A Writer’s Fixation on Sound

The author R. O. Kwon reflects on the relationship of rhythm to writing and how she stopped obsessing over the first 20 pages of her new novel, The Incendiaries.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

It’s not that it was easy for R. O. Kwon to write The Incendiaries, her debut novel. The book took 10 years to finish, and along the way she faced many of the challenges first-time authors do: self-doubt, creative failure, awkward questions from friends and family about her progress. But, in a conversation for this series, Kwon explained that she was able to weather the struggles of her book’s prolonged development by focusing on the simple, profound joys of working with language—an essential pleasure she feels is perhaps best expressed in a letter by Edith Wharton.

Kwon’s obsession with rhythm and sound shows on every page of The Incendiaries, a book written in short sections that glimmer with the sharpness and density of finely wrought gems. But this hyper-attentiveness to language has not always been an asset, and it took a timely lesson from the writer Lauren Groff for Kwon to learn when to loosen up, and when to fixate on each syllable. We discussed how language itself can be a distraction from everyday anxieties, why she records herself reading her work out loud, and how she knew it was time to stop changing the words and admit the book was finished.

The Incendiaries begins with an explosion, a building destroyed by a bomb while onlookers watch from an 11th-story rooftop. The story that follows is told in brief flashes that alternate points of view, sections short and razor sharp as flying shards. Phoebe is a troubled young woman falling under the influence of John Leal, a charismatic and bloody-minded cult leader with a shadowy past. And Will is Phoebe’s adoring classmate, left picking up the pieces as he tries to understand how the woman he loved fell under John Leal’s spell. Taken together, Kwon’s multifaceted narrative portrays America’s dark, radical strain, exploring the lure of fundamentalism, our ability to be manipulated, and what can happen when we’re willing to do anything for a cause.

R. O. Kwon is a National Endowment for the Arts fellow in literature. Her writing has been featured in publications such as The Guardian, Vice, and BuzzFeed. She spoke to me by phone.

R. O. Kwon: Usually when I truly love a writer, and I’ve worked through all their fiction or poetry or essays or whatever it is, I’ll turn toward their letters and journals. That’s how I found a line from one of Edith Wharton’s letters, something that stuck with me throughout the long process of completing my novel. I can’t remember when it was exactly—I just know I needed to write it down.

I keep a giant, running document of bits and pieces from books I love. I’ve found that document to be helpful when I’m stuck, and sometimes I just turn to it for pleasure, really. If I read something online that I want to keep, I’ll paste it in. When I’m reading a book, I’ll write down all the page numbers in the back with lines I’ve underlined, short passages I want to keep for myself. When I finish the book, I’ll go through it again and copy into my document the lines or phrases I think I might later want or need.

For years, this line from Wharton has stayed up near the top of this giant repository, where I keep my go-tos:

“I don’t believe that there is any greater blessing than that of being pierced through & through by the splendour or sweetness of words, & no one who is not transfixed by ‘Die Sonne tönt nach alter Weise,’ or ‘thick as Autumnal leaves that strew the brooks,’ has known half the joy of living. Don’t you agree with me?—I wouldn’t take a kingdom for it.”

Here Wharton revels in the sheer joy of words. I love that there’s a sentence of untranslated German, a line from Goethe. Since it’s a language I don’t speak, for me it puts the musicality of language above all else. In my own work, if the music isn’t coming together—if the sounds aren’t coming together in a given sentence—then I know I’m doing something wrong. Sound is paramount for me when I’m writing.

The first poem I really fell in love with as a kid was “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” by Keats, which I know isn’t terribly original, as first loves go. But it’s so good. I remember reading it on the page, and my attitude was just, “Okay, whatever, it’s another poem.” I didn’t get it. But then, for some reason, I decided to read it out loud to myself—and I was amazed by what the sounds were doing. That was how I fell in love with poetry, and it’s a feeling that has never left me.

The sound of words often hits faster than sense. I read once that T. S. Eliot sometimes heard what a line should sound like before the words came to him, a rhythm he would feel and fit words into. I know he’s far from the only poet who’s said that, and, of course, the same thing can happen with prose. When it does, it’s amazing because then it feels like I truly know what I am doing—which, otherwise, is a pretty rare experience.

This feeling can help remind me why I love to write, and why I love to read. Writing can be a long, difficult process. I worked for 10 years on my first book. Part of what kept me going was just reminding myself of what I love most about writing in the first place: hanging out in the syllables. If I’m there, there isn’t space for discouragement, there isn’t space for being miserable. Because I’m just focused on the words and not on my own state of mind, whatever that might be.

