Michael Kimball Guest Lecture Series (6): Acoustics

I hate this quote from Janet Burroway: “Novelists and short-story writers are not under the same obligation as poets to reinforce sense with sound.” I don’t think she understands what Andy Devine does: “Words have acoustical qualities that resonate with being human.”

Fiction begins with language, which is an acoustical occasion. The fiction writer who writes with acoustics uses a kind of close attention. It’s looking hard at the sentence until it opens up. It’s feeling around between words until you find spaces that require new words, new beats. It’s beyond semantics (though it still depends on sense). It’s recognizing the recurring sounds and using them to rewrite a sentence. Maybe the first word in the sentence has a long-o sound in it and the sentence will feel finished if it ends with another word with another long-o sound in it, say, smoke. Maybe the fact that that sentence ends with a hard-k leads to the next sentence beginning with another hard-k sound, so the consonants run together and there isn’t any space between the sentences, not even really a pause, and then all of a sudden the narrative speeds up in a way that feels thrilling and there’s a fire and that story never would have happened if the fiction writer weren’t working with the acoustics. Working with acoustics, it’s a different way to find the right word, or the right place for the right word. It’s a different way to write or revise a sentence or a group of sentences. I like the compositional nature of it.

Dawn Raffel

The fiction can sound however you want it to sound, but it’s figuring out what those things are for you, or for the piece you’re working on, and then using those sounds to make something happen in the fiction, even if it’s something that the reader only feels and doesn’t quite know why. I know writers who are partial to glottal stops and other percussive consonants. I know writers who like the liquid consonants and sibilance. And I know one very particular writer who tries to remove all of these acoustical relations, so that no single sentence is repeating any particular sound. I used to focus on assonantial relations within sentences, but now I’m more often looking for them from one sentence to another sentence, a way to get from one sentence to another sentence.

Here are some other writers on acoustics:

Joseph Young: Sound is really how I make sense of what I write. It’s often that I don’t understand the content of my stories. … I’m okay with not knowing what they mean. But it’s their sound, the rhythm of the words, the balance and dissonance between hard sounds and soft, that lets me know I’m on the right track. If the story fills the ear in the right way, it’s got to fill the head correctly too.

Dawn Raffel (on Carrying the Body): I went for a kind of liquidy sibilance in some of the sleepier, middle of the night chapters—softer, more lulling sounds, while making the chapters carried by dialogue more staccato and percussive.

Gary Lutz: I do try to give a sequence of sentences a unifying, stabilizing pattern of sound or syntax; I believe that acoustical intrigue alone can hold a paragraph together.

Blake Butler: I think that a kind of accidental bubble is the way acoustics most come into my writing, at least in the mind of opening a new thread of words on paper. Certain phrases will end up ejecting a whole slew of other after them, in the mind of appending or extending that initial impulse.

Peter Markus: Each sentence, that small unit of speech, I like to view it as a song. I’m a failed musician in some other life I once used to live, and so I’ve turned to words to make my music with.

Here are some final thoughts that may seem arbitrary, but aren’t: Assonance is better than alliteration. Long vowel sounds are better than short vowel sounds. Consonants that occur in the back of the mouth are better than consonants that occur at the front of the mouth.