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Friday, April 3, 2009

Writers: On Rhythm and Sound and LOTR

Virginia Woolf:


"Style is a very simple matter, it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can't use the wrong words.... 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; and in writing... one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it."

~ From a letter to Vita Sackville-West, March 16, 1926



Ursula K. LeGuin:


"What is this rhythm Woolf talks about? Prose scrupulously avoids any clear regular beat or recurrent cadence. Are there, then, deeply syncopated patterns of stress? Or does the rhythm occur in and among the sentences-- in the syntax, linkage, paragraphing? Is that why punctuation is so important to prose...? Or is prose narrative rhythm established as well in even longer phrases and larger structures, in the occurrence of events and recurrence of themes in the story, the linkage and counterpoint of plot and chapter? ~ All of these, I think. There are a whole lot of rhythms going in a well-written novel. Together, in their counterpoint and syncopation and union, they make the rhythm of that novel, which is unlike any other."

~ From "Collectors, Rhymesters, and Drummers" in The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination (Shambhala, c2004)


"Since I had three children, I've read Toklien's Trilogy aloud three times. It's a wonderful book to read aloud or (concensus by the children) listen to. Even when the sentences are long, their flow is perfectly clear, and follows the breath; punctuation comes just where you need to pause; the cadences are graceful and inevitable. Like Dickens and Virginia Woolf, Tolkien must have heard what he wrote. The narrative prose of such novelists is like poetry in that it wants the living voice to speak it, to find its full beauty and power, its subtle music, its rhythmic vitality."


~ From "Rhythmic Patterns in The Lord of the Rings" in The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination (Shambhala, c2004)


"Reading is performance. The reader-- the child under the blanket with a flashlight, the woman at the kitchen table, the man at the library desk-- performs the work. The performance is silent. The readers hear the sounds of the words and the beat of the sentences only in their inner ear. Silent drummers on noiseless drums. An amazing performance in an amazing theater."

~ From "Collectors, Rhymesters, and Drummers" in The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination (Shambhala, c2004)


"The sound of the language is where it all begins and what it all comes back to. The basic elements of language are physical: the noise words make and the rhythm of their relationships. This is just as true of written prose as it is of poetry, though the sound-effects of prose are usually subtle and always irregular."

~ from "The Sound of Your Writing" in Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing (Eighth Mountain Press, c1998)


"A good reader has a mind's ear. Though we read most of our narratives in silence, a keen inner ear does hear them. Dull, choppy, droning, jerky, feeble: these are all faults in the sound of prose, though we may not know we hear them as we read. Lively, well-paced, flowing, strong, beautiful: these are all qualities of the sound of prose, and we rejoice in them as we read. And so good writers train their mind's ear to listen to their own prose -- to hear as they write."

~ from "The Sound of Your Writing" in Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing (Eighth Mountain Press, c1998)


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The Wave in the Mind is the title Ursula K. Le Guin gave to her collection of essays published in 2004. The title is a tribute to Virginia Woolf, who first talked of it, the rhythm that takes hold of the writer and carries a reader through a work of fiction. Joyce Carol Oates quoted the same passage in The Faith of a Writer, her collection of essays published in 2003. Both Le Guin and Oates expand upon their own ideas in response to the concept, and I highly recommend both of their essay collections.


Virginia Woolf is not the first writer to feel it, but she may be the first writer to discover and articulate it, this process that informs a writer's work and makes it unique. I've written before of how I start a work with the sound and rhythm of a first sentence. I know when I edit a work, that a word, sentence, or phrase removed or added, must be in balance with the whole. A wave in the mind- when a piece works, you know it- words do fall into place, and the sound of them is a counterplay.

3 comments:

  1. Very interesting Annie! I appreciate your research on this. I teach and manage health care contract proposal teams for a living. One of the things I have discovered, and have emphasized to them over the years is to read their drafts out loud. "If it sounds good, it probably is good." I works pretty well!

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  2. Hi Tom,

    The concept definitely applies to nonfiction as well as fiction. Well-written prose of any kind will sound good to the ear, as well as the "inner ear," so reading out loud is good advice.

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  3. Great quotes. But I equally like what you have to say on the subject. There is definitely a rhythm to fiction, because there is a rhythm to language. I love how you describe that sound and rhythm of the first sentence and how each word or phrase balances the whole. That is so true! Very interesting topic.

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