The Lyrical Roots of Writing
Using the 'ear test' to separate out the good
I offer two selections from the redoubtable H.L. Mencken in defense of my thesis.
Who ever heard of a bad autobiography? That is, a bad honest one?
I can scarcely imagine it.
And two sentences later and still in the same paragraph…
It alarms and annoys the absurd bladders of unstable colloids who rove and pollute the earth, masquerading in God’s image, but at the same time, it arrests and enchants them.[i]
The ever-acerbic Mencken, in his introduction to the month’s book reviews, like the smart journalist he was, first grabs his reader’s attention. Only later does he remind them of his own opinion of ‘those who would know better’ as well how they, themselves, view their own intellectual capacities.
It is less important in this instance to appreciate what Mencken wrote. Rather, consider how he wrote it. And therein lies the purpose of this essay.
Let’s get under the hood. We must consider writing by ignoring the most obvious. Well, perhaps ‘ignoring’ is the wrong word. Without a doubt, the overt purpose of any writing is to tell some sort of story. Rather, I think that we must look at the reasons we write. Again, we run afoul of the “to make money” school of thought. However, I ascribe to a different truth.
I believe that any writing should alter the consciousness of others. One cannot do that unless the work engages the reader. I would retain this for later consideration.
Why do I write #InspiredByAusten fiction?
So that a diverse body may READ my tales.
The previous sentence is, by its own nature, a modern construct. True, individuals did read Jane Austen’s work. However, those persons were only Britain’s wealthiest. The most charitable and broad interpretation would include all those who were literate enough to read her constructions, but also living in the black to such an extent that they could either purchase her books or pay for a subscription at a library. Austen’s works were, thus, by the nature of the society into which she was releasing them, constrained in their distribution. Her books did not begin to gain the traction with which we are familiar until the 1880s when the needs of the Industrial Revolution demanded a literate population. Oh, lest we forget, Modern Society (a term applied by historians) also gave that population enough leisure time to enjoy a good book.
But, if the word and concept of Reading is essentially a modernist term, what came before? I do discount the first 300 years after the invention of the printing press. Books were far too few and far too pricey to gain broad acceptance. Only the wealthy could afford an extensive library. I smile when I think of how Austen herself established the way Mr. Bennet squandered Longbourn’s income. He did not keep a mistress. He did not speculate. He did not gamble. No, Bennet bought books!
That sidebar aside, we know that populations were exposed to written works in the millennia prior to the nineteenth century. The Christian Bible is an excellent example of that. From the Latin Vulgate version to that of King James, the faithful were buoyed and transformed by the Word as it was expressed by their priestly interlocutors. However, nearly all who imbibed at the fount of the Old and New Testaments were thoroughly illiterate.
However, they listened whether they were a peasant in Derby or a count in Lyon.
The deep clue to where we are headed comes wrapped in the fact that much of the Bible is lauded as remarkable poetry: Psalms, Proverbs, the Song of Solomon, and the entire King James Version of the Bible. They are performed as part of Western Civilization’s oral tradition. Likewise, while the plays of Shakespeare and Jonson were surely created to stroke the psyches of The Globe’s aristocratic financial backers, they were also written to separate farthings from those who stood in the pit. Whether it was feet in the dirt in front of the stage or posteriors planted on rough-hewn planks above and around, all heard the same words without the penalty imposed by a lack of education.
Why? My contention is that each of these hews most closely to the original purpose of writing.
Writing was created to allow the stories it preserves to be performed by others not the creator of the work. After that, all original—modern or ancient—writing, grew from that intent…and thus needs to comport with the idea that the spoken word is an expressive and first-order communications medium.
Ancient civilizations like Sumer, Egypt, and China tended to last long enough to establish the sort of continuity that would allow the evolution of writing to proceed uninterrupted. While hieroglyphs do not lend themselves to audible performance, they do, nonetheless, allow for a literal, if not a lyrical, presentation of the stories immortalized there. Cuneiform did record the first extant story, The Epic of Gilgamesh.
But now we arrive in Classical Greece.
Rather than belabor the impact of the Greek Dark Ages, suffice to say that, by the eighth century BCE, the Greeks had lost the capacity to write (Linear A or B).
Then came the blind poet, Homer. The itinerant bard would go from warlord’s keep to warlord’s dining hall, paying for his supper with stanzas of epics charting a time when Greece stood tall, and giants walked the hills and valleys of Attica and the Peloponnesus. There were no DVRs, no flat screens…just a man and a harp.
Of course, when Aecheines (I picked out a Greek name) went home after dinner, he wanted to impress the men who next week would recline on the dining couches in his salon. However, Homer had moved on by that time. What to do?
What the Greeks did do was cop the Phoenician alphabet to write down the Homeric Epics so that Aechines or Philias or whoever could find a local man to perform some of The Iliad.
But the letters used by Mediterranean’s master merchants were designed to record the number of goats traded for the number of baskets of barley. There were no vowels…none.
‘Dg’ could easily be read as dug, dig, or dog. True, contextual clues could help ascribe meaning.
However, the Greeks invented vowels to replicate the sound of the words and remove the guesswork inherent in a vowel-less system. And, before you could say Marathon, the works of Homer were preserved…and all the great poetry and plays that came afterward became possible.
At that point writing in the sense which we understand it came into being.
