“[The mill] had been there seven years and in seven years more it would destroy all the timber within its reach. Then some of the machinery and most of the men who ran it and existed because of and for it would be loaded onto freight cars and moved away. But some of the machinery would be left, since new pieces could always be bought on the installment plan—gaunt, staring, motionless wheels rising from mounds of brick rubble and ragged weeds with a quality profoundly astonishing, and gutted boilers lifting their rusting and unsmoking stacks with an air stubborn, baffled and bemused upon a stumppocked scene of profound and peaceful desolation, unplowed, untilled, gutting slowly into red and choked ravines beneath the long quiet rains of autumn and the galloping fury of vernal equinoxes.” – William Faulkner, Light into August
I was going to write a post on lyrical writing – specifically, how to write lyrically without sliding into purple prose. However, in doing my brief research, I was struck by the paucity of essays on the subject. While almost every other writing topic has been discussed to the point of obsession, very little can be found regarding lyricism.
My initial thought was perhaps that is because it has faded from style. But I swept that away, as slam poetry and rap testify to the appeal of lyrical flows to modern audiences. Instead, I think there is a simpler reason why no one talks much about lyricism. No one knows how to teach it.
I think those who write lyrically are singing the beat that flows in their heads. Perhaps they are unrequited poets, lovers whose words bent early on into a more prosaic flow, twisted left of poetry to storytelling for worlds of breathless readers. Maybe these lyrical writers are like me, sans an internal editor, letting the words escape into the jazz tune we can hear as a backbeat. And later, when someone reads the words aloud, the music gone, we can still hear its rhythm … breathing … beating at a hushed distance. But it does sound oddly quiet.
Faulkner, in his flow above, chooses to link his thoughts into a single, windy, breathy sentence. It winds and pounds the machine’s beats, and we can feel its pulse. He removes pauses, at his discretion. At my count, six “required” commas were omitted in this one excerpt. He jammed words together to marry two concepts previously unwed: “stumppocked,” and later, “hookwormridden,” “Postoffice.” We don’ need no stinkin’ dictionary, Will Faulkner is behind the wheel, and he’s compressing words like a mutha.
His flow required him to run a few stop signs, and so he did. We are pulled along, against our better judgment, for the ride. Some can no longer take his lawlessness, and abandon the book and this mad author. Others of us may hate his subject and characters, but marvel at the way the man could goddamn drive the words.
Maybe that’s what a lyrical flow is – nothing more than one writer’s driver’s license. Being a poet, I like the sound that jazz makes when you speak its words. If you write well, you can sneak in a little staccato hip-hop flow and hope no one notices its bebop parentage. Mostly, however, you can try to bridge one paragraph to the next, being careful to use smooth transitions, a steady amount of detail, and only pausing at stops where you know the reader will want to climb out and take a look around. And when you get there, you can put down your stand-up bass, your traps, and your bright, trumpeting prose, and write simply, softly, so the reader will have time to whisper love words to your characters. Because, after all, the purpose of lyricism is romance, and romance is always about falling in love – with the story, with the characters, with the piece.
The secret of lyrical writing is like having a conversation in a smoky jazz club. Either the music whispers in the background, or it is a distraction. Whisper, babies, whisper.