Writing, storytelling and the music of language

I’m finding that the process of writing sometimes gets in the way of the goal of writing, which is storytelling.

Language may be the most important gift from the genetic dance that formed us.  It allows us to remember things and share ideas beyond tribe and lifetime.  But writing is a johnny-come-lately at maybe 6,000 years old or so, and writing seems to want to squash the tempo out of language.

I have to admit a little bit of a grudge against you, Alphabet.  After all, you hijacked our stories.  Oh, Alpha, I know you didn’t mean to, and I know it was important to count heads of cattle and amphorae of wine so we could get on with the business of civilization.  But, Alphabet, you made us too often ignore the music of language. Before you came along, I suspect that there were no stories without music.  Even if unaccompanied by instrument or choir, spoken words always have music.  The oral tradition values that sound and rhythm.  You can still get whiffs of it today, but modern media often override sound and rhythm with sound bites and volume.  It’s hard to compress art into a Tweet.

I spent a lot of my career writing for business.  Precise, accurate, dry writing.  Facts strung together by logic in pursuit of matters legal and financial, didactic and persuasive.  I enjoyed it … there is a challenge to making something clear in as few words as possible.  ImageWriting the novel has been different and harder.  Tone and rhythm are take effort to maintain.  I test out my words by speaking them.  I do it to find their natural melody.  I have a pretty strong suspicion that nobody’s going to read something with no beat and no flow.

3 thoughts on “Writing, storytelling and the music of language

  1. Dear John
    I love the idea. I have never followed a blog, but am looking forward to yours – and to the next book. Your comment about alphabets, language, and music is spot on. Susan and I had an experience a few years ago when we went to a Smithsonian program about the Illiad and the Odyssey given by Stanley Lombardo, who had just done a new translation – not just an ordinary translation – Faegles and Lattimore are the standard. He converted or interpreted it (probably more accurate than “translated”) into poetry. He started by saying that the Illiad was not really meant to be read, but to be heard. He then launched into a recitation of the poem for about five minutes – maybe longer – in the original Greek. After the obligatory observation that it was probably all Greek to us, he asked us if we had been able to follow it, despite not knowing the language and most had to acknowledge that they could. The rhythm with which he said the poem and the somewhat onomatopoeic sounding of the words gave the imagination a picture of what was going on. Pretty amazing demonstration of the link between sound, almost music, and the story itself. You do much the same in your writing (not, I trust, for notes to financial statements in the old days, but your artistic writing). Keep it up.

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