Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

16.12 : Singing Versus Speaking

Your Hosts: Mary Robinette, Dan, Amal, and Howard

Can you hear your writing sing, being intoned instead of read? With the dialogs as tunes whose tags say “sung” instead of “said?” When the rhythm of your prose echoes the rhythm of a song you’ll see perhaps you’ve been a poet all along.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, and mastered by Alex Jackson. Les Miserables was written by Victor Hugo, set to music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, and ruined here by Howard Tayler.

Homework: Take a passage from your own work that isn’t quite working. Try to sing it: what happens when you do? Do you notice things about it that you don’t usually? Try to write it as a song — and then translate it back into prose.

Thing of the week: Stargazer, by Dan Wells.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: What do we take for granted about talking? Clarity, we speak to each other to communicate. We mix information and persuasion. But singing is different! It may initially be uncomfortable, but it can also be enchanting. Singing changes the relationship from equal sharing to an audience. Singing can be intimate and vulnerable. Consider what space poetry allows the reader to inhabit. Rhyme, and singing, demand your attention. Let your words stand up straight, and demand a certain kind of attention.

[Season 16, Episode 12]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses, Singing Versus Speaking.

[Dan] 15 minutes long.

[Amal] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Amal] I’m Amal.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Mary Robinette] We’re going to be talking about singing versus speaking, which Amal set up for us at the end of the last episode. This is part two of eight parts, talking about poetry. So, Amal, you teased us about telling us what you mean by singing versus speaking, so please do.

[Amal] Yes. So, I was thinking that the… Ultimately, for me, the differences between poetry and prose, which are many, can be kind of condensed into this one statement, that poetry is more like singing and prose is more like speaking. But I want to dig into what I mean by that a little bit. So, I want to… In the same way that last episode I was like, “Well, what exactly is prose?” in order to talk about what is poetry, I want to kind of point out what we take for granted when people are talking to each other. Our speech, when we speak to each other, has certain baked-in conventions, and defaults, that you can be vaguely assured of. They will differ from place to place, from city to city, from country to country, and so on, but there are still some basic assumptions about communication in the way that we use our voices to speak to each other. So, those assumptions tend to be that there will be clarity. We speak to each other to communicate things, to… Mary Robinette was saying last time that in public speaking, you can have two broad tracks of information and persuasion. These things are often mixing up in… When we talk to each other in general. We talk to share information, and we talk to, perhaps, argue with people, and convince them of our point of view. {Melodic] But what happens when someone starts to sing to you? When you expect them to speak to you? Things get kind of weird. This is really weird, isn’t it? Now I’m singing on this podcast, where you don’t expect someone to sing. [/Melodic] and that’s super weird. That, to me, is what happens to people when they encounter poetry in a place where they don’t expect to.

[Howard] You keep using the word weird, when you meant to say lovely.


[Amal] That is very kind. That is actually not irrelevant to the thing I want to say about this, which is that that thing which can be alienating and offputting and uncomfortable can also potentially be enchanting. That’s how I would like people to come to think about poetry, as something that inherently at first makes you feel all sorts of different things that are not usually the realm of speech. Where you don’t expect usually to be profoundly alienated by someone… I don’t know… Asking you for directions. One can be, absolutely. But usually, there is, like, an understanding that, “Oh, yeah, you go that way, you do this thing,” and you just talk. But singing has a very strange place in the way that we use our voices. When someone starts to sing and you don’t expect them to, there is this sudden transformation of the relationship between you and the person hearing you sing. You have turned someone into your audience in a way that you don’t actually, when you are sharing the experience of just communicating. There is something extremely intimate and vulnerable about singing. Intimate, specifically, because the person singing is making themselves vulnerable. There is this wonderful aspect of a comic called The Wicked + The Divine by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, which is about… Essentially, every 90 years, gods become embodied in a set of like 12 teenagers, and for two years, they get to be God’s, but then they have to die. They have set this in a kind of pop music scenario. So, you get to have two years of powerful and enormous fame and stuff. But these gods are… They have all this power, but they’re also enormously vulnerable when they sing. That the only time you can essentially kill a God is when they are singing. I think about that all the time when I think about poetry and what is involved in writing poetry and in sharing poetry, and also, conversely, in reading poetry. There is this vulnerability and intimacy that comes into it. I’m really indebted to this insight to my agent, DongWon Song, who absolutely hates it when people sing around him. Like, he gets very, very uncomfortable. He gets just like…

[Mixed voices, transcript may not be completely accurate]

[Mary Robinette] I am not absolutely going to troll him…

[Howard] [garbled] information.

