“Style is a very simple matter; it is all about rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words… 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.”
I came upon that quotation from one of Virginia Woolf’s letters a few years back. I circled it, came back to it again. I typed it out and found myself quoting it, days later, to the students in my fiction workshop. Woolf seemed to say something I’d been trying to articulate to myself for years: what exactly happens on those rare occasions when it feels as if the work’s coming from some source outside us?
I don’t think we’re talking about latching onto a cluster of quirky details, though that may be part of it. I don’t think it’s simply about coming to know one’s characters so fully that they begin to take on independent lives, though that may be a part of it too. It seems to me that that sense of supreme immersion might have something to do with matters of rhythm — or more precisely, finding a rhythm that matches the meaning of the drama. A rhythm that isn’t decorative or distracting but crucial: the crucial music that makes a piece of writing sing.
Of course this is something that can’t be willed into being. Talk to any poet and she’ll assure you of that, which is probably why poets, unlike prose writers, might be more sporadic creators than we are — we poor, poor prose writers, with our chair-bound work ethic. I wonder what the interrelationship is between rhythm and the condition we typically describe as “inspiration.”
So my question is, how can we bring one of the central tools of the poet to our work and be more conscious of pauses, sentence-length, stops, even alliteration and assonance in the prose we read and write? Not to will our work into being, but to open ourselves up to our own rhythms — the patterns of our everyday speech, the quirkiness of the way we move and walk — and to engage those on the page.
Here’s an exercise you might want to try: Take a paragraph by a writer whose work has been important to you. Type it out once. Then type it again. Once you’ve done that, substitute your own noun for each noun, your own verb for each verb. Replace all adjectives and adverbs. Play with it for a few days. Then do another version. If you’re lucky you might have the beginnings of a story. Or at the least, a more intimate sense of that writer’s rhythms.