Marcia Butler was a professional oboist for 25 years, until her retirement from music in 2008. During her musical career, she performed as a principal oboist and soloist on the most renowned New York and international stages, and with many high-profile musicians and orchestras. As an author, Marcia sold her memoir, The Skin Above My Knee to Little, Brown and Company, to be released in February 2017. She has published personal essays in numerous publications and is currently working on a novel. She resides in New York City.
Loren Kleinman (LK): What made you want to write a memoir, and was there a particular moment in your life that led you to write The Skin above My Knee?
Marcia Butler (MB): I began writing about six years ago for my interior design blog. My blogs quickly expanded from the obvious topics for that field. I found that I was more interested in exploring aspects of creativity; and because I’d been a professional oboist for many years before becoming a designer, the fluidity of expressing art though different disciplines or vehicles intrigued me. For some reason I’d been able to make this shift in careers. But the creative flow of music and design actually felt very similar.
Personal essays organically emerged from this writing – stories that I did not necessarily include on my design website. These became my private toe dipping. I wrote about my experiences as an oboist and tried to convey in writing what this ephemeral thing of performance actually felt like. Then, one night, the floodgates opened and vivid memories of childhood came up. I quickly amassed about 20,000 words. It was at this point I realized I was actually writing a memoir, although I’d been trying to convince myself I wasn’t! But for some reason the drive to continue exploring my life in essays outweighed the embarrassment of writing a memoir that I was sure no one would read let alone get published! Now I see the three careers: music, design and writing, as my continuum of creativity.
LK: Were there any parts of the book that were difficult to write?
MB: Anyone who embarks on the daunting task of memoir must tell stories that are private and, at times, feel shameful. My childhood was essentially love starved, and it was through the diligent process of getting the words on the page, day after day, that I actually found the correct quality of distance in which to tell my story. It’s as if I almost became another person – separate from the young girl I was writing about. I used another technique as well, which I see in retrospect: whatever I divulged, no matter how difficult, I tried to write those passages in the most lyrical way possible. This intention helped to ease the hard truths that I revealed in my memoir.
LK: You paint some pretty specific portraits of New York in the 70’s. Can you talk about a moment in the book that brought you back to that place?
MB: Playing at the Abyssinian Baptist church in Harlem was one of my most vivid memories. There’s nothing like a Baptist church service to bring you into a world that is potent and also wonderful, and in a strange way, urgent. I met musicians there that I continued to play with throughout my career – wonderful friendships and connections that all started in that church in Harlem. Those services were always pure pleasure and at times provided a needed comfort.
Since I’ve lived in NYC for over 40 years now, the best part of writing about this town is that I can easily visit all my old haunts: a Village restaurant, various apartment buildings, and of course, concert halls. And as much as everything changes in NYC, nothing really ever changes! We New Yorkers know this. I found myself standing on the familiar streets of my past and the memories felt alive and solid. Memory is an important link to the past in NYC.
LK: Talk about the process of writing memoir. Did it remind you of playing the oboe? In what ways?
MB: I find all the components of making art to have similarities. In a structural way words are like musical notes, sentences are like musical phrases, a paragraph is like a movement and a book is like a complete composition. When you are playing a piece of music, you can’t really know your interpretation of, for instance, the cadenza at the end of the concerto, until you actually have the experience of playing through the piece. Because, the development of this expression is linear and that very process will ultimately inform how a cadenza should be interpreted. In the same way, a book doesn’t know itself until it is written through, to a large extent. Completing the rough draft of a book allows the writer to then understand how the beginning should feel and sound. When this process is truly played out, that is when voice can emerge. In memoir, voice is probably the most important aspect, because voice is what will draw in the reader. The voice (just like sound on an instrument) must be trusted and ring true from the first word to the last.
LK: Has art saved your life?
MB: Creativity has been the guiding light that I’ve relied upon throughout my life, both in tough times but also, while performing on stage during exceptionally transcendent moments. In this sense, my ability to live within a world of “art” has helped me to manage what ever came my way. Additionally, music is truly universal. Sound waves literally never end. So I believe that the world is actually organized by this continuous ripple effect of sound/ music. I was lucky to understand this intuitively as a child and then as I matured as an artist, this profound certainty changed my life in ways that still astonish me. And it’s all in my book.