From my Newsletter, June 2009
I had an interesting discussion with a student in a recent class. Someone had made editing suggestions that she wasn’t sure about, and she wanted me to review them. As we went over each suggested change, I realized what was going on. My student tends to write from a more auditory position, and the feedback was from a more visual perspective.
Some of you may be familiar with Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP). As with many things I know, I first learned of it through publishing a book about it, in the late 80s. The basic theory is this: We actually think with our senses. That is, our brains process information through one of our five senses. It makes sense if you think about it (no pun intended). Although there are the rare people who mainly use the sense of taste or smell (usually both together, and these people are often chefs or perfumers!), for most people it comes down to one of these three: visual, auditory or kinesthetic. And for these purposes, kinesthetic can be either physical or emotional feeling.
Here’s where it gets interesting for writers. We seem to have been moving as a population from being mostly auditory, in the nineteenth century, to being mostly visual in the twenty-first. (Kinesthetic response has not been dominant in any of these centuries, not sure why.) Think of how Dickens or Austen was experienced in the 1800s – read aloud in the living room. Think of how we experience novels today – reading them alone, looking at the pages. And think too, that we now have totally visual mediums: the movies and television.
Here are some examples:
This is the opening of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (1859):
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,
we had everything before us, we had nothing before us,
we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct
the other way – …”
Clearly this was meant to be read, and read aloud. It’s almost like poetry.
This is the opening line of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813):
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young man of good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
Both of these books take a few pages to land us with one character and begin the story.
This is the start of Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier (1997):
“At the first gesture of morning, flies began stirring. Inman’s eyes and the long wound at his neck drew them, and the sound of their wings and the touch of their feet were soon more potent than a yardful of roosters in rousing a man to wake. So he came to yet one more day in the hospital ward. He flapped the flies away with his hands and looked across the foot of his bed to an open triple-hung window.”
And here is classic Danielle Steel – The Promise (1989):
“The early morning sun streamed across their backs as they unhooked their bicycles in front of Eliot House on the Harvard campus. They stopped for a moment to smile at each other. It was May and they were very young. Her short hair shone in the sunshine, and her eyes found his as she began to laugh.”
You will notice that Frazier combined sound and feeling, and this will certainly hold up when read aloud, yet we have a visual sense of the scene by the fourth sentence. Danielle Steel is all visual, as is a lot of commercial fiction.
It seems to me that there is a lot of pressure on writers today to be more visual. All the “how to write” books advise it, and it certainly makes it easier to transfer them to film or television. And yet, I still feel there’s an important place for a strong auditory narrative – one that sounds great when read aloud (or in your head). Auditory writers hear the words, and want a certain pace and flow that they hate to interrupt to get quicker to a scene, or even to make grammatically correct.
I think the best approach is to be conscious of your own bent, to consider enhancing your writing by using other senses, and to be true to yourself. Certainly even the most visual writer needs to have good dialogue, which is obviously auditory, and every piece of writing is enhanced when the scene is set clearly.