Prompt – What’s your best technique for working around backstory dumps?
Well, flashbacks, dialogue, direct narration, recollection, summary, and exposition. Not in that order. And it really doesn’t matter. A cliché photo gaze isn’t a gagathon if it’s handled with finesse, the way Helen Simonson does, or woven into the character’s behaviors like Jennifer Egan. Finesse.
However – I waited a day for this one on purpose.
In John Dufresne’s wonderful book The Lie That Tells a Truth he writes about starting in the present of the story. Right now. Not when it started, because scene setting is also backstory, but right now, where the action is. Example –
Susie and Jill ground to halt in the gravel parking lot. Susie killed the lights on her Wrangler. Jill shuddered, Susie lit a cigarette. “This might not have been the best idea,” Jill said. … oops… Who the fuck cares? Needlepoint meeting? It was a dark and stormy night? What’s the point?
“Bitch!” A half empty beer bottle smashed into the chipped linoleum table-top, inches from Susie’s hand. Jill screamed. The jukebox continued to throb out a loud, melancholy country ballad while the man who’d broken the bottle waved the jagged glass hanging from the bottle’s neck in Susie’s face.
Okay, two sentences in and now we have a story. And AFTER the action, here’s the drop.
The cop wore his boredom like it was part of his uniform, as if a woman shooting a man inside Cap’n Ben’s early on Thursday night was business as usual. He licked the end of his pencil, set the tip on a blank page in his open notepad. “Now then, ‘zactly the hell were you ladies doin’ out here again?”
“I had a bad feeling about this when we pulled in,” Jill whimpered.
“Shut up, Jill.” Susie squared up to the cop. “Look. It so happens Jimmy Du-pree run off with Jill’s Amex and a sixteen-year-old from the Coutershine swim team. We been out lookin’ for ‘em. Somebody told us he was trollin’ hereabouts for some oxy to maybe help make her panties fall off.”
“That’d be the swim girl’s panties, not your friend there?”
“Who the hell do you think?”
“Mmm,” the cop scribbled on the pad. “So… you two didn’t call us, you just had to come out an find Jimmy yourselves? This was when, again?”
“Eight, eight-fifteen. We, me an Jill, we was set up at a table. He seen us before we seen him an he knew why we was there, so he walked up, broke a Modelo Dark bottle on the table, made a helluva fuckin’ mess that did, got beer all over both of us. An then him knowin’ I was the one was to give him some shit he stuck the broke end of the damn bottle in myface.” She pushed her palm right up on her face for emphasis.
“An you shot him for that, didja?”
“Goddam right I did.”
“Well, good for you,” the cop chuckled quietly. “He ain’t gonna die on account of it, anyways. Maybe he’ll come away smart enough to at least leave teenage peach be.” He folded his notebook, stuffed it back in his shirt pocket.
“An maybe smart enough to stop stealin’ credit cards from a friend of a woman carries a Glock in her purse.”
“Honey,” the cop looked Susie in the eye, “now you know better’n that. Man’s a pussy an trouble magnet, has been his whole life. Your friend here’s not Jimmy’s first, won’t be his last.” He spit tobacco on the gravel, hitched up his equipment belt, laughing silently again. “That is, lessen that swim girl’s momma gets a holta him ‘fore he’s full on mo-bile.”
The point – anything before the event is extraneous. We know all we need to know about both characters without pages of build up (backstory) and Jill crying at Susie’s kitchen table about Jimmy the perv lothario and us ‘splainin’ everything. As readers we know all that, don’t we? From their behavior and the cop interview, which is part of the action, not a sidebar, or a preface or a flashback.
Flannery O’Connor said: “If you start with a real personality, a real character, then something is bound to happen; and you don’t have to know before you begin. In fact, it may be better if you don’t know what before you begin. You ought to be able to discover something from your stories.” By extension, readers don’t need all of it, either. Start some shit, drop it in gear, get on down the road.
FYI – Storyform is a made up word from Dramatica and has been adopted as trendspeak. They make up a lot of shit over at Dramatica for people who have never studied rhetoric or the classic canons of argument and want to write topical, trendy argument disguised as fiction or sermon specific non-fiction. The difference between backstory and background is purely semantic as they are interchangeable synonyms in major dictionaries.
a history or background, especially one created for a fictional character in a motion picture or television program.
“a brief prologue detailing our hero’s backstory”
a literary device providing a history or background context, especially for a character or situation in a literary work, film, or dramatic series.
