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How the Author of ‘Ragtime’ Taught an Aspiring Writer to Hear the Music


This is when it happened: As I read “The Waves,” I started to “hear” language as if for the first time. It was as though a window flew open, and the sounds of the author’s words rushed in. I began to notice the sonic patterns of Woolf’s sentences, how she composed a music all her own with her rhythmic language and sentence structure. In the novel’s first section, Woolf writes from Bernard’s perspective: “We shall sink like swimmers just touching the ground with the tips of their toes. We shall sink through the green air of the leaves, Susan. We sink as we run. The waves close over us, the beech leaves meet above our heads.” I became attuned to the cumulative sounds of one sentence after another, and how the rhythms and repetitions produced a kind of symphony that I had never heard before.

Here is language, I thought as I read Woolf. Here is life.

Perhaps it was synesthesia: I couldn’t write, and this limitation may have opened up another cognitive pathway in my brain. Or maybe it was the fact that Woolf’s novel is built with a kind of acoustic architecture; the sounds of her sentences carry the narrative along. Later, I read in Elicia Clements’s “Virginia Woolf: Music, Sound, Language” (2019) that Woolf wrote in a letter to Elizabeth Trevelyan, a Dutch musician: “I always think of my books as music before I write them.” (In the same book, Clements writes that Woolf was listening to Beethoven’s late String Quartet in B flat major, Op. 130, and that this chamber work inspired much of “The Waves.”) I imagine it was a combination of these circumstances: my broken shoulder and inability to write, Woolf’s distinctive soundscapes and the critical engagement that Doctorow was pressing on us.

During the class in which we presented “The Waves,” Doctorow spoke about how Woolf’s lyricism underscored the march of time in the novel. Like Kafka in “The Metamorphosis” and Dante in the “Inferno,” he observed, Woolf animated the inevitable movement toward death through her language, the rhythmic resonance of her sentences and her sophisticated narrative structure. The innovative interplay of these elements opened up this path of meaning for the reader.

The semester continued: We read Kerouac (and I had a similar aural experience with his stream-of-consciousness, syncopated prose), the stories of Jayne Anne Phillips and more. For the final writing assignment, Doctorow asked us to choose one of the works on the syllabus and borrow — or steal — from it in a fiction of our own. (For his best-selling novel “Ragtime,” Doctorow famously borrowed the tent poles for his plot from Kleist’s “Michael Kohlhaas” and reassembled them with his own version of the story in New York City at the turn of the 20th century.) Not surprisingly, I chose “The Waves”: I copied Woolf’s sentences word for word, then replaced her language with my own — and began to understand how I could create my own musical arrangements in my imagination and on the page.

Over time, my hearing has worsened. A year after my graduation from N.Y.U., my left eardrum was perforated by another infection and required reconstructive surgery. For the past decade, I have experienced the continuous ring of tinnitus in that ear and now wear a hearing aid. Yet the sounds of reading are very much alive in my head. Occasionally, I’ll commit to memory a poem by one of my favorite poets — Marie Howe, say, or Jean Valentine — and for a spell I know the sound of her words intimately, almost like a heartbeat. All of this is thanks to Doctorow and what he taught me: Read deeply, steal what you can and always listen for the music.



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