I write sentences. I write first one sentence, then another sentence. I write sentence after sentence.
I write a hundred or more sentences each week and a few thousand sentences a year.
After I’ve written each sentence I read it aloud. I listen to the sound of the sentence, and I don’t begin to write the next sentence unless I’m absolutely satisfied with the sound of the sentence I’m listening to.
When I’ve written a paragraph I read it aloud to learn whether all the sentences that sounded well on their own still sound well together.
When I’ve written two or three pages I read them aloud. When I’ve written a whole story or a section that you might call a chapter, I read that aloud too. Every night before I start my writing I read aloud what I wrote the night before. I’m always reading aloud and listening to the sounds of sentences.
What am I listening for when I read aloud?
The answer is not simple. I might start with a phrase from the American critic Hugh Kenner … the shape of meaning. Writing about William Carlos Williams, Kenner suggested that some sentences have a shape that fits their meaning while other sentences do not.
Robert Frost once wrote: ‘A sentence is a sound on which other sounds called words may be strung.’
Robert Frost also had a phrase, ‘the sound of sense’, to describe what he listened for in writing. Frost likened this sound to the pattern we hear when the sound of a conversation, but not the sounds of actual words, reaches us from a nearby room.
Robert Louis Stevenson had a different notion of what a sentence should do.
Each sentence, by successive phrases, shall first come into a kind of knot, and then, after a moment of suspended meaning, solve and clear itself.
I don’t say that I swear by any of these maxims that I’ve quoted. But each of them lights up a little part of the mystery of why some sentences sound right and some don’t.
A word I haven’t mentioned yet is rhythm. A lot of nonsense is talked about rhythm. Here’s something that is far from nonsense.
Rhythm is not an ideal form to which we fit our words. It is not a musical notation to which our words submit. Rhythm is born not with the words but with the thought. Good writing exactly reproduces what we should call the contour of our thought.
I found these words in a book published nearly sixty years ago: English Prose Style, by Herbert Read.
The contour of our thought is a magical phrase for me. It has helped me in times of trouble in the way that phrases from the Bible or from Karl Marx probably help other people.
You will not be surprised to know that Virginia Woolf had a deep insight into this matter of the rightness of sentences. Here is something she wrote about it.
Style is a very simple matter, it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words . . . This is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it, and in writing one has to recapture this, and set this working, (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit in.
Something else I listen for when I read aloud … I listen to make sure that the voice I’m hearing is my own voice and not someone else’s voice. I don’t always succeed in this, of course. Sometimes when I read my writing of a few years ago I recognise that I’ve imitated in a few places the voices of others.
I listen for the sound of my own voice because I remember something the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh once said: ‘This is genius—a man being simply and sincerely himself.’
And still another thing I hope to hear in my sentences is the note of authority. John Gardner said authority is the sound of a writer who knows what he’s doing. He cited as his favourite example of prose ringing with authority this opening passage from a famous novel.
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.
I’ve said I write sentences, but you probably expect me to say what the sentences are about.
My sentences arise out of images and feelings that haunt me—not always painfully; sometimes quite pleasantly. These images and feelings haunt me until I find the sentences to bring them into this world.
Note that I didn’t say ‘to bring them to life’. The person who reads my sentences may think that he or she is looking at something newly alive. But the images and feelings behind my words have been alive for a long time beforehand.
This has been a very simple account of something that begins to make me dizzy if I think about it for too long. The only detail I can add is to say that as I write, the images and feelings haunting me become linked in ways that surprise and amaze me. Often if I write one sentence to put into a form of words a certain image or feeling, I find as soon as I’ve written the sentence that a new throng of images and feelings have gathered to form a pattern where I had not known a pattern existed.
Writing never explains anything for me—it only shows me how stupendously complicated everything is.
But why do I write what I write?
Why do I write sentences? Why does anyone write sentences? What are sentences? What are subjects and predicates, verbs and nouns? What are words themselves?
I ask myself these questions often. I think about these matters every day in one way or another. For me these questions are as profound as the questions why do we get ourselves born, why do we fall in love, why do we die?
If I pretended I could answer any of these questions, I’d be a fool.
This is a revised version of a talk given by Gerald Murnane as part of the panel ‘Why I write what I write’ at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival in October 1986.