There’s always a word music to writing. That pattern can be what makes the content easily absorbed, because it’s comfortable to listen to. I would tell you the names of the patterns, but though I can hear them I can never remember what they’re called, because my mind doesn’t hang on to data. So, Shakespeare has his ten-beat pattern, which has a name – is that what a pentameter is? I don’t know. But it gives his writing a fluidity, a natural quality, so it slips through the soul like a river, as if it belongs there.
If music be the food of love – play on.
The path of true love never did run smooth.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
This above all: to thine own self be true.
The lady doth protest too much, methinks.
Can one desire too much of a good thing?
Now is the winter of our discontent.
And so on.
Here in England we have BBC2, and Radio 4, and their programmes seem to me to be put together by similar people for a similar audience. They have special patterns to their word music, and to their humour.
The humour has a curiously 70s flavor – the pause for a laugh, the man with a falsetto voice. Jokes written by, and for, older men. People who use the word ‘chortle’, and even do so. People for whom terms like ‘sharp’, ‘science’, ‘spin’, ‘political’ and ‘intellect’, hold strong attraction. People in whose lives establishment and power are a given, and sophistication mistakenly assumed.
In the word music, interrupted flow and a heavy footfall characterize. Also, the use of well-worn similes/metaphors importing a wry humour – because never really believing anything is part of the stock-in-trade of this genre.
Erm . . . an example . . . Well – suppose it was a programme about railways in India. There’d be an in-depth on station personnel, a wrapping up about how the train would go on running and another day would dawn, etc – then something like (in a quiet voice with a humorous, reflective, semi-fading quality):
But for Sanjeev [pause] this may be the end [pause . . .] of the line . . .
It drives me wild.
In preaching, and in writing, similar conventions apply. The preacher who starts ‘When I was preparing this sermon’, the writer who starts by explaining ‘In this book . . .’ Yawn. I’ve lost count of the sermons I’ve heard, ministers’ letters in parish magazines I’ve read, that begin with a preamble describing the extreme hardship under which its creator labored – having to write the sermon/article, but being able to think of nothing to say. Double yawn. And then there is the preacher who, in getting down to tackle the subject, feels there are three points to be drawn out. No! Really?
To start without preamble at all, to finish while people are still listening, to write about what you hand-on-heart believe, to find the humour innate to a situation and paste on nothing extra, to catch the cadences of real speech and so tug the imagination – this is the art.
Every now and then you find it. The thing is, what is fresh and takes you by surprise, what is vivid and catches you off guard, is found not (most of the time) in media scripts written competently by a safe pair of hands, nor in sermons urging you, ‘like St Peter, to step out of the boat’. They always tell you, if you want to be a writer, the thing above all you must absolutely do is READ.
All my life I’ve heard this and kept quiet, thinking since there seems to be such complete consensus I must surely be wrong. Because I’ve always thought, if you want to be a writer, the thing above all you must do is observe; by which I mean, both watch and listen. The child who is frightened of what his father will say, the dying woman in the hospital bed, the senior executive who has to let people know his wife has left him, the dog who has delayed starting her chew with the sole purpose of tormenting the other (greedier) dog, the white inner eyelid of the crow, its broad shoulders and the sheen on its feathers; the way living things shine in the dusk. The endeavor is not a matter of crafting a neat turn of phrase, or making sure you have three laugh-out-loud jokes to the page, or stopping short of ever expressing any kind of real conviction. It’s just about really noticing; letting the funny, sad, terrible, pointless, beautiful realities of life seize your viscera and twist. Then write it down, and after that simply stop.