The Lyrical Roots of Writing

The Lyrical Roots of Writing

I offer two selections from the redoubtable H.L. Mencken in defense of my thesis. The first is an opening salvo.

Who ever heard of a bad autobiography? That is, a bad honest one? I can scarcely imagine it.

And, two sentences later still in the same paragraph…

(For there is a dreadful fascination with the truth.) It alarms and annoys the absurd bladders of unstable colloids who rove and pollute the earth, masquerading in God’s image, but at the same time it arrests and enchants them.[i]

The ever-acerbic Mencken, in his introduction to the month’s book reviews, like the smart journalist he was, first grabs his reader. Only later does he remind them of his own point of view (much like what got Socrates killed) of ‘those who would know better’ as well how they, themselves, view their own intellectual capacities. (I do wonder what Mencken would have thought of Caroline Bingley or Lady Catherine or General Tilney or Edward Crawford…maybe the same as the Lady.)

T’is less important in this instance to appreciate what Mencken wrote. Rather, consider how he wrote it. And therein lies the purpose of this essay.

We must, though, look at writing—in our case, fiction—in a different sense. Without a doubt, the overt purpose of fiction writing is to tell some sort of story.

I would also, in addition to the previous, argue that any writing, but particularly good fiction, alters the consciousness of others. One cannot do that unless the work engages the reader. I would retain this for consideration in a moment.

Why do we write #InspiredByAusten fiction? So that a diverse body may READ our tales.

The previous sentence is, by its own nature, a modern construct. True, individuals did read Jane Austen’s work. However, those persons were, at the least, the wealthiest of Britain’s citizens. The most charitable and broad interpretation would add in all those who were literate enough to read her constructions, but also liquid enough to either afford to purchase her books or pay for a subscription at a library. Austen’s works were, thus, by the nature of the society into which she was releasing them, constrained in their distribution. T’was not until the population became literate after the 1880s that her work once again began to flourish.

But, if the word and concept of Reading is essentially a modernist term, what came before? I do discount the first 300 years after the invention of the printing press. Books were too few and too pricey to gain broad acceptance. That said, we know, for instance that populations were exposed to written works in the millennia prior to the Regency. The Christian Bible is an excellent example of that. From the Latin Vulgate version to that of King James I, the faithful were buoyed and transformed by the Word as it was expressed by their priestly interlocutors.

However, nearly all who imbibed at the fount of the Old and New Testaments were thoroughly illiterate.

However, they listened to the clerics whether they were a peasant in Derbyshire or a butcher in Lyon.

The deep clue comes wrapped in the fact that much of the Bible is lauded as remarkable poetry: Psalms, Proverbs, the Song of Solomon…the entire King James Version of the Bible…they are performed as part of Western Civilization’s oral tradition. Likewise, the plays of Shakespeare (and Jonson) were surely created to stroke the psyches of The Globe’s aristocratic financial backers. However, they were also written to separate farthings from those who stood in the pit. Whether t’was feet in the dirt in front of the stage or posteriors planted on rough-hewn planks above and around, all heard the same words without the penalty imposed by a lack of education.

Why? T’is my contention that each of these (and others) hews most closely to the original purpose of writing.

Writing was created to allow the stories it preserves to be performed by others not the creator of the work. After that, all original—modern or ancient—writing, grew from that original intent…and thus needs to comport with the idea that the spoken word is an expressive communications medium.

Now, we must peel back the onion of history to get to where the use of writing moved beyond that of record-keeping.

Long-lasting civilizations like Sumer, Egypt, and China tended to endure long enough to establish the sort of continuity that would allow the evolution of writing to proceed uninterrupted. While hieroglyphs do not lend themselves to audible performance, they do, none-the-less, allow for a literal if not lyrical presentation of the stories immortalized there. Cuneiform did record the first extant story, The Epic of Gilgamesh. There may have been others predating EoG, however, they are lost.

Of course, the problem with “translating” something like Gilgamesh is that cuneiform is representational…much as Japanese ideographs reflect concepts rather than specifics. The modern interpreters of ancient Sumerian necessarily must impose their own presentist thoughts upon a work 5,000 years old. Yes, while the ancient sense of the story remains, the poetry of it, the performance value it may or may not have, is likely an artifact of 19th or 20th Century scholars’ effort to impose their expectation (based in the Shakespearean tradition of performance) upon the writing.

But, now we get to Classical Greece.

