Mind your ears

That would have been a much better title for this blog-- mind your ears-- than the one I chose. Mind your ears is a directive and a joke: listen, now, but-- whoop, careful! Don't trip. Pay attention. Follow the sound. Keep your feet. Look to where the sound leads you.

I begin with sound when I write. It's a funny thing to say, but it's true: when I begin a story or an essay, I'll often have the sound of the first line in my head before I have any words or ideas to fill the line itself. Boom-bada-doom-ba-loom-badaboom. I use that rhythmic undercurrent to carry me through, say, a paragraph; I know it's finished when it sounds like it's done. Boomboom. Ba-dum. Same deal for the next paragraph, and the next, one bit locking on to the rhythm of the next until, well, it sounds complete. I'm not sure why the technique works for me the way it does. Possibly it's some quirk of my brain-wiring, similar to that sort of person who perceives music as colour. In my head, it's almost like stories and essays are sounds, even songs-- as I write, individual words become notes in the rhythm of a piece, sentences turn into musical phrases. Strangely enough, following-the-sound seems to work especially well if I'm writing an opinion piece, or a long argument on some subject I've researched ahead of time: in the case of something very long or complex, I'll find myself anticipating the sorts of sounds that will need to occur up ahead for the thing-- whatever it is-- to make sense. It's like outlining with noises. I don't know how else to describe it.

Did you hear that? I just did it, at the end of that paragraph: It's like outlining with noises. I don't know how else to describe it. The latter of the two sentences is unnecessary, as far as the sense of the paragraph is concerned-- junk words, filler-- but I chucked it on the end anyway, because it sounded like something needed to be there. The tune couldn't end without it.

Following-the-sound can be a dangerous way to write, and a difficult way to edit. I tend to edit both for sound and sense, usually on the fly, and to be honest as a working method it's pretty hit-and-miss. I've written stories so sound-focused that they made no sense at all; when I've gone back and edited for sense, those stories lost a lot of the liveliness and movement which made them interesting in the first place. For a long time, I thought I must be doing something wrong. If you talk to enough writers who outline the plot before they begin, who keep index cards, who draw up massive, detailed charts, who plaster the walls of their writing-rooms with color-coded Post-It notes, the idea of starting from sound can begin to seem a lazy way to write. You find yourself thinking, maybe I'm not cut out for this: I'm just not committed enough to index cards.

Enter Ursula K. Le Guin's Steering the Craft, which I think must be the first fiction-writer's manual I've ever encountered that begins exactly the way I do, with how language sounds. I'm plowing through several writing manuals and writing-related books at the moment, for the fiction-writing course I'll be teaching in the fall; I have a feeling already that this may be the one. It's a very friendly, easygoing book, with examples and exercises that can be useful for either an experienced writer or a beginner. The thing I like best about it, however, is that Le Guin takes a somewhat non-intuitive approach to the subject. Most books about writing narrative-- at least, those of the type I was assigned in college-- go something like this: Plot, character, voice, setting, dialogue. Beginnings and endings. Scenes. Techniques. List of dos. List of don'ts. Writers to read. Copyright acknowledgements. Index. The focus of Le Guin's book, on the other hand, is language, from beginning to end: she tricks her readers into writing by getting them to play with sentences, sounds, and that sense of rhythmic movement. She makes the reader consider, equally, elements of grammar, syntax, and punctuation which even an experienced writer may take for granted. From my perspective, the book is a valuable reminder of certain tools and techniques I've either forgotten, or got sloppy using, while at work on my own. But for a beginning writer, I think, the book can inspire great confidence where there may have been little, or none: it hands the writer a toolbox, and demonstrates how simple they are to use. I much prefer an approach like that to a list of dos and don'ts.

