This week we’re talking about our “writing superpowers” here on the Ball, and I’ve been struggling to decide whether I have one. I don’t think of myself as mastering any aspect of the writerly craft at a superlative level; I muddle along, doing the best I can, and manage through lots of dogged slogging to put together something that’s solidly in the 85th percentile. Which is an achievement to be proud of, and I am proud of it. But is there something I do with my writing that might rank higher than that? High enough to be considered extraordinary?
After much thought, I’ve decided there might be, and it’s this: music. I have a strong sense of the music in prose, the hum and the beat and the rise and the fall of language that tickles the mind the way music does. It’s something I think about with every word I put on the page, and when I revise on the level of the sentence I feel less like a writer than a composer, pulling at tonics and roots, playing with repetitive sounds and percussive consonants, making every paragraph a song.
An agent I once spoke with said she read a chapter of my book to her son as a bedtime story, and was struck by how musical it sounded when spoken aloud. No compliment could have pleased me more, because I believe a sense of musicality is essential to good writing. Short, pounding sentences with hard consonants drive action, create urgency. Longer ones with mellifluous, multisyllabic words weave a meditative mood. From the staccato of Cormac McCarthy to the lyricism of Marilynne Robinson, my favorite writers are masters of using rhythm and tone in the service of their narratives.
The best example of this I’ve ever read is Tillie Olson’s TELL ME A RIDDLE, a fifty-page novella that describes the end of a life; the end of a marriage; the end of motherhood; the end of dreams. Its prose swoops and veers like a sparrow, broken and sewn together again through empty spaces and italics and severed lines, through rhythmic, chant-like passages and the repeated invocation of song.
It begins prosaically, as two elderly Russian immigrants bicker about where to spend their last years, in the process re-opening the wounds of a lifetime. He wants to move to an elder community; she to stay in the house where they raised their seven children. But soon the music begins in the sing-song patter of their speech: “You are the one who always used to say: better mankind born without mouths and stomachs than always to worry for money to buy, to shop, to fix, to cook, to wash, to clean,” he says. “Because soon enough we’ll need only a little closet, no windows, no furniture, nothing to make work, but for worms,” she says. Their Old-World syntax is lyrical, poetic: “Where will come the money?” “Different things we need.” “Such hard work it is to die?”
Even in the story itself, music is the recurring theme. The wife as a “bare-footed, sore-covered little girl. . .danced her ecstasy of grimace to flutes that scratched at a cross-roads village wedding”. Her children remember her singing when they were young — “Where did we lose each other, first mother, singing mother?” laments her eldest. On her deathbed it becomes both a comfort — the radio by her bed, songs from memory on her lips — and a metaphor for everything she has lost: “The music. . .still it is there and we do not hear; our poor human ears too weak. What else, what else we do not hear?” In her last throes, when her husband can’t bear it, her granddaughter reassures him that music has spared her the pain of dying: “Granddaddy don’t cry. She is not there, she promised me. On the last day, she said she would go back to when she first heard music, a little girl on the road of the village where she was born. She promised me. It is a wedding and they dance, while the flutes so joyous and vibrant tremble in the air. Leave her there, Grandaddy, it is all right. She promised me. Come back, come back and help her poor body to die.”
Every word of this heartfelt, poignant story reinforces with timbre and diction its message that life is poetry in all its harrowing, elegant disappointments; that there is music even in the smallest and bitterest of moments. To me, it’s the epitome of what prose can be when a writer listens for the music.
THE LOST GIRLS doesn’t reach that pinnacle, I know, but I also know there is music in it. Because I put it there. With my one and only superpower.
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