And it arrived because performers who were not Homer could offer up his work for the entertainment of those who could not read—as in darn near everyone—but could listen.
Thus, what were arguably the greatest stories ever composed were preserved so that they could be performed in their original format—aloud and to a group—by others not the author.
My core belief about writing rests on this: good writing (if not necessarily good stories) depends upon sounding “good;” a condition that leaves the listener with a clear mental image of the crux of the story. And that image is wrapped in emotions inspired by the words rising from the paper and delivered directly to one’s ears, not one’s eyes, that its purpose is not obscured by tortured writing.
Please consider many of the excerpts which follow as candidates to be read aloud.
Establishing the scene (The Avenger: Thomas Bennet and a Father’s Lament, Ch. 33)
’Twas one of those rare autumn evenings where Nature’s perfume hung in the cooling night air. The warmth of the day had activated the aromas of now-fallow fields and rain-dampened soils lining the lanes around Meryton. The scent of dried leaves carried on the night’s zephyrs was accentuated by a smoky back tone carried by the thready columns of a hundred pyres fueled by the barley and wheat straw leavings after another successful harvest.
The broad drive winding from the London-Meryton Turnpike, long superseded by the great lanes of the A1, was well-marked in the traditional manner: pitch-fueled torches spaced every seventy-five feet or so. They flickered and guttered, creating giant orange splotches that left retinal after-images hearkening to night-blooming sunflowers beaming from atop six-foot stalks that might have been laid down by Oberon to lead his Titania home.
However, even here, I would refine my point. Rather than establishing “sounding good” as the final standard, I believe we, as writers who produce and as readers who imbibe, must take it one step further. I suggest that the work must sound right for the genre in which it is offered.
Part of this whole model rests on matching the meter, the beat, of writing with the emotions desired.
Moving from Passive to Active (Henry Fitzwilliam’s War, Ch 1)
German fire began to slack off as the chlorine crossed their field of fire and those in feldgrau themselves began to mask up. Soldiers on both sides knew that the thick glass lenses quickly fogged, making it useless to shoot with any degree of accuracy. It would just be a waste of ammunition. Best to let the gas do its work.
Henry raced through ankle deep chlorine gas toward what appeared to be an undamaged British redoubt, high enough to be above the remnants of the fumes. Suddenly a gigantic explosion blinded him, squeezed him like a grape and threw him off his feet. His mask was ripped away. Face down in the dirt of No-Man’s land, he gagged as he involuntarily inhaled a mixture of chlorine, air and dust. If he remained prone, he would surely choke on his own mucous. He struggled to his feet, blindly staggering as he coughed and wheezed.
Then the giants returned and threw him down into Hell.
Sounding right means that the reader falls in step with the consciousness alteration desired by the author. Each word, each sentence, each paragraph must work to a writer’s purpose.
Establishing character (The Exile: The Countess Visits Longbourn, Ch 30)
They opened and through the creaking embrasure floated a vision in rose. The hem of her gown swept clean the expanse of floor beneath her feet; the residue of the faerie dust vanishing behind her as if unwilling to continue to exist after her passage. Harlequin bowed at the waist in awe of the great Lady and walked backward away from her, his arms spread wide to form a pathway for the Queen. As she glided by, every one of her subjects made obeisance but never took their eyes from her figure.
Her comely body, so lovingly embraced by the blush-colored silk, swayed so gently that every man in the room worshipped her and named her his heart’s queen.[ii] More than one woman coveted her, too, but the majority of the fairer sex silently gnashed their teeth as they recollected the earliest days of their own realization of the tigress power gifted to every Daughter of Eve.
Consider Raymond Chandler…
It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.
Mr Cobb was my escort. Such a nice escort, Mr Cobb. So attentive. You should see him sober. I should see him sober. Somebody should see him sober. I mean, just for the record. So it could become a part of history, that brief flashing moment, soon buried in time, but never forgotten - when Larry Cobb was sober.
Chandler leaves little to the imagination…and his pacing describes the character perfectly. He turns—and fractures—grammar to his own purposes and forces the reader/listener to swiftly slide into the world he creates. He sounds right for the smash-mouth brutality that characterizes his stories.
Yes, you could get that from a silent reading. But imagine the goosebumps the second quote could raise—not from fear but rather from the sheer pleasure of hearing the language used as it ought to be used.
Like Jane Austen who “sounds good” when read aloud.
Equally formed for domestic life, and attached to country pleasures, their home was the home of affection and comfort; and to complete the picture of good, the acquisition of Mansfield living by the death of Dr. Grant occurred just after they had been married long enough to begin to want an increase of income, and feel their distance from the paternal abode an inconvenience.
The penultimate paragraph of Mansfield Park offers an epilogue to the story of Fanny and Edmund and spells out everything: love, no privation, anticipated children, and a desire to once again dip into the bosom of childhood homes through tonality and meter. Read aloud, her pacing and vocabulary illustrate all the ideas while leaving behind a warmth that makes one smile. Austen sounds right.
If you are interested in seeing how (well?) I apply this thesis to my own work, please visit my author page at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Jacobson/e/B001IQZ7GC
[i] H. L. Mencken, The Library, The American Mercury, no. 35 (November 1926), p. 380.
[ii] Antonio Carlos Jobim and David Gledhill. Lyric from The Girl from Ipanema. (1964), BMG Rights Management LLC.