Sound and Scene

Diane Ackerman, writing about the mysteries of bat echolocation in The Moon By Whale Light, says this:

It’s not hard to understand echolocation if you picture bats calling or whistling to their prey with a steady stream of high frequency clicks. For most of us, their vocal braille is too high to hear. At our best and youngest, we might hear sounds of twenty thousand vibrations a second; but bats click at up to two hundred thousand.

And this:

Many can detect the movement of a moth flexing its wings as it sits on a leaf. As the bat closes in it may click faster in order to pinpoint its prey. And there’s a qualitative difference between the steady, solid echos bouncing off a brick wall and the light, fluid echo of a swaying flower. By shouting at the world, and listening to the echoes, bats can compose a picture of their landscape and the object in it that includes texture, motion, distance, size and probably other features, too. They shout very loudly; we just cannot hear them.

When I am scurrying my way through a draft, I cannot often the sounds. Visual imagery comes easily. Auditory snatches feel elusive and faint, as if I have not yet tuned in to the story I’m trying to tell. It’s all part of the deal, returning many times to the story until I begin to hear not just the characters but the sounds of the places through which they move. And then many more leaps until the whole thing comes together, sound and setting and characters all one, moving forward in rhythm, nothing out of tune. Well, that’s the aim, anyway.

Randall Jarrell’s immortal The Bat-Poet is one of those books I return to when I want to get the feel of a small character in a deeply personal setting, all of it filled with heart:

The bat had always heard the Mockingbird. The mockingbird would sit on the highest branch of a tree, in the moonlight and sing half the night. About love to listen to him. He could imitate all the other birds – he’s even imitate the way the squirrels shattered when they were angry, like two rocks being knocked together; and he could imitate the milk bottles being put down on the porch and the barn door closing, a long rusty squeak.

There. Mystery, reality, wonder, all of a piece.

Unsettling a Scene

Setting is a static word. I’m revising scenes right now that don’t need to be set but unsettled, so the characters can move on the page. My draft has scenes in it that currently run mostly to dialogue, with not enough blocking–that thing you do when you place people in relation to their surroundings. The problem is that you can’t do this by writing “about” setting, because that brings the movement to a crashing halt. Instead you need to stir it up, bring character into sync with setting, or place them at odds with it, or filter the scene through the viewpoint character’s perceptions, or jar it up against those perceptions, or any number of other little writerly ploys that create the illusion you’re after.

The other problem is that if I think of all this stuff too directly, it all seems to fly away from me. I can’t write anything because instead of Birnam Wood, I’m seeing matchsticks!


By Michael Apel (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I deal with this inevitable stage of revision by flipping the pages of a few books on my shelf that have the capacity to breathe words into me, words that sing or soothe or awaken. Some are craft books, some are meditations, others are a bit of both. They include books like Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses, and Dag Hammarsjöld’s Markings. This time, Markings gave me the connection I needed. He writes the disturbing account of a news item, the finding of a young woman’s body in the “clay-brown water” of a river during the spring melt, with this sentence:

It was probably a little too early for the snake’s-head fritillaries. 

I haven’t ever seen a snake’s-head fritillary but the name was unsettling enough that I looked it up, a far easier thing to do now than when the book was written in 1964. How about this for unsettling a scene?

One look at this flower with its freckled petals and you know that what comes next is not about to be ordinary.

The Case for Rereading

Remember when you were little and every book demanded to be read and then reread? A million times? What was that all about? Margaret Hunsberger writes about rereading as holding repeated conversations with a text.

IMG_0320Here’s what I’m rereading now.

I first read Diane Ackerman’s book more than ten years ago, and every time I return to it I get something new. I have changed, after all, since that last read, so the text takes on new meanings each time. Take a look at Ackerman’s wonderful books for young readers as well.

Sue Silverman’s marvelous guide to writing memoir is worth rereading many times even if you have no intention of ever writing in this genre. All writers dig into the past, after all. It’s the stuff we have to work with. The emotions we once felt, the experiences we can remember, the memories that haunt us–they offer us windows on everything else. On this third read, Sue speaks to me more clearly than she did before. I am in a kind of sisterhood with her because she has spoken to me before and I have chosen to return to continue that conversation.

Emily Carr’s a relatively new find for me. A year ago, Sarah Ellis gave me a beautiful little book written by this spunky Victoria, BC woman, an intense and passionate artist, writer, a border-crosser if ever there was one. In The Book of Small, Carr looks back upon her childhood in what was once a frontier town. It’s like taking historical maps and laying them out over present-day spaces. The past glimmers through and illuminates the here and now.

I will never be able to read everything on my list. Not if I live to be a hundred, not even assuming that I’ll retain enough brain to keep on reading. But rereading…that grounds me in who I am and promises new understandings that I can’t yet imagine, much in the way that revision sheds new light on a murky early draft. First reads are a different kind of delight, but save some time to revisit old friends.