Rather than belabor the impact of the Greek Dark Ages (~1100 BCE to ~800 BCE), suffice to say that, by the time of Homer, the Greeks had lost the capacity to write. Even then, if they had retained the Mycenean Linear A, they would only have been able to order up 200 ships to be sent to Troy. As with the majority of ancient writing, pictures not words offered the most entertaining tales.

Until the blind poet Homer. The itinerant bard would go from warlord’s keep to warlord’s dining hall, paying for his supper with stanzas of epics charting a time when Greece stood tall and giants walked the hills and valleys of Attica and the Peloponnesus. There were no DVRs, no flat screens…just a man and a harp.

Of course, when Aecheines went home after dinner, he wanted to impress the men who next week would recline on dining couches in his salon. However, Homer had moved on by that time. What to do?

What the Greeks did was cop the Phoenician alphabet in order to write down the Homeric Epics before Homer died…so that Aechines or Philias or whoever could find a local man to perform some of The Iliad.

But, the letters used by the Mediterranean’s master merchants were designed to record the number of goats traded for the number of baskets of barley. There were no vowels…none.

‘Dg’ could easily be read as dug as dig or as dog. True, contextual clues could help ascribe meaning.

However, the Greeks invented vowels to adjust the sound of the words and remove the guesswork inherent in a vowel-less system. And, before you could say Marathon, the works of Homer were preserved…and all the great poetry and plays of the Greeks became possible.

At that point, somewhere in the Eighth Century BCE, writing in the sense which we understand it came into being.

And, it arrived because performers who were not Homer could offer up his work for the entertainment of those who could not read—as in darn near everyone…but could listen.

Thus, what were arguably the greatest stories ever composed were preserved so that they could be performed in their original format—aloud to a group—by others not the author.

I doubt if Shakespeare really wondered if Hamlet would survive beyond his death. Yet, it has left us with the question…and I will happily debate which is a more rewarding experience: is reading a copy of the play silently to oneself…or as Austen allows us to imagine…as rewarding as when Mr. Bennet plays Polonius while Lizzy is the Prince and Jane Ophelia?

The core of my belief about writing rests on this: good writing (if not necessarily good stories) rests upon sounding “good;” a condition that leaves the listener with a clear mental image of the crux of the story. And that image is wrapped in emotions inspired by the words rising from the paper and delivered directly to one’s ears.

However, even here, I would refine my point. Rather than establishing “sounding good” as the final standard, I believe we, as writers who produce and as readers who imbibe, must take it one step further. I suggest that the work must sound right for the genre in which it is offered.

Part of this whole model rests on matching the meter, the beat, of writing with the emotions desired. Sounding right means that the reader falls in step with the consciousness alteration desired by the author.

Consider Raymond Chandler…

It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.


Mr Cobb was my escort. Such a nice escort, Mr Cobb. So attentive. You should see him sober. I should see him sober. Somebody should see him sober. I mean, just for the record. So it could become a part of history, that brief flashing moment, soon buried in time, but never forgotten – when Larry Cobb was sober.

Chandler leaves little to the imagination…and his pacing describes the character perfectly. He turns…and fractures…grammar to his own purposes and forces the reader/listener to swiftly slide into the world he creates. He sounds right for the smash-mouth brutality that characterizes his stories.

Yes, you could get that from a silent reading. But, imagine the goosebumps the second quote could raise—not from fear but rather from the sheer pleasure of hearing the language used as it ought to be used.

(BTW: that is why I am so in love with the way Amanda Berry performs The Bennet Wardrobe stories. Every time I listen to her bring the words to life, I get goosebumps! I do suggest that you read the a Bennet Wardrobe book at the same time you are listening to it.)

Like Jane Austen, I work to make my writing “sound good” when read aloud. If I am writing fiction inspired by her, I needs must endeavor to try to paint word pictures as well as she.

Equally formed for domestic life, and attached to country pleasures, their home was the home of affection and comfort; and to complete the picture of good, the acquisition of Mansfield living by the death of Dr. Grant occurred just after they had been married long enough to begin to want an increase of income, and feel their distance from the paternal abode an inconvenience.

The penultimate paragraph of Mansfield Park offers an epilogue to the story of Fanny and Edmund and spells out everything…love, no privation, anticipated children, and a desire to once again dip int the bosom of childhood homes through tonality and meter. Read aloud, the sense of her pacing and vocabulary illustrate all  the ideas while leaving behind a warmth that makes one smile. Austen sounds right. Read silently…I am less sure.


This excerpt ©2019 by Donald P. Jacobson. Any reproduction without the expressed written consent of the author is prohibited. Published in the United States of America.