Last two – Backstory the noun was first seen in use in 1982. Prior to that ‘backstory’ was discussed by the various devices used for recollection and dramatic revelation in literature going back to Aristotle’s Poetics. Which is a great read. There’s also some great stuff on Writer’s Digest.
Prompt- What software do you use for your writing? Bookkeeping? Artwork? Calendar?
Scrivener. Quicken. For Digital Graphics Paint Shop Pro (and half a dozen Ashampoo specialty). Outlook.
Scrivener because it works. Where else will you get a novel, screenplay or academic document scene by scene with scene/chapter drag-and-drop capability? No, Leroy gets shot here, and Matilda breaks up with him here. Shit. Matilda needs to become Gretchen. BAM. Global change. I had someone inform me I used the Grave Accent throughout a novel for the French name of a major character, when I should have used the Acute Accent. Morisé, you say? Fixed with two clicks and saved to the dictionary. With folders for graphics, characters, timelines, research – everything is in one environment. I even have folders for scenes and lines I liked, but cut. Because they might be useful somewhere, in something and they sure as hell aren’t coming back from the trash. Except in Scrivener which holds your trash till you dump it, which should be never until you paste it out into a random-scenes-and-shit doc.
There are hundreds of how-to videos for Scrivener. Spend 10 minutes and you can learn to export your book, formatted, with linked TOC, in any format you might need from ePub to PDF to DOCX to the “specific” Apple/Google/Kindle/Nook flavor of the month.
An entire novel, by scene, plus resources visual on the left. I could get rid of them for uncluttered work space, use the corkboard or the notes or the timeline. It also keeps a running word count if you need to hit markers.
Disclaimer. I am not a shill for Scrivener, but I am a huge fan. I was a product specialist for high end audio software(s) and my advice was always buy something stable that will work the way you do. The best software will take into account various presentations and workflows and make automatic the things that should be. Regardless of whether you like post-it notes or XL lists or index cards, or a graphic representation of your work, pick your visual and get after it in Scrivener. I still sketch in Word or whatever is at hand but dump it into Scriv if it’s going to end up over three pages or one scene. And it is cross-platform, including iOS.
Quicken talks to my bank, sorts reports by expense type, by vendor, by whatever. I have been a 1099 guy most of my adult life. You only have to get audited once to know that great notes are your biggest asset. “Well, hell. You aren’t even close to fraud. You just forgot to pay us enough.”
Paint Shop Pro because I started with them way back in the dark ages. Their new product is stellar and a hell of a lot less expensive than the other option. Plus, you get to own it, not rent it. It runs PS plugs. It has a Bob Ross brush set. What more do you want? I rarely create in the digital realm, but I scan and touch up and alter. I should mention I am primarily a pen and ink / black and white person when it comes to rolling my own. Somehow there’s more to Ansel Adams than most of the fade wash water time exposure HD photography I see. I want wallpaper I’ll let Fire TV go random.
Outlook because I’ve used it so long, I don’t know any better. And there’s no two-step BS between it and Windows or Apple either on desktop or iOS. No cloud BS. I plug my phone in, update my contacts and every device I use knows about it. Back it up once in while. Done.
Like the myriad of disgusting headlines my friend sends me or I discover in my own local news, I’m sharing another one I haven’t seen beaten to death (yet). Not that it’s not out there by any means, but I haven’t seen it circulating in print or TV.
Here you go – Death by beach umbrella.
Many accidents and injuries involving errant beach umbrellas go unreported, but you should know that between 2008 and 2017 at least 31,000 were reported and required emergency medical treatment. Several deaths by beach umbrella have even been reported along with quite a few maimings, including loss of eyeballs, feet, appendages and abdominal parts.
What a fucking great setup. PI or Bounty Hunter Barbie on the beach with Hunky Ken. After the fashion observations and minute accessory descriptions, the wind kicks up.
“Damn!” She exclaimed, pissedoffedly. “I paid twenty dollars for that hat.”
“Hat?” Ken said, absently studying her perfect buns that sported a confectioners dusting of sand.
“Yes, my white straw sun hat with the blue and fuscia Kate Spade knock-off bandana. There it goes!” She pointed into the mess of tumbling, rollicking beach umbrellas, picnic baskets, beer coolers, plastic starfish and towels piling up against the pier and tourist gift shop.
“Isn’t Kate Spade like, dead?”
“That’s why the knock off is so valuable, moron.”