As I'm thinking about teaching from the book, I thought I might test its waters a bit by following the exercises in it-- a chapter a day, we'll say-- and posting them here on the blog. The first exercise concerns the way language sounds, and aims to make the writer aware of its rhythmic undercurrents:
Write a paragraph to a page (150-300 words) of narrative that's meant to be read aloud. Use onomatopoeia, alliteration, repetition, rhythmic effects, made-up words or names, dialect-- any kind of sound-effect you like- but NOT rhyme or meter.*
The following is my attempt at the exercise. Le Guin stresses that this is meant to be "performance prose"-- a conscious, purposeful use of sound in the telling. I found it very difficult to do. The minute I tried to think about using sound, the whole thing broke down; I wasn't able to produce anything much until I fell back on simply following that subconscious drumbeat. I should note that I've cheated a little bit, here: I first wrote out the exercise longhand, and I've tinkered with it a bit in typing it out for this post. So what you see here is not quite the same as what I did in my notebook. This version is tidier.

Le Guin advises that the writer read the exercise aloud, boldly and with feeling. I haven't, even though it's just me and the cats in the house, because I am at heart a Grade-A wuss. I mean: what if I heard myself? That would be terrible.

It isn't now and it isn't then, it isn't any kind of time at all except for running, so Lucy runs. She runs full pelt down the cinder path that follows the length of the alleyway behind the house, runs with a rock in her shoe; it hurts but she doesn't care, she runs, she runs and listens for the thing coming up behind her (although she knows that there's nothing at all behind her, not a thing, not yet). She'll run all day if she has to, run and run until it finally catches her up; she doesn't believe the boy has begun to chase her yet. She can picture him in her head if she squeezes her eyes shut: there he is, still squatting over the toad, poking it over and over with a stick, trying to make the dead thing jump. He probably doesn't care at all about her running off like that. It's hard to tell for certain that the boy cares about anything much, when it comes to it, the way he pokes and prods and shoves and goads the dead toad with the sharp end of his stick. Some blood came out of the toad the first time he poked it, red blood just like a person's blood-- it had been an accident of course, the toad was already dead of course-- but Lucy had screamed and now she runs and even though she can see him in her head still squatting, not moving, she knows he'll catch up soon. He always does. He'll catch up and then Lucy doesn't know what's going to happen next, but she means to be brave this time, she really does. When he catches her she'll turn, she'll stand firm with her feet planted wide on the path, her arms crossed, and she'll find out what. She'll find out, whether she likes it or not.

What I notice from this exercise is that I really seem to like sentences that run on, badabum badabum yadadum. I also like repetition, and sneaky rhymes.

If you'd like to try this exercise, too, please do: either right smack in the comments section of this post, or on your own blog. Did you also find it difficult to make a conscious use of sound? Or is it something that came naturally? Did something surprising happen for you in this exercise? Did it bring out something in your writing-- a voice, maybe, or a kind of sentence structure-- that you don't normally use? And what thoughts do you have on the whole notion of beginning from a sound, or a rhythm-- do your ears, too, have a mind of their own?

* Le Guin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. Portland: The Eighth Mountain Press, 1998. p. 26.


Jennifer said...

This is fascinating, Jess! Seriously! I'm all kinds of excited to see what's going to come of your study and planning for this workshop. I believe it's going to help you clarify your own process and will make this workshop a great experience for writers of all ages and experiences. Plus, those of us who are following you online will be learning, too!

Is this a new revelation for you, or have you known this about yourself for a while?

I believe I may have asked you in a comment on entirely derivative if you'd noticed a dominant sense in your writing. I've been thinking about that a lot lately, since noticing my own (vision), and I can see it in other writers' work now that I know to look for it. You're really good with using sound and rhythm; it's always natural and doesn't feel forced like it does in my own prose.

"when I begin a story or an essay, I'll often have the sound of the first line in my head before I have any words or ideas to fill the line itself. Boom-bada-doom-ba-loom-badaboom."

I've noticed that several of my favorite lyricists say that the rhythm comes before the words or images when writing a song. So it makes perfect sense, I think, that you're also drawn to--and are adept at--writing poetry. (Which doesn't at all mean that you're not a prose writer as well, but that your prose is going to be a lot more rhythmical and "aurally pleasant" (that sounds funny!) than others'.)

