Tone Deafness and the Genre Dilemma

I cannot sing on key. I don’t lack perfect pitch, I lack pitch altogether. The general term for my condition, shared by only 4 percent of the population, is tone deafness. Also called congenital amusia if not caused by a brain injury, hearing loss, or other causes. According to Wikipedia, we tone deaf are deficient in the “musical predispositions that most people are born with,” even if we have normal audiometry.

In my case, I was slow to accept it, although when my fourth grade music teacher grasped my long bangs and pulled them upward as a signal to sing higher, I had a clue something was amiss. Undeterred, when I was twelve years old, I recorded a version of Blueberry Hill with my best friend, Charlene. I don’t know why we chose that particular song, but I remember insisting that everyone we knew listen to our recording. One day I discovered all traces of the recording had disappeared; I believe my mother had something to do with it.

In high school, I set a record. Since the schools inception, 37 years before I entered, all students were required to take a music class which involved singing. I was the first student who was taken aside and told they’d made an exception for me, and I would be helping the librarian during the glee hour. I was relieved because I really didn’t think I could sing D’ye ken John Peel one more time.

From then on, I would pretend to sing when everyone gathered around a birthday cake, or sang Christmas carols, or simply sang in the car for the fun of it. When I was twenty, I still entertained a deep desire to be an entertainer, imagining myself belting out throaty blues songs from the stage of a smoky bar. It didn’t happen. Nor could I get the hang of playing a piano, a standing bass, or a guitar. The only saving grace was that I at least had a sense of rhythm: I could go dancing and perform well.

As recently as two years ago, the musician I live with tried to teach me to sing the simple major diatonic scale: do, re, mi, etc.  Two days later, he was convinced I couldn’t manage it even with his expert instruction. That I taught English and had no problem with public speaking or doing literary readings made it all the more unbelievable to him, but he has finally conceded.

What does my tone deafness have to do with writing?  Desire over reality–what we want to do versus what we can do–diverts a writer away from the genre in which they excel, and often leads to frustration, even failure. It seems natural to think that if you can write a mystery, you can write a romance. If you can write fantasy, you can write action-adventure. If you can write a biography, you can write a memoir.  Maybe you can, but is it your best genre? Is it the genre that comes naturally to you and where you find magic in your descriptions? Depth in your characters? Universality in the human emotions you express?

I’ve had a number of well-meaning friends and relatives tell me I “should” write a vampire novel, a fantasy, a romance, a cozy with a theme (the amateur detective who also owns an antique store, a yarn shop, an interior decorating studio . . . it’s a long list). The basic message is that I could create a series; I could gain a following; I could make decent money; I could achieve recognition. They are right if I could perform as well as the authors who have mastered the genre. But I know I won’t write an action-adventure any more than I will belt out a song in a room full of friends. I could pretend, but nothing that came out of my mouth–or off the page– would fool anyone. Neither could I write a convincing romance, even a formulaic one.

I’ve learned I can switch from fiction to nonfiction, from short story to novel, but my focus is always on average people caught up in difficult, often life-changing, circumstances. I’m best with character driven narratives. I like to create a character’s “voice,” and let it define personality, action, and outcome. I write about people whose actions and reactions I know on some level–characters who I hope the reader will find genuine and interesting.

The best way to find your writing sweet spot? Sit down at your computer, tablet, or notebook and begin telling a story or writing an essay on a subject you are passionate about. Write until it’s finished, then analyze what you’ve produced.

1) What are the elements (suspense, futuristic, apocalyptic, inspirational)?
2) If you were the reader, what would you take away from it?
3) How does it measure up to other similar works you’ve read?
4) Did the words come naturally and without effort?
6) Do you like what you’ve written (seriously, you need to like your own work)?
7) Will it make a reader laugh, cry, reflect?
8) Can you pinpoint the genre? Can you write another piece in the same genre?

And . . . I promise to never sing out loud in your presence, although I do have a version of Janis Joplin’s Mercedes Benz.

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