“Once upon a time, alas by now a long time ago, when Indians or to be correct the aboriginal people of America where still allowed to follow the nomadic lives of their choice, there were those afraid of and maligning, rightly or wrongly, strangers who entered their settled lives.”
I often see sentences like this one (from which the serial numbers have been filed to protect the creator thereof). Too often. From people who have no idea that there is anything wrong with what they have written. They love to write. They believe they are just a few tweaks away from becoming the next JK Rowling or JRR Tolkien. They have brought their beloved creation to a writer’s workshop that I’m participating in, or they have hired me as an editor, and now they wait to hear me say, “This is magical!”
When I get this sort of sentence in a manuscript, my reflexive reaction is, “Where do I start?” There’s so much to stop the reader’s eye and ear, it’s hard to know. I could start with the cliched “once upon a time” (which, trust me, is entirely out of keeping with the tone of the story that follows), or with the passive voice, or with the nested clauses.
In this case, the starting point for a critique would be the fact that I have no idea what the sentence means. Both the nested clauses (“alas by now a long time ago”, “or to be correct the aboriginal people of America” and “rightly or wrongly”) and the passive voice (“there were those afraid”) muddle things most effectively. I’m not even sure what the subject of the sentence is. It’s not the aboriginal people—they’re only referenced to set the time the sentence refers to. The subject is “those” who were afraid. Afraid of what? All I know by the end of the sentence is that someone is afraid of and maligning (or perhaps, if “and” is a typo, is afraid of maligning) unspecified strangers.
This is the opening sentence of a story. This means it’s critical in setting tone, mood, voice, place, and/or character. Alas, this sentence does nothing to enlighten the reader about any of those things.
The question for me, as a mentor or editor is: Can I teach this person to write?
There are two aspects to this question. Both relate to capacity. Do I have the capacity (and the patience) to teach this writer how to craft a clear, communicative sentence and to string those sentences together into a coherent story? More important, still, does this writer have the capacity to learn?
I used to believe that anyone could be taught to write if their desire was sincere and they were willing to work at it. I’m now certain that viewpoint is sweet and noble and profoundly wrong.
I’m a musician and singer. I have a keen sense of relative pitch. This means that if someone sings a melody, I instinctively hear harmonies—thirds, fifths, sevenths, ninths, seconds. Heck, I don’t just hear harmonies—they explode in my head like varicolored fireworks and then shoot out of my mouth without me thinking about it. (I wish writing were as easy.) I have long realized that not everyone can sing. For one thing, not everyone has a musical voice. Some people’s vocal cords—for whatever reason—will not contrive to let them sustain a tone.
There is a more profound version of this—tone deafness. Some people simply cannot make musical tones because they are literally deaf to the difference between the sound they are making and the sound they are trying to make. They have no sense of pitch. They cannot hear gradations in tone. They cannot tell the difference between a good note and bad one.
Over two decades of participating in writers’ workshops, mentoring would-be writers and editing folks who desperately want to write, I have come to the inescapable conclusion that desire—no matter how sincere—is not enough. In the same way that a singer or musician needs to be able to recognize notes, tones, rhythms and dynamics in order to produce them himself, a writer must be able to recognize word shapes, shades of meaning, cadence, dynamics and pacing in order to put those things on the page.
Somerset Maugham said that “Words have weight, sound and appearance; it is only by considering these that you can write a sentence that is good to look at and good to listen to.” Someone with a “tin ear” will not be able to write a “good” sentence no matter how much they want to if they cannot feel the weight, see the shades of meaning in the words, and hear the notes that are being sung.
As an editor and writing mentor, I sometimes come to the sad realization that a “student” or client can’t hear their own voice. In some cases, it doesn’t matter. The client doesn’t want to write—he wants me to bring his beloved ideas to life and make them sing and dance. I’ve had clients like that and they’re a joy to work with.
On the flip side is someone who already believes he can write well, and who honestly doesn’t understand why I keep telling him the same things over and over again. Why do I keep harping on grammar or word usage and tense? Why do I keep rewriting his sentences and “simplifying” his prose? What did I mean by saying a sentence was “awkward”? What’s awkward about it?
In the middle somewhere, is the writer who has weaknesses, knows it, wants to learn the craft and has some awareness of the gap between his prose and the prose of someone who’s really good at it.
The person who wrote the sentence at the beginning of this article could not tell the difference between that sentence and this one: “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.” (The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson) Or this straightforward gem: “The seller of lightning rods arrived just ahead of the storm.” (Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury)
The writer who wrote that example sentence believed he had written something magical. If he’s truly tone-deaf, nothing I tell him and nothing he reads—even by writers considered to be masters of the craft—will convince him otherwise. He simply cannot hear a qualitative difference between his prose and Jackson’s or Bradbury’s. He is sure he can sing and is not content to warble only in the shower.
After twenty years of coaching writers, I still can’t bring myself to tell someone, “You can’t write.” And I’m still searching for that magical something—an exercise, a reading list, a turn of phrase—that will enable the tone-deaf writer to hear the melody he’s trying so hard to sing.