Tuning the Ear

One of the first things you learn when performing heightened text such as Shakespeare or Restoration comedy is that the audience, even a savvy one, experiences a moment or series of moments at the beginning of the play tuning their ear to the language. Your job as the performer is to make that initial adjustment as brief and painless as possible. Thus, the hours spent in the studio working one’s craft ideally accompanied by the wisdom and guidance of a master.

Though I wouldn’t consider all the books I’ve read during the initial months of The Pulitzer Project to be heightened text, they do present a language that is not my own and like the audience at the Royal Shakespeare Company, I do spend a bit of time tuning my ear to the structure and rhythms of the writer. Some voices require more tuning than others, but I usually get there in the first fifty pages or so.

Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea for example required quite a shift coming off of Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. The almost hyper-simplicity of the language had my inner narrator stumbling over himself. I think I had heard others describe Hemingway’s signature style, but I was unprepared for it as a reader.

I experience this shift more strikingly in my Pulitzer reading list than I did moving between the pulpy horror or fantasy novels I typically consumed before assigning myself to literature of slightly more acclaim than Stephen King’s Cell - which is a terrific thriller made into an abysmal film.

I’m in the middle of Toni Morrison’s Beloved right now which reads more like a poem. I’d be hard pressed to say I tuned in completely before the first hundred pages, though many moments of poignancy did land. Happily, I discovered reading on the StairMaster this morning that I’m humming along now. The pace of my reading has picked up which is usually a sign that I’m moving with her voice instead of gasping to keep up.

This all makes me wish I could speak more intelligently about the great literature I’m reading, but I’ve already written a blog post about leaving the English department in shame so I won’t rehash here.

But I only seem to have emotional responses to the stories I’m consuming. Or if not emotional, certainly not cerebral. Possibly physiological. For example: sometimes, when a passage is particularly beautiful, it feels like my chest is glowing.

As a writer I need that intellectual foothold too. I need to be able to grasp structurally/narratively what works and what doesn’t so I can start to recognize that in my own work. I need to tune my mind as well as my ear.

I guess I started this nutty little project because it’s my hope that The Pulitzer Project serves as my studio. Hemingway, Morrison, Whitehead, Stegner and all the others, my masters.

This idea that I can grow myself artistically by consuming the work of great artists may be incredibly naive, but that's kind of fine with me because the flip side is cynicism, and cynicism never birthed anything worth cherishing.

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