I have been working with a fellow writer on her novel. It’s a gorgeous piece of work with compelling characters and a deep sense of place. But I had one suggestion: balance the point of view chapters so that the pattern has a rhythm.
We humans are rhythmic beings. We have a little drummer inside us that never stops beating until we’re dead. We have cycles. We are attuned to seasons. When writing has rhythm, it satisfies something primal in the reader’s psyche. We feel at home with the words. This rhythm can be achieved on the macro-level where the chapters move from one point of view to the next at a steady, logical pace or on a micro level — the level of syllables.
We find the foundation for rhythm in poetry. Haven’t you noticed that poets tend to write wonderful prose? Think Mary Karr, for instance. Or Heather Sellers. Or any of the many poets who have turned their hand to memoir. It’s because even when they are writing prose, a pulse beats in the syllables they choose. They’ve brought the music of their poetry with them.
At a recent workshop, writer Rebecca Wallace wrote about inheriting a trunk from her grandmother. She writes about the various items in the trunk and then she turns her attention to a glass bowl. Notice the balancing act. The long descriptive sentence with the two pauses followed by the short punchy sentence. The contrast of hot and cold. The similarity of sounds: chest and choke. And then the repetition. There is a sense of balance and a feeling of rhythm in this short passage:
My most cherished possession is a small glazed bowl, brown on the outside with a baby blue interior. In the summer when Granny made ice cream in her big churn, this was one of the bowls that – if we were lucky – we would eat our ice cream from. I have the only remaining bowl.
As I run my fingers along the edge, I can feel the coolness of the thick vanilla ice cream against the sultry heat of a July evening in Missouri. The coolness radiates from the bowl in an almost protective layer from the brutality of the humidity rising from the river bottoms to sit upon your chest and choke your breath.
It is in this simple bowl that the best memories of my childhood are kept. Here is my carefree childhood, here are the moments of unconditional love, and here is the nurturing and safety that my own parents did not give me. Here in this tiny bowl, holding no more than five bitefuls of thick vanilla ice cream, wrapped in tissue paper, tucked in my Grandmother’s trunk.
When I was writing my memoir and I needed to describe a particular time I remembered that I had written a poem about it. I took the line breaks out of the poem and voila, I had a lyrical passage:
This Christmas is different. This Christmas we linger nearby. The shopping is less frenzied, the dinners more subdued. This Christmas as we sit in the family room, Beth comes through the doorway, gaunt, hollowed, stoop-shouldered. Tears fall at their leisure from lashless eyelids as she recounts these long six months since July: the trips to the emergency room, the good nurses who bathed her as if she were a baby, the scar from sternum to pubis, the row of chairs in the chemo room. She takes off her wig and swigs from a beer, this soldier who looks at us from the middle of the trench, and the words pour like coins from a torn pocket. We are the dream of home she’s falling toward, the place where she plans to be born again.
Rhythm implies balance. When working on a longer piece, a memoir or a novel, consider bringing balance to the different elements. Are dark scenes balanced by lighter ones? Is action balanced by reflection. If you switch points of view, is there a logic to the changes that will feel natural to the reader?
Some exercises to get you in the rhythm:
1. Read your work aloud. Read it slowly. Listen closely. Record yourself if you can. Where are the natural rhythms? Where does it fall a little flat?
2. Take a piece of prose that you have written and create line breaks as if it were a poem. What words do you need to change to turn it into a poem? What words do you need to lose?
3. Put on some drumming music. Dance before you write. Or write while you’re listening to the drumming.