Christmas Eve, one hundred miles from
, silent and still, a crisp, clear night pillowed with two feet of fresh snow, lit by a small string of lights hung on a small spruce tree. Blissful, radiant quiet broken only by hooting of horned owls, calling one to the other. We are the only ones here. The only people around for miles. Anchorage
Out of the darkness my friend hears a human voice, sharp and close and clear. A little girl, calling “Mommy.” Later we’re told an unmarked grave lies on a neighboring lot. A little girl, five years old.
I don’t know about ghosts. But I know about solitude. A spirit, a child, alone on a wintery holiday eve, calling for her mother - this doesn’t seem so far-fetched, knowing we’re hard-wired for companionship, perhaps even from beyond the grave.
In her essay “Telling is Listening,” Ursula LeGuin points out that in preliterate societies, stories are communal, a way of connecting. Audience is central. Rhythm, in particular, is relied on not only to help the tellers recount long narratives, but also to bind the audience with the storyteller. She applies a concept of physics, entrainment, which she calls a “beautiful, economical laziness” to explain how things that are physically close tend to lock in and pulse at the same intervals, as the audience and the teller will do through a story.
Perhaps that explains our ghost, pulsing on a crisp, cold evening. It also explains how writers connect with their readers, through beats of language, through rhythm and repetition and silence.
I am not a café writer. I do my best work in solitude. I expect those who write best in cafes and other lively places enjoy a strong ability to resist entrainment, or perhaps even better, the ability to riff off it. I cannot, I confess, even write with classical music in the background, despite research that points to the Mozart effect , the idea that certain classical beats stimulate activity in the creative parts of the brain. The rhythms in the music butt up against the rhythms in my head, and I get nowhere.
Other research suggests that rhythmic activities like walking and ironing have a similar positive effect on creativity, which is why on a long walk, a fresh approach to a scene or a character will often reveal itself even when I’m not consciously puzzling over my work. The reason, scientists say, is that repetitive motion occupies a dominant left brain so the more creative right half can push insights forward. I like this, since walking and ironing can be done alone.
No matter how you work best, it’s useful to consider how rhythm connects us with readers. As scenes find their place on the page, I become a slave to sound, arranging and rearranging for maximum effect. I used to believe this was a problem, slowing me down and turning my focus from larger, more important considerations like character and plot. But I can’t help it. For me, rhythm is the pulse of the story. LeGuin would say it’s how I connect to an audience I can’t see.
Here’s how Virginia Woolf explains it in a letter to Vita Sackville-West (1926):
“As for the mot juste, you are quite wrong. 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 sigh, 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.”
What could be more personal, more mysterious, more profound than this wave in the mind? No wonder some of us require solitude to recapture it.
Though if that all seems too weighty, you should know Woolf also added, “No doubt I shall think differently next year.”
Deb's "Self-Made Writer" posts are also at www.49writers.blogspot.com.