<$BlogRSDURL$> Spontaneous Things: Karina Sumner-Smith's Blog
Friday, February 20, 2004
Confessions of a Self-Professed Structure Geek

While I was reading Piano Shop, I came across a passage in the middle of the book that absolutely leapt out at me. I stopped and re-read it, and re-read it again. Then I murmured happy things to myself and bookmarked the page with a spare bus transfer.

This is the passage, from page 103 of The Piano Shop on the Left Bank by T. E. Carhart:

We practiced a form of musical gymnastics, which consisted in having me say out loud the name of the next chord as I played harmonic progressions, faster and faster. It was nerve-racking a t first, but it was strangely thrilling as I came to know the sequences not just with my hands, as before, but as an idea that the mind could grasp while the piano gave it a voice.

From my very first lessons with Anna I experienced a satisfaction and a kind of pleasure that I had not expected. Even the simplest figuration in those first pieces--a change of key, an unexpected chord--could fill me with joy as I grasped with my ear and my mind what was intended, however straightforward. This was a new kind of experience for me: not just fingers on the keyboard but a deeper level of comprehension and, with it, of beauty.

Here, in a piano-phrased metaphor, is what I've been trying to explain to more than one person for so long: why it is that the structure or style of a particular piece of writing can bring me such joy. Once upon a time I could read a story simply for the story, without wondering at or even comprehending the underlying structures of the work. I read for characters and events and emotion, and nothing else. But somewhere along the way I decided I wanted to be a writer and so I've trained myself, year by year, to become aware of the words of a story. To pay attention to the phrasing of an emotional passage, to examine why a certain line or paragraph or snippet of dialogue affected me the way it did. (Or even to see why it didn't.)

I said in my Creative Writing class that the biggest failure of the program was that it didn't teach how to critique: how to examine and pull apart and put back together and understand a story. And somehow I've taught myself, and continue to teach myself. I've experimented and failed and played around and had fun. (I've even written some decent stories along the way.) All of this is why I can start to see why a story isn't working, or where the narrative slows and pulls itself down, or the tone shifts unexpectedly, or there's a beat missing. I am like Thad Carhart in the above passage, a student and a fumbler, yes, but one who takes great joy in the learning. This is what I do. It's what I love.

Which is why when I see someone playing with style or structure, or discover a writer whose work just works, every line of it, I absolutely geek out. I was in Bakka a few weeks back and started reading Put This House in Order by Matt Ruff, an author I'd never come across and a work I'd never heard of. And I knew within a few lines that I had to own this book. (It's now sitting on my bookshelf, awaiting my time, a self-purchased Christmas gift from my Grandparents.)

For my fellow style and structure geeks, here are the first few chapters of the book. Enjoy.

Posted by Karina Sumner-Smith at 12:16 PM


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