When Writing, Don’t Forget the Music

“She plugged the alarm-clock radio, that once belonged to her husband, into an old outlet inside her mom’s old kitchen and merged the memories to an old Juan Luis Guerra tune. Who would’ve thought; it was the perfect melody.”

I’ve been thinking about this character for a long time, but very few things made her real to me, until I wrote listening to Juan Luis Guerra’s “Ojalá Que Llueva Café.”

It could’ve been the thought of rain, coffee, poverty – or the sweet trumpets that carried his words throughout the song.

Whatever it was, she suddenly appeared in a warm yellow, knee-length cotton nightgown, as if she’d been waiting all along to be asked to dance. There she was, this half-spirited mom of three, ready to start anew in her homeland. Yes, her husband had passed away, but she was a dancer, I thought. Or at least had always wanted to be. Like me, she became her best self with music and dancing.

Her hair was clipped back, except for a few frizzed curls tugged behind her ears. She hasn’t washed her hair in days, because she was reserving the warm water for her kids, who still hadn’t gotten used to the campo’s quick showers. It would be months, she thought – maybe years – before they could thank her for this. She hoped.

But at that moment, the images of aguacero de yuca y té, that Juan Luis Guerra was singing about, made her know they would.

Although I listen to music all the time while writing, often jazz and instrumental or ballads to slow down my thinking process (and dive into certain angles of my writing with the pace of songs), I think my character was just ready to get up and dance this time around.

Maybe she loved this particular caribbean tune, I thought, inside her now caribbean setting, which blended beautifully with memories of my own upbringing (summer in D.R.). She must have thought, “Now you’re getting me,” after I wrote about how her husband passed and she felt the need to return to something familiar to her, and how nothing felt quite as natural as her own mothering back in the country.

I first thought of this storyline about four years ago, before Max, when I wanted to move to the Dominican Republic. I thought of my mom, and how different her life would’ve played out, had she moved back after divorcing my dad. She was a teacher there and more likely to find a fulfilling life. But her new dreams were here, it seemed – the possibilities in New York were more enchanting. I wanted to move after struggling to find our own place, with the rising cost of rents in New York City, it seemed impossible. I walked by a realtor space that had a flier for homes in Santo Domingo for $40K. It was four times less than what we were willing to pay for a place here, plus promise of a yearlong summer. It struck me how I think of “returning home” to a place I only visited during the summer; but I wanted to explore that more through a different character.

The storyline disappeared for me as we settled with a newborn now toddler, only to return last year when a friend packed her stuff and moved her family to the motherland. I don’t know the specifics to my friend’s move, but realized then that the heart of that story and character was still somehow beating for an escape.

I’m still plugging away, discovering what else there is to her. Discovering more ways to continue writing her story. In the meantime, here’s a bit I found about the roots of our music, published over two decades ago. 

[PROMPT: Is music instrumental in your writing process?]

“African rhythms are the heart of all Caribbean music. Almost every island culture has a root music that is almost unchanged from its original African source. In Cuba it’s the music of the African religion ‘santeria’; in Haiti it’s ‘voodoo’ music; in Trinidad it’s called ‘Shango.’ Over the past 400 years, African musical roots have intertwined with European, Native American and even Asian traditions. Today’s Caribbean music is diverse-constantly changing and often confusing.” | Black Enterprise, May 1991


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