Thursday, October 5, 2017

Love Mozart in the Jungle the way that I do? Marcia Butler talks about playing the oboe professionally, opera, and her ravishing memoir THE SKIN ABOVE MY KNEE

I've been addicted to the show Mozart in the Jungle, about an orchestra working in NYC--especially the oboist. I was thrilled to read Marcia Butler's astonishing memoir about her life as a professional oboist, which is an inside look at the music world, at ambition, at life. And even though Butler and purists say it has nothing to do with the real world, how can anything that supports classical music be anything but rapture?

I'm so thrilled to host Marcia here! And trust me, you need to buy and read her book.

CL: What was the catalyst for writing your memoir?

I’d never intended to write a memoir. Even when I was in the thick of writing the first 20,000 words, I was calling it something else: a book on creativity. All of this determined avoidance was, of course, subconscious. I see it so clearly, now that my memoir is out to the world. But I’m getting ahead of myself. A bit of back story is needed.

I was a professional oboist for 28 years in NYC. My memoir is about my experience as a musician woven together with my personal narrative. But interior design was my second career in the arts. As a designer, I’d discovered much about my views on art, architecture, and style and aesthetics in general. I was eager to share my thoughts with clients and perhaps the world, so I began a design blog. I didn’t know it at the time, but these short pieces were seedlings of ruminations on creativity.

Though I’d never written before – not even in personal journals – in just one year I’d produced over 50 blog posts. Shortly into writing these blogs, a shift began to assert itself. I wrote a few essays about performing music – those occasions I’d remembered as unusual, or difficult, and had pushed my boundaries; when I’d suddenly become a better oboist and deeper musician. Or, where music brought me to a closer understanding of my place in the world. In essence, when I’d found higher ground. Writing about the aesthetics and fundamentals of design seemed to open a portal to understanding how I’d developed as a musician.

Then came the pivotal elision: I wrote my very first personal essay about when I’d heard music for the first time. My four-year-old self lay on the floor as I listened to the music of Richard Wagner. As I wrote the story, I realized that this music, which I certainly didn’t understand at the time, was a profound expression of love. As a young girl, I was eager to wallow in that sound and feeling. Simultaneously, I yearned for my distancing mother. The sensation of my body on the carpet, the need for mother connection and this exceptional music all fused together in my heart. Placing the memory on paper represented that hard cube of sugar which began to melt into an authentic writing journey. Still, on the surface, I told myself I was writing principally for my design blog and about creativity.

It wasn’t until I went to a writing conference, essentially to pitch this book on creativity, that I realized I was actually writing my life story. This was not an easy realization as I’d never spoken about the particular abuse I’d suffered and all that came from my difficult childhood or how it had then played out in my adult life. And honestly, there’s not a memoirist out there who doesn’t wonder, for a long time, who’d ever be interested in my silly life? But I continued on with a singular mission: to write my life story, no matter if it got published or not. That eventuality was not even on my radar at the time.

CL:  So now that you've been a hardcover debut author, how has your life changed? Does it make it easier to write your next book, or harder somehow?

MB: That’s such a great question because as with every big event in one’s life, such as publishing a book, it may change the external experience of living day to day, yet one is still the same person inside. And I’ve discovered this odd thing about writing a memoir: people now have a very public window into my mind and heart and life in a way I’d never considered, much less thought possible or even anticipated. (That sounds na├»ve as I write these words.) I revealed many difficult events that even close friends were not aware of. Indeed, musicians whom I sat next to in orchestras for years have commented that they had no Idea I was struggling with such terrible personal travails which I detail in the book. Yes, I have been exposed!

At the same time, writing the book has given many the idea that I have somehow overcome hardships by virtue of the fact of writing my memoir. That the tough stuff is over and done with; digested and conquered. After all, I’m walking, talking, making decent sense, carrying on with life. I’m a highly efficient and disciplined person. But I’m still that young woman who was abandoned by my family when I had cancer and who longed for a mother who rejected me over and over. I’m still a person who faces demons and struggles often as I continue to live with my past and manage my ideas of who I am as a woman. To this day.

Yet, writing this book has opened a wonderful portal to possibility. Throughout my life, I’ve never shied away from “the next thing”. I was an oboist, and then I was an interior designer. So, what the heck – now I’ll be a writer! Once my memoir was sold, I immediately got back on the page – sage advice that was given to me by another author as a way to stay sane throughout all the months leading up to the publication date. Over the last two years I wrote a novel called The Optimistic Voices, which my agent currently has out for sale to publishers. And I continue to write personal essays because non-fiction is still very much a sweet spot. In general, I am by nature very proactive. Similar to when I was a musician: I never spent time thinking about the concert the previous night because there were concerts coming down the pike that I needed to prepare for. Music is immediate and ephemeral. I approach writing that way as well.

