I got rhythm, I got music, I got my love, who can ask for anything more?

posted on: April 19, 2013

Writing Tip # 1: Rhythm


At first glance, writing tip number one doesn’t seem to be about writing, but rather recommendations for health from the newest neurological research. In fact, putting rhythm in your life frees your mind to float into all its various corners (or rather curlicues,) meandering to explore the caves, fields, skies, clouds of the unconscious.  Our brain, which is the ultimate creator, weaves together a narrative to makes sense of the world. We think we think in stories, but, in fact, we see a series of snapshots that we string together into movie with significance.  We make sense of our environment by the narratives we weave.

We are part and parcel of the rhythm of the world. We breathe in air, we exhale it in one tempo. Our hearts pound in a different count from the flow of our lungs.  Thus, if we think about it, or stay motionless so we allow ourselves to become aware, our bodies provide a mini percussion orchestra. Meanwhile our brains fire away images and thoughts to entertain us. Our minds make sense out of the environment,  protecting us from the rampaging animal, or modern equivalent, or the blasting storm, form a narrative from the perceived information to which our bodies react. When we write, we waft between the structure or goal we’ve set, (even if it’s only to write the first thing that comes to us), and our imaginations. We season with vivid detail to turn our invented world into a believable one for the reader.  Our reader ‘illustrates’ our prose with her own images so it feels as if the story is hers and slips into the narrative dream.

So what do rhythmical activities have to do with this?  They help us get into the place where the vivid images, the rich words composed of all our senses dwell.  You can’t hunt for an image, or a line of dialogue.  Hunting will make it disappear especially if you insist on the perfect image, or a scene to accomplish several necessities for your story.   Extreme intent wards away the very words and images you desire. It’s better, much better, to feel your character, picture your scene and go do something rhythmical.

What do I mean? Luckily rhythmical activities are all around us and are numerous in their incantations. Any rhythmical exercise — running, swimming, walking, biking, skating, dancing—will work. Gail Sheehy jumped up and down on a trampoline when she hit a wall in writing her iconic Passages.Lynda Barry asks her students to write in long hand because she believes the very motion of the activity helps images flow. She writes with a brush because of the triggering activity of the movement and suggests if you can’t think of anything,  write the alphabet over and over and something will come to you.

Rhythmic activities wipe away, erase, diminish the frantic activity of our minds as we carry out the day. At times we are plagued with The-things-to-do-list, The-get-ready-to-go-list, The-shopping-list.  Cadenced motions brush away the lists, the mundane and lead us to a more primal, more authentic mind. When I started writing, I didn’t know this. But experience taught me. I had been a long distance swimmer in high school. Later, swimming laps provided a trigger for images and words that floated while my arms churned the water. I sat in my swimsuit dripping on my paper as I tried to capture them.

I added long walks, so much easier to write on a scrap of paper than dripping wet. Sometimes, if I’m stuck, I pace the house. I understand why Philip Roth wrote standing. It’s easier to walk that way.

Then I added drumming. Yes, I play an ashika and djembe hand drum.  I started in a drum circle.  After practicing the various patterns I realized that my writing was richer. I made my own drum.  I also have a tribal drum to work a heart beat rhythm, but hand drumming carries me away.   It is my absolute best anodyne for a writers stumble. Can’t think of a scene? Don’t know what my character is going to say next? I play my drum and it comes to me. Always. Like a guarantee, the words and scene play in my mind’s eye.

That doesn’t mean I’ve stopped swimming, walking, biking, dancing. Nope. Try to do all of that weekly.  Rhythmical activities and motion are pathways.  Then writing begins to feel like taking dictation from the gods.

So writer’s tip number 1: Develop several rhythmical activities to free your mind and take yourself into the richness of your unconscious.  Because that’s where your story breathes.

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