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How the Author of ‘Ragtime’ Taught an Aspiring Writer to Hear the Music

How the Author of ‘Ragtime’ Taught an Aspiring Writer to Hear the Music
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How the Author of ‘Ragtime’ Taught an Aspiring Writer to Hear the Music

How the Creator of ‘Ragtime’ Taught an Aspiring Author to Hear the Music

That is when it occurred: As I learn “The Waves,” I began to “hear” language as if for the primary time. It was as if a window flew open, and the sounds of the writer’s phrases rushed in. I started to note the sonic patterns of Woolf’s sentences, how she composed a music all her personal together with her rhythmic language and sentence construction. Within the novel’s first part, Woolf writes from Bernard’s perspective: “We will sink like swimmers simply touching the bottom with the ideas of their toes. We will sink by the inexperienced air of the leaves, Susan. We sink as we run. The waves shut over us, the beech leaves meet above our heads.” I turned attuned to the cumulative sounds of 1 sentence after one other, and the way the rhythms and repetitions produced a form of symphony that I had by no means heard earlier than.

Right here is language, I believed as I learn Woolf. Right here is life.

Maybe it was synesthesia: I couldn’t write, and this limitation might have opened up one other cognitive pathway in my mind. Or possibly it was the truth that Woolf’s novel is constructed with a form of acoustic structure; the sounds of her sentences carry the narrative alongside. Later, I learn in Elicia Clements’s “Virginia Woolf: Music, Sound, Language” (2019) that Woolf wrote in a letter to Elizabeth Trevelyan, a Dutch musician: “I at all times consider my books as music earlier than I write them.” (In the identical e-book, Clements writes that Woolf was listening to Beethoven’s late String Quartet in B flat main, Op. 130, and that this chamber work impressed a lot of “The Waves.”) I think about it was a mixture of those circumstances: my damaged shoulder and lack of ability to jot down, Woolf’s distinctive soundscapes and the crucial engagement that Doctorow was urgent on us.

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Through the class during which we introduced “The Waves,” Doctorow spoke about how Woolf’s lyricism underscored the march of time within the novel. Like Kafka in “The Metamorphosis” and Dante within the “Inferno,” he noticed, Woolf animated the inevitable motion towards dying by her language, the rhythmic resonance of her sentences and her subtle narrative construction. The modern interaction of those parts opened up this path of that means for the reader.

The semester continued: We learn Kerouac (and I had the same aural expertise together with his stream-of-consciousness, syncopated prose), the tales of Jayne Anne Phillips and extra. For the ultimate writing task, Doctorow requested us to decide on one of many works on the syllabus and borrow — or steal — from it in a fiction of our personal. (For his best-selling novel “Ragtime,” Doctorow famously borrowed the tent poles for his plot from Kleist’s “Michael Kohlhaas” and reassembled them together with his personal model of the story in New York Metropolis on the flip of the twentieth century.) Not surprisingly, I selected “The Waves”: I copied Woolf’s sentences phrase for phrase, then changed her language with my very own — and commenced to grasp how I might create my very own musical preparations in my creativeness and on the web page.

Over time, my listening to has worsened. A yr after my commencement from N.Y.U., my left eardrum was perforated by one other an infection and required reconstructive surgical procedure. For the previous decade, I’ve skilled the continual ring of tinnitus in that ear and now put on a listening to help. But the sounds of studying are very a lot alive in my head. Often, I’ll decide to reminiscence a poem by considered one of my favourite poets — Marie Howe, say, or Jean Valentine — and for a spell I do know the sound of her phrases intimately, nearly like a heartbeat. All of that is due to Doctorow and what he taught me: Learn deeply, steal what you’ll be able to and at all times pay attention for the music.

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