Incarnating Words

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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 Catholicmom.com. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.