Guest Blog Post, Dinah Lenney: On Finding a Palette In Just the Right Key

Dinah LenneyA confession: I am—in the car, for instance, or on my stationery bike—likely to listen to oldies stations; what’s more, I’m inclined to sing along, and not very well (pity my husband and children), with the likes of Earth, Wind, and Fire, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Bonnie Raitt, and the Doobie Brothers. Also Paul Simon. Also Etta. And Chaka. And Mel Tormé. In this way, I’m starring in my-life-the-musical, and it’s mostly a comedy, mostly a slice of domestic pie. Not that a good song can’t make me teary (“Try a Little Tenderness”), but I’m scoring the ordinary here: trips back and forth to campus, to Trader Joe’s, to the post office, to the dry cleaner; or a cycling break between folding the laundry and starting dinner. I mean to say it’s only every so often that I’m after something loftier—not for lofty reasons, mind you—it’s when my soul is roughed up in one way or another, and lyrics won’t do: rather, they distract or annoy—they get in the way and that’s when I opt for the local classical station, KUSC.

So—all that preamble—the point is, you know Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”? Of course you do, I promise you do—I’m not putting on airs, really not: it’s not like I knew what I was hearing when it came on Pandora a few weeks back—me pedaling away, not in the mood for words, tuned into Vivaldi Radio therefore (which is one of my stations). I had to shift in my seat to see my computer screen on the floor beside me, to put a name to the music that was turning me inside out—the real me, exposed and on display—those strings (violins, violas, cellos) pulling me along, and up and up. The stakes started high and they just kept rising—taking me to the edge of something important, some recognition, precious and momentous (and sad), unnameable and inevitable—
and here’s what I wound up asking myself: Who wouldn’t want to write something like that? Who wouldn’t want to make that happen on the page, with prose?

See, used to be, I had this idea that writers could do for painters and musicians what neither could do for us. As if writing had something on the other arts—

writing as descriptive—writers straining to describe, getting as close as we can, every once in a while managing to pin the thing down, whatever it is; although, more often than not, as soon as the moment is writ, it’s lost to us, isn’t it? Whereas music and fine art, I suddenly realized, inform the moment over and over—are the moment, in fact—the moment we writers can only approximate. Music and art don’t aspire to sentences and paragraphs—don’t concern themselves with the ekphrastic, for instance; describing art is a writerly preoccupation, whereas painting and music, I decided, have a better shot at the real deal. O woe.

This discovery, when it happened, had something to do with the Adagio, sure, and everything to do with my own frustration; my inability to put this life to words—my longing for colors just outside my imagination, and the ability to diminish or augment a phrase (like a chord), and so fill it with hope, or sorrow, or joy (or all three at once).

Here I’d been lording it over the others—those other disciplines—as if they don’t generally transcend my own efforts. Now I realized—now I considered: What is Chagall’s “The Birthday” if not a poem; and Hopper’s “Nighthawks” tells so many stories; “Christina’s World” by Wyeth feels like memoir, doesn’t it?; and what about De Kooning’s “Self Portrait with Imaginary Brother,” what is that—some wonderful blurring of genres there, right? And with music: consider Ravel’s “Pavane on the Death of a Child”; “The Poet’s Heart” by Grieg; what about Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” and Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”—I’m going to do better? I’m going to describe to you how Beethoven contains the moon in the sky? As if he needs me to translate; as if, having heard his sonata, I have anything new and worthy to say about the light of the moon. Deeper I plunged into my funk.

But then. A few days after my brush with Barber, on my way to the market, still tuned intoVan Gogh's Mulberry Tree classical, I heard Erik Satie: “Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear.” A composer—a pianist—with still life on his mind. And a few weeks after that, at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, I found myself rooted for a very long time in front of van Gogh’s “The Mulberry Tree,” in which he intended for the brushstrokes to be “firm and interwoven with feelings like a piece of music played with emotion.”

Turns out, we’re all on the same team, right? All rooting for art in the broadest sense, all wanting and willing to beg, borrow, and steal from nature and each other, since, so wrote Nabokov, “Both [are] a form of magic, both [are] a game of intricate enchantment and deception.”

And so. I’m back at it—back to work, I mean. Determined to compose an essay in Bb for piano and bass: it will maybe feature a piccolo; cymbals, too, perhaps, I’m not certain just yet. I will paint with a palette of blues and greens not found in nature—or only found in nature: that would be something, wouldn’t it? The canvas will have texture; and the song will take my reader right to the edge; and he’ll want to cry out —to get as close as he can and reach into the frame and touch…

Dinah Lenney

Dinah Lenney is the author of The Object Parade and Bigger than Life: A Murder, a Memoir, and, with Judith Kitchen, edited, Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction (W.W. Norton, 2015). She serves as core faculty in the Bennington Writing Seminars and the Rainier Writing Workshop, and as the nonfiction editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. www.dinahlenney.com

2 thoughts on “Guest Blog Post, Dinah Lenney: On Finding a Palette In Just the Right Key

  • March 10, 2013 at 6:09 pm
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    I really enjoyed reading this eloquent post. Dinah Lenney articulates the frustration of being unable to articulate the beauty and emotions that art and music can define. I think this is something that all writers suffer from most of the time – at least, I know that I do. We have an idea in our heads that we want to describe and we feel that it is waiting to be captured into words, that it is so simple if we can only find the right words, yet it escapes us before we can write it down. And then when we do write it down, we lose it in the structures of prose. Like Lenney says, there are times when words are not necessary to experience powerful emotions.

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    • March 11, 2013 at 8:33 am
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      O well said, Rikki, and thank you for reading and writing…

      Reply

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