Thursday, November 19, 2009

Elusive -- But Essential --Rhythm

The presence of rhythm is one of the greatest contradictions of my life.

One of my earliest memories as a child was riding in a car, listening to the only radio stations that broadcast at night in Shiprock, New Mexico: those that played traditional Navajo music.

Traditional Navajo music has an insistent rhythm, as you can hear in this video:

I believe that listening to that music as a toddler imprinted on my mind a need for rhythm. (I say it’s a contradiction for me, however, since family and friends will tell you I cannot dance or even clap on beat to a song.)

But rhythm is an essential part of good writing, I am convinced of that. While I cannot reproduce it with my body, my ears and my mind crave it.

I see this need in the eyes of children when I present poetry programs to elementary school students. One of the poems I recite to them is in Spanish, “Rima Siete,” by Bequer. They don’t have to understand a word of the poem to be entranced by it. Never in all my years of reading that poem to wiggly children have I seen a single boy or girl move during the reading. The rhythm alone captures their minds and creates an urgency. And when I tell them that the poem is about a harp sitting alone in a room, waiting for someone to play it, they audibly exhale with relief.

Similarly, in music, the “cranking up” of notes creates yearning in the listener’s mind that is only relieved when the “tonic” is achieved.

One of the ways that novelists can incorporate rhythm (and oh, this is such an inexact quality of writing!) is through repetition. Another is by choosing words that by their short length convey haste or choppiness; or iambic multiple syllables that convey insistence or compulsion. A third way is by creating parallel structure in phrases or sentences.

Satisfying rhythm is best identified in its absence. You hear that absence, feel that absence, in a string of words that are blunt, thudding, wracked, when describing grace.

It troubles the tympanum of your soul when rhythmic, wave-like writing depicts violence or chaos or injustice.

Can you provide an example of writing that used rhythm in a way that was satisfying to you?


Carla Gade said...

I was just going to ask that very question! Examples please. Then I started thinking about the book Breathe by Lisa Bergren. The woman had consumption (tb). I don't have the book handy, as I loaned it out, but it had the incredible ability to involve me in her need for her very breath. For my very breath. The protagonist and those around her had to constantly reming her - breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out. I felt like I was in labor half the time! It got me thinking about what it was to truly breathe and to break through some areas where I have been holding back. I was caught up in the rythym of this theme throughout the book and it just kept intensifying as I went along. The ending was so intense that I was almost gasping for air myself. Maybe an exaggeration, but it had a profound effect on me. I have not experienced anything quite like that while reading.

Unknown said...

Back in the day, I studied Hebrew poetry - a very different approach to rhythm than the Western mind.

It has influenced the way I think about words and meaning, and it has, I think, influenced the beat of my writing.

When I write poetry (seldom - but sometimes) I "write by ear" - I tease and tweak until the poem picks up the rhythm deep inside.

Carla - thanks for the heads up on Breathe. It sounds very exciting! I'll have to put it on my TBR list!

Carla Gade said...

Any news on the new contest? A little birdie on twitter mentioned it!

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

Rhythm is so huge in writing! I love finding ways to play with it and seeing how others do it.

I think a good sense of rhythm is really important when writing humor, whether it's a funny book or just a hilarious scene. I'll sit there for hours trying to get the beats right.

Have a great weekend!

Bonnie Grove said...

Hey Carla: We hope to hear from Wendy next week. She has been swamped in Agentland and is a bit behind on due to some fires she has had to put out elsewhere.

She is excited to be reading this weekend - she'll be cuddled up with the chapters, drinking some chi tea and waiting to fall in love. :)

Carla Gade said...

Awesome! I'm looking forward to entering this time. A couple of questions:
Must the manuscript be complete at the time of entry. Is the 1-2 page synopsis of the whole manuscript?
Thanks a bunch!

Amy Sorrells said...

"Satisfying rhythm is best identified in its absence. You hear that absence, feel that absence, in a string of words that are blunt, thudding, wracked, when describing grace.

It troubles the tympanum of your soul when rhythmic, wave-like writing depicts violence or chaos or injustice."

That was some cool rhythm right there. And I couldn't agree more with this post. Except to add that I totally DIG rhythm in narrative non-fiction, too.

Latayne C Scott said...

I'm so glad to have people responding to this post. There's less "how-to" regarding rhythm than most other elements of good writing, yet we know it when we "hear" it.

One reason that it's a good idea to read your WIP aloud is that a lack of rhythm that you might not see otherwise will emerge.

Thank you all for your comments. I was afraid everyone would just write, "HUH?"
And Amy, I worked a long time on those three sentences. You made my day!

Steve G said...

Carla - I think the new contest is in the spring. If you click on the promotions tab on the home page you will see the requirements from the last one. I expect they will be similar.

Steve G said...

Carla - I nver answered one of your questions... but I am just a rookie! The manuscript usually has to be done entirely, and the synopsis is usually the whole book. I will let one of the real people actually answer your question. Just ignore me...

Noel Green said...

I remember you teaching us rhythm using the poem "Hiawatha"

Carla Gade said...

Thanks, Steve.

Latayne, this post truly gave me a lot to think about. There is another book by Diane Noble that evoked a similar feeling for me - Heart of Glass. The protagonist's Apalachian music was a theme that lended itself to the beat of the novel. Through her chaotic life, you heard the playing of her dulcimer. The story itself was like a song.

Steve G said...

Steve Taylor had a song titled something like In Sync, where he ran the background off of the vocals a few times to help with his message... It was great.

One way of setting rythm is like a rollercoaster, especially the drop. I remember going to space mountain? in Disney in Florida as a kid. A lot of it was dark and you didn't know which way to lean. When an author gets me on a trip and then the drop gets even further, and then further, it can be quite a ride. It helps rid a book of a saggy middle. Bonnie's Talking does that, as well as Latayne's Cipher (I am working my way through the other NM novelists, to). I suppose it is the action that grabs me first cause I'm a guy.

Then there's the change in cadence at the end, as a story is wrapped up - a satisfying end where the good guys win (like Revelation) and truth and justice and love win out - there is always room for that rythm!

Word verification - StShesse: The patron saint of frustrated exclamations.

Latayne C Scott said...

Carla, I noticed that we have taken down the old contest rules under the promotion tab. Do you still need the rules for the new one? I think we will post them in late winter or early spring.

And Steve, you may be a rookie but you're such an encourager to all of us here. Will you be our mascot?