A Writing Lesson from Ursula K. Le Guin
In Pursuit of the Gorgeous Sound of Language
The following is the first chapter of Ursula K. Le Guin’s updated edition of Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, available now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
The sound of the language is where it all begins. The test of a sentence is, Does it sound right? The basic elements of language are physical: the noise words make, the sounds and silences that make the rhythms marking their relationships. Both the meaning and the beauty of the writing depend on these sounds and rhythms. This is just as true of prose as it is of poetry, though the sound effects of prose are usually subtle and always irregular.
Most children enjoy the sound of language for its own sake. They wallow in repetitions and luscious word-sounds and the crunch and slither of onomatopoeia; they fall in love with musical or impressive words and use them in all the wrong places. Some writers keep this primal interest in and love for the sounds of language. Others “outgrow” their oral/aural sense of what they’re reading or writing. That’s a dead loss. An awareness of what your own writing sounds like is an essential skill for a writer. Fortunately it’s quite easy to cultivate, to learn or reawaken.
A good writer, like a good reader, has a mind’s ear. We mostly read prose in silence, but many readers have a keen inner ear that hears it. Dull, choppy, droning, jerky, feeble: these common criticisms of narrative are all faults in the sound of it. Lively, well-paced, flowing, strong, beautiful: these are all qualities of the sound of prose, and we rejoice in them as we read. Narrative writers need to train their mind’s ear to listen to their own prose, to hear as they write.
The chief duty of a narrative sentence is to lead to the next sentence—to keep the story going. Forward movement, pace, and rhythm are words that are going to return often in this book. Pace and movement depend above all on rhythm, and the primary way you feel and control the rhythm of your prose is by hearing it—by listening to it.
Getting an act or an idea across isn’t all a story does. A story is made out of language, and language can and does express delight in itself just as music does. Poetry isn’t the only kind of writing that can sound gorgeous. Consider what’s going on in these four examples. (read them aloud! read them aloud loudly!)
The Just So Stories are a masterpiece of exuberant vocabulary, musical rhythms, and dramatic phrasing. Rudyard Kipling has let generations of kids know how nonsensically beautiful a story can sound. And there’s nothing in either nonsense or beauty that restricts it to children.
Rudyard Kipling: from “How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin” in Just So Stories:
Once upon a time, on an uninhabited island on the shores of the Red Sea, there lived a Parsee from whose hat the rays of the sun were reflected in more-than-oriental splendour. And the Parsee lived by the Red Sea with nothing but his hat and his knife and a cooking-stove of the kind that you must particularly never touch. and one day he took flour and water and currants and plums and sugar and things, and made himself one cake which was two feet across and three feet thick. It was indeed a Superior comestible (that’s magic), and he put it on the stove because he was allowed to cook on that stove, and he baked it and he baked it till it was all done brown and smelt most sentimental. But just as he was going to eat it there came down to the beach from the altogether uninhabited interior one rhinoceros with a horn on his nose, two piggy eyes, and few manners. [. . .] and the rhinoceros upset the oil-stove with his nose, and the cake rolled on the sand, and he spiked that cake on the horn of his nose, and he ate it, and he went away, waving his tail, to the desolate and exclusively uninhabited interior which abuts on the islands of Mazanderan, Socotra, and the Promontories of the larger equinox.
This passage from Mark Twain’s early story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” is totally aural/oral, its beauty lying in its irresistible dialectical cadences. There are lots of ways to be gorgeous.
Mark Twain: from “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”:
“Well, thish-yer Smiley had rat-tarriers, and chicken cocks, and tom cats and all them kind of things, till you couldn’t rest, and you couldn’t fetch nothing for him to bet on but he’d match you. He ketched a frog one day, and took him home, and said he cal’lated to educate him; and so he never done nothing for three months but set in his back yard and learn that frog to jump. And you bet you he did learn him, too. He’d give him a little punch behind, and the next minute you’d see that frog whirling in the air like a doughnut—see him turn one summerset, or maybe a couple, if he got a good start, and come down flat-footed and all right, like a cat. He got him up so in the matter of ketching flies, and kep’ him in practice so constant, that he’d nail a fly every time as fur as he could see him. Smiley said all a frog wanted was education, and he could do ’most anything—and i believe him. Why, i’ve seen him set Dan’l Webster down here on this floor—Dan’l Webster was the name of the frog—and sing out, ‘flies, Dan’l, flies!’ and quicker’n you could wink he’d spring straight up and snake a fly off’n the counter there, and flop down on the floor ag’in as solid as a gob of mud, and fall to scratching the side of his head with his hind foot as indifferent as if he hadn’t no idea he’d been doin’ any more’n any frog might do. You never see a frog so modest and straightfor’ard as he was, for all he was so gifted. And when it come to fair and square jumping on a dead level, he could get over more ground at one straddle than any animal of his breed you ever see. Jumping on a dead level was his strong suit, you understand; and when it come to that, Smiley would ante up money on him as long as he had a red. Smiley was monstrous proud of his frog, and well he might be, for fellers that had traveled and been everywheres all said he laid over any frog that ever they see.”
In the first example the more-than-oriental splendor of the language and in the second the irresistibly drawling aural cadences keep moving the story forward. In this one and the next, the vocabulary is simple and familiar; it’s above all the rhythm that is powerful and effective. To read Hurston’s sentences aloud is to be caught up in their music and beat, their hypnotic, fatal, forward drive.
Zora Neale Hurston: from Their Eyes Were Watching God
So the beginning of this was a woman and she had come back from burying the dead. Not the dead of sick and ailing with friends at the pillow and the feet. She had come back from the sodden and the bloated; the sudden dead, their eyes flung wide open in judgment.
