Making Prose Sing

stavesacre Recently, I hit a bit of a writer’s block. This is not surprising for anyone who writes, but for whatever reason, I was shocked. I’d just finished up my young adult fantasy novel which, for the most part, told itself. But beginning a new project with new characters flummoxed me. My new characters had the audacity to be flat, static, unimaginative little beasts. No matter how hard I screamed at them to be unique, to take on a life of their own, they merely stared back at me.

Irritated, I slipped behind the wheel of my car, cranked up the stereo, and set to driving. Something happened then. My story, my characters, started to develop. This had more to do with the music, and less to do with my driving, I might add. It seemed I’d found my soundtrack for my new book: “How to Live with a Curse,” by the incomparable Stavesacre.

Music has long been an inspiration for writers. In fact, beautifully, art has always inspired art. The form is often irrelevant. Paintings have inspired poems and vice versa. Songs have brought forth novels, and novels have brought forth albums. Literature impresses itself on sculptures, and architecture has moved musicians. Still, the bond between music and prose is a special one. The best music moves us—makes us feel. The best writing does the same.

Steve Almond has lead several lectures and workshops on writing in what he calls “the lyric register.” He urges us to “[push our] characters into emotional danger, those moments when they reveal themselves—to [us], and to the reader—in their full human measure.”

When we are moved, so then can we imagine how our characters will move our readers. We borrow heavily from music—the rhythm, the meter, the words, but more so than anything else—the emotion. Some might say we are most human when we are experiencing art. And what better time to create character than when we are most human. Their humanity may arise in the strings of a Beethoven symphony, or the clear voice of the late Pavarotti. It may arise in the heavy, droning guitars of Stavesacre, or the driving beat of an Eagles ballad. The source material is not necessarily important to the end product. Our readers may never know of the influence. What matters is that our work is made different; it is made better; it is more fully realized.

Steve Almond further asserts, “In every narrative, there come moments when the prose must rise into the lyric register. These passages, marked by a compression of sensual and psychological detail, are the closest writers come to singing.”

Our prose must sing from time to time. Often, in the stillness that Charles Baxter examines, the soft chords and cadence of our songs can be felt. The swell of emotion must crescendo. If it doesn’t, our readers may not listen.

How does one learn to write in the lyric register? Simple—they immerse themselves in verse, in poetry and in music. If you’ve not read a book of poetry lately, pick one up. Read some Robert Frost, some Aimee Nezhukumatathil, some Marianne Moore or Elizabeth Bishop. As prose writers, we often neglect rhythm and sustained imagery. These are the masters. We can learn from them.

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