Wednesday, August 05, 2015

The Deep Rhythms of Writing


thewaveinthemindMy previous post concerned the desperate writer (otherwise known as “you”) grappling with a first draft. I focused on two how-to-write books with shared values but quite different approaches: Bird After Bird, by Anne Lamott, and Several Short Sentences About Writing, by Verlyn Klinkenborg. The two have radically different styles but a common regard for rhythm. Most writers do. For many readers it’s the mystery element in a good story.

Ursula Le Guin’s thoughts on rhythm are the most meaningful and moving I’ve come across. You’ll find them in The Wave in the Mind, which is not a how-to-write book; although it includes lots of good advice, it’s a book of feelings, reflections, manifestos, a few poems (including the hilarious “Loud Cows”), and elegant miscellany centered on her personal experience of writing. (Le Guin’s superb how-to-write book, Steering the Craft, becomes available in an up-to-date revised edition this September 15.)

Le Guin’s inspiration, and the title of her book, are from a letter Virginia Woolf wrote to Vita Sackville-West in 1926:

Style is a very simple matter: it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words. But on the other hand here am I sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can’t dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now 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 (such is my present belief) 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.

Of this passage Le Guin writes, “I have not found anything more profound, or more useful, about the source of story.”

In much of The Wave in the Mind, the question that most concerns Le Guin is where stories come from. Ideas are necessary but far from sufficient. For Le Guin, two things are needed before a novel (what she calls a “big story”) can crystallize around an idea: “I have to see the place, the landscape; and I have to know the principal people. By name.” The story often comes to her along with the setting and characters, but these rarely come easily.

The same is true of many writers, in fact of Woolf, who in another letter quoted by Le Guin wrote that a novel starts with “a world. Then, when one has imagined this world, suddenly people come in.” But Le Guin reminds us that even after the characters have arrived, bringing with them a plot, “telling the story is a matter of getting the beat — of becoming the rhythm, as the dancer becomes the dance.”

JP1847If rhythm is style but deeper than style, if rhythm is what dislodges jammed ideas, if the perception of rhythm can come from inside our bodies or from the universe around us, what’s required to catch the beat? What must we do to tame this wild music of our story?

The main thing is patience. Sometimes we have to be patient for years; usually things happen faster than that, but, as I can attest, any attempt to speed things up is more likely to slow them down. You can never tell. And that has to be all right with you.

Le Guin gives us a parable, the tale of the taming of the fox from Antoine Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince. The fox insists that the little prince tame him, and when the prince asks how, tells him that each day he must sit down “at a little distance from me in the grass. I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing. Words are the source of misunderstanding. But you will sit a little closer to me every day….”

“And so the fox is tamed,” Le Guin says. “And when they part, the fox says, ‘I will make you a present of a secret…. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.’”

Of the secret of finding the rhythm, Le Guin says, “I think what keeps a writer from finding the words is that she grasps at them too soon, hurries, grabs…. she doesn’t wait for the wave to come and carry her beyond all ideas and opinions, to where you cannot use the wrong word.”

That would be a great way to write a first draft. It’s the only way to write the last one.



Klinkenborg, Verlyn. 2012. Several Short Sentences About Writing. New York: Knopf.

Lamott, Anne. 1994. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Pantheon.

Le Guin, Ursula K. 2004. The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination. Boston: Shambhala.

————— 2015. Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story. Wilmington, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

One Response

  1. Sharyn says:

    What a treat to read and think about with my morning coffee. Can’t tell you how much we miss conversations with you and Debra. Most topics are way beyond my understanding, but still trigger thinking…and for me thinking in a new way. Thank you.

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