind me in its ecstasy of the nothing I never had, and the nothing I could never lose.

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I had the pleasure of hanging around with Andre Dubus when he was in Seattle for the recent Pacific Northwest Writers Conference. I had asked him to be the Key Note speaker based on my impression of him during our interview a year ago. He did not disappoint.

And yet, as eloquent and inspiring as his speech was, amid all the stories and wisdom he shared what stayed with me the most was a single, rather off-handed comment he made soon after he’d hopped up on stage. In describing his experience as a writer, he confessed, “Man, I love this life. I don’t ever want it to end.”

It made me very happy to hear that, and not just because I liked Andre and wanted the best for him. You cannot argue with joy, it is a truth that stands alone unsupported by evidence, rooted only in itself. Words and words and words are great, and they are generally my tool of choice, but joy knows every language—just ask Beethoven—from the piano to the poem, and I will never hear enough of it.

It should be no surprise that the composer’s last symphony ended with the Ode, or that Joyce’s Ulysses concluded, “ . . . yes I said yes I will yes.”  Saying no is a requirement to managing your time and life—there is too much that could be done to try and do it all—but yes is the only engine forward.

As a young girl, my wife spent most of her days saying no in an attempt to barricade herself from a world she viewed as constantly encroaching on her peace of mind, and so her world grew increasingly empty. Eventually she said yes to art school, and yes to writing stories, and even yes to me. But she wasn’t actually saying yes to me, she was saying yes to life, which is what Andre did that evening at the conference. Life forever awaits your yes, and when you hear it in another, you are actually hearing it in yourself, because you cannot know what you have not already seen, and you cannot love what you have not always known.

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Four Notes

Think about the famous first movement of Beethoven’s 5th sym-phony. That entire movement is based on four notes, three of which are identical. And yet from those four notes, Beethoven composed seven minutes of some of the most memorable classical music ever written.

To me, those four notes are like the first idea of a novel. For instance, the book I’m completing now began with this seed of an image: a boy meets a man on the road and they take a journey together. That’s it. Not exactly something you could pitch to an agent, but within that simple image I felt the potential for an entire novel.

This is one of the mysteries of stories. I remember when I came up with the basic idea for the only screenplay I ever wrote. The story was still in its infancy but I told my mother about it anyway. When I was done describing what I knew of the story, she said, “Well, that doesn’t sound like much.” Then I wrote it, discovered all that I had felt but had not yet seen, and she loved it.

No one can ever know what you know about the story you are trying to tell because you don’t know all there is to know about the story you are trying to tell until you have told all of it. And this is all to the better in my mind. If as writers we are discovering up until the very last word, the story will remain alive up until the very last word.

This is why I am unmoved by predictions of success or failure of a given idea. Would anyone else have seen the potential in those four notes that Beethoven did? We’ll never know, and we’ll never need to. There are seeds of ideas everywhere, each as pregnant as the next. The height and beauty to which they grow depends only upon the imagination in which they are planted.

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