From Chapter XV (The Pilgrim: Lydia Bennet and a Soldier’s Portion)

On Oakham Mount, early September 1813

The couple picked their way upward along the path.  The Hertfordshire region had been well populated even before the North Sea had worn its way through the chalky land bridge linking Dover to Calais. Countless soles, whether Druid, Roman, or Norman, had cut the track deep into the greyish yellow limestone bedrock where it broke through the loamy soil.

Lydia felt Wickham’s muscles rippling beneath her hand where it rested above his bent elbow. While they were modest compared to when he was in peak form, their firmness entranced her and warmed her hands. T’was but a short journey for that sensation to find its way deep into her core, causing the invisible cord stretching from behind her breastbone to the chalice of her hips to vibrate in reply.

George was clad in one of Mr. Bennet’s long, loose linen topcoats—the two men were of a size…at least across the shoulders—as a concession to propriety. The elder gentleman had recently adopted the garb of Sugar Island plantation masters during the summer months. In Bennet’s mind’s eye, he imagined himself astride a rust-colored stallion. His coattails would flap in the breeze as he galloped through a cane-laden landscape. His agile mind calculated the incredible wealth added to his coffers from a single harvest converted into tuns of rum and shipped to Liverpool. But, this was in Bennet’s imagination.

This sartorial alteration away from good English woolens occurred after a brief sojourn at Longbourn by an old college classmate, Sir Thomas Bertram, who had broken his trip from Northamptonshire into Town to enjoy Bennet’s hospitality. The two “TBs,” as they had been dubbed by their university companions, had always leaned on one-another as they navigated the dangerous currents of Cambridge society. Bertram had extolled the comfort of the long-tailed coat, especially when faced with the despised British heat and humidity so prevalent in July and August. Bennet found much wisdom in his friend’s observations. He also had “borrowed” one of Bertram’s more battered planter’s hats, passing the bleached straw chapeau on to his own hatter for duplication.

Lydia’s face was shielded from her husband’s eyes by the brim of her own straw bonnet. She could, though, feel the intensity of his gaze as he contemplated the delicious crown that crested above his shoulder, tall lady that she was. Those fibers she happily gripped alternately tensed and relaxed as his regard scanned the entire area around them. Although Mrs. Wickham doubted if there were any threats hiding in the oak forest, a part of her glowed with pride at the situational awareness her soldier-husband exhibited as they toiled up the ages-old path.

Wickham smiled to himself as he recognized that their marches around Longbourn and into Meryton were paying dividends. He doubted that he would have been willing to consider climbing the trail winding up Oakham Mount’s furrowed slopes, much less summiting the distinctive hump, even three weeks ago.

He did, however, understand his wife’s desire to climb to the top. The Mount, one of the lesser bumps along the Chiltern cordillera, had played a unique role in Bennet Family history. Lydia’s grand-uncle, George, had died in a logging accident somewhere in these woods. After that, timber income had vanished from Longbourn’s accounts. Wickham was certain that Lydia was not thinking of an ancestor dead a half century, but rather of two others much nearer—Lizzy and Mary—who had claimed the hill as their own fortress where they could escape and find surcease from the incessant noise of a crowded house. While Jane and Kitty, according to Lydia, had turned their backs on Oakham, even Mr. Bennet had spent weeks at the top rooting through the ruins hidden beneath the turf.

Now, Wickham’s own wife clearly wished to enter her name in the lists of Bennets who had explored and perfected their claims upon this bit of geography situated on the far reaches of the estate. In this instance, she was the commander and he but a beast of burden.

The final pitch leveled as they broke through the last stand of oaken sentries. A grassy sward stretched out before them. As they crossed the meadow, they discovered a beautifully carved and stained bench positioned at the top of the prospect looking across the fields below toward the dark smudge on the southeastern horizon beneath which hulked London.

Lydia gasped, “Oh, George, they told me about how beautiful and peaceful it is. Why did I not believe them, choosing instead to abuse them for being blue-stockinged nature girls?”

“By they I assume you mean your sisters,” Wickham rejoined.

“But, of course, silly. Lizzy was always rambling about up here. Mama positively despaired of her. Her hems, if they were not six inches deep with mud, were frayed and torn from the brambles and so forth. As for her half-boots: suffice to say that Mr. Angelo started giving a frequent customer Longbourn discount.

“Then Mary took up the cause after Lizzy married.

