Lara Tupper is the author of A Thousand and One Nights, Off Island, and Amphibians. She is also an accomplished folk singer. Photo by Elaina Mortali.
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
– Blaise Pascal, French philosopher
I learned, from an early age, how to stay in my bedroom. Not always quietly, but alone. As my parents read in silence or watched Masterpiece Theater, I closed my bedroom door and tried to draw shapes with crayons. I made a collage of one wall, taping aspirational slogans and faces from Guess Jeans ads—those pouty models of the 80s. I acquired dozens of journals and filled them. I listened to Godspell and A Chorus Line on a record player from Sears and memorized every note.
I was an only child, as you may have guessed. Was I lonely? Other children confused me. When forced to interact at school, I didn’t understand their jokes or secret handshakes. They were skilled in starting friendships and chasing balls around in gym. I knew how to talk to adults and belt out “Day By Day.”
And so my room was the most comfortable space. I was allowed to be introspective and odd there, excellent circumstances for a writer in training. I continued to play the musicals on loop—I couldn’t seem to stop. They brought out something the journals didn’t. Joy, I’d call it now.
I kept listening through high school and beyond, though I understood my soundtracks were uncool. In my college music library I disappeared with headphones and scratchy LPs for hours at a time. I became a jazz fan, a radio DJ. Then I found the courage to audition for an a cappella group called Quasimodal. I started to think of myself as a singer. I made this part of my vocation too.
Little has changed, by which I mean I’d rather watch tick, tick…BOOM! than anything else on Netflix. I like to unwind by singing Simon and Garfunkel harmonies with my husband on the couch. It’s the necessary antidote to a writing life. Singing with others gets me out of myself. It has to, because it’s a collaborative effort.
It provides instant gratification too. When performing live, I can gauge the audience reaction and understand if I’ve hit the mark. Or not.
Writing is the opposite. It’s the delicious, maddening strain of working and reworking the sounds in my head until I have no sense of them anymore. And there’s no guarantee the words will be read.
I require both modes to sustain my sanity now. I need the quiet room to hear myself think but I can’t stay there, alone, for too long. I need the small stage, or couch, to let myself be heard.
I give this prompt in my writing classes: Describe your childhood room. There’s good material there. The secrets under the bed, the tchotchkes on the shelf, the view out the window, the sounds of grown ups in rooms beyond. It’s a space that reveals something crucial about us, if we care to look. It’s the basis of who we become.