A Writing Tip from Micah Muldowney
Estimated reading time: 3 minutes
Before I was a writer, I was a musician. I’d only just begun when they let me in on their dirty little secret:
Most songs are just three chords.
Some are just two. Even the harmonically ambitious ones are usually just Pachelbel’s Canon, reskinned. It’s a proverb, to the point that Ed Sheeran famously used it to get a copyright lawsuit thrown out.
Many aspiring musicians find this empowering—after all, with just a handful of fingerings, you too can play half of what’s on the radio. I, however, found it irritating. After all, what’s the point of being good at something that any idiot can do? I complained about it to my teacher, and she laughed at me.
“You are worrying about the wrong thing,” she told me, “Chords are just building blocks. They’re a consensus. It’s what’s happening on the surface that matters. How the song moves and breathes.”
She was right, of course, and in time I’ve found the same holds true for writing. While we’re often sold so hard on the virtues of originality that we’ll waste away huge chunks of our writing time trying to come up with a concept so radically original it’ll make people’s eyes bleed, the truth is, all the good stories have been told, at least on a conceptual level. In fact, if no one’s thought to tell it, it probably isn’t compelling.
Most successful writers don’t even bother. They focus on writing good prose. Case in point, one of the greatest critical successes this year was a scene-by-scene retelling of David Copperfield. Why? Because Barbara Kingsolver knows it’s the texture that counts—how the story moves and breathes on a surface level. What matters is what is happening here, where you are right now.
As writers, that’s where we really need to invest more of our time: on the surface of our prose.
How does the sentence move?
Does the pacing work?
Is the language working to create feeling, and to convey my message in a nuanced way?
Once I have a general shape, I find it helps to spend time getting a feel for the surface of my writing, where things like line and beat and style come in. Sometimes, I’ll read a sentence aloud as nonsense syllables so I can hear and feel where it catches. Then maybe I’ll play with a new rhythm, or insert a pause, or maybe try something else entirely. Because in the end, it’s what’s happening now, as you read, that makes the difference between a throwaway and a memorable piece.
Give Pachebel’s canon a listen. Then, listen to Oasis’ classic song “Don’t Look Back in Anger”. Sound a little similar? Still like them both? Yes, I thought so.
Micah Muldowney is the author of the collection Q-Drive and Other Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2022). His short fiction and poetry have been featured or are forthcoming in The New England Review, Descant, West Trade Review, and many others. He currently lives in the greater Philadelphia area, where he is working on a novel.