Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Guest Post: "Word Music" by Tom Hernandez

I write jazz.

Well, more accurately, I aspire to write jazz -- words that are lyrical and rhythmic. Sentences that sing and swing. Phrases full of meaning yet with plenty of room for the reader’s thoughts. Ideas that challenge and elevate the writing to levels of prose and, if very lucky, poetry.

Other writers concern themselves with plot and perspective and word choice. Those are all fine and important considerations.

However, I am most interested in the music of the written word. No matter what is being said, my first consideration is how it sounds. I will forgive many writerly sins if the words sound great.

Lyricism is key for me because it speaks to the writer’s command of craft, and understanding of the power of the written word to evoke feeling and ability to create meaning.

Among many techniques, writers create “music” in their writing by mixing short, punchy sentences with long, flowing lines to create and break up rhythm; using word counts and structure to create poetic cadence; thoughtfully selecting specific words to produce atmosphere and color; and – Miles Davis-like -- paring words and punctuation to leave just the most essential notes, forcing the reader to fill in the blanks.   

Now, this doesn’t mean every paragraph has to be a 9,000-word tone poem, or a flowery exposition on each hair one one’s lover’s head.

Some of the most beautiful writing I’ve ever seen comes from Cormac McCarthy. His minimalistic, stark writing perfectly shapes his apocalyptic themes and sings to the reader like a literary Billie Holiday – and often in more than one language, to boot!

Rather, the trick is simply to listen to what one is writing. Hear how it sounds coming off the tongue. In the same way that one tastes food partly through the nose, one reads with both eye and ear.

To be sure, writing that is not musical will still pass. It’ll still sell. Just don’t call it writing.

As Truman Capote reputedly once said about a literary arch-rival, “That’s not writing, that’s just typing!” 

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