Guest Post: Writing by Ear

The following is a guest post by client, Ruth Horowitz. Ruth is an amazing writer who I met a few years ago. When I first read her manuscript it cemented my determination to be a literary agent because I just fell in love with it. I wanted all my friends, family, acquaintances, strangers on the street, to read this book. Ruth is the kind of writer I’m envious of. She’s a master of the craft, smart, funny, and has a great work ethic. Ruth blogs at Giving Up The Ghost.

I have done lots of different kinds of writing over the years. The list includes picture books, newspaper stories, sermons, easy-readers, political campaign copy, a love advice column, and fiction for adults. Each of these formats has its own conventions, and shifting between them means slipping in and out of different personae. Sometimes, when I sit down to write, I have to ask myself, who am I today?

If the answer doesn’t come easily, I use my ears. At least, that’s what it feels like. I pick up a sample of the sort of piece I’m trying to produce and read a random sentence or two. Once I’ve got the right sound in my head, I’m usually good to go. (Or at least better to go.)

Of course, sometimes, even when I’ve been writing the same sort of thing for years, I sit down to work and have to ask myself, who am I as a writer? When that happens, I turn to the writers who inspire me. The ones whose work makes me wish I had written it myself. The ones I like to imagine I could have written it myself, if only I were, well, them.

I’ll walk over to my bookcase and pull out something by, say, Jhumpa Lahiri, John Updike, Ursula Hegi, Jayne Anne Phillips, or the late, great, sadly under-read Canadian novelist, Margaret Laurence. I’ll read a sentence here and there, until I remember why I love this writer so much. Why I love writing so much. Why I wanted to become a writer in the first place. Then I’ll sit down and write my own story.

Do you write by ear? Who inspires you?


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7 responses to “Guest Post: Writing by Ear

  1. A few writers who inspire me are: Kazuo Ishiguro, Mark Twain, Barbara Kingsolver, A S Byatt, Amy Tan, Elizabeth Gaskell — and there are dozens more. But I do remember reading a memoir of expatriate life by Margaret Laurence and loving it.

  2. Erik Larson

    That sounds like a great clutch to help change writing gears. I had real trouble suddenly switching from an adult piece to a middle-grade piece. I found myself needing to listen to a little bit of a middle-grade book as well as reading some of my own middle-grade material to flip the mental lever back over.

  3. Enjoyed this post. It resonated because just last night I was thinking about a book I had just finished reading, Words in the Dust, and how I want readers to have the same feeling from my work that I had when I completed that novel. Now if I can put that “feeling” into words, I’ll be in good shape!

  4. The mention of Laurence thrills me. I must’ve been the nerdiest kid in high school, because I loved her. Maybe it helped that I grew up an hour and a half from her hometown…I don’t know. I do know that I haven’t read her in 16 years, and yet lines or imagery of hers will still spring to mind when I’m musing over how to write what I really want to say.

    This week, Jodi Picoult. Vanishing Acts. Just wow.

  5. This week, Lauren Myracle and Hanna Moskowitz. I used to be afraid of reading and writing at the same time (well, you know, not at EXACTLY the same time) because I was afraid it’d go beyond inspiration and I’d start writing bad fan fiction. But that fear was unfounded. Or maybe it used to be founded, but now it’s not. As in, maybe I have more confidence in my own voice now. Which may or may not be founded.

    Great post, Ruth.

  6. T. P. Jagger

    Thanks for a wonderful post—I also find myself turning to other authors when I’m stuck and trying to find my own voice.

    I keep a file labeled “Great Beginnings.” When I read something that has a terrific opening sentence (or paragraph), I add a copy of that “great beginning” to the file. For instance, I recently added the opening sentence from Roger Rosenblatt’s memoir, Making Toast: “The trick when foraging for a tooth lost in coffee grounds is not to be misled by the clumps.” How could I stop reading after an opening like that? (Answer to rhetorical question: I couldn’t.) When I’m stuck and trying to figure out how to grab a reader (without the reader filing charges), I turn to this file to remind myself how other writers have grabbed me. Then, with the bar set high, I write.

    • Yes indeed we are so influenced by others’ thoughts and feelings. We would not be able to write if we had no experiences of our own. We do. We watch and we learn from others. What person refuses to read a dandy book just because it might influence their thinking? We learn all the time and sometimes it is really bad stuff. Thank God and bless all those writers who inspire and “YES” influence us.