The people all saw her come because it was sundown. The sun was gone, but he had left his footprints in the sky. It was the time for sitting on porches beside the road. It was the time to hear things and talk. These sitters had been tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long. Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins. But now, the sun and the bossman were gone, so the skins felt powerful and human. They became lords of sounds and lesser things. They passed nations through their mouths. They sat in judgment.
Seeing the woman as she was made them remember the envy they had stored up from other times. So they chewed up the back parts of their minds and swallowed with relish. They made burning statements with questions, and killing tools out of laughs. it was mass cruelty. A mood come alive. Words walking without masters; walking together like harmony in a song.
In the next passage, Tom, a middle-aged rancher, is coping with the early onslaught of the cancer he knows will kill him. Molly Gloss’s prose is quiet and subtle; its power and beauty come from the perfect placement and timing of the words, the music of their sound, and the way the changing sentence rhythms embody and express the emotions of the characters.
Molly Gloss: from The Hearts of Horses
His flock of chickens had already gone in roost, and the yard was quiet—chickens will begin to announce themselves hours before sunrise as if they can’t wait for the day to get started but they are equally interested in an early bedtime. Tom had grown used to sleeping through their early-morning summons, all his family had, but in the last few weeks he’d been waking as soon as he heard the first hens peep, before even the roosters took up their reveille. The sounds they made in those first dark moments of the day had begun to seem to him as soft and devotional as an angelus bell. And he had begun to dread the evenings—to wish, like the chickens, to climb into bed and close his eyes as soon as shadows lengthened and light began to seep out of the sky.
He let himself into the woodshed and sat down on a pile of stacked wood and rested his elbows on his knees and rocked himself back and forth. His body felt swollen with something inexpressible, and he thought if he could just weep he’d begin to feel better. He sat and rocked and eventually began to cry, which relieved nothing, but then he began to be racked with great coughing sobs that went on until whatever it was that had built up inside him had been slightly released. When his breathing eased, he went on sitting there rocking back and forth quite a while, looking at his boots, which were caked with manure and bits of hay. Then he wiped his eyes with his handkerchief and went into the house and sat down to dinner with his wife and son.
Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is notable for the splendid sound of its language. for quietly powerful rhythms, look at Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs or Kent Haruf’s fine Western novel Plainsong.
Fantasy is a form of narrative essentially dependent on its language, and several classics of english prose, such as Alice in Wonderland, are fantasies. But keep your ear out when reading writers you mightn’t associate with aural beauty; you may realize that much of the meaning has come to you through the sound and rhythm of the words.
EXERCISE: Being Gorgeous
Write a paragraph to a page of narrative that’s meant to be read aloud. Use onomatopoeia, alliteration, repetition, rhythmic effects, made-up words or names, dialect—any kind of sound effect you like—but NOT rhyme or meter.
I want you to write for pleasure—to play. Just listen to the sounds and rhythms of the sentences you write and play with them, like a kid with a kazoo. This isn’t “free writing,” but it’s similar in that you’re relaxing control: you’re encouraging the words themselves—the sounds of them, the beats and echoes to lead you for the moment, forget all the good advice that says good style is invisible, good art conceals art. Show off! Use the whole orchestra our wonderful language offers us!
Write it for children, if that’s the way you can give yourself permission to do it. Write it for your ancestors. Use any narrating voice you like. If you’re familiar with a dialect or accent, use it instead of vanilla English. Be very noisy, or be hushed. Try to reproduce the action in the jerky or flowing movement of the words. Make what happens happen in the sounds of the words, the rhythms of the sentences. Have fun, cut loose, play around, repeat, invent, feel free.
Remember—no rhyme, no regular meter. This is prose, not poetry!
I hesitate to suggest any “plot,” but if you need some kind of hook to hang the language on, you might try telling the climax of a ghost story. Or invent an island and start walking across it—what happens?
In a paragraph or so, describe an action, or a person feeling strong emotion—joy, fear, grief. Try to make the rhythm and movement of the sentences embody or represent the physical reality you’re writing about.
Performing and listening to these pieces in a group can be a lot of fun. Not much critiquing will be called for. The best response to a successful performance piece is applause.
If you’re working alone, read your pieces aloud; perform them with vigor. Doing so will almost certainly lead you to improve the text here and there, to play some more with it, to make the sound of it still stronger and livelier.
To think or talk about afterward: Did concentrating on the sound of the writing release or enable anything unusual or surprising, a voice you haven’t often used? Did you enjoy being gorgeous, or was it a strain? Can you say why?
The question of self-consciously “beautiful writing” is worthy of thought and discussion. How do you respond to the work of a novelist or essayist who visibly strives to write striking or poetical prose, using unusual or archaic words, combining words in a surprising way, going in for sound effects? Do you enjoy it? Does the conscious style do its work as prose? Does it intensify what it’s saying or distract you from it?
Names are interesting sounds, and names of characters, the sound of them, the echo-allusions hidden in them, can be intensely expressive: Uriah Heep… Jane Eyre… Beloved… Names of places, too: Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Tolkien’s haunting Lothlórien or his simple yet deeply evocative Middle-earth. It can be fun to think about names in fiction and what it is about the sound of them that makes them meaningful. Being gorgeous is a highly repeatable exercise, by the way, and can serve as a warm-up to writing. Try to set a mood by using verbal sound effects. Look at the view out the window or the mess on the desk, or remember something that happened yesterday or something weird that somebody said, and make a gorgeous sentence or two or three out of it. It might get you into the swing.