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On Rhythm: In Sentences

A Craft Short

from:

Annie Penfield

On Rhythm: Every Sentence Has Its Own

I ride horses, always have. Everything I know about how to raise children, or survive school, comes from my life with horses. So it was only natural I would turn to horses to teach me about writing. Horses—their movement and response—would help me build sentences, pace my prose, find the rhythm of my words.

Rhythm is the foundation of good riding. Clint McCown told me, “The difference between bad writing and good writing is rhythm.” If I can control a horse’s rhythm, surely I can wrangle nouns and verbs.

Rhythm is regularity. Although a steady beat would seem to suggest static writing—the antithesis of our goal to engage the reader—instead, a steady beat creates energy and establishes authority. It collects the attention of the reader. As I ride to a jump, I use my position to balance, or punctuate, in order to maintain the energy and create the correct cadence. In his essay, “What We Talk about When We Talk about Flow,” David Jauss writes that when the author employs the correct cadence for a paragraph, we trust him for the rest of the story. So instead of letting my sentences run away with me, I study the structure, count the beats, use syntax to balance, punctuate, and construct a tight sentence. Philip Graham told me: you don’t want your reader skimming; you want to maintain the energy of your sentence with each word.

Rhythm is the footfall of the horse. So I considered the footfalls of my words by setting them to the beat of my horse. I did this by reading my work aloud while riding. Each gait had a different impact on the sentences because each gait has a different tempo. The walk was too slow and the trot too quick. I picked up the three-beat canter and read for about one sentence, before I had a steering issue and lost control of the horse. End of exercise.

What did I learn from this experience? That reading while riding was a cumbersome process and I would be safer to use a metronome at home in an armchair. What else I learned was surprisingly—embarrassingly—simple but perhaps only learned by doing. The words moved out of my head and into my body. I began to think more intently about tempo.  If I wanted to keep a regular beat I had to reconsider the placement of the words in the sentence or choose a better sounding word. Here is where I heard the musicality of the sentence and heard what clunked. It was hard to dismiss the beat when I felt it in my whole body. Every sentence had its own rhythm.

Riding a horse is a partnership. I approach my horse the way I approach the page: with humility, open to discoveries, listening for the rhythm. I cannot force the horse any more than I can force the prose.

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Jauss, David. “What We Talk about When We Talk about Flow.” Alone with All that Could Happen. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest
Books, 2008.

~

Annie Penfield owns Strafford Saddlery and received her MFA from VCFA. She lives in Vermont with her husband and three children. To her dismay, she sometimes lets her words run away with her—her children and horses too.

~

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jennifer Nelson February 5, 2013 at 8:06 pm

Wonderful essay. It made me think about my own essays and how they should be paced properly. Congratulations on the Fourth Genre award.
Best, Jennifer

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Annie October 24, 2011 at 8:29 am

I like the idea of “a harmonic is set up” and sometimes I struggle with the what sounds like the right harmony for a specific passage or fail to recognize when the harmony needs to change. So the “thrum” really helps with that process. Thanks Jenna!

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