Incarnating Words



Several months ago, Thomas Hanson asked on my post Literature, It Is a-Changing, “May I ask what you think musical study can offer to serious literary criticism? Or, maybe better put, what musical study can offer, that other studies can’t?” This isn’t exactly an answer, especially because I approach the question as a storyteller, not a critic. But I think this is as close as I will be able to come.

What is a word? We who have grown up in a literate society tend to think of it strictly as an intellectual tool, a signifier of ideas, an abstract symbol of concrete thought, but that is only one element of what a word truly is. A word is also an emotional trigger surrounded by context and laden with history; it is a physical experience of sound; and, when it is written, it is a physical experience of shape. Though we are largely unconscious of it, those physical and emotional experiences are intricately tied to our experience of the word. Shakespeare said a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I happen to agree with Anne Shirley (of Green Gables):

“I read in a book once that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I’ve never been able to believe it. I don’t believe a rose WOULD be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk cabbage.”

She’s right: the phonetic and visual profiles of “skunk cabbage” are entirely different from those of “rose,” and human senses are inter-dependent. Change the aural and visual experience, and you change the entire sensory package. Likewise, words are emotional triggers, and there is little one can do to escape the associations of the word “skunk.”

As a singer, I have spent a good deal of time studying and practicing the physical experience of words, not only in English, but in languages I don’t actually speak like Italian, German, and Latin. All singing is by its nature storytelling, but it is storytelling that highlights the physical properties of words, using their tone, timbre, pitch, articulation, syllable stresses, tempo, etc. as elements of the tale itself. In fact, when I’m singing in a language I don’t understand, although it is essential for me to know the literal translation of the words, their physical properties become the only real tools I have with which to convey their meaning. Furthermore, singing joins words to the physical emotions of the human body, to facial expression and gesture. To me, the concept of the “word made flesh” is not some theological abstraction; it’s just what I do. I take words and give them flesh within my own body, and I attempt thereby to convey the fullness of their meaning— intellectual, emotional, and physical—to my listeners.

As Christians, we are called to experience the true Word made Flesh in even more depth, through even more senses, than the way I experience words as a singer. We are called to see and hear the Word in scripture, to study it with our intellect, to taste it and smell it in the Eucharist, to touch it and encounter it and become emotionally attached to it—that is, to Him, Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate—through our relationships with each other. It is the vocation of every Christian to bring this complex experience to others through the way we live: to bear the Word to the world through our flesh. But those of us who are called to the vocation of writing have another responsibility: to bear the Flesh to the world through our words.

To bear the Word in the vocation of a Christian storyteller, we must first immerse ourselves in the experience of Christ using the entirety of our being: mind, heart, and body. Then, we employ our talents to bring that same experience to life on the page, engaging the totality of the reader in stories that sing—directly or indirectly—of the Word Incarnate. We receive the Word in all of its depths and dimensions, and then we give it to others. A story that truly bears God to its readers reveals Him not only to the mind, but to the heart and the body as well. That is the particular genius of literature and its advantage over works of apologetics or theology: story has the power to speak to the totality of a human person. But in order for the story to do so, the author must first engage the totality of him/ herself in the writing.

Occasionally, young writers will ask me the best way to learn how to bring characters to life, and I tell them to take acting classes. Acting was a required part of my MFA writing program, so I am definitely not alone in thinking that it works. Like singing, acting requires the actor to involve his or her whole body in the process of storytelling, with a heavy emphasis on emotion and character motivation. These are things a fiction writer obviously needs to understand, but it’s also true that bringing words to life with one’s own flesh helps one learn how to put flesh into words. Acting is an immeasurably useful study for writers. Singing layers another dimension onto this dynamic of physical storytelling, requiring not only a different set of physical skills, but a greater adherence to structure, tempo, form, etc., all of which are useful elements in the creation of literature.

