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.