Yesterday, I found myself in the company of some improv comedians/performers. They were brainstorming for a writing project. These actors were very respectful to each other, and most of them were really funny, but I noticed that they were funniest, not when they were one-upping each other or trying to impress each other, but when they were listening to each other and responding accordingly. Comedy is timing, as they say, but guess what: so is writing.
Each sentence is a response to the one that came before it. Cutting off a subject and switching to a new one is a kind of response. I guess the opening sentence is an exception, though I do like that writing trick of starting a story as if the reader is coming into the middle of something. In order to pull that trick off, the author needs to know what came right before the moment on the page before the first paragraph begins–what’s on that white space that the reader can’t see. Either way, I believe good writing centers on the writer’s ability to listen. Listening to language, listening to the tone of the characters who are playing the movie out in our head, etc.
I like writing that is language-driven (as opposed to plot-driven), and by language-driven I mean, where punctuation does more than create the meaning of a sentence. That’s its basic function, of course, but in order to advance to Cormac McCarthy’s level, punctuation becomes a tool for making rhythm happen within a sentence. We can’t know what sort of rhythm our sentences have if we’re not listening to them.Most of that stuff comes naturally, though. I’m learning that doesn’t come naturally, and takes bit of effort, is listening during the revision process. I tend to sort of gloss over the sentences I’ve seen so many times before. Revision, though, should be the time when I’m listening extra-closely. If it doesn’t jump off the page, it’s probably a dull sentence. Dull sentences are probably okay sometimes, by way of emphasizing a sharp sentence, but we have to nail the ends of paragraphs. We nail them by listening to how that sentence lingers in the small space we create with the enter and tab buttons on our keyboards.
Sentences can be quiet and loud (WITHOUT CAPS). Sentences can be abrupt, or smooth, or energetic. For more about this, read John Gardner’s THE ART OF FICTION. He talks about this quite a bit, and recommends poetic technique for the writer (scanning your sentences, using scansion).
Here’s another listening-related anecdote: a friend recommended, as I was putting an ending on my last draft, that I should listen to the kind of music that creates the sort of tone and mood I’m going for. I sort of wrote to match the rhythm of the music (which was Rufus Wainwright, by the way…) This worked pretty well for me. I found that my sentences responded to what I was hearing from my computer speakers.
Okay, so listening to sentences and language is one thing. There is another aspect of listening for a writer that goes beyond what’s on the page. I’m thinking of a story Peter Rollins tells in his latest book, The Idolatry of God, where he’s proving that we impose so much onto conversations that we risk closing ourselves off to what the person speaking is actually saying. He used an example where his friend, who was considering getting a divorce, said that he didn’t want to hurt the children in the same way his parents hurt him and his siblings when they were kids. Peter Rollins instinctively thought that the guy was posing an argument against his decision to get a divorce–that the guy was saying that going through his parents’ divorce was really difficult. Later, Rollins realized that the guy’s parents were still married; he completely misheard the guy because he was listening to what he figured the guy was saying, rather than what he was actually saying.
I find this useful in thinking about writing. I’m a more mystical type of writer, and by that I mean, I believe that writing is more like uncovering something that’s there than filling up an empty void with words. That’s why, again, I like to think of writing as an act of discovery. Sometimes this uncovering takes a few drafts to get it right. Once we know what’s there, then we can tweak the language to suit it best. The language then, its nuances, rhythms, serve the work and the work itself is what we are uncovering.
I blame Madeleine L’Engle for these crazy ideas. And Julia Cameron and Steven Pressfield, who I’ve been reading lately. Listening is how we tap into whatever is inside urging us to write (the child of a few posts back). It’s also how we connect our story to a larger conversation. We have to listen to what’s in and outside of us, paying close attention, if we want to write great works.
I was listening to this song while I wrote this post, which happens to mention listening in its chorus. Coincidence?