All singing is storytelling; likewise, all storytelling is by its nature musical. Story, even when it is written, is nevertheless a physical experience of sound, rhythm, tone, etc. As a storyteller, I consider it my duty not only to convey the literal meaning of the story, but to bring it to life through the words, paying attention to the physical effects of their sound and even shape, inviting the reader to an experience rich with taste, touch, smell, and emotion. As much as we humans like to think of ourselves as rational animals, the truth is that when our physical or emotional demands are at odds with our intellect, the physical and emotional demands usually win. In most circumstances, a hungry person is going to eat even if his mind says he’s already had enough; a sad person is going to cry, even if his mind says there is no good reason to do so. In the same way, a person who has been brought into contact with the beauty and mystery of God cannot help but feel it, even if his mind says there is no God to encounter. He is still likely to come back to feast on beauty again. Why else does our “post-Christian” society not tear down the great European cathedrals, nor ban Mozart’s Reqiuem from the stage? It is because these works incarnate at least a glimpse of the beauty of the Word; they engage our minds, our hearts, and our bodies in something Divine. It is this appreciation for the totality, especially the physicality, of artistic engagement that the study of music can afford to the study and practice of literature.

The one great advantage singers have over other musicians is the ability to engage the linguistic part of the human intellect at the same time we engage them in the aesthetics of the music: we can tell a literal story. Likewise, what music offers to storytelling, especially Christian storytelling, is the ability to transcend the intellectual power of words and wrap them in physical—that is, incarnational—beauty.

Karen Ullo is a writer, musician, wife, and mother of two small tornadoes–er, boys. Her novels are Jennifer the Damned (2015) and Cinder Allia (coming in 2017.) She is also a regular Meatless Friday chef for Find out more at


Adventures in Music-ing



“To music” really ought to be a verb. I realize the -ing form of it would look rather awful: you’d either have to make it musicking—which looks sickly—or you’d have to run the risk of musicing being pronounced like “muse icing”—which is an interesting image, but not exactly what I’m going for. Still, there really is more to music-ing than “making” music.  The usual phrase connotes that music is a thing, like a table or a statue. But music is not a form of matter; it’s a form of energy. Music only exists when it is in motion. A vinyl record or a CD might be called “potential music,” but you’ve got to spin it for it to play. The potential energy of the hammers in a piano must become kinetic, and the kinetic energy must be converted to sound waves, or the strings will remain forever silent. Music is always active; inertia must be overcome by force not once for all time, like the energy channeled into a sculptor’s chisel, but over and over again, at the very moment when the music is required, or else it will not exist. Music-ing is always a verb.


Bells like these

I’ve been the music director at a Catholic parish for almost thirteen years now, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned for sure, it is that Murphy’s Law applies double to music, especially during Christmas and Easter. Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. On my very first Christmas Eve in my current job, the vigil Masses ran smoothly, including a children’s “hand bell” performance using the color-coded bells popular in preschools and kindergartens. (Our organist owns the company that markets those bells, and she records the accompaniment tracks herself.) But later, when we arrived for midnight Mass, the organ would not play. At all. It wasn’t until Christmas morning that the pastor figured out some of the kids from the bell choir had banged on the back of the organ console and dislodged the fuses.

This liturgical year in particular has been a comedy of holiday errors. Once again, the Christmas Eve vigil Masses ran smoothly, but when I set up all the microphones for midnight Mass, I flipped on the sound system and. . . BUZZ. Not feedback. Just something-ain’t-right noise. Do you know how long the process of elimination takes to figure out what’s wrong with a sound system? It could be any single microphone, cable, or sound board channel causing the problem, and in order to test them, I had to keep turning the system on and off. And the switch is in the sacristy, a good thirty yards or so from where the musicians set up. And I was barely six weeks recovered from foot surgery, hobbling back and forth across that distance, until I stationed the deacon at the switch and kept signaling to him across the church. But it turned out to be a good thing we had an excuse not to perform our prelude music, because—despite setting an alarm—the pianist overslept. While I was desperately troubleshooting the sound system, the organist had to call and wake her up. The pianist is normally very responsible and punctual, but this time she had to stumble into church half-way through the gathering hymn, right after I finally ditched the offending microphone, without having time to determine whether it was the cable or the mic itself causing the buzz.

Music-ing. Gotta love it.

Still, no matter how many things go wrong, in my almost thirteen years as music director, we have never had a complete musical meltdown. We’ve had plenty of less-than-perfect services, but, no matter how close we’ve come, we have never had to simply throw in the towel and say, “Sorry, folks, no music today.” Much of this, of course, has to do with careful planning and built-in redundancy. I mentioned both an organist and a pianist; at most Masses, we use both instruments at the same time, which also means that if one accompanist gets sick or goes on vacation, the other is there to cover. If the organ malfunctions, we still have the piano. If the pianist oversleeps, we still have the organ. If I can’t sing, the pianist can cantor, too. But an even bigger part of our record of no meltdowns is the fact that we have had plenty of heavenly intervention.

