A rhythmic activity

The arts of writing and music have something in common; their allegiance to rhythm. It’s obvious why music as an art form is infatuated with rhythm and movement and flow, but what’s less obvious is how and why writing is. To explain, allow me to present three passages from Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft. In the first, she talks about the sound of language:

“The sound of the language is where it all begins. The test of a sentence is, Does it sound right? The basic elements of language are physical: the noise words make, the sounds and silences that make the rhythms marking their relationships. Both the meaning and the beauty of the writing depend on those sounds and rhythms. This is just as true of prose as it is of poetry, though the sound effects of prose are usually subtle and always irregular.”

Second, she talks about the chief duty of a narrative sentence:

“The chief duty of a narrative sentence is to lead to the next sentence — to keep the story going. Forward movement, pace, and rhythm are words that are going to return often in this book. Pace and movement depend above all on rhythm, and the primary way you feel and control the rhythm of your prose is by hearing it — by listening to it.”

Finally, Le Guin quotes an excerpt from a Virginia Wolfe letter:

“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 I am 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.”

Now, I can’t speak for others, but I can say that I’ve found the above to be true. Sometimes, whilst enjoying a potent tune from composer Ludovico Einuadi, or tapping my foot to an Eminem track, or letting the sound of an epic movie score cascade through my body, I come alive. An idea surges like Virgina Wolfe’s wave in my mind and I surf it effortlessly, riding it from blank page through to minimally flawed draft. Other times, no matter what I try, I can’t find the rhythm. I’ll change songs twenty times in a row, I’ll stand up and pace, I’ll look out the window, I’ll make a cup of tea, I’ll turn the music off, I’ll close my eyes and unleash a barrage of judgement and encouragement upon myself. All for nothing. It doesn’t work and I finish my writing session disgruntled and moody. 

It seems that music amplifies my ability to write, or sabotages it. It lifts me up, or it throws me down. It doesn’t matter whether the tune is external or internal, present in my surrounding environment or only within my own mind, I find that the battle to write is always a fight to find the rhythm which can successfully usher an abstract idea into reality.