24 September 2012

craft tip monday 9/24: oo's and aah's

oo's and aah's: engaging in sonic play
There is magic all around you. A graceful manipulation of the world coursing through your veins, filling your world with wonder. There is a song sung softly in every breathy exclamation, an enchantment, a spell you weave with every word.

It is the allure of sound.

the sound of [sonics]

Whenever you speak, and whenever you commit words to the page, you are engaging in sonic play. It’s in the way you ask a question or tell a joke. It’s something that perhaps only seems so wonderful because it comes so natural. Think about it … as writers, we already know that we’re looking for the right words to express the ideas or stories that run across our minds straight for the finish line of the page. That thrill of the perfect line of dialogue, or the perfect poetic phrase, comes from somewhere. It’s that discovery of the right words, in the right order, that makes us so elated as writers. And when it comes to poetry in particular, sometimes what it comes down to is the discovery of the perfect sounds in those words.

I remember in undergrad having a professor focus on Emily Dickinson’s poem known as “I like to see it lap the Miles.” We spent what seemed like forever examining the effect of the lines “I like to see it lap the Miles --- / And lick the Valleys up --- / And stop to feed itself at Tanks,” because of the lilting effect of the “L” sound. We studied these lines in conjunction with Juliet’s lines in Romeo & Juliet, when the yet-to-become-a-woman Juliet, to please her parents, declares, “I’ll look to like if looking liking move.” The sonic movement in both these selections is one of childlike innocence. To this day I can’t hear Elmo singing, “La-la, la-la, la-la, la-la, Elmo’s World!” without thinking of both Dickinson and Shakespeare. There’s something inside us that knows what sounds are capable of. It’s the same something that hears all those soft, hushing “s” sounds in the lyrics, “Hello darkness, my old friend / I’ve come to talk with you again / Because a vision softly creeping / left its seeds while I was sleeping,” and senses that subtle hush is, indeed, the “sound of silence.”

sonic sport

Try this activity: Select a sound—the crash of waves, a child’s laughter, the rustle of your sheets as you lounge lazily in the morning. Think of the sonic quality that best captures that sound: for waves it might be w’s and sh’s, while a child’s laughter might be soft b’s and l’s. Make a list of words incorporating those sounds (for waves I might include: wave, crash, hush, whoosh, wild, shushing, lush, child, etc.), not worrying about how they relate to each other. Aim for a list of 25-30 words.

Once your list is complete, write a passage in which you focus on those sonic qualities. Work with the words you’ve written to capture the sound you selected. See how those words shape a vision of the sound, and bring the sonic quality you selected to life.

This tends to be a productive poetry activity---writing a poem about sleep, for example, it’s easy to create a pool of words with soft s’s, m’s, and l’s to capture that restful sensation---but also works rather nicely for fiction. In Raymond Carver’s short story “A Small, Good Thing,” for instance, Carver repeatedly refers to “the child” and “the birthday boy,” to the point that the phrases become haunting. But even before readers reach the narrative’s surprise revelation, they are greeted with a vocabulary of s’s (Saturday, shopping, space ship, sprinkling, stars) and c’s (cakes, chocolate, child, chose) that both punctuate the child’s name (Scotty) and add a softness to the introduction that somehow feels sad, before we even have a full suggestion that anything sad might happen. So whether you are a fiction or poetry writer, play with language, and see what sensory effects you can create simply by focusing on word and sound choices!

Feel free to share your writing attempts here, or share links to your own site where you experiment with sonic word play! How much do you pay attention to, beyond word choice, the sonic qualities of the words you use? Do you hear the magic in your language, or is it something you have to really focus in on?


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