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The Tinkered Mind
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November 25th, 2020
In comedy, timing is everything. Launch the punchline a little too early, or after a long winded and exhausting set up, and a funny joke can fall flat. The key to comedy is realizing that it’s just story telling rigged up with a particular timing. Much like music. And so too in writing. Creating something that is both surprising and delightful (as opposed to surprising and off-putting) is a matter of variance and familiarity. Rhythm creates the familiarity. Surprise through variance is all in the melody, and the combination of the two weave a cognitive magic for the human ear.
Content is king in the age of the internet, but the age old adage stands divine: it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. With so much creative history to stand on, almost everything written today is a remix of some sort, a rephrasing, a rehash with a fresh perspective. And strangely, the remixed song is often more successful than the original. Music is the perfect medium to explore this concept of how vs what because a listener can quite literally hear the cut and paste, and experience how well it does or doesn’t work. The same set of observations, however, apply to writing.
Write a piece that is composed completely of 70 word sentences and it’s likely going to be quite a long slog for the reader. Switch it up. Cut in short sentences. Offer some medium length grist to chew on. And suddenly, a piece of writing seems to take on a new dynamism, a bit of life that doesn’t exist in the purely long-winded treatment.
Writing an essay and telling a joke can take on helpful similarities around rhythm and melody. The story telling we call comedy is all about a rhythm that primes the mind for a perfectly timed juxtaposition that is unexpected but brings everything together. A great essay does something similar, but the connection to writing goes even deeper. The practicing writer hones for a feeling of rhythm and timing, improvising on the fly, like a jazz player, seeking something new. In essence, the writer of the essay tries to find the punchline buried within a set of curiosities. This is, of course what essay means - to try, in the same way jazz is -at heart- an attempt to create something new, fresh and delightful on the spot, spun from a deep sense of rhythm and melody.
The rhythm and cadence of words, clauses and sentences within an essay has a greater impact on the reader’s attention than perhaps anything else. Keeping the same tempo throughout is a bore. Like a piece of writing where every sentence is quite long. But shifting constantly at random can be as straining as a cat walking on a piano, jerking the reader’s attention around in a way that is anything but music.
There is a balance to be discovered, to practice and play with. And that’s really at the heart of it: to create something playful. That juvenile word perhaps captures it best: play is what is both surprising and delightful. It is the tradecraft of curiosity, and what so many adults seem to have such a hard time rediscovering - perhaps ironic considering play itself is a process of discovery. The genuine writer is little different than a kid in a sandbox, but the castles fashioned aren’t made of sand, but of words. The rhythm and melody discovered in those sonorous bits create a structure for the reader’s attention, much like the gaze of an onlooker that bounces from turret to drawbridge, spandrel and arch. With practice, play develops into an art. And then, with writing, a writer’s attention dances with the subject, so that the words might then dance with the reader’s attention.