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Writing by Ear

By Michael W. Mercurio

The odds are good that, if you’re reading this, you’re familiar with the English language. Perhaps you’re extremely familiar with it, and you count it among your intimates. You know the shape of English the way an angler knows the shape of their favorite fishing spot, knows where the eddies form, where the big steelheads lurk waiting for the flick of a fly on the surface.

It may be that, like our metaphorical angler, you’re happy with that surface-level view of the river, and that your needs are met in the current just steps from the bank’s rich and rocky mud.

But you also know there’s more to the river than what you can see from there, and that what goes on upstream and under the water both affect what you catch. And maybe it’s time to figure out what those goings-on are, and how to use them to your advantage, regardless of what you’re writing.

This workshop I’m offering is called “Writing by Ear: Incorporating the Poetic” because I believe that keen attention paid to sonic elements like alliteration, consonance, assonance, and even rhyme, is crucial to crafting prose that is anything but prosaic, and it is my intention to share the techniques, tips, and tactics you can use to infuse your writing with music. We’ll explore etymology, uncovering how the dual vocabularies of English offer myriad possibilities, options, opportunities, chances, selections, and choices for you to choose from, and tackle the thorny thousand-year-old prejudice lurking in the language. And we’ll look at imagery and wordplay—figuratively speaking, of course, as graphic novels are a little outside my skillset.

Perhaps best of all, we’ll spend some time writing together so as to test drive our new tricks and see what it feels like to write while fully immersed in the river, as Teju Cole did in his novel Open City:

Each neighborhood of the city appeared to be made of a different substance, each seemed to have a different air pressure, a different psychic weight: the bright lights and shuttered shops, the housing projects and luxury hotels, the fire escapes and city parks.

Or as Toni Morrison did in Song of Solomon:

She was the third beer. Not the first one, which the throat receives with almost tearful gratitude; nor the second, that confirms and extends the pleasure of the first. But the third, the one you drink because it’s there, because it can’t hurt, and because what difference does it make?

If you read these passages aloud you’ll notice where Cole and Morrison picked words that sounded good together: Cole’s “bright lights and shuttered shops” and “the fire escapes and city parks,” or Morrison’s use of consonance with the repeated /t/sounds of the, third, first, throat,almost, tearful, gratitude…these passages are poetic, because they use elements from the poetry playbook to make musical language.

Some of you may be harrumphing under your breaths right now, thinking that Morrison missed an opportunity to cram another /t/ sound into that sentence by saying “thanks” instead of “gratitude.” If you’re thinking that, congratulations! That’s exactly the kind of thing I want you to be thinking about after this workshop. But I have an idea as to why Morrison picked “gratitude” over “thanks” — and I believe it was a very conscious choice on her part, done to take advantage of the Latin root of “gratitude,” with its shadings and resonances of both ecclesiastical and royal origin. Why not the more pedestrian “thanks” when talking about drinking beers? Come to the workshop and find out!

Michael Mercurio will be exploring these topics in his morning workshop, Writing By Ear, on February 6. Hope you can make it~

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