CL: What kind of writer are you? Rituals? Process?

MB: Oh goody – I get to talk about my weirdness! But first, some necessary grit. When I was performing, practicing hours a day was second nature and a pretty much a given in order to stay vital on the oboe. I had to learn new music constantly and the competitive nature of the music business keeps you mentally hungry, and kind of scared, for the most part. I bring that rigor to my writing practice. Mornings are my best time and I am up anywhere from 5am to 6am. After I deal with emails and business concerns, I begin writing by 9am and try to stay on the page for 3 hours. Then I usually go back for at least 2 hours in the afternoon. Before bed, I might take a quick peek at what I’ve written that day because I often dream about my characters and wake up thinking about them. The sleep state is a gestation period, and the brain is operating in a non-critical way. I’ve solved certain problems regarding character and plot by sleeping and I’m convinced that the imagination is active at all times.

I tend to write “through” for the most part. By that I mean that I get content down quickly. And I like to “not know” too much as I write, because I’ve found that staying within a predetermined plot actually limits what the characters themselves want to do. Another activating device I use is walking. While I’m aimless in Central Park, I’ll email ideas to myself that arise in the moment. And I take a lot of pictures because I’m extremely visually oriented as well. These images give me ideas for world building on the physical plane. I rely heavily on my senses, which seems obvious, but I’ve made my living through my eyes and ears for many years.

I never drink or eat while I’m writing because the belly has a secondary brain center which is very powerful and just as complex as the primary brain in the skull. And I like all my energy to be focused in my head. Staying slightly hungry somehow feels correct while I write; I feel more acute and present when I’m slightly in need. Weird, but true. I wash my hands a lot. I organize my small apartment before I write. I line everything up. Things must be centered and all square. Yes, I am a tad compulsive.

CL: I read your book about the same time that I was obsessed with Mozart in the Jungle--and its oboist star. How realistic is that show?

Okay, full disclosure. I’ve never seen the show! Mainly because I don’t have Amazon Prime (or Hulu or HBO for that matter). The other, more secret reason is that my TV habits are probably the weirdest on Earth. (No sitcoms, ever. Or serial dramas like West Wing, sorry. No Game of Thrones, cannot do it. Just as examples.) And here is the next disclosure: I know the author of the book on which the TV show is based. She was a freelance oboist in NYC for some years and I performed concerts with her and read her book back in the day.

But I’ll dig deeper here, possibly where I’m not wanted. We all know that books are totally different animals from the TV shows they become. I’m told that this is certainly the case with Mozart in the Jungle. My musician colleagues tell me one of two things, the purists abhor it, and others adore it. My Hollywood friends tell me that the writing is very good, with sassy and crisp dialogue. We all know that the producers are pros: The Coppola family and Jason Schwartzman. I love that a Broadway star, Bernadette Peters, is in the cast (I played lots of Broadway shows back in the day). And Malcolm MacDowell! What’s not to love about a guy who was in A Clockwork Orange, has acted in most Shakespeare plays and also played Caligula? All of these ingredients must bring great things to the program – I’m sure it’s a gas. The real plus is that MITJ brings the world of classical music to a mass audience and nothing but good can come from that. If someone is inspired to attend a classical concert for the first time in their life after watching that program – well, that is a very good outcome. Is it an accurate depiction of the life of a freelance musician? Since I seem to be critiquing something I’ve never seen, I’ll just jump in again and go for it: my sense is no. But neither is Law and Order, when Sam Waterston makes a speech during cross examination, which we know is never allowed in a real trial. But do folks care? No. That show has been on for over 30 years and will be in reruns forever. It’s entertainment and when we entertain, the truth is not so important.

CL: What's obsessing you now and why?
The Metropolitan Opera. Always and forever. Because: singing, dancing, acting, melodrama, death, suicide, betrayal, switched at birth, incest, women dying for love (what else is new?), men surviving love (what else is new?), crazy assed sets – and that’s in the first 30 minutes.

CL: What question didn't I ask that I should have?
Why have you been watching the 1980’s TV show, Dallas, (on DVD – 14 seasons) for the last 10 years, literally every single day? No joke. Because: singing, dancing, acting, melodrama, death, suicide, betrayal, switched at birth (or in this case an illegitimate son), incest (well, not really but if they’d had a 15th season, I’m sure), women dying for love, men also dying for love (but of course they survive by coming back on the show via a season-long dream sequence). Shoulder pads! J. R. EWING.

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