September 19, 2019 by bradcharlesbeals
“This writing that you do, that so thrills you, that so rocks and exhilarates you, as if you were dancing next to the band, is barely audible to anyone else. The reader’s ear must adjust down from loud life to the subtle, imaginary sounds of the written word. An ordinary reader picking up a book can’t yet hear a thing; it will take half an hour to pick up the writing’s modulations, its ups and downs and louds and softs.”
~ Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
I would go a step further than Annie (I like to think we’re old friends, so I call her that) and say that my ordinary readers can’t —no matter how long they listen— can’t hear my writing in the same way that I do.
This is a hugely important thing for a writer to keep in mind, and yet it’s an easy thing to forget. Not because the idea is complicated or involves some wispy or fleeting abstraction. It’s easy to forget because I want to forget it. It’s a hard thing to swallow, after all, this notion that my writing is a one-sided love.
Reader, do you feel the same exhilaration when you read my fiction that I felt when I wrote it? No. Of course you don’t. Because unless the tune I composed it in has an exact answering note in your own sensibilities, you can’t feel it the same way I do. I hope that you feel something, but it can’t be —not exactly— what I feel. As a writer, I can only hope to bring you closer, as close as possible, close enough that you hear the whirl and ticking of my brain. But you can never really know it as I intended.
I have to convince myself often that that’s ok. I have to remind myself that in the same way that artist and viewer approach a canvas from diametric angles, so writer and reader come at the written word. Their experiences of it don’t quite overlap, and yet it’s my job to bring their experiences as close to each other as possible.
But I have to be careful here and continually ask the question, to what end? Because to try to sound a note that might fit into more ears, a note other than the one God gave me, would be to give up music altogether. What part of me would I have to bend out of shape to make that happen? And to what ears would I be bending it? And could I bend it back if I needed to? I can begin to answer those questions now: I would have to bend an integral part of my own voice. Those ears would be strangers to me. And I don’t know, but it would not be worth the risk.
No. My job is not to be heard by more ears, but to bring the ear that has drawn close even closer. My job is to work my own craft toward perfection, not adopt the craft of someone else*. And nothing needs to be bent out of shape for that.
I just read Tennyson’s Ulysses, and the music there was inaudible to me. Maybe it’s the time of day (1:10 pm at this moment) when I would rather be napping than handling old British literature. Or maybe it’s simply the lack of that answering note in my own ear; i.e. maybe there can be no time when our exhilarations (mine and Tennyson’s) line up.
And that’s ok too, for there must be a million other tunes out there, a million permutations of ups and downs and louds and softs just waiting to be scanned.
*Earlier I wrote about the benefit of imitation as a means of training in the development of voice. I’m not talking about that here, but rather the compromise of voice for the sake of something less.