[Mary Robinette] The next time I see him.

[Dan] Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] That’s…

[Dan] DongWon is so mad at you for letting the three of us know that.


[Mary Robinette] No. I will… I respect people’s hangups. I will not… Hah.

[Howard] You’re a better person than I am.

[Chuckles. Back to normal one person speaking.]

[Amal] But this is the thing. I was really interested in this, because I don’t feel that way. I really love it when people start to sing around me. I feel like it fills me with wonder and joy. But I wanted to kind of dig into why this was. I realized it was this feeling of… The kind of feeling that you get from like cringe comedy or something, where someone has made themselves too vulnerable, too naked, and you did not want to see that.

[Howard] For my own part, I remember, as a kid, reading the Lord of the Rings and other epic fantasies which had poetry in the pros. I remember, at the time, thinking, “Oh, why is this here? I hate this. This is…” As I grew older, I realized, “Oh. That’s because I’ve been speed-reading since I was 10 years old, and poetry forces me to stop and slow down and pay attention to every word, and that’s not why I picked up this book.”


[Howard] Recognizing that about myself allows me now to look at poetry and say, “Okay. The poet has expectations from my participation in this, and I need to acknowledge upfront how that makes me feel before I reflect anything back.” Because I do want to be a good person. If you break into song around me, I don’t want to slap you and ask you if you got stung by a bee.


[Mary Robinette] But I think that’s a really, really good and interesting point, Howard. I want us to come back to that after we pause for the book of the week. Which is… Dan, you were going to tell us about Stargazer?

[Dan] That is correct. This is my newest book, came out about a month ago. It is called Stargazer. It is the third book in my Zero G series of Audible originals. So it is middle grade hard science fiction about a boy and his family that go and start a new colony on an alien planet. It’s done with full cast and music and sound effects and is just wonderful to listen to. The book’s about four or five hours long in total. This one, the third one, is my very favorite of the series. It’s a little more complex, it’s a little more intricate. I’m really happy with it. I want you all to go listen to it.

[Mary Robinette] As just a side note, my dad and I both have really enjoyed the first two in the series. Dan told me that the Stargazer came out two days ago as we’re recording this, and I’m like, I have to go downstairs and tell my dad right now.


[Dan] Yay. The great thing about this one is that if you are an Audible member, you can listen to it for free. It’s kind of the Netflix model, you don’t have to buy it, you just can listen to it. So, there you go.

[Mary Robinette] So, that again, is Stargazer by this guy named Dan Wells, and I realize that you have never heard our last names.


[Mary Robinette] But that is, in fact, Dan’s last name.

[Dan] That is me.

[Mary Robinette] So, this idea that Amal brought up and Howard expanded on of that relationship made me realize something that I have not actually realized about poetry before. Tell me if I’m off-base here. When you’re talking about vulnerability with poetry, it’s less, I think, about why it’s uncomfortable for a reader. It’s less about the fact that the poet is being vulnerable and more about the fact that you’re asking for vulnerability from the reader. There’s an idea in puppetry and in writing, too, that you want to create space for the reader to be, and that this is one of the reasons that you’ll sometimes do a fairly simplified form, because you, the viewer, then puts expression on the form of the puppet figure as it moves through space, and the more specific and detailed you are in that sculpture, the less space there is for the reader… The viewer to bring themselves.


[Mary] So, with poetry, too, I feel like that’s one of the reasons that I often have heard that advice to slow down, but I haven’t actually understood that part of what it is, what I’m doing, is looking for the places that I inhabit in that. To use a completely different metaphor, that I’ve used elsewhere, that if you think of a form, a literature… Literary form as a clear glass pitcher, you can put anything into the pitcher you want. But every reader is going to bring their own vessel to drink from.


[Mary Robinette] You don’t know the shape of that vessel. So, poetry is providing more space for that reader experience. Is that?

[Amal] I love that metaphor. It’s reminding me actually of the way that Scott McCloud talks about the cartoon, or the icon, essentially. Where he puts forward the idea that a smiley face or… He doesn’t use the term emoji in understanding comics, but something like a smiley face, by virtue of having so few features, literally just two dots for eyes and a line for a mouth, allows you to project yourself into that image a lot more easily than if you had a very photorealistic, highly detailed representation of a human body. So it becomes very interesting in terms of allowing people of lots of different backgrounds and ethnicities and ages and genders to identify with what’s on the page. What’s interesting to me, though, is that I think potentially the difficulty with poetry might be the opposite of what you were describing, even though it’s exactly the right dynamic. I think that poetry can be in demanding the shift in the audience attention, and that in changing the relationship between you and your audience, it can be crowding out the reader by virtue of transforming that relationship into a different set of conventions that are not as legible to the reader as well. So, and… But I think that… I think it is absolutely the same dynamic. The idea that some poems are asking the reader to inhabit them or to take up space in them differently in a way that the reader was not prepared for, didn’t want to, or that the reader is being asked to back off more than they were expected to be, that they wanted to be immersed and instead are being thrown out.