The most obvious example of this came a few years ago on a Sunday during Lent. Because of a perfect storm of personal emergencies, both of our accompanists had to be out at the same time. Although I’d made plenty of calls, I couldn’t find a sub. I arrived at church on Sunday morning having prepared the choir for an all-a cappella service, and I announced our plan to the congregation before Mass. No sooner had I finished the announcement than a man I had never met appeared at my elbow and said, “You need a piano player?” I looked at him in shock and said, “Can you really do it on this short of notice?” He more or less grunted, “Yes.” I thought to myself, the worst thing that happens is we have one terrible hymn and then I tell him, “Thanks, but no thanks.” So I set the sheet music in front of him… and he blew us all out of the water. It turned out he was the band director from the local Catholic high school, someone I had emailed and spoken to on the phone but never met in person. People call him “Doc” because he’s got a Ph.D. in music.

The pastor’s reaction after Mass: “Angel of God, my guardian dear…”

However, the heavenly intervention usually comes in ways that are much less obvious to the people sitting in the pews. More often, it comes as grace in the midst of personal suffering. This year’s Holy Week was probably the most extreme example our musicians had ever witnessed. Holy Week has a tendency to be a great physical trial for me personally. There was the year when I premiered my original setting of the Exsultet with chronic tonsillitis. There was the year when I caught a stomach bug on Wednesday, missed our final rehearsal, and barely managed to keep my drugged, dehydrated body upright to conduct Holy Thursday and Good Friday. But this year, I had major internal surgery less than a month before Easter. The things that still hurt the most for me to do post-op are singing and conducting. Add to that the fact that the pianist is fighting a problem with her wrist, one of our cantors got sick, and several choir members are in the middle of moving back into their renovated homes after the flood. Best of all, the organ developed a cipher ten minutes before the Easter Vigil. That means a particular note plays constantly even when no one presses the key.

This really should have been the year when we threw in the towel.

But of course, we didn’t. There was quite a lot of codeine involved in my performance this year, but somehow I was still alive and conscious—and on pitch!—at the end of the last Mass on Easter Sunday morning. Somehow, the pianist still played. Somehow, the exhausted choir full of flood victims still sang. Somehow, the organist even managed to negotiate the cipher. Despite the best efforts of the world to drown us out, Easter in our parish was still filled with beautiful music.

If that’s not the work of the Holy Spirit, I don’t know what is.

My history with music-ing is long, complicated, and filled with almost as much pain as love. I guess that’s how you know when you’ve got a vocation. No matter how I try to get around it, music-ing continues to be an adventure, even when I’m long past the point when I’d prefer it to be dull. But I suppose that, as with most things in life, if music-ing were not my own personal Passion, I’d be tempted to overlook the ways in which it is a continual source of grace.

Happy Easter!

Karen Ullo is the author of the novel Jennifer the Damned. To find out more, go to

Literature, It Is a-Changing



In case you missed it, this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Bob Dylan.

Yes, that Bob Dylan.

What does it mean for the world of literature when the best it has to offer is not a poet (in the traditional sense) or a novelist or a playwright, but a rock star?  In the words of the Nobel committee, Dylan received the award for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”  Dylan’s poetry is certainly poetry, capable of standing on its own in a volume of black and white print.  But the real power of his poetry lies in the fact that it is sung.  Is it even possible to read, “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind,” without hearing the melody (whether in Dylan’s voice or Joan Baez’s) echo through your mind?  Unlike the lyrical works of many great poets that were later set to music by other people, Dylan’s poetry was born on the strings of his guitar.  It was delivered to the world by the vibrations of his vocal cords.  If only the black and white print existed, does anyone believe he would have been half as influential as he is now?

So, the obvious question arises: Is music literature?

