Since moving to the Bay Area I’ve been listening a lot to our local public radio station KQED. I turned on my car radio the other day and there was an unmistakable voice that I thought I’d never hear again–that of my friend Jill Ker Conway. She died a few weeks ago, on June 1st. I was hearing an interview with Terri Gross from 1994, but Jill didn’t sound any different than the last time we spoke.
We met when my family moved to a Western Massachusetts town–coincidentally called Conway–and the driveway to Jill’s modern stone and glass country home was across the dirt road from our rental. I was still composing for a living, and when Jill found out she invited me to Tanglewood, the BSO’s summer performance venue.
Jill had seats in Section 1, right in front of the podium. The orchestra was loud from there, loud enough that my rock-and-roll deafened ears could make out parts that are inaudible on CD. I know because I was one of the few who followed the music from a score when I had one. I sat not ten feet from a favorite conductor, Andre Previn. The Tanglewood season always ends with Beethoven’s 9th. We were there many times. The best performance was conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. Wow.
I rode out to the concerts in her Volvo station wagon along with a couple of other friends of hers and the picnic lunch she’d packed. The hours and car and lunch provided great conversation about music and everything else under the sun.
In later years she took us to eat in the exclusive club whose waitresses and waiters are children of BSO musicians. And sometimes I’d ride out with her alone. We talked and listened to Late Beethoven Quartets.
Jill and my father were both successful writers and historians, so I invited him to lunch with Jill at out Conway home. He was ill at ease–not just because he was physically on his literal last legs, but because Jill was a powerful woman and prominent feminist, though you might never know it from her impeccable social grace. It was his last outing.
After he died I gave up composing for writing, working on a memoir about my father and me. When I’d taught myself to play guitar, to arrange and compose, I’d never paid much mind to how I went about it–just keep banging away and hope I get it right. But when I took up writing I was old enough to know this book wasn’t going to write itself, in fact that there must be some serious craft involved.
So I read and studied over fifty memoirs. Many were dull, some terrible. Among the very best was Jill’s first of three, Road From Coorain, her account of coming from a family of sheepherders in the outback of Australia to America and finally to her position as first female president of Smith College.
It was obvious knowing her that that journey hadn’t been by chance. She was tough. She went to her native Australia to take care of an ailing brother. When she returned I asked her how she dealt with the enormous jet lag. Did she nap?
No. She smiled and said, “I just go out for a run and then I’m fine.” She said this in the same matter of fact tone that she applied when describing extraordinary things. And in the same tone she encouraged my memoir writing. “Your story is important. People need to hear it.”
But how should I proceed. “Just talk to your readers as you talk to me now, as a friend telling an interesting story.” And so I attempted to do.
But what about form? Her advice on this subject was harder to follow, though I tried. She said, “You know how to compose. Write it as if you were writing a piece of music.”
Counterpoint–the simultaneous expression of different musical elements–was one of my favorite things as a composer. I’m still struggling to figure out how to apply it to writing, when as another friend pointed out, “Writing is just one word after another.”
Though three of my novels are soon to be published, my memoir is yet to be published. I let it go fallow several years ago after many years working on it and many drafts. A year ago I started a new draft of it, with a new approach.
Remembering her fine conversation, her presence in the next seat before a wall of glorious sound, her crucial encouragement to my writing in those early years, and the example she made of someone with a graceful but indomitable will to get what she wanted, perhaps I can see my memoir through to publication. She would have expected no less.