Writing with flow

Ah, the holiday season. This year, in spite of not traveling for Christmas, I took more time off work than usual and, combined with not losing hours driving or sitting in the airport/airplane, I’ve had more free time.

Some of this time was taken up with things that needed doing; family activities, three days taken up with shopping for a new car, and a good thirty hours or so used to overhaul one of my saxophones; a maintenance job that I do every ten years or so. I haven’t done a lot of writing, but have been doing some reading about writing. I started in early December with June Casagrade’s “It was the best of sentences, it was the worst of sentences”, then Donald Maass’ “Writing 21st Century Fiction”, and am still finishing up Francine Prose’ “Reading Like a Writer”, and “On Writing Fiction”, by David Jauass.

In the last book, Jauss spends a chapter discussing “flow” using musical comparisons and terminology. In the middle of the chapter he quotes from Faulkner, here writing through the voice of a mentally challenged protagonist.

“Yes,” Joe said. His mouth said it, told the lie. He had not intended to answer at all. He heard his mouth say the word with a kind of shocked astonishment. Then it was too late.

Jauss states that this quote does not flow, but it works. He says that this is an example of a situation where flow would be detrimental to the writing. I disagree.

For me, the definition of flow is where the rhythm supports the continued movement of our interest over a period of time, or in the case of writing, period of words or of reading time. Here the rhythm is choppy, distinct and clear, without being staccato (which is not to say that a staccato rhythm cannot also flow). Jauss agrees that the rhythm supports the writer’s needs in the given situation, but I would argue that the rhythm created still allows the writing to flow. Now, we’re not sailing along the Danube or the Moldau here, we’re traveling like a basket of laundry being pushed over berber carpeting by a toddler, or a clarinetist riding atop the accompaniment of a polka band as opposed to playing Mood Indigo, but the feeling of appropriate movement, of flow, still exists.

To me flow is where the movement of interest is supported and not hampered. If I’m playing On The Sunny Side Of The Street and someone in the band gets lost, or plays an E minor where the E dominant seventh (in the key of C), the only real color chord in the piece, is supposed to be, the flow is lost. On the other hand, if the piano player goes chunk, chunk, chunk, chunk, with no smoothness and little variety, but keeps a steady rhythm and hits the right chords, I can work with that. The flow may be bumpy, but it’s there.

Perhaps Jauss defines as flow only that kind that is smooth and elegant; Stan Getz playing bossa novas or the continuity of Hayden string quartets, but I would argue that Bartok’s string quartets flow as well, and that even the music of Webern has a flow to it. It’s just a different kind of flow, a different kind of support for the sense of continuity and of movement.

I think it’s really the absence of flow that he should be after. Flow that is killed by useless or unconsidered lack of variety, incorrect grammar, repeated patterns or structures, or insensitivity to pulse and rhythm.

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