As both a musician and a writer, I have so long been intimate with both forms that my neural pathways are hard-wired to see (or rather, hear) good music and good writing as a single string being plucked in different ways.  For me, writing is music and music is story.  When an idea runs so deep that it cannot quite be grasped in words, it is the job of music to convey it; likewise, when the abstraction of musical sound is not concrete enough for human understanding, words step in to frame our thoughts and tell our tales.  Each serves its own purpose, and each can exist quite well without the other, yet the marriage of the two is as old as humankind.

But is music itself literature, or only literature’s symbiotic partner?  That depends how you define the word “literature,” of course.  Most dictionary definitions confine it to the realm of the written word and thereby condemn the Nobel committee’s choice.  There is, after all, something to be said for labels, organization, and not confusing everybody by trying to redefine well-established concepts.  But there is also something within a strictly writing-based definition of “literature” that fails to capture its spirit.  Writing is only a visual representation of sound.  Writing exists only as an extension of the oral – and aural – traditions of language.  How many of our most cherished folk tales were passed on by mouth before they were ever written down?  What of the troubadours, who recorded history with song?  The psalms would never have reached us if they had not first been sung.  Music is the foundation and the beating heart of literature.  The traditional structures and rhythms of literature can all be traced to the mathematics of music, just as the traditional dynamics of music correspond to the dynamics of storytelling.  Literature and music might be two separate branches of human endeavor, but they carry the same waters from the source.

Or maybe – if the Nobel committee is right – there’s no distinction between them at all.

As Dylan might put it:

Gonna change my way of thinking, make my self a different set of rules. Gonna put my good foot forward and stop being influenced by fools.

Karen Ullo is the author of the vampire saga Jennifer the Damned.  To find out more, go to

Introducing The Warble

"Tell Me a Story" by Stacie Burke, which hangs in the office where I write.

“Tell Me a Story” by Stacie Burke, which hangs in the office where I write.

Welcome to The Warble, my new blog where I sing about writing (and maybe some other things, too.) Technically, I suppose I will be writing about writing, but singing and writing are so inextricably tangled up in my brain, I can’t tell them apart anymore. Long years of doing way too much of both has left my neurons hopelessly confused. I tell stories when I sing; I make music when I write. If there remains a line between the two, it is only that cold and flu season hurts my writing less.

The musical influences in my writing are subtle. I do occasionally use musical metaphors or reference specific pieces, but only occasionally. Like every writer, I want to choose exactly the right words to capture what I mean, but to me, the sounds of the words are every bit as important as the definitions. People tend to think of reading as a visual act: we see the words on the page and then “picture” what is happening in the story. But did you know there is really no such thing as silent reading? We all make subtle vocal movements when our eyes move across a page. Only after we subconsciously speak and listen to the words can they inspire pictures in our minds.

When people talk about “beautiful” writing, they usually mean two things: that the words evoke beautiful ideas, but also that they are strung to together in a way that is pleasing to our ears. Meter, rhythm, and cadence are not the tools of composers and poets alone. Scenes must keep a tempo; we all know what it is to complain about a story that “drags on.” Dialogue has a rhythm; real people do not give monologues, but play a tennis match with words. The aural elements of writing are as fundamental to my work as the development of character, plot, and all the rest. I am perhaps a little too fond of consonance, assonance, and lists that come in threes. If my punctuation is sometimes too creative, it is because a period signals a longer rest than a semicolon, and the silences in music are always as important as the sounds.

I do most of this lyrical work intuitively. Every now and then, I will search for a word with a certain number of syllables to complete a line, but usually I create meter without counting it. What decades of musical training have not embedded in my ear, numbers are unlikely to supply. But I do not rely solely on my own instincts to sing my way through a story; I usually enlist the help of better musicians, whose work echoes through my office while I write. The trick is to find a single album or work that suits the tone of my story, and then let it repeat in the background while I work. In graduate school, I wrote screenplays to The Beatles and They Might Be Giants. Currently, I am working on a fairy tale, for which there is no better accompaniment than Tchaikovsky. It is true that music and writing are hopelessly intertwined inside my brain, but I have to admit, I tied them together on purpose. I am a better writer–and a better singer–for it.

I hope you will come back again to listen to me warble.

“If music be the food of love, play on, Give me excess of it; that surfeiting, The appetite may sicken, and so die.” – William Shakespeare

Karen Ullo is the author of Jennifer the Damned, coming on Halloween, 2015 from Wiseblood Books.  For more information, please visit