The Rhythmic Writing of Rosellen Brown

Author Rosellen Brown discusses the importance of rhythm in writing for the 2017 Nan O. Grass Lecture.

PROVO, Utah (Oct. 19, 2017)—You may have heard of Nan O. Grass 2017 guest lecturer Rosellen Brown before. In fact, you may have seen her featured in one of your nightmares—the SAT or ACT. One day, Brown received an email from the Educational Testing Services (ETS) requesting permission to print a small excerpt from one of her essays in the standardized tests. “This was a little unnerving to say the least,” said Brown. “If I said yes, I would be aiding and abetting the folks that throw unwelcome challenges and possibly insurmountable snares at the feet of young people, making a trip to the dark side, perhaps inviting terror, curses, or let’s be honest, yawns of boredom.” In the end, she decided to allow the ETS to use her writing, charging them a small fee for the privilege.

Being chosen as a standardized test text caused a moment of self-reflection for Brown as she wondered what about her writing would seem “stimulating or challenging to the wide disparate world of American high school juniors.” The essay chosen by ETS  had been published years ago from a lecture in which Brown recommends writers to step outside their comfort zone—for poetry writers to write prose and for prose writers to write poetry. Often, the poetry writers accept prose easily, but prose writers tend to find the prospect of writing poetry terrifying.

In this exercise, Brown does not want these writers to change their primary means of expression, but rather to understand that “words exist on a continuum, that they are all connected, sometimes closely, sometimes distantly . . . Because who can predict, when a writing crisis strikes, when it becomes necessary to cast an idea in a hitherto unforeseen form,” she explained. She hopes students will see that changing genres is a great way to understand the faculties and abilities of language.

Most importantly, Brown hopes that changing genres or writing an unfamiliar assignment will encourage students to listen to their words. “Good writing is music. It is not or should not be the mere transformation of fact or opinion. It should not be a destination, but a journey,” she said. “It must concentrate on sound, the balance of syllables, long short, hard, soft, in a graceful order—what, in my SAT-worthy essay I called ‘the satisfying fricatives and glottals and aspirates that constitute language.’”  The first recommendation she gave to begin this process is to read writing aloud and pay specific attention to where the emphasis falls in a sentence. The second was to imitate the styles of writers that have beautiful, rhythmic prose like Virginia Woolf. 

Commonly accepted is the belief that the first sentence of any work should be well crafted and perfect, but Brown suggests writers give this same attention not only to the first, but to every sentence of writing. While content is crucial, style and rhythm are equally, if not more, important. She continued, “Good writing demands that you make innumerable choices—some as you write, more as you revise. A finely tuned ear should demand countless little sacrifices.” Some people are born with a natural sense of rhythm in their writing, but for most it must be a carefully learned, painstakingly deliberate task, a skill developed through conscious practice.

Hannah Sandorf Davis (B.A. Art History and Curatorial Studies ’17)

Hannah covers events for the English Department for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in art.