“Check that.” Hunky ex NATO superspy Ken tapped his temple saying “Be right back.” He dashed recklessly into the melee. Upon grabbing her fashion statement hat he stopped in his tracks and began blocking incoming beach debris with his forearms like Wonder Woman in a speedo. The wind abated as suddenly as it started.
“What’s wrong?” Bounty Hunter Barbie asked.
“This one has your name on it, Barb babe,” he shouted, then muttered “or is it babe Barb…?”
When she arrived, he pushed the upside-down umbrellas and coolers aside to give her a clear, yet disturbingly grim view.
“Jeez, Hunky Ken. It’s Benson Ekoreck, the witness protection skip I’ve been looking for.”
“With a beach umbrella stuck in his chest.” Ken reached to remove the umbrella.
“Stop!” Barbie screeched in that shrill voice she hated but just came out when she was upset or orgasmic. “That’s my umbrella!”
Well, of course it is. Was. Whatever. Anyway, there you go, a free plot device. Remember, you heard it here first. Evanovich owes me five-spot if she uses it.
Seriously – Umbrella deaths and bodily damage are a reality. So much so that several Democratic Senators, two from Virginia and one from New Jersey on a day with nothing better to do sent a letter to the Consumer Safety Commission demanding the effects of errant beach umbrellas be looked into.
Well no shit, Sherlock.
Can’t help myself – If the fictional scene started above had gone on, it might have ended this way –
“That cop thinks you whipped up the windstorm with your hoo-ha somehow so you could get the Bail Bond on that dude refunded,” Hunky Ken said, disaffectedly brushing sand from his glistening bicep.
“He’s just a hairy scrotum in a cheap suit looking for an easy way out. I didn’t do it, so he can kiss my ass and go pound sand. Hey, what’s that on your shoulder?”
“Souvenir? You can’t just take things from a closed crime scene just because it started out as an Act of God, Hunky Ken.”
“Ohh… But the cops said to pick out what we wanted…” Hunky Ken stopped, looked glumly back at the pile of beach crap being picked through by once happy beach goers. “I guess I better take them back.”
“I guess. Wait. Them?”
“I got you one, too.” In a quick move based on years of training and reflex perfection, he whipped two beach towels off his shoulder, snapped them out in front of himself before handing one to Bounty Hunter Barbie.
“Oh my God!” She inhaled a big breath. “A Versace beach towel! You don’t see many of these.”
“Or these.” Hunky Ken held up an oversize Def Leppard towel. “This is major killer.”
Bounty Hunter Barbie rolled her eyes. “What’s so special about a Def Leppard towel?”
“It’s a collector’s item, babe, Barb, uh Barb — ”
“Never mind.” Barbie pouted, unaffected by his enthusiasm.
“No, really. Check it out, Babe, uh, Barb uh… In this picture?” Hunky Ken palmed up the silkscreened band photo on the towel for her. “The drummer dude still has both arms!”
Couple of weeks ago I picked up some inexpensive paperbacks at Half Price Books big headquarters store. I purchased the books as study in the shorter version “three acts” so prominently hawked by all the “how to write (insert genre)” people. One of the books was John D. MacDonald’s The Dreadful Lemon Sky, written in 1974, which killed two birds with one stone. It’s MacDonald storytelling, and being MacDonald the backdrop is a perfect rendering of the cultural era. A timeframe and the years following that I worked in my first return-to-writing project.
None of that was important. It’s called “the setup.” I could have gone directly to the point and filled all that in or left it.
No, this is not a discussion of style.
I opened The Dreadful Lemon Sky in the porcelain upholstered library. I read a few more pages at my desk. Last night I wanted to read more, but was too lazy to retrieve the physical copy of the book. Also, too lazy to two-step an epub into my Kindle. I found the book on my OneDrive and hit “open in another app” on the not-aging-so-gracefully iPad. Worked like a charm.
However. (Cue Twilight Zone theme)
I tapped the book to open it. BAM. It opened.
Not on the credits, publisher, the chapter list or dedication page.
It opened exactly where I left the physical copy open, face down on a shelf in the “library.”
Like the man said when the paint shaker machine shut off. “How do it know?”
I sure as hell don’t know. But I was kinda “all shook up.”
FYI – If you’d like some intellectual writing discussion and advice Google Rod Serling. Find his interview/class discussions with some college kids where he addresses topics and writing issues generally only available from expensive editors. Not only that, he talks the workarounds. From “art” to where ideas come from to soapboxes and unavoidable though unknown plagiarism to how none of us invented the wheel.
