Lucy Ferriss, photo by Paul Roberts
Belinda Huang: I was intrigued by the way you capture the turning of the mind and shifts in perspective around the idea of “Middle G” through spatial metaphors such as summits, tightropes, and fulcrums. It brings physicality to such an internal experience, rendering it visible and understandable even if no comparison can capture the idea fully. The illustrations throughout were an integral part of the essay: how did they come about during the writing process? And do you see yourself as a particularly visual thinker?
Lucy Ferriss: I realized fairly early on that whatever I was talking about wasn’t going to fit easily within a definition, and it seemed clearer and more immediate to express the different senses of Middle G visually. I have become more of a visual thinker over the last six years or so, ever since I incorporated drawing into my practice; I published an essay, “Writing the Body,” some years back in the Southern Review, about how I was beginning to see connection points between verbal and visual expression.
BH: Yes, perhaps similarly to your vocal practice, which you describe in detail in this essay. How does music influence your writing? Or vice versa?
LF: I’m now working on the second novel I’ve written in which a character is involved in choral singing. Music has always seemed to me the most abstract of arts—I mean, how do we know what Beethoven is expressing in his Seventh Symphony, and yet we can still touch the emotional places to which he’s given himself and us access? Writing by contrast is pretty concrete. Words can mean different things, and for me the rhythm of the sentences and the cadence of the paragraphs have great value, but by and large we have a one-to-one relationship between the word and what it signifies: by cigar we mean cigar, whatever else we may wish to symbolize. So, like drawing, music is a kind of cross-training for me, a move into another language.
BH: You describe singing as a kind of birth that reaches a place beyond category, description, boundary, and definition. The very embodied description of birthing a voice goes toward framing this essay in decidedly womanly terms, both due to the biology of the female voice and some of the social expectations (fitting in, dressing appropriately) that affect women in specific ways. Does this ring true for you in any way?
LF: I understand that choral singing, in particular, releases oxytocin, the “pleasure hormone,” which is also released during sex. Perhaps it’s that connection that brings me to the idea of “birthing” my voice. I also think—to your point about expectations for women, etc.—that what you call “that elusive space” is something we as women have to break through to. Effort alone won’t do it; there has to be some sort of disruption, whether it’s in terms of vocal register or in terms of giving an essay its full, unique shape.
BH: You also write that all your thinking around “middle G” may be a category mistake—that is, there might be an error in the basic premise, from which other errors flow. But it is the lack of certainty, reflecting on your limitation and continually reappraising the central concepts, that drives your essay. Perhaps because of this, the essay feels very timely without having to be topical. I imagine many people are struggling with finding and inhabiting the center, a place of balance, during politically and socially troubled times. How do you think this essay resonates in 2021?
LF: I read somewhere, early in the pandemic, that people should stop complaining. We weren’t being asked to fight a war or haul sacks of concrete; we were just being asked to stay home. Along with that admonishment, I think, came the implication that if we were sufficiently centered, grounded, balanced, we shouldn’t have trouble dealing with COVID-19. Well, given the episodes of depression we’ve seen, the multiple ways in which people have been unable to hit the “right” note, the ways in which it always seems we’re being either ridiculously cautious or ridiculously risk-taking, I think this past year has made both the effort to find that middle point and the toll such effort exacts more obvious, at least to me. I’ve also found that the gender dynamic has swelled. In terms of the pandemic, women have been expected to manage domestic chaos far more than men. Moreover, the vitriol hurled at women who are exceptional, whether it’s focused on Kamala Harris’s first name, Greta Thunberg’s autism, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s lipstick, has reminded me very much of my mother’s suggestion to make Bs. As we emerge from the chaos of the pandemic and the politics of the last four years, I hope somewhere we’ll find a way to expand our comfort zones when it comes to individuals’ ranges and the ways in which they—meaning we—do or don’t locate them/ourselves within our definition of “Middle G.”
BH: I think that’s a lovely way of putting it. And, with any luck, the pandemic is a disruption that can help us break through to that. Lastly, I read on your blog that this is one of a series of Meditations that you are writing. What draws you to this form or title of essay? And if I may ask, out of my own curiosity, what other topics have you written about?
LF: I started writing these several years ago, when I found myself vexed by the linearity of the essay form. I wanted to explore a structure that worked like the proverbial stone tossed into a pond, dropping deep and rippling outward. The first one I published was “Meditation on a Rat,” which began with a domesticated rat my children cared for but rippled outward to explore humans’ relationship with other animals, the nature of death, and so on. Other meditations have engaged with my late mother’s needlepoint purse, with fire (especially the fire at Notre-Dame), with pain, with postage stamps, with figure drawing, with apartments. I’m working on one that explores masks. I’d like these essays not so much to make a point as to perform in prose what Archibald MacLeish attributed to poetry when he wrote that “a poem should not mean but be.”
BH: Thank you, Lucy!
Lucy Ferriss is Writer in Residence at Trinity College and the author of ten books, most recently the novel A Sister to Honor (Penguin, 2015). Foreign Climes: Short Stories is forthcoming from Brighthorse Books. “Meditation on Middle G” is part of Meditations for a New Century, a collection in progress.
Belinda Huang is a writer, editor, and NER nonfiction reader living on Darug land in Sydney, Australia. She holds a BFA from Emerson College, Boston.