On Writing and Breath

January 29, 2009 § 5 Comments

Elizabeth Westmark discusses her essay “Tenderness,” found in the latest issue of Brevity:

I played the piano in college to earn money, accompanying future opera singers by the hour in closet-like wooden studios at the University of Florida’s music school. My favorite was Oonaugh, a young contralto from Scotland. She told me once that she always requested me as her accompanist because I “breathed with her.” She said that most of the other pianists played the music precisely, but didn’t allow for her to creatively deviate from the score or even seem to care that she was there. They were being paid to play the accompaniment. Period.

Unbelievably, that was almost forty years ago. These days, my husband and I live in a hundred-acre wood in the panhandle of Florida that we are restoring back into the longleaf pine forest it used to be.

One of my best sources for stories is a good friend named Harold. He told me once that I am the “onliest fancy woman” that has ever been nice to him. In Harold’s vernacular, “fancy” means educated. It’s close kin to “citified,” but is friendlier and has special connotations that Harold applies only to women. “Nice” means he knows he is welcome in my kitchen any morning of the week to pull up a stool, drink strong coffee and share a story or two.

Everybody’s got a story, whether they are in the country, the city or somewhere in-between. Finding the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary is like the squirt of juice from a cherry hidden in the middle of a chocolate.

Writing “Tenderness” was like that. When I heard Ronnie Thomley talking about living at the end of the power line with his little girls and rescuing the orphaned baby doe, I recognized another unsung storyteller, and sidled up so I could listen hard.

I tried to accompany the music of his words. I tried to breathe with him.

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