In Michelle Herman’s latest collection of essays, Like a Song, she recounts her ongoing relationship with music, beginning with her seventh-grade drama club audition and concluding with the voice lessons she takes, much to her own surprise, in her 50s. The author of several works of both fiction and nonfiction, a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and the director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at The Ohio State University, Herman is known for her wit, lyricism, and sharp insight. Like a Song proves to be yet another demonstration of these qualities.
While Herman devotes much of this collection to describing her evolving bond with her daughter, at the core of each essay is a sustained engagement with music—with listening, with singing, with being moved by sound. Herman tells us, “We experience music inside our bones.” She attributes the embodied feeling of music to “the physicality of singing,” explaining that with our breath—with the opening of our lungs and mouth—we inhabit songs. Our bodies become our instruments, and the songs become our own. In many ways, the essays in Herman’s collection are about this embodiment of music: how music and song move bodies beyond the widening of the lungs, the vibration of the larynx, or the stimulation of brain’s left hemisphere. For Herman, sharing and creating music moves all humans together, sometimes even harmoniously together, and the essays in Like A Song shed light on this intimacy that music inspires.
In the collection’s first essay, “Performance,” Herman reflects on her daughter Grace, particularly her “zeroteen’s” determination to become a pop star. While for many ten- or eleven-year-olds this ambition is not an unusual one—and for many parents it is often an alarming one—Herman admits:
I’ve spent years worrying about Grace, and feeling anxious and guilty about my role in the clash, or fissure, within her. “Old for her age” in all matters intellectual, she has lagged behind, always, in matters of the heart. That she is enjoying herself—and I don’t mean just “having fun,” which she has had before, but literally, for the first time, taking joy in herself—that she is acting like a normal kid (normal with a bullet), is a source of pleasure for me.
Unlike Grace’s earlier interests such as paleontology and later zoology (when Grace decides she is “more interested in live animals than long-dead ones”), Grace’s new career choice allows her to bond more strongly with other girls her age and, as Herman claims, “find out that she is a part of the human race.” Although Herman recognizes that the desire to be a pop star and all its vestiges—including her daughter’s insistence that she needs to wear mascara—should concern her, particularly as a self-proclaimed “Mother Who Thinks,” Herman also recognizes the unavoidability of performance in every human’s life. She writes, “Grace’s discovery of herself as a performer is a discovery of what it will mean to live in a world outside of one’s own head.”
In her next essay, “Idolatry,” Herman shifts to yet another performance, the once-popular reality TV show American Idol. This show provides Grace with “something she could talk to other kids about for the first time in her life.” But, more importantly, American Idol gives both Herman and her daughter a few hours together each week at a time when Grace, like many preteens, avoids nearly all other contact with her mother. Herman remembers the pleasures of watching this show together. “The pleasure of talking over what we’d seen and heard and what we thought of it. The pleasure of the songs.”
Yet Herman’s encounters with music within these essays are neither limited to her daughter’s dream of stardom nor to the American dreams of reality TV. In the essay “Foreign Excellent,” we learn about Herman’s friendship with a woman named Ellen Holahan, a fellow musician and songwriter, whom Herman lovingly calls Hula. Their friendship arises out of the most unusual of circumstances: Hula’s skateboard accident and the two women’s proximity in a too-crowded Greenwich Village apartment. But as Herman suggests, perhaps their friendship was not simply a product of happenstance. Herman asks, “Who knows what makes two people take the leap into real friendship—the kind of deep, abiding friendship that makes life more bearable than it would otherwise be?” Herman and Hula write and play music together; they eat spaghetti together “sitting cross-legged on the kitchen floor” until Herman leaves for graduate school in Iowa; and even then, the two friends continue to sing together “surrounded by boxes, sitting on boxes.” Many years later, music brings them back together in Columbus, Ohio.
Herman’s writing is most fully lyrical in the Hula passages, and while this music is about movement, particularly the movement of people together, towards each other, Herman’s and Hula’s friendship makes us wonder what else is at work. Herman recalls that after Hula’s accident she found herself “trying to put together a picture of [Hula’s] life. It was as if [she] were writing a story.” Herman later concludes, “Who are you . . . ? That’s the question, I think, that begins a friendship. One person asks—and if the other asks it too . . . that’s how it starts.” And so perhaps friendship, at least in this case, starts not with music, but with the music that is contained in the rhythms and themes of writing—with imagining another’s life, with trying to lessen the unavoidable distance that divides all humans.
And this lyrical togetherness is what makes Herman’s collection so compelling. She relishes the intimate bonds of music as she writes songs with Hula, as she performs karaoke with her daughter, and as she sings with a choir called The Harmony Project. And yet Herman also dwells on the music of solitude. She tells us that, in her fiction, she understands her characters, or “grasps” them, “by their loneliness, and also by their longing.” She explains further that it’s her characters’ simultaneous “longing for love … and their fear and dread of what they long for, too” that makes them real to her. Herman admits that this approach is also how she understands or grasps herself. Though Herman admits that she is a talker, infamous as a child for her constant chatter—and though she reveals the “most deeply personal things about [her] life” within her writing—she simultaneously feels as if hardly anyone knows her. “There’s an awful lot you can reveal,” Herman explains, “without revealing anything.”
After finishing Like a Song, I find myself tempted to ask whether Herman has revealed an awful lot about herself without revealing anything—for she does, after all, tell us that writing is akin to talking in that it is “no sort of silence.” And yet as Herman guides us through her childhood in Brooklyn, her 20s in the Village, and her later years in Iowa, Nebraska, and finally Columbus, Ohio, we come to know her through her homes and lovers, her daughter and friends, but especially through her relationship with music. Herman admits that, unlike writing or conversation, singing allows her to be “quiet, for once.” However, in the final line of the final essay, Herman also reminds us that when she sings, “all you hear is my voice.” Leaving us with her voice, her words, Herman proposes that what music offers is another way of being in the world, and particularly of being with another human being. And by listening to the music that Herman herself “sings” within her essays, in a sense we readers are “embodied” by those songs—the rhythms, melodies, harmonies, and dissonances of her life.