I've not read Le Guin's book; I'll have to add it to the ever-growing wishlist of awesomeness! I like to read a variety of different writing manuals. I'm fond of the "traditional" ones (i.e. The Art of Fiction), and I've learned boatloads from them, but I also dearly love the "slim volumes" that sometimes get overlooked because they're not "academic enough." Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing and Ueland's If You Want to Write are great examples of these. If I ever decide, way down the road, to add to the masses of writing books out there, I think I'd like to do something along those "slim volume" lines.

I enjoyed reading your version of the exercise, too. I wish I had time to do it myself. Maybe next week.

Jess said...

There's a bit in chapter three of Le Guin which quotes one of Virginia Woolf's letters, and it just knocked me over when I read it:

Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can't use the wrong words. But on the other hand here I am sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can't dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. 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...

At which point I says to myself: yes! Oh my God! That's it! That's exactly how it is! So to answer your first question, it's sort of a new revelation, and I've sort of known all along. Or rather, I knew that I had an ear for rhythm, but I never before thought about its being central to how I write prose.

The book is a really quick read, actually-- I finished reading the whole thing cover to cover in an afternoon, and I read pretty slowly. As for the exercise, it's a matter of ten minutes (as I'm finding most of the exercises in the book are-- ten, or maybe twenty). Just sit down-- say when you get up tomorrow-- whip out a pen, and spew. Anything at all. ;) (Seriously: all I really did was start with a rhythmic phrase-- It isn't now, and it isn't then-- and freewrote for ten minutes. The narrative really came out of just trying to wrangle some sense out of those first couple of clauses, which don't actually mean anything.) It's a warm-up. It isn't something you take a lot of time with, or agonize over, or spend three hours writing and then rewriting. The thing on here reads as well as it does because I cleaned it up before I posted it, is all. In the book, I think she actually suggests that you not go back to it for at least a week after you've written it.

I've got a copy of Ueland on my pile right now! I've got to finish Samuel R. Delany's About Writing first-- I got sidetracked by Ann Beattie and haven't read much of it yet. I like what I have read of it very much, but it's more "academic" in tone, at least to a certain extent; it's not always the friendliest read. I do remember reading some of Delany's essays on writing in other places, and being deeply impressed by them-- I really like Delany. He's sharp. The Einstein Intersection has some of the most gorgeous passages I've ever read in science fiction.

pantagruel said...

You know, that's how I write my free verse. It's all meant to be read aloud.

Here's one from 1993, 'autumn':


This is it:
this is how it happens
how it unfolds between us
right now
in the red autumn air
thick with smoke from burned houses.

So here we are,
standing carelessly outside;
you're panting from running after me,
inhaling shallow gasps of sweat,
unsettling me as you meet my eyes.
It's flattering, this blatant attention born out of nowhere.
No — not nowhere—
it's been growing between us for years:
a blessing and a curse.
Right now, we've got labor pains,
closer to having this thing,
closer to having each other
than ever before.

Though there're crowds around us,
dogs barking, wood burning,
you're still panting.

It's an effort to keep my lips over my teeth
and tear my eyes away from your bare throat.
Your disheveled hair is thicker,
your eyes more feral,
your voice rougher.
For the first time in years
I can see your collarbones:
your corded throat is roped to your
shoulders and chest,
and even though I'm only looking
at your neck, you're completely nude.

Absently, you move to twist
the wedding band
you're not wearing.
Intent is not deed — else we'd be dead.
We two sinners stand here, hung.

fall 1993


I really must stop catching up on your blog minutes before I have to be elsewhere. Sorry for the resultant terseness.

Jess said...

Terse, schmerse-- Get Ye to where you need to be! I'm not going anywhere. :)

That's a gorgeous poem-- wonderful variance in rhythms, and rich in sensory imagery. Very, very lovely-- thank you for posting it!

I seem to have had comment moderation switched on for any post more than two weeks old-- sorry about that! It's fixed now. Comments shall now appear instantly, instead of hours after they've been posted-- huzzah.