“When asked “what he meant by ‘the craft of writing,’ he answered, “it is the art of penetrating other minds with the figures that are in your own mind”…. In making his own entrances into other minds, he said, he puts trust in the sound of words, in a kind of lulling with syllables. Sound prepares the way for the impact of ideas.” When young he was influenced by Donn Byrne, author of Messer Marco Polo, and James Branch Cabel, author of Jurgen. “The words didn’t have to mean much,” says Steinbeck. “These men were specialists in sound – and that’s what I was after.”
Thomas Fensch, ed., Conversations with John Steinbeck
David, one of my writing buddies, passed on this wonderful passage. I love it because it focuses so clearly on the tremendous importance of “the sound of words” as a gateway into a reader’s mind and apprehension.
Think back to when you were a kid and you were being read to, perhaps from a classic children’s book. Remember how the sound of the words just seemed to float into the air and then become part of you? I think that the most enduring of children’s authors: Dr. Seuss or Maurice Sendak, for example, knew the secret of sound and how to tap into it in their stories. Perhaps we can learn a thing or two from them in our own writing.
Consider the word “lullaby.” I believe it’s on a list of the ten most beautiful words in the English language. And no wonder! The word itself is a kind of lullaby, isn’t it? So soothing and comforting. Or how about “scintillating” or one of my personal favorites, “discombobulated?”
When you read a clumsy, heavy, artless sentence, it grates on your inner ear, doesn’t it? You almost resist thinking about the ideas it may be advancing, because its tonelessness has assaulted you and made you defensive. I think that’s what John means when he says that “Sound prepares the way for the impact of ideas.”
Sound matters. That’s one of the reasons I’m planning to read the entire draft of my YA novel out loud when I’m finished revising it. How about you? Would something you’re working on benefit from this approach? Write on!