Monday, January 11, 2016

On Humming, by Anne Nesbet

Some years ago, probably at Thanksgiving, my wonderful Aunt(-in-law) Kathy suddenly put her spoon down and said, "Anne! I bet you were a very satisfying baby to feed!"

That seemed a little out of the blue. I'm sure I gave her a nice blank stare.

"Because you hum while you eat!"

"Oh!" I hadn't ever noticed any such thing, but once it had been pointed out, I started listening to myself with about half an ear as I went through everyday life, and sure enough, I always seemed to be humming. Not just when eating, but when walking to school, grading papers, reading books . . . . Oh, dear. Embarrassing!

Except that I've decided not to be too embarrassed, after all, because, upon reflection, my humminess is closely related, for better or for worse, to everything that makes me a writer. In fact, in my latest book, THE WRINKLED CROWN, the heroine starts her life as a "hummy baby"; her world sees this as a curse, but it is the kind of curse that is also a gift.

So here are some of the ways humming and writing overlap:

1. Humming as Theme and Variations. Humming (for me) means taking a little bit of music, and running through all the possible ways that phrase could be bent, modified, reinvented. Humming is all about repetition--but it's also about experimentation. I find myself trying little experiments with my hums: accenting the third beat this time, or running up the scale where usually I run down. When I was first learning to play the piano, I fell in love with Bartók's pieces for children, because they experimented (it seemed to me) in a hummy sort of way: a melody would be accompanied by one set of harmonies, and then the next time it came around, all the chords would be quite different, and then a third time with everything slightly transformed all over again.
You may be wondering what this humminess has to do with writing, but in fact I do the same thing with words. I "hum" phrases, trying different words, changing the sound of things here and there, tweaking and repeating. Sometimes I catch myself saying words aloud, trying out different pronunciations and stresses. It is humming without music, but it makes the language of my stories satisfyingly odd.

2. Humming Makes a Gift of a Bad Memory. I hum because I cannot sing, and I can't sing because I can't remember any of the words: I make them up all over again, a little different every time. I've always had a bad memory for names and exact phrasing. I have friends who have hundreds of poems memorized, and I marvel at such skill--I can hold about two poems in my head, and it takes a lot of concerted effort to keep them there. But here's the thing: my brain prefers to experiment; I have trouble remembering the true words for things, but I create variants of every poem and every story. Unable to stick to the path, I strike off into the unknown. If I'm creative, perhaps it's because I can't remember how not to be. That, too, is humming!

3. Humming Gives Courage in Frightening Places. Once upon a time I found myself walking along a perilously thin track above a perilously steep slope in the Himalayas. I am afraid of heights--I am courageous about slogging along trails uphill all day, but I am a coward in places where one false step could be the end of you. I noticed, however, that the people who lived in that part of Nepal chanted mantras as they walked the scary bits. Humming their way across ledges! I tried it--it works like a charm.

4. Everything Hums! The very universe around us is humming! We use "humming" to describe complicated mechanisms--brains, car engines, classrooms--that are functioning well, purring along, thinking deep thoughts, getting somewhere. When a novel is progressing well, it hums. Humming seems to me a very joyful thing. Remember Winnie-the-Pooh's creation in The House At Pooh Corner, a "Good Hum, such as is Hummed Hopefully to Others"; isn't that what a book is, come to think of it?
---A Good Hum, such as is Hummed Hopefully to Others!---


  1. My youngest is a hummer, but I've never thought deeply about it. This wonderful investigation into humming and its benefits will make him feel good!

  2. I'm a bit of a hummer, too! I haven't paid attention to all the places and activities I hum but I'm curious to see as I pay a little more attention. Thanks!

  3. Very intriguing way of viewing humming. If it works for you go for it!

  4. I can hear my grandmother "tiddley pom-ming" right this moment. It's funny that though I know she read many more Pooh stories to me, this poem it what brings the whole experience to mind.

    Love this idea of the world humming around us.

  5. I love this idea of humming! It can make the scariest situation not so scary. I am a whistler and love to whistle as it too takes me away from the moment I'm in. I also love humming (and whistling) to remember a song even if I've forgotten the words - as you say!


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!