ASSAY: A JOURNAL OF NONFICTION STUDIES
There was a moment, a few years ago, when an accidental comparison opened a fast understanding. I was in my office, talking with a student about her manuscript. She had a fine idea but the writing was wooden. Every bit of exposition sounded like speech-making. Every bit of narrative was summary at best. There were statues of information but no movement. We weren’t on the same page about how to get the parts to work together.
“Do you know what hocketing is?” I asked.
I knew my student was in the college bell choir and I had learned the word just the day before, listening to a bell choir on Minnesota Public Radio. Obviously, the announcer said, no one bell carries more than one note. No one bell can carry a melody. But listeners perceive a melody from the interplay of the one notes coming from multiple places. Simply put, hocketing is the technique of making disparate parts create a linear song that, frankly, exists nowhere except in the listener’s head
“Yes!” she said. The revision was a success.
A short while later, in a meeting with another student, who was working on a memoir of his mother’s cancer, I asked if the disease was a key-change in the existing family tune, or a whole new song.
“Oh,” he said. “Now I get it.”
I have the good fortune to teach at a college with a strong music program. Physics majors worry about which ensemble or choir they get into. Writing majors are forever on orchestra tour. And it occurred to me that there is a whole vocabulary in music that would apply, easily, to talk about writing. Crescendo is rising action or building tension. Harmony is subplot. Coda is denouement (more or less). Moreover, there are whole vocabularies in photography, wood-working, pottery, dance, even baking with ancient stoneware that we can use to help talk about the ways we think about words.
Just as any metaphor is an act of making something more clear, the use of vocabulary from other arts has a way of giving just that right nuance, that right edge for clarity.
A complete glossary would be impossible. But here are a few terms, picked for no other reason than I like them and seem to use them a lot. I offer them just to give a few examples of the idea.