Hearing What Isn’t

Come on, dude… delicatemente, okay?

Music is the space between the notes.—Claude Debussy

Our small local theater company, Theater in the Woods, puts on a few shows a year, mostly to raise money for their summer kids’ theater camp. One annual tradition is their Ten-Minute Play event, in which local writers come up with very short plays that are then performed together in a single-evening show.

I’ve written a play for this year, a story of three men of three different generations each facing their own life crisis and working each other through it. And in preparation for that, I’ve had the chance to have a couple of Zoom table reads with the actors, and another one coming tomorrow with the actors and director.

One of the most common pieces of advice given to writers is to read your work aloud as you revise, to hear the lumpy spots. And you do—boy, do you ever. That’s kind of a normal part of my revision process. Where do I hear the emphasis within the sentence? Where do I hear vowel sounds align? Where do I place the hard-stop consonants that break long phrases into haiku?

So as I heard my play performed for the first time, I wasn’t often surprised by how the actors read the words. I’d done most of the work to let the text read itself. What I wasn’t prepared for, what was really revelatory, was hearing the silences. Hearing how long someone paused between lines. Or within a line. Silences in a conversation or a dialogue are the moments where we’re thinking… and I could hear these characters thinking.

One of the reasons I love typography (like that little blue separator we just passed, or the parentheses around this comment) are that they guide the reader to think in spaces and not just in sounds. We steer your thinking with all that stuff that isn’t actually words. We help you slow down, help you hit words harder, help you hear repetition. Just read the score of a piece of classical music sometime… composers offer instructions with the pace and density of an air traffic controller. Every note is guided not merely by pitch and by duration, the stuff on the staff, but also from above, a voice from God to guide us into right thinking about volume, cadence, connection or disconnection with the neighbors. He even offers little endearing Italian murmurs like affettuoso or sospirando, telling us what attitude toward life we should embrace as we play.

Text is filled with breathing instructions. The little channel between the period and the next capital letter (a gulf that’s narrowed over the past decades from two spaces to one as the pace of our lives has increased). The different tools we use to separate non-restrictive clauses—commas, parentheses, brackets, em-dashes, even footnotes—each of which signals a different kind of separation from the main thrust of the sentence. One of the tools I rely on far too often: the ellipsis… a foot on the clutch to more gently shift gears, the three little dots that soften and ease our pace as we enter the curve.

We have the word, the phrase, the clause, the sentence, the paragraph. The scene and the act. The novel and the three-novel trilogy and the whole Nancy Drew / Harry Potter / Jack Reacher oeuvre. We are taught to read by a broad taxonomy of spaces, given a chance to breathe and to think and to prepare for what’s next. Even when we binge-watch The Crown, we get to go to the bathroom once every 55 minutes, and use that moment to reflect on the collective tragedies of the last episode before we get into the next one.

I know better than to even start Lucy Ellmann’s 2019 novel Ducks, Newburyport, its single sentence stretching in a uniform-bordered carpet across literally a thousand pages. (One reviewer said “this book loves itself very much.”) I don’t know how to read that. I don’t know where I would stop by choice and where I would stop by exhaustion and where I would stop from impatience, but I know I can’t stay awake long enough to read a thousand pages. It’s been called an “ambitious” novel, but I don’t feel the need to be caught up in her ambition. The weakness may be mine, probably is. That’s okay. I’ll own that. I’ll opt for the comfort of textual convention that allows readers to THINK they’re ignoring the road signs, even as those signs influence every driving decision. I mean, if I gave you a test to remember every single road sign between here and Rutland, no way could you do that. But you see them, and you use them, even as they (mostly) don’t enter your conscious thought.

If you’re a reader, ignore all that, the man-behind-the-curtain stuff. Pretend you didn’t see it, let it be invisible. It ought to be. But if you’re a writer, start to look at something other than the 26 letters of the language. Start to see—and to hear—the spaces.

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