I do feel lucky to have this thing that gives me so much joy, that I find so utterly fascinating. I’m sure painters, for instance, feel lucky, too—lucky to love color the way they do, or the texture of paint. For me, it’s the feeling of words in my mouth. Words are sound, after all, which makes writing such a physical, bodily experience. Like Wharton says, “I wouldn’t take a kingdom for it.”

I couldn’t feel done with my novel until I could pick it up, read a line, and not desperately want to change all the words. That process took so much time. So many rounds, so many rewrites. I have no idea how many revisions—and I don’t want to know, because I don’t want to know how many the next book is going to take. I imagine it might take just as many.

As I was writing, I struggled with how long my process was taking, especially when friends and family kept asking about my progress. I remember, especially around year seven and year eight, how people would politely ask, “Oh, how’s it going?” with trepidation in their loving eyes. I started wishing I could wear a T-shirt to the family Thanksgiving that said Let’s talk about anything but my novel.

It did help, throughout, that I was writing short pieces—short fiction, short nonfiction, things I published here and there. I applied to a lot of things. I was always applying for fellowships and scholarships and grants. Those mini jolts of encouragement would help.

And yet external affirmation—in whatever form, whether it’s a fellowship or publication—really has nothing to do with the self that loves to write. The self that fell in love with reading, and eventually in love with writing, too. Sometimes, as I work, I truly forget I have an “I”—it’s a place that’s as close to religion as I get. That self is totally uninterested in external affirmation. Of course, I eventually have to leave my desk, and the day goes on, and that egoless state is gone. But when I’m there, it can all feel so easy, and so right. I wish I could stay there.

Part of writing The Incendiaries was learning to put aside that fixation on sound, at least temporarily. During the first two years, I had this idea that the sentences needed to be perfect before I could proceed. So I spent two whole years just reworking the first 20 pages over and over again. By the end, I had the most reworked, totally inert pages I’ve ever seen in my life. It was just going nowhere. I was obsessing over the first 20 pages, and doing almost nothing to develop my own sense of the story. Not long after that, I met Lauren Groff at a writers’ conference, and she talked about how she approaches the first few drafts—how she gets through them fast and throws them away. She writes by hand, at first. The idea is to get through early drafts as quickly as possible. When I heard that, something just clicked for me.

After the conference, I started trying my own version of her method. I wrote whole drafts by hand. Then I wrote using a program that acts just like a typewriter: You can backspace once, but can’t cut and paste full paragraphs, and can only move forward. Then, in Word, I wrote a draft in which, every time I finished a paragraph, I turned the font white so I couldn’t see it and mess with it anymore.

I realized that I can spend all day finessing the sound of a single paragraph—but if it’s an early draft, the chances are that the paragraph isn’t going to stick around anyway. So first I need to get to a place where I feel that the story is working, where the basic architecture is at least partly there. There’s no reason to do all that careful line-edit work when I’m still making basic character and structural changes.

It does mean that the first few drafts aren’t much fun to write, since I’m not spending time on the part of writing where I find the most joy. But that provides additional motivation for me to get through them even more quickly, and that can be a good thing in the beginning.

As I continue, and start to focus more on sound, on the sentences, one technique I use is to figure out where I’m getting bored. When I’m finding joy in a paragraph, there’s really no sentence where I’m getting bored. If I am getting bored, I have to look back and try to figure out on a word level how to make those sentences less boring. It’s not just about the thought that’s being expressed. It’s also about what the words are doing with one another and how they’re playing together.

In pretty much any fiction I write, I do a lot of reading out loud to help me determine whether the sound is working. Toward the end of this novel, I tried something new: I recorded myself reading the book a number of times and listened to it. I found that to be incredibly helpful—if often painful—because who wants to listen to their own voice reading their own book for hours on end? It was surreal. But it also let me catch a lot of things that I couldn’t catch just by looking at the page, or even by reading out loud to myself. I really recommend it. I know some writers who use a computer program that will read the file out loud instead. A friend of mine will even give the voice an accent, just to make the words that much more unfamiliar.

Through it all, there were also the books I loved, the favorite lines that remind me of what Wharton calls the “splendor & sweetness of words.” Without the reading, there is no writing. I keep by my desk the books that I found I returned to most often while writing this book. There were a few years when I would always start the writing day by reading a single Virginia Woolf novel. I don’t want to name the book, because I’m afraid if I do it will lose its power. But I began every day by reading a passage, maybe a page, and that was it. It helped me set the tone of the day, and helped pull me back into my own novel. There were others, but that’s the most extreme example of how another writer helped me write my book.

And then there was my Word