My mother says I played drums prenatally, using the inside of her belly as my bass drum. This is not extraordinary in and of itself, as many mothers will attest, but Mom maintains my kicks came in rock-steady 4/4 time — with a syncopated backbeat.
I went on to play drums with dedicated passion. I took my first lessons in second grade when the sticks were longer than my forearms. I made the New Jersey high school all-state orchestra, captained the Rutgers University marching band drum line, gigged with a jazz trio through college and a blues band after graduation and continue to play with bands to this day as an avocation.
As a young reader, I was a sucker for anything that smacked of rhythmic sensibility, which more often than not turned out to be rhyme. Dr. Seuss had me at “hat.” Edgar Allan Poe’s tintinnabulations made me tingle. While English teachers explained that the Three Witches chorus from “Macbeth” — “Double, double, toil and trouble; Fire burn, and caldron bubble” — was a good example of trochaic tetrameter, to me it sounded like the classic paradiddle rudiment: right, left, right, right; left, right, left, left. As far as I was concerned, the Bard had a beat and that put him right up there with Ringo and Ginger and Gene in my book.
Discounting the time Mr. Thomas threw me out of English class for tapping out a bossa nova beat on my desk to back up his reading of “The Canterbury Tales,” it took years for me to appreciate the relationship between rhythm and writing, and years more for me to recognize a particular rhythmic pattern to my own writing.
It’s no coincidence that the language of rhythm infiltrates the writer’s vocabulary. We speak of pacing, meter and cadence. We sense when a beat is missing from a line. We notice the flow in a section or the staccato rat-tat-tat in a series of sentences.
That last was probably what attracted me, albeit unconsciously, to Hemingway. Reading “The Old Man and the Sea” in high school, I was riveted by unrelenting streams of narrative prose that rocked my boat, such as: “And bed, he thought. Bed is my friend. Just bed, he thought. Bed will be a great thing. It is easy when you are beaten, he thought. I never knew how easy it was. And what beat you, he thought. ”
Still, I was embarrassingly slow on the upbeat when it came to my own writing. After I started teaching writing, I began to analyze my own work for clues as to how I did what I did.
I discovered that my writing voice had a noticeable rhythm. From one of my early stories for National Geographic magazine, I wrote this lede: “Gedeon Corriveau lives on the edge — the edge of two countries, the edge of two cultures, the edge of past and future.” The rhythm of this, at least to my ears, is what drummers call triplets, or what some literary analysts call “The Rule of Three.”
I’ve always been fascinated by triplets — a series of three notes played in the time value of two notes — and prided myself in mastering the ability, as a drummer must, to divide my mind in half so that my right hand thinks in sets of threes while my left thinks in twos. We call it three-against-two.
Of course, I did not invent the application of triplets to literature. In the world of words, the third time is also and often a charm. Have you noticed? “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” “Sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.” “Truth, justice and the American way.”
Likewise, the repetition of sounds gives rhythm to prose. Though some consider alliteration the lazy writer’s excuse for style, I repeat words that begin with, or contain, the same letter in nearby words to create what I think of as accents in a sentence, to wake up readers to the notion that there actually is a beat, even if only subliminally.
Drumming has benefited my writing, but it has also helped keep me sane as a writer. It balances opposing sides of my brain, the physical/visceral and the mental/logical. Drums are among the most physically demanding instruments one can play.
This is such a healthy alternative to the physical strictures of writing, an exercise for which I use the phrase “nailed to my seat” quite often to explain how I finish writing stories or books.
Playing drums takes me out of my thinking head and into my feeling body, forcing my overactive mind to go on vacation. When I’m performing onstage with other musicians, there is no time to edit, revise or even stop to think. You have to always move forward, instantly rewarded and inspired by listeners’ bobbing heads and tapping feet. You feel the beat or you’re “out of time.”
On the other hand, writing, like painting, is an art that happens alone — if not always literally, always alone in one’s head. Sometimes weeks, months or even years later, a reader may smile or cry or otherwise think about something I typed many eons ago. I never get to witness that gratifying moment, but I like to think of it as a reader’s equivalent of head bobbing. And that thought sets my heart beating faster.
Perry Garfinkel, a writer based in Berkeley, Calif., is the author of “Buddha or Bust” and “Travel Writing for Profit and Pleasure.”