In today’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column, I write about Charity Tillemann-Dick, a singer who has just written a memoir about continuing to perform after surviving two double lung transplants. Here’s an excerpt.
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To experience pain and suffering, it’s often said, is crucial to the making of an artist. But W. Somerset Maugham, who trained as a physician before becoming a novelist and playwright, wasn’t having any of it. He claimed to have learned from his internship in London’s poverty-wracked East End that “suffering did not ennoble; it degraded.”
Like all doctors, Maugham knew plenty about the damage that pain can do. But he must also have known that the music of Beethoven, which he loved, grew deeper and more profound after the composer became deaf. What’s more, the list of artists who have undergone similar transformations for similar reasons is very long. To cite just one example, the sculptor Mark di Suvero was put in a wheelchair by a near-fatal elevator accident that broke his back in 1960, the same year that he had his first solo show. Only after he recovered from his injuries did di Suvero emerge decisively as a major figure in modern American art. Might the accident have acted as a refiner’s fire for his still-developing talent? Only he can say—but it seems more than likely.
All this came to mind when a copy of “The Encore: A Memoir in Three Acts,” a newly published memoir by Charity Tillemann-Dick, turned up in my mailbox the other day. Ms. Tillemann-Dick is a coloratura soprano who has continued to perform after undergoing two double lung transplants, an achievement that is unique in the history of singing. I vaguely recalled having read about her horrific experiences, but knew nothing of the details. Now I know all about them, and I find myself in awe of her, not just because of her indomitable determination but because it turns out that in addition to being an excellent singer, Ms. Tillemann-Dick is also a very fine writer. “The Encore” is one of the best books I’ve ever read about the effects of chronic illness on the human spirit. Most of us, I suspect, like to think that we’d rise to a difficult occasion if forced to do so, but rarely are we put to the test. Ms. Tillemann-Dick was, and she faced it with a courage that I can scarcely begin to fathom….
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Read the whole thing here.
Charity Tillemann-Dick sings “Simple Little Things” (from 110 in the Shade) in Kansas City in 2015: