A Broadway Singer's Brilliant Recap of Her Hectic Travel Life
What Makes Great Writing #017 - Featuring Melissa Errico in The New York Times
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Much of the challenge of writing is, essentially, deciding how much to describe a given thing.
Where do you start?
Where do you end?
How long (or short) should our whole piece be?
100 words? 1,000 words? 10,000 words?
To paraphrase New York Times bestselling author Francine Prose: there are no rules. Only examples for us to read and follow, so that we might figure out which way we want to go.
Great writing is an art. You listen to the small voice within. You learn from the audience. You come back to the altar, trying to improve each time.
These are all skills broadway actress, traveling performer, and (apparently) excellent writer Melissa Errico knows very well.
Today’s piece is pulled from her submission to the New York Times in late July.
We’re going to look at the fourth paragraph from the article, where it becomes obvious this is no average piece of writing.
You know how this works.
Read the entire paragraph first…
After two years of pandemic mothering, I am once again the girl singer who packs her bag with the paraphernalia of her trade: a voice mister, Spanx, gowns, sheet music. This tour, canceled in 2020 and now rescheduled, was to be a memorial tribute to my mentor Michel Legrand. In the interim, my other musical master, Sondheim, has died, and so some venues and promoters quickly asked if I could change my shows to sing in his memory. I feel a little like a widow with two dead husbands to mourn.
…now, let’s dig in.
After two years of pandemic mothering, I am once again the girl singer...
Notice the concision of this phrase: “pandemic mothering.” We don't need to know the age of Melissa's daughters. She doesn't need to say the phrase "I am the mother of three girls,” even though she is.
The decision of what not to include here — school lunches, curfew negotiations, boy problems — keeps our attention centered on Melissa’s travel-heavy life. A mom through the phone.
This piece is about the life of a traveling singer. No detours.
I am once again the girl singer who packs her bag with the paraphernalia of her trade: a voice mister, Spanx, gowns, sheet music.
If this were a movie, you could imagine little jump cuts to each item in this sentence.
This congeries (which is a fancy word for "list") has an order and a rhythm, even if it doesn't feel like that at first glance, and even if Melissa didn’t do it on purpose.
The list begins at an item for internal use (voice mister) and proceeds to the most external. (sheet music).
The group of objects is also a chiasmus (which means it has a symmetrical structure) - a sequence of 2 syllables, 1 syllable, 1 syllable, 2 syllables.
(Say that list out loud to get a feel for the rhythm.)
This tour, canceled in 2020 and now rescheduled, was to be a memorial tribute to my mentor Michel Legrand. In the interim, my other musical master, Sondheim, has died, and so some venues and promoters quickly asked if I could change my shows to sing in his memory.
The alliteration of "musical master" to describe Sondheim is the most obvious occasion of the “M’s” all over this paragraph (mentor, Michel, interiM, musical master, memory)
And the topical transition to a musical tribute sets up what may be the best sentence you’ll read this year.
I feel a little like a widow with two dead husbands to mourn.
Up to this point, Melissa's article is like her life - a blur of action and scattered artifacts from the singers' world. Consider the other noun-adjective combinations in this paragraph: "girl singer," "voice mister," "sheet music."
Now, we end here, with two dead husbands.
The simile clings to the end of the paragraph like an anvil hanging off a speedboat.
This, it seems, is the plight of every artist — flitting about backstage, rushing through preparation, suffering miles of travel, smiling at fans, yet always anchored by the gravity of life’s tougher stuff.
Ask any accomplished writer, singer, or actor to open up their personal book of tragedies sometime.
You’ll find more than a few filled pages.
Much love as always <3
-Todd B from Tennessee