[Howard] It’s kind of the difference between I want to tell you a story and I want you to have an experience.

[Amal] Yes.

[Dan] One of the very first things that you said, Amal, was when you started singing to us, that suddenly instead of a conversation, we had become an audience. The act of singing had put a kind of barrier between us. Nobody wanted to interrupt you. Nobody wanted… It suddenly wasn’t as much of a back-and-forth, because it had taken on the form of a performance. So that is another way in which I think that poetry can change that relationship so much. One of the things that this is most calling to mind to me is the concept of found poetry or accidental poetry. This idea that when you’re having an ord… When you’re not expecting to find poetry and then you do. That does seem strange and sometimes wondrous and sometimes annoying. Because depending on how you react to it. My favorite bit of found poetry is from a physics textbook.


[Dan] Old enough that it is not one that I studied from. But that I encountered in an English class. It’s relatively famous. It says, “And thus no force, however great, can pull a cord, however fine, into a horizontal line that shall be absolutely straight.” That is not something that the physicist wrote as a poem on purpose, but it is a shockingly brilliant couplet.

[Howard] Oh, it’s a poem.

[Amal] I love it so much.

[Dan] Part of what’s going on there is, yes, it’s a mnemonic, and that makes it easier to remember, but also, because it is suddenly and unexpectedly poetry, you do have to slow down in order to parse every word. That’s why I can still remember this flawlessly, 25 years later. Because that relationship… I don’t remember anything else about that particular chapter of poetry that I was reading. But this one just grabbed me. Which is one of the powers that poetry and poetic language has.

[Amal] Absolutely. Oh, my gosh. I love that so much. I really want to commit that to memory.


[Amal] It occurs to me that there are… This is another thing about singing versus speaking, is that when the… I mean, I think what we’ve been talking about is partly like the leaning more towards the alienation aspect or the vulnerability than the enchantment. But the word enchantment literally, like, the Latin root for it means to be inside a song, essentially. That you are inhabiting this different space. I think that that… There’s a kind of leaping out that poetry does, in that kind of stepping forward to perform that if it has succeeded in demanding your attention… It’s like what you’re describing, Dan. You remember it for a lot longer. The reason that rhyme is a mnemonic is because it’s so artificial. It’s so unusual that it will jump out. The reason that Shakespeare’s scenes tend to end on a rhyming couplet is to signal, “Here is an ending. Here is a transition to something else.” Singing, by virtue of being so different from the speech that we use to communicate is more memorable, will stay in the mind. This is why we get songs stuck in our heads and stuff, in part. So I want to just leave you with this thought, that singing is to poetry as speaking is to prose, and that… Or, sorry. Don’t laugh. One of those. Singing is like poetry, and speaking is like prose. If you can think of poetry as something that is within your power to do purely by virtue of letting your words stand up a little straighter and draw themselves to their full height. Let your words demand a certain kind of attention. Then you start writing poetry. I think that that is a place to start from to think about where are you demanding attention for your words and how.

[Mary Robinette] That’s fantastic. Do you want to give us some homework to kind of drive that home?

[Amal] I. I do want to give you homework. So, what I want you to do is, I want you to take a passage of prose, ideally from your own work, especially if you think that it isn’t quite working for some reason. Like, a passage that has felt clumsy to you or that isn’t quite doing the work that you wanted to do. I want you to take it, and doing whatever you need to to make this feasible for yourself, I want you to try and sing that passage. I want you to just imbue that passage with a melody. I want you to feel the difference in your own body as you are trying to sing that versus trying to speak that. When you do that, I want you to pay attention to what happens to you. Do you start to feel self-conscious in some places and not in others? Do you notice things about the passage itself that you don’t usually? Then, I want you to, once you have thought about that, I want you to try and rewrite the passage as a song. As if it were song lyrics. Then, try to sing it again. Then, once you’ve done that, try to translate it back into prose.

[Mary Robinette] Fantastic. All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.