The story. I always say the story tells itself. Stories come from the same place as music and all other art. All I need to do is get out of the way and listen.
This is not an original concept. Michelangelo said that his job was to get the statue out of the block of marble. Beethoven, Mozart — they heard it on the way to the staff paper. Paul McCartney openly admits that he doesn’t work at writing songs because he learned long ago that when he tried, nothing happened. I believe that. Here’s an observation to put that in perspective. Pop songs are an art form because good ones are better novels than most of us write. How many people have over 200 solid stories in a songbook? That are no more than 3.5 minutes long? Yes, little gems hacked from the giant blocks of often pointless words many of us deem necessary.
Here’s the rub.
Most of us aren’t Michelangelo or Beethoven, but even they had to work at it. The issue, as described by many artists, comes at the — everybody listen up — transcription stage, which is generally rough because we’re in the loop. Some of us forget that once the story is out doesn’t mean it’s done. Even if the story is the boss, we need to reserve the right to say to the piece, like Mike probably did, “Hey, Pieta. Nice to see you out of that block of marble. Let’s shine you up.”
The story talks to us. Shows itself to us. Our job is to let the story do its job. We need to stay as invisible as possible and put our “author” to bed and our skills to work in order to do them justice.
Here’s a bit from Elmore Leonard where a character of his explains how the story is the boss, There’s a great video where EL explains the cleaning up.
“What he does, he makes us do all the work, the people in the books. Puts us in scenes and says go ahead and do something. No, first he thinks up names. Takes forever to think up names like Bob and Jack. Jackie for a woman, a female lead. Or Frank. Years ago anyone named Frank in one of his books was a bad guy. So then he used Frank as the name of a good guy one time and this Frank wouldn’t talk, refused to come out and become the kind of person Elmore wanted. So he changed his name to Jack after thinking of names for another few weeks, and it felt so good he couldn’t shut the guy up, I mean this Jack, not Elmore. So he names us and he says okay start talking. So that’s what we do. Sometimes if a character has trouble expressing himself he’s demoted. He’s given less to do in the book, or he might get shot. What can also happen if a minor or even a no-name character shows he can talk, he can shove his way into the story and get a more important part. So Elmore names us, gets us talking to each other, bumping heads or getting along okay and then I don’t know what happens to him, I think he takes off, leaves it up to us. There was a piece written about him one time in The Village Voice called ‘The Author Vanishes’ and it’s true.”
“Look, son, Imma tell ya somethin’ ’bout breakin’ an settin’ your own horse an keepin’ your mouth shut that’s gonna make your life a whole lot easier. See, most folks, they’d rather have 15 nags in the barn than a real horse.”
“I reckon ’cause it’s a sight easier to wrangle a dude ranch than be a real fuckin’ cowboy.”
I have been cursed of late with reading books and even short blogs full of bullshit and backstory clogging up dialogue. Right now I’m 20% through a book where nothing has happened but a bone being found in a swamp. Twenty effing percent. And the convo? It’s constantly interrupted with protagonist’s head time observations, judgements, head time backstory drops. In between lines of dialogue is not the place for that shit. Dialogue is a tool for that, as we’ll see, but anyone who writes? Do me a favor and get the hell out of the character’s heads and let them talk. They might just drop it for you. You can get back to that junk if want afterward but stop interrupting them.
FYI – neither is the mirror an excuse for a head time backstory drop. Not everyone has a psychological backstory drop moment in the mirror. Where’d that physical/emotional scar come from? Who cares? You could drop it when you need to in a single line. What if a character stood in front of a mirror and shaved or popped a zit?
In the instance of what I’m reading instead of the whole mirror thing we could have had, much earlier on for the sake of the character, this exchange – I borrow a paraphrased line from the most recent offender –
“The short hair is understandable, but right now you look like Brittany Spears in her breakdown period. (What’s your problem with the wig?) I added that. Look what we get.
“It makes me look like my mother.”
“I’m not… perfect. She wanted a perfect daughter. I see myself in the wig and there she is, on my ass about not being girly enough and following my father into the CIA. Happy?”
“Not ‘till you put the wig back on, G.I. Jane. You’re a supposed to be an ex-beauty queen librarian, not who you really are.” (Wow, no stereotype in the beauty queen librarian. As original as ex-boxer private eyes.)
Now we could continue the cutesy convo with extended pauses between lines filled with head scans, as the author does ad nauseum, but I’m out of Rolaids. Those three lines just saved us a head scan when the character should be hurrying out a door 20% of the way through the damn book. If I was the character I’d appreciate readers knowing more about me besides my prejudices against small towns and my CIA assassin fuck ups by then.
