Sincerity and Song

Do you remember the first time you went outside in the blackness of night? The first time you walked away from all light and felt darkness surround you, wrapping itself across your shoulders like a blanket of shadow?

I was seven or eight years old before I ventured into the deep black. It was different than the darkness of unlit rooms in our house at night, which gave me creeps enough. It was far more palpable than my closet and my under-the-bed, where I knew terrible things lived. This was the darkness of the whole world I was feeling, with woods of swaying trees and an old barn loaded with ghosts. I was in the country, at my dad’s farmhouse, and the barn lay several thousand away, down a grassy hill and up a gravel drive, past the brick woodshop and the derelict sheds full of old tools and tractors.

The dare was to run all the way to the barn, touch its white clapboard siding, and come back to the house. A walk I’d done a million times in the safety of day. But this was different. The horror started as soon as I stepped out of the carport and into the grass. There was a deep black out there that I’d never seen nor felt before. Chills ran through my body, but also a small laughing voice that knew I was being silly, that knew there was no such thing as ghosts. Right? They weren’t real, were they? I could do this. I could never do this. I would act calm and cool in front of my friends. I would come back from the barn running and screaming and feeling a million ghosts clawing at my back and my ankles ready to devour me and drag me into the pits of hell and we would collapse in fits of laughter and shivering and breathless wheezing and dare the next one to do it now, your turn, don’t be a wimp…

Do you remember?

Can you write about it?

What about the first time you kissed the lips of someone you liked and you hoped they liked you back? Or the first time you realized your parents were regular people? Or the first time you saw a magic trick? Or the time you wished you’d done something completely different with your life? Or back when you still believed in fairy tales?

That’s what you should write about.

Sure, your story should have wizards and aliens and pirates and professors having affairs with their students (gotta include the Literary types!). But what is your story really about? What are these people going through? Don’t you remember going through those things as well? You probably aren’t alone. Remind your readers. Write with sincerity about the things you know and feel and fear.

The only other thing to master is writing with song. Write with a silent voice in your head that hears the words. Embrace the iambic pentameter of rise and fall, of the sharp and the sonorous, of the words that live in the roof of our mouths vs the words that escape through the teeth. All words have sound, even when read silently. Give them flow.

Look at that last paragraph as an example. Note how the word “roof” lives where I describe it lives, up in the top of the mouth when you say it, when you think it. It’s a word that doesn’t escape the lips so much as scurry back toward your sinuses. Compare that with the words “escape through the teeth,” which does exactly what it says it does. When you write, have your words do the actions described by your words. When you write about a young child running back from a scary barn, do not give him or the reader or your words a place to stop.

Sincerity and song. Truth and timbre. Put all your feelings into your craft, and craft your words carefully. Know when to repeat yourself. Know when to say something new. Know when to capture attention, and when words should flow simply as the sea across the sand, that soft hiss and bubble of white foam receding into the next curling wave, no need really to convey information in a rare moment of instead giving your reader a chance to catch up, to regain their breath, to think about what they’ve already read, before you fuck their shit up again.

When you sit down in front of your blank page and blinking cursor, your mind a billion scattered ideas of singular genius, your fingers unwilling to move, just think back on all the moments when you felt something deeply and powerfully. Think about the places you have feared and the places you have dreamed of seeing. Think of who you are and who you wish to become. Write that. And make it sing.

7 responses to “Sincerity and Song”

  1. Sherry Rodenborn Avatar
    Sherry Rodenborn

    Thank you, Hugh. I’ve actually started a little poetry after a long absence from writing anything. Life took the wheel away from me for a bit. I feel like I found myself again. And your words have helped me do that. WOOL helped me do that. Keep putting out your talent for us. We need your words more than ever now!

  2. Gah!!! I needed this advice like 2 years ago! Thanks as always Hugh.

  3. Hey! When you gonna do that posting of others work to rip apart like you mentioned? I’ve been looking forward to that 😁 mainly cuz I want you to rip mine apart lol

  4. Great advice and expertly presented. Writing like this puts the reader smack dab in the middle of everything, with no escape. Except to maybe keep reading. Thanks!

  5. I just sent the link to this post to my entire mailing list. I hope they share my taste in writing about writing. “Sincerity and song. Truth and timbre. Put all your feelings into your craft, and craft your words carefully.” *swoons!*

  6. I’ve always wanted to be able to write but life has never given me the angst I’ve needed for a guide line on the type of writing I want to do. That has recently changed and I’ve started what I feel is a beautiful story. I may never publish, but I know this story is my life and it’s my story. When I read what I’ve written so far I actually feel sorry that no one else will ever be able to enjoy the story. At the same time, I pray the story ends the way I want it to end. If it does not, the end days for me will be very dark and lonely.

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