“I knew that Papa and Mr. Darcy had conspired together to improve the little park up here, but this darling pew is beyond-beyond, do you not agree?” Lydia burbled.

To Wickham, a bench, no matter its antecedents, was still a bench. This one was no more remarkable than, say, the one upon which he sat with Captain Sharpe that chill December evening back in the Year Eleven. T’was well-made, employing both pegs and tongue-and-groove. The seating was shaped by someone who knew that comfort was needed whether the sitter was a large framed gentleman of substance or an impudent gentlelady or her serious sister. That same someone had clearly renewed the varnish only recently, hiding any weathering caused by a winter’s-long exposure.

The wood glowed softly as the late-morning sunshine caught the grain.

Lydia tripped lightly across the remaining feet and slowly circumnavigated the bench, trailing her fingers along the top board. She suddenly dropped onto the seat and wistfully rubbed the wood planking. She pensively looked out over the scenery laid before her.

Wickham could sense the depth of her study and held back, spreading out the blanket he had carried and laying the picnic basket in its center. He was in no hurry to reclaim her attention. He had been, far too long in his own estimation, a selfish man. By this stage in his life, he had learned that not all revolved around him. He understood more about himself than he ever had. In the process of attaining this self-realization, he had learned much from his Guide and now was able to appreciate the emotional states of others.

While Lydia contemplated that which had captured her, Wickham stripped off the unbleached linen coat as the sun continued to warm him. The heat worked its way into the corded bands rising from his waist to his neck. He scanned the area and came upon a medium-weight branch. Stepping a dozen yards away from his wife, he hefted it in his two hands.

Substantial. More than a walking stick. Yes, I can see it as a weapon. T’is well-disguised in its more common form: light enough to serve a man working his way over uneven ground, but stout enough to even the odds if trouble should follow him up the hill. I wager Darcy appreciated its dual purpose and carried it up here when he accompanied his wife, both to aid in his trek as well as standing as protection for her.

After flexing a few times to further loosen his back, he gripped the wood and began to move through his quarterstaff drill.

At some point, rivulets of sweat began to work their way down his face. When he paused and pulled a madras bandanna to wipe them clear of his eyes, he caught his wife watching him, one arm thrown over the bench’s back. Her smile, reciprocated his own admiring stare, warmed him even more. Then she crooked her index finger in that endearing motion taught to all wives by their mothers.

Come here. I would speak with you.

[i] H. L. Mencken, The Library, The American Mercury, no. 35 (November 1926), p. 380.

14 Responses to The Lyrical Roots of Writing

  1. All of this reminded me of a friend who did her doctoral studies somewhere in Africa. In that particular place, aural traditions were very popular, whether the telling of stories or relating the news. Then there were the people who kept the aural histories of the village as well. Sort of like living books. I don’t do audible, but the few books I’ve listened to on CD have been wonderful and I agree, reading aloud catches many mistakes that the eye glosses over. Zoe Burton says she uses Natural Reader. I’ve found that software to be really helpful. Thanks for your post. Keep Writing!

    • Hey there…oral proofing is the strongest methodology. Of course, with 105,000 words, it does demand a degree of diligence.

      Your point on the aural history is key. Even in the modern world (see First Nations in Australia, for instance), the oral tradition is alive and well.

      My core advocacy is that the work created by any of us now still finds is roots in the oral tradition. We have all read word salads…or works peppered (unintentionally) with repetitive vocabulary (as in not parallel construction) and grammatical errors (my two faves…bad antecedents and tense shifts in the paragraph).

      I am not suggesting to read those aloud just for proofing. Instead, I suggest that the author gather a small group of friends and read it aloud to them…and judge their engagement. If confused looks or downright grimaces characterize the audiences’ reaction…well, time for draft #3?

      While Winston Churchill could violate (actually, though, he did not…as his capacious vocabulary hit around 100,000 words regularly used), a solid rule of any sentence, paragraph, or section could be “If you would never say this aloud to alter the consciousness of an audience…then likely the character you are creating will never do so either. Description has, I think, a bit more leeway.