Rather than harp on how not to introduce backstory in between dialogue with author inserted narrative to make sure we get it, whatever ‘it’ is, please take a moment of your time to read a master who, in dialogue and a couple of lines of narrative, tells us effortlessly what we need to know. (Yes, that was an adverb). Written 87 years ago. 1200 words, three pages paperback. Nothing missing, a couple of adverb tags (but hey, this was 1933) and yet we know who everyone is with no bullshit. Yes, I consulted the 4 laws of fair use of copyrighted material and passed the test.
I was leaning against the bar in a speakeasy on Fifty-second Street, waiting for Nora to finish her Christmas shopping, when a girl got up from the table where she had been sitting with three other people and came over to me. She was small and blonde, and whether you looked at her face or at her body in powder-blue sports clothes, the result was satisfactory. “Aren’t you Nick Charles?” she asked.
I said: “Yes.”
She held out her hand. “I’m Dorothy Wynant. You don’t remember me, but you ought to remember my father, Clyde Wynant. You—”
“Sure,” I said, “and I remember you now, but you were only a kid of eleven or twelve then, weren’t you?”
“Yes, that was eight years ago. Listen: remember those stories you told me? Were they true?”
“Probably not. How is your father?”
She laughed. “I was going to ask you. Mamma divorced him, you know, and we never hear from him—except when he gets in the newspapers now and then with some of his carryings on. Don’t you ever see him?”
My glass was empty. I asked her what she would have to drink, she said Scotch and soda. I ordered two of them and said: “No, I’ve been living in San Francisco.”
She said slowly: “I’d like to see him. Mamma would raise hell if she found it out, but I’d like to see him.”
“He’s not where we used to live, on Riverside Drive, and he’s not in the phone book or city directory.”
“Try his lawyer,” I suggested.
Her face brightened. “Who is he?”
“It used to be a fellow named Mac-something-or-other—Macaulay, that’s it, Herbert Macaulay. He was in the Singer Building.”
“Lend me a nickel,” she said, and went out to the telephone. She came back smiling. “I found him. He’s just round the corner on Fifth Avenue.”
“The lawyer. He says my father’s out of town. I’m going round to see him.” She raised her glass to me. “Family reunions. Look, why don’t—”
Asta jumped up and punched me in the belly with her front feet. Nora, at the other end of the leash, said: “She’s had a swell afternoon—knocked over a table of toys at Lord & Taylor’s, scared a fat woman silly by licking her leg in Saks’s, and’s been patted by three policemen.”
I made introductions. “My wife, Dorothy Wynant. Her father was once a client of mine, when she was only so high. A good guy, but screwy.”
“I was fascinated by him,” Dorothy said, meaning me, “a real live detective, and used to follow him around making him tell me about his experiences. He told me awful lies, but I believed every word.”
I said: “You look tired, Nora.”
“I am. Let’s sit down.”
Dorothy Wynant said she had to go back to her table. She shook hands with Nora; we must drop in for cocktails, they were living at the Courtland, her mother’s name was Jorgensen now. We would be glad to and she must come see us some time, we were at the Normandie and would be in New York for another week or two. Dorothy patted the dog’s head and left us.
We found a table. Nora said: “She’s pretty.”
“If you like them like that.”
She grinned at me. “You got types?”
“Only you, darling—lanky brunettes with wicked jaws.”
“And how about the red-head you wandered off with at the Quinns’ last night?”
“That’s silly,” I said. “She just wanted to show me some French etchings.”
The next day Herbert Macaulay telephoned me. “Hello, I didn’t know you were back in town till Dorothy Wynant told me. How about lunch?”
“What time is it?”
“Half past eleven. Did I wake you up?”
“Yes,” I said, “but that’s all right. Suppose you come up here for lunch: I’ve got a hangover and don’t feel like running around much…. O.K., say one o’clock.” I had a drink with Nora, who was going out to have her hair washed, then another after a shower, and was feeling better by the time the telephone rang again. A female voice asked: “Is Mr. Macaulay there?”
“Sorry to trouble you, but would you mind asking him to call his office as soon as he gets there? It’s important.” I promised to do that.
Macaulay arrived about ten minutes later. He was a big curly-haired, rosy-cheeked, rather good-looking chap of about my age—forty-one—though he looked younger. He was supposed to be a pretty good lawyer. I had worked on several jobs for him when I was living in New York and we had always got along nicely. Now we shook hands and patted each other’s backs, and he asked me how the world was treating me, and I said, “Fine,” and asked him and he said, “Fine,” and I told him to call his office.
