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Music to the Ear

“Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it …”      … Virginia Woolf

Always remember, never forget: As much as there is rhythm to life, there is rhythm to writing.

Scribe smallIn preparation for the challenge of the Editor’s Corner, I have, much as time and stomach allow, perused a cross-section of blogs and self-published novels and short stories. While there are sparks of brilliance out there, I am amazed by the amount of clunky, tin-eared prose out there, replete with stilted dialogue, baroque narratives, and lurky-jerky labyrinths of bad grammar and even worse punctuation. It’s enough to make this editor weep – or at least tear her hair.

‘Can’t these people hear what they’re writing?’ I ask myself. Such a simple question, yet too often the writing gods shake their heads, ‘No.’

For this is the realm of the writer’s ear, of beats and tempo and auditory wonders; and to some of us it can be a down-right scary place. Like a sense of style or musical pitch, it does not come naturally to all of us – and like a virtuoso with perfect pitch, the unerring writer’s ear is rare, indeed. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn.

Schools used to helped with this. They once taught a great little subject called Rhetoric – how to use words effectively, to move people with eloquence. In my junior-high English classes we would study great speeches, past and present, and discuss how they were constructed and why they worked. Of course, that was forty-five years ago. Sadly, rhetoric is now too often relegated to university classics departments or Sunday morning pundits parsing the relative communication skills of Candidate A vs. Candidate B. (A quick look at the 2012 Presidential campaign makes it abundantly clear which party had the writer’s ear.)

In the absence of such pedagogic aids, it falls to us to be our own teachers. Thanks to the internet, the sonorous writing of the ages is a click away. Familiar and obscure, sites like http://www.americanrhetoric.com and http://www.history.com/speeches let you read and often hear great speeches. And if the speech is too old or little known to merit a YouTube rendition, read the words aloud yourself.

The same applies to prose and poetry. Go to your book shelf and take down your favorite authors and read them aloud. Take your time. Find the music of the work. Note how the words bounce off each other, how the author uses assonance and alliteration, breaks for breath and sounds of silence. Hear how the rhythm serves the story, how the lyric meter of The Great Gatsby, for example, would be totally out of place in Catcher in the Rye, and yet how each is perfect in its own way. How, in the right place at the right time, even discord has a sublime music all its own. Like description, conversation has its rhythms, too, though it is governed not only by the author’s style but  by the essential truth of the characters. Read aloud, these truths crystalize: we can hear how dialogue flowing true for Queequeg would sound positively alien coming from Eleanor Dashwood.

Now turn to your own work, and remember: you are a storyteller, with the accent on teller. Your job is to weave a spell with your words. Read your pages as if they were from one of the treasured books on your shelf. Feel the words, their sound, their hue, their weight and balance. See where they live up to your expectations and where they fall short. This is one of the great advantages of a [good] writers’ group, being able to present your work aloud and having other ears pick up on the clunkers to which we’re deaf. (And try not to get defensive. Remember: we all screw up, we all write really awful stuff now and then. A good group is there to help you become a better writer, not just tell you how wonderful you are.)

Finally, jump into the empirical deep end and train your ear in the field. Get up and out and listen to the world around you. Hear how cities churn and villages amble, how region, season, age, even gender all affect the cadence of life and, in turn, the cadence of literature.

From the overarching shape of a story to the choice of every word in every sentence, every mark of punctuation, all are linked, pearls on a string, thrumming together. If we do it right, they linger, echoing deep in the blood where they’re not soon forgot.

Language in fiction is made up of equal parts meaning and music. The sentences should have rhythm and cadence, they should engage and delight the inner ear.  …Michael Cunningham

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