  2. Interesting post, Don. I do read my writings aloud, although not 100%. I read aloud when I’m not sure how something I wrote comes across. Also, when I’m checking a correction. It’s too easy to mess it up especially when I’m switching words around in the sentence. And I keep in mind that I just might have an audiobook done, and I really want to know how it will sound to listeners. I recommend (in private messages) to authors whose books contain a lot of editing errors that they read their book aloud. Doing so catches 100% or nearly 100% of missing words. Our brains are so wonderful that they insert the missing word as we read silently, but they don’t let us consciously know that they did. And it doesn’t get corrected. As you can see, I agree with you and am a strong advocate for reading out loud. 🙂

    • Yeah…when doing ad copy…we used to read backwards. Every point you made is spot-on. My old mantra…If it sounds weird, it probably is…is key. Plus, whether t’is off to audio or not, I do believe that reading aloud insists that we slow down and appreciate the texture of the language. The following is an excerpt I have used with my writing classes…feel the hunger of a boy in Depression-era Florida Panhandle country…but also the expressive way in which she sets the context.

      “Jody heard nothing; saw nothing but his plate. He had never been so hungry in his life, and after a lean winter and a slow spring … his mother had cooked a supper good enough for the preacher. There were poke-greens with bits of white bacon buried in them; sandbuggers made of potato and onion and the cooter he had found crawling yesterday; sour orange biscuits and at his mother’s elbow the sweet potato pone. He was torn between his desire for more biscuits and another sandbugger and the knowledge, born of painful experience, that if he ate them, he would suddenly have no room for pone. The choice was plain.”

                  — MARJORIE KINNAN RAWLINGS, The Yearling
      • I haven’t read The Yearling but saw the movie and disliked it intensely. Rawlings is a very expressive writer: sandbuggers? Yes, I did look up those and what a cooter was. Recognized the description of the turtle and have seen them around here. At my time of life, I want an HEA at the end of the book. I guess that makes me a bit of a heretic. I will say this, Don, your posts do get me to thinking. Keep up the good writing. 🙂

        • Hi Gianna…as you may have seen in my last post…”Happily-Ever-Now,” I acknowledge the idea of HEA and how it works within many authors’ works. Each of us, as authors, has their own truth. For me, I seek out the Happiness my characters enjoy throughout their lives and not just the joy experienced after the transformative experience at the end of the book. That is not to say that an HEA will not appear in one of my stories. Consider the situation of Mary and Edward at the absolute end of “The Keeper” or of Kitty at the end of “The Exile, Part 1.”

  3. Thanks, Don, for another thought-provoking post. I love reading Austen aloud. I don’t think I fully appreciated her wit until I read Sense and Sensibility aloud to my then-two-month-old daughter. (She was then too young to care what I read, and so Austen entertained us both!)

    Thanks also for discussing the historical roots of storytelling. Fascinating stuff!

    And a final thanks for your excerpt. I’m enjoying how Lydia and Wickham are maturing together.

    • Hi Christina…start ‘am early I always say. I encourage writers to read their work aloud to someone who cares enough about them to raise a hand and say “that sounds really tortured.

  4. Very interesting ! Lydia and Wickham are always together!lol I guess they make a good couple because they are both rebellious by nature. I didn’t know about the Greeks and all that info either and I agree it is fun to learn things like that.

    • Always used to tell my writing classes that the acid test for “good” writing was if it sounds good. Thus, I urged them (and that goes, as far as I am concerned, all writers) to read the work aloud. If it is pleasing to the ear, if it moves you to a different understanding of the world, then iot is probably “good” writing.

  5. Interesting essay. I agree that works should be read aloud and was lucky to grow up in a family where usually once a week, we would each take turns reading from a book.

    • Reading aloud does create a community that includes all within ear-shot. My point is that, at the very bottom, all writing rises from an oral tradition which used writing to record the tales. Thus, in a way, writing can be presented in a silent and an oral format. How many times have you read something which, when read aloud, immediately screamed…EDITOR!

  6. That is so interesting. I had no idea about the Greeks and vowels. I’d never given it any thought. I assumed written language was developed to tell stories, as that’s what I consider language’s best feature, and so assumed it started out to describe all the sounds of the words. It’s fun to learn otherwise.

    • Thank you so much for the thoughtful comment. As I see it, writing grew from a need to record stories that were rooted in the oral tradition. I have always wanted to conduct an experiment which recorded the brain waves of a person who silently read a story compared to the brain waves of a person who listens to the same story being read/performed aloud. I also have a strong inkling that silent readers tend, by nature, to skim…they do not read every word. I suspect that skimming also removes the emotive quotient that an oral presentation brings…even when rreading aloud to onesself. I would offer reading the next two sentences aloud.

      “When Don discovered how the gardener had trimmed his roses, he was angry.”

      “When Don discovered how the gardener had trimmed his roses, he was pissed.”

      I always told my writing classes that speech offers “temperature” where writing needs to level emotions.

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