Language & Sentences, and Acoustics
Language and Sentences
We are writers. Writers use language. There are lots of things writers can do with language. I mean a particular language. Every writer should have his or her own particular language. Raymond Carver gets at that with these lines: “It’s akin to style, what I’m talking about, but it isn’t style alone. It is the writer’s particular and unmistakable signature on everything he writes. It is his world and no other. This is one of the things that distinguishes one writer from another.”
When I think of language, I don’t think of words. I think of sentences (which John Banville calls “the greatest human invention”). There are lots of things a writer can do with a sentence. Writers can manipulate the syntax, the diction, the stresses, the tenses, the acoustics, the morphemes and the phonemes, syllables and prefixes and suffixes, the speed, the length, etc. As Andy Devine says: “The English sentence—because of English syntax—is infinitely expandable.”
As Gary Lutz says: “Language is matter—it’s a substance to be fingered and disturbed.” Writers can manipulate articles, nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions, and prepositions (while being mindful of this cautionary observation from Stephen King: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”) Writers can manipulate objects, subjects, predicates, infinitives, participles, gerunds, phrases, clauses, determiners, etc.
For instance, I like to structure sentences around articles and conjunctions and prepositions—the more perennial parts of language—so my narrator has a singular way to speak. I like to move prepositions to the end of the phrase or the end of the sentence, so it creates a kind of postponement that keeps all the words in play longer and it creates a kind of link back to earlier in the sentence. It becomes a way to create sentences that are tightly stitched together. It’s not what we’re taught to do, but it is still quite obviously English.
Here’s how Joanna Howard likes to structure sentences: “The initial rhythmic instinct drives the sentence length, so that I have a sense of having completed a thought … I like the cause-and-effect relationships built up out of strings of clauses, so that a detail is presented, commented on, resolved to some degree, until it triggers the next detail.” One of the things I like about this is that Joanna is using language, the rhythm of sentences and the parts of sentences, to trigger and to compose the story. Working with language in this way opens up unexpected ways for the narrative to move forward. As John Gardner says: “Language actively drives the writer to meanings he had no idea he would come to.”
However, Gardner also offers a kind of language check: “The writer who cares more about words than about story (characters, action, setting, atmosphere) is unlikely to create a vivid and continuous dream; he gets in his own way too much … [with] his poetic drunkenness.” Gardner is still talking about language that is rendered, but it is language that does not call attention to itself. The art of the sentence is hidden or erased.
Samuel Ligon picks up the idea of the continuous dream, suggesting that a close attention to the language is the very thing that creates the dream: “I can’t remember who made the comment about prose being like a window, but I like that idea of making it invisible or unnoticeable, not smearing it up with anything that calls attention to itself. The reader needs to slip into a dream-like state through the writing, and it seems like clean, transparent prose can help facilitate that.”
The point is this: Before fiction is fiction, fiction is language. It’s the writer’s first tool. The idea is that the writer should find ways to do things with language that create some effect—in the fiction, for the reader.
I hate this quote from Janet Burroway: “Novelists and short-story writers are not under the same obligation as poets to reinforce sense with sound.” I don’t think she understands what Andy Devine understands about fiction: “Words have acoustical qualities that resonate with being human.” Fiction begins with language, which is an acoustical occasion.
The fiction writer who writes using acoustics uses a kind of close attention. Working with acoustics is beyond semantics (though it still depends on sense). It is looking hard at the sentence until it opens up. It is finding the spaces that require new beats, new words. Working with acoustics is recognizing the recurring sounds and using them to rewrite a sentence. Maybe the first word in the sentence has a long-o sound in it and the sentence will feel finished if it ends with another word with another long-o sound in it, say, smoke. Maybe the fact that that sentence ends with a hard-k leads to the next sentence beginning with another hard-k sound, so the consonants run together and there isn’t any space between the sentences, not even really a pause, and then all of a sudden the narrative speeds up in a way that feels thrilling and then maybe there’s a fire and the house burns down. Those things don’t happen with the sentences if the fiction writer isn’t working with the acoustics.
In Carrying the Body, Dawn Raffel talks about ways she reinforced the subject matter with the acoustics: “I went for a kind of liquidy sibilance in some of the sleepier, middle of the night chapters—softer, more lulling sounds, while making the chapters carried by dialogue more staccato and percussive.”
Working with acoustics is a different way to find the right word, or the right place for the right word. It’s a different way to write or revise a sentence or a group of sentences. I like the compositional nature of it.
The fiction can sound however you want it to sound, but it’s figuring out what those things are for you, or for the piece you’re working on, and then using those sounds to make something happen in the fiction, even if it is something the reader only feels and doesn’t quite know why. I know writers who are partial to glottal stops and other percussive consonants. I know writers who like the liquid consonants and sibilance. I know one particular writer who tries to remove all of these acoustical relations, so no single sentence is repeating any particular sound. And here is what Gary Lutz says about acoustics: “I do try to give a sequence of sentences a unifying, stabilizing pattern of sound or syntax; I believe that acoustical intrigue alone can hold a paragraph together.”
I used to focus on assonantial relations within sentences. Now I’m more often looking for assonantial relations from one sentence to another sentence. It becomes another way to get from sentence to sentence, another way for the narrative to accumulate. I still make acoustic relations within sentences, but I also find ways to pull some of the vowel sounds all the way through a paragraph.
Here are some final thoughts on acoustics that may seem arbitrary, but aren’t: Assonance is better than alliteration. Long vowel sounds are better than short vowel sounds. Consonants that occur in the back of the mouth are better than consonants that occur at the front of the mouth.
Words are made up of sounds that create feeling. It is inherent and unavoidable. Acoustics can make fiction beautiful in ways the reader may not recognize, but the reader will feel regardless.
Michael Kimball is the author of eight books, including Big Ray, Dear Everybody, Us, and, most recently, The One-Hour MFA. His work has been translated into a dozen languages and been on NPR’s All Things Considered and in Vice, as well as The Guardian, Bomb, Prairie Schooner, New York Tyrant, etc. He is also responsible for the collaborative project Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard), a couple of documentaries, and the conceptual pseudonym Andy Devine.