A Beat of Her Own
“Rhythm underlies everything.” –Mary Oliver
I began my latest novel, Apartment 1986, with one goal in mind: I wanted to write a first-person narrator who sounded as unlike me as possible. That, it turned out, was much harder than I thought it would be. I hadn’t fully realized how internalized the beat of my own prose was. After years of trying to “write the way I talk,” I finally had to imagine a whole new pattern of speech—a brand new rhythm. And, of course, by rhythm, I’m talking about syntax. All writing speaks to the listening mind, and rhythms are foundational. Form and content are one thing. When we are trying to create an image in someone’s mind and a feeling in the heart, the image will dictate the rhythm we choose.
In-person speech is a rich mode of communication. If I were to stand before you and speak, you would see my gestures, my facial expression, you would hear the modulations in the pitch of my voice. All of these contribute to the clarity of what I am saying. If we were to communicate via phone, we would remove one layer of information. You could still “read” the pitch of and inflection in my voice, but you would not be able to see my face or gestures. The written word removes yet another level of communication, and that is why it is so important that it be clear. Anyone who has ever sent an E-mail that was taken the wrong way knows what I am talking about. This is why bad news is usually delivered in person. It’s so that the words can be conveyed, but the unspoken emotion, such as compassion, regret, caring can also be properly conveyed. As writers, our toolbox is limited to intentional grammar.
The narrator of Apartment 1986 is Callie, a middle-school girl who is feeling constrained by challenges at school and at home. She has a naturally positive outlook, but isn’t terribly sophisticated. Here, she explains why she sometimes disappears to the roof of her school, “Look, there are moments when a girl just needs a breath of air, and you can’t get it inside this stuffy school or anywhere in Manhattan when you are down on the street. The air down there isn’t air, it’s basically 80% exhaust fumes 5% heat and 5% dirt, which most of the time gets caught in your lip gloss which is ew. So if you want to breathe and maybe look at a few clouds, you have to get someplace up high.” Even from these few sentences, we get a sense of the character—and no one would ever mistake her for a 45-year-old woman. Callie’s tone is conversational, and the first two sentences ramble. But the syntax of the third sentence slows and presents itself more carefully. This is the part Callie wants the reader to understand and take seriously. The rhythm is a reflection of the progressing thoughts of the narrator, and the texture of the emotion.
Since reimagining the rhythm of Callie’s speech in Apartment 1986, I have begun to realize the intimate relationship between character and the rhythm of his or her speech. Throughout my current work in progress, I’ve made sure to experiment with writing from the first-person perspective of each of my characters, so that I have a sense of his or her internal rhythm. This has, in turn, made their dialog and interactions richer—I no longer have characters that sound similar to me or to each other.
Everyone, it turns out, marches to the beat of a unique drummer.
Lisa Papademetriou is the author of A Tale of Highly Unusual Magic (A South Asia Book Award Highly Commended Title), Apartment 1986, the Confectionately Yours series, and many other novels for middle grade and young adult readers. She serves on the faculty of the MFA program (Writing for Children and Young Adults Track) at Sierra Nevada College.