The Music of Sentences
Fred Shafer, the perennial opening act for Off-Campus Writers’ Workshop (OCWW) did not disappoint, again, this year. In the next four weeks, we will be exploring voice and the construct of sentences.
Voice is something that most of the writing instructors I’ve heard speak find hard to define For me, I think of it as the personality of the narrator. For a first person story, there is no difference between the character and the author, since everything is told through one lens. In third person, there can be more than one voice. If the work is in close third, where the reader is in the thoughts of one character at a time, it can work like first person. If the work is a more distant third or omniscient, then there can be an outside voice as well (author’s voice.) Regardless, there is something magical between the page and the reader and that magic is the voice, the personality of the story.
I want to share a few of my favorite quotes from the lecture and talk about what they mean to me. This isn’t meant to represent the class, just my takeaways.
“By the mouth for the ear: that’s the way I’d like to write.” (William Gass from a 1976 interview with The Paris Review.)
“…a good sentence speaks even to its maker and that we often recognize our own mediocrity, even when we pretend not to.” (The Hidden Machinery: Lessons on Writing by Margot Livesey)
“Ever since I was first read to, then started reading to myself, there has never been a line read that I didn’t hear.” (One Writer’s Beginnings by Eudora Welty)
Though the written word seems to be made to be read silently, there is something about reading aloud, even in one’s own head that makes a work more rich and full. I’ve often heard the advice to always 1) print out the novel and make edits from the written page, not just onscreen. 2) read the work aloud, find where the language trips and what doesn’t sound natural (particularly useful for dialogue). Today’s lecture really hammered home point #2.
In my own writing, I write what I hear in my head, so the lecture and the quotes really spoke to me. I’m not one of those writers who crafts a sentence, I simply vomit it out. Words pour out of me, and then later I go back to shape. I’ll notice too many short sentences, so I’ll add a longer sentence or squash two sentences together. I’ll realize that I’ve basically restated something and cut a sentence. Sometimes the scene sucks and I pitch it all. Sometimes I’m charmed by my own work and don’t change a thing (this is not a frequent occurrence.)
I’ve had conflicting feelings about my approach to writing. Words fly on the page, and that’s good. But the revising is a bitch. Not that I have much choice over it–I’m not interested in fighting nature to find a different writing style. What I do works, so better not to mess with it. I’ve always felt pretty comfortable with voice–the way my characters’ personalities are shown on the page. The reason for that, I’m thinking after today’s lecture, is that when I channel a character, when my brain is firing out a story, a description, some dialogue, I’m listening in my head. Maybe I’m lucky and I’m somehow finding a special rhythm unconsciously. I really, really hope that’s true. Craft is sooooo much easier when it comes naturally.
Whether it comes naturally or not, sentences and stories always need to be scrutinized and polished. I’m looking forward to next week when I hope we’ll delve more into the how to find and play with the rhythm of sentences to serve the story best.