Sunday, December 23, 2012

Kate Hill Cantrill Feels the Rhythm

In the 61st in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Kate Hill Cantrill, author of Walk Back From Monkey School (Press 53), discuss her belief in the importance of reading her own—and others'—writing aloud.

I am fairly obsessed with rhythm in writing—the cadence of dialogue, the timing of a response, the drum-beat feel of an appropriate repetition. Reading a dull or off-rhythm story is like listening to a poor joke-teller hopped up on wine at the Thanksgiving table struggle through your favorite one about the wide mouth frog, and you’re just dying to leave and start scrubbing some dishes.

I read my work aloud constantly, sentence after sentence, to make sure that it’s doing what it should be doing and saying both what it should say and hopefully something else and maybe luckily something else as well. Ideally I have chosen a word or a combination of words or punctuation that will allow the sentence to be read in a variety of ways. This is mostly true of my flash fiction, but I strive for it as well in my longer stories and even in my novel writing.

I also read aloud the words of others. I know I truly love their work if I find I can’t read a line without stopping and reading it a second or third time aloud. Amy Hempel is one I can’t possibly just read to myself. If I’m on a train or in some other public place then I will at least have to mouth it out. Grace Paley as well. Jamaica Kincaid probably started it all for me, along with Salinger.

I do care what happens in a story, I really do, but if it happens in a vanilla bean manner, then I don’t care. It doesn’t matter if it is a scene of puppies getting hurled off a bridge into a rocky abyss—if it is not written with a masterful rhythm, it will not move me because I will not be there to believe it. My heart will not be pumping with it. Well, ok, so puppies, just the word triggers something, I have to be honest about that. My heart is not made out of Gobstoppers, after all.

I have just now been reminded of John Edgar Wideman’s Two Cities, one of my favorite novels of all time. The final bit was titled something funny—I can’t remember it and I can’t check it because I am an idiot and I loaned my copy to a student and everyone knows that books are never returned, especially the great ones. Now I have to go and buy it again because it made my heart race like crazy—the whole book but especially the ending. It was written in a jazz beat that really floored me. It solidified in my head-ball that words are like any other creative material: paint, clay, instruments, voice, etc.

I just walked by a young woman on the street who was waiting for the bus. She dressed in black and white and adorned heavy black eyeglasses that slid down her nose. It’s a warmish late-fall day so she didn’t wear a coat and on her strappy-the-duck tee (wife-beater to some) she had had pinned a college ruled sheet of paper that flapped in the wind and read: I heart you. It sounds a bit batty, but she was appropriately self-conscious about the whole thing. She was a walking short story, really. After I passed by I wished that I had stopped and told her that I liked her sign, but alas, I didn’t do that and I was late for work. In the short story I’ll write I’ll have a character who will stop and tell her this—that she likes her sign—and it will be as awkward and uncomfortable as it would have been in true to real life, but in the story it will be oh so perfectly timed and the rhythm will be oh so totally spot on.