Listen to the Music

by Virginia Parker Staat

When the lyrical muse sings, the creative pen dances. ~ Aberjhani

I am working to revive an old manuscript. The story is the retelling of a myth I found buried in the ancient Mayan Popol Vuh. It is a strange and lovely story but has remained so incomplete and unsatisfying to me that I tucked it away in a drawer for nearly twenty years. When I pulled it out of its hiding place several weeks ago, the secret to what is missing fairly exploded in my face. Quite simply, my words lack rhythm. They do not dance.

We use rhythm in our writing to set our story’s mood. It is not about writing rhyme or flowery and fancy words. It’s about combining words like a composer builds a symphony to make his music a sensory experience.

Author Henneke Duistermaat writes, “In music, tone length and the silences in between tones define rhythm. When long notes blend together without silences, the music flows smoothly. In contrast, when you play short notes with clear pauses in between, you get a more abrupt style of playing. It wakes you up. In writing, rhythm is defined by punctuation and the stress patterns of words in a sentence. Long sentences sound smoother, while short sentences make your content snappier. When each sentence follows the same structure and rhythm, your writing becomes boring.” 

Writing lyrical prose is especially important in our nature writing. In addition to setting our story’s mood, it pulls our readers in, helping them connect with landscape and subject. For a more recent example, I invite you to read The Eagle’s Way by Jim Crumley. A more thorough examination of writing lyrical nature prose can be found in Mark Tredinick’s The Land’s Wild Music, which focuses on the prose of outdoor writers Barry Lopez, Peter Matthiesson, Terry Tempest Williams, and James Galvin. 

To briefly illustrate rhythm and how it sets our story’s mood, let’s look at a few lines from the children’s book The Man Who Could Call Down Owls, by Eve Bunting. An award-winning and prolific writer, Bunting is best known for her quiet, lyrical prose. These few lines offer an excellent example of how she draws emotion from her readers using rhythm.

“An owl no bigger than a sparrow came to nestle in the shadow of the wide hat.

‘Elf owl.’ The man smoothed the pale chest feathers till the owl eyes closed.

Deep in the dark of the trees was a hoot, hoot, hooting and a great horned cut the air to land on a stunted branch, so close that the boy could see the ring of white feathers that lay mysteriously at its throat.

Owls everywhere. And the man in the middle, his cloak drifting about him like marsh mist, and Con, always Con, and the man with the owls around him.”

Bunting uses similes and metaphors to evoke images in her words. She uses alliteration and repetition to create patterns. She uses a syllabic style to set her cadence. She uses punctuation to control pace and space and rhythm. She uses sentence length to establish tone and topic. In short, her words dance the mystery surrounding the man who could call down owls.

With a strategy found in Roy Peter Clark’s book Writing Tools, we can use math to analyze how the lyrics flow in these few paragraphs from Bunting’s work. Bunting writes 102 words in six sentences. These sentences contain 17, 2, 12, 43, 2, and 26 words respectively. The longer the motion described, the longer her sentence.

Clark writes that the rhythm becomes more interesting when we match sentence length to content and use it to create suspense and control emotion. He continues, “The writer controls the pace for the reader, slow or fast or in between, and uses sentences of different lengths to create the music, the rhythm of the story.” 

In Bunting’s last sentence, using 26 words, readers can nearly feel the cold wind in the man’s cloak as it swirls about him. Gary Provost explains this technique in his book, 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing. He writes that a sentence of considerable length “burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals – sounds that say, listen to this, it is important.” 

To repair my Mayan myth, I am studying our photographs from the great Mayan city of Teotihuacán and its surrounding countryside to awaken memories. I am listening to ancient Mayan songs to familiarize myself with the beat used during the time of the Popol Vuh. I plan to rearrange my words to fit the rhythm that best evokes the story’s energy, building my cadence with appropriate metaphors, similes, alliteration, and repetition. Finally, I will sound out my words, reading them aloud to make certain the story’s intensity ebbs and flows until it reaches a crescendo.At our best, when we write, we write music. Our words resonate with rhythm. They blend together like a melody. They mesmerize and pull our reader in, creating mood, emotion, and tone. In essence, they make our pens dance.