He came away from the telephone frowning. “Wynant’s back in town,” he said, “and wants me to meet him.”
I turned around with the drinks I had poured. “Well, the lunch can—”
“Let him wait,” he said, and took one of the glasses from me.
“Still as screwy as ever?”
“That’s no joke,” Macaulay said solemnly. “You heard they had him in a sanatorium for nearly a year back in ’29?”
He nodded. He sat down, put his glass on a table beside his chair, and leaned towards me a little. “What’s Mimi up to, Charles?”
“Mimi? Oh, the wife—the ex-wife. I don’t know. Does she have to be up to something?”
“She usually is,” he said dryly, and then very slowly, “and I thought you’d know.”
So that was it. I said: “Listen, Mac, I haven’t been a detective for six years, since 1927.” He stared at me. “On the level,” I assured him, “a year after I got married, my wife’s father died and left her a lumber mill and a narrow-gauge railroad and some other things and I quit the Agency to look after them. Anyway I wouldn’t be working for Mimi Wynant, or Jorgensen, or whatever her name is—she never liked me and I never liked her.”
“Oh, I didn’t think you—” Macaulay broke off with a vague gesture and picked up his glass. When he took it away from his mouth, he said: “I was just wondering. Here Mimi phones me three days ago—Tuesday—trying to find Wynant; then yesterday Dorothy phones, saying you told her to, and comes around, and—I thought you were still sleuthing, so I was wondering what it was all about.”
“Didn’t they tell you?”
“Sure—they wanted to see him for old times’ sake. That means a lot.”
“You lawyers are a suspicious crew,” I said. “Maybe they did—that and money. But what’s the fuss about? Is he in hiding?”
Macaulay shrugged. “You know as much about it as I do. I haven’t seen him since October.” He drank again. “How long are you going to be in town?”
“Till after New Year’s,” I told him and went to the telephone to ask room service for menus.
Excerpted from Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man. Copyright 1933, 1934 by Alfred A, Knopf, Inc. Renewed 1961, 1962 by Dashiell Hammett
On Sunday afternoons in Vienna at the time of Beethoven, pianos were parked outside in the squares around town and in front of concert halls where pianists would improvise for the Viennese civilians. Beethoven showed up and caused widespread panic. There are journal entries from pianists at the time threatening to lock their doors and cut off their hands. Others claimed LVB was possessed by the devil.
Aside from the piano Beethoven was also an accomplished violinist. When asked to compose something for another house of royalty’s visiting violin gunslinger Beethoven would agree and then write something the new guy in town couldn’t play. When confronted, he would play the piece himself.
My favorite professional story might be how, in the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, he wrote a varying number of bars of introduction where he would weave the themes around each other, exposing the “colors” of the key. He got a lot of critical flack for it. By God, composers were to state the key on the front end, not fart around getting to it. In response to the critics Beethoven begins the Seventh Symphony with the entire orchestra making a one note WHAM of A major. He proceeds to beat us with it several times in the intro. Dum dee dum dee WHAM. Carl Maria von Weber, a contemporary no one remembers, said of the Seventh –
“The extravagances of Beethoven’s genius have reached the ne plus ultra in the Seventh Symphony, and he is quite ripe for the madhouse.” To which Beethoven responded, “I quite liked your last opera. I’m thinking of setting it to music.”
There are far too many stories to tell about Beethoven. Poet, romantic, insane genius, rock star, ladies man. Now, 24/7 two-hundred and fifty years later, someone, somewhere is listening to or playing Beethoven. On piano, violin, cello. On YouTube, on the radio, in school, a movie, a church. However, possibly the closest we may come to immortality, musical genius and artistic vision are not the major takeaways from Beethoven.
What Beethoven wanted to show through his music was a way to a better, enlightened world. He dedicated much of his music to a concept of the Heroic Age called “benevolent despots.” Rulers who with wisdom and charity would bring the whole of humanity up out of ignorance by the bootstraps for the common good. We all know how that worked out. It was down to the artists.
His answer? The Ninth Symphony. In which Beethoven declared that the ideal society, Elysium, was not going to rise from heroes, benevolent despots or from God, but it was something we must do for ourselves. As brothers and sisters. As citizens in the brotherhood of humanity.
Even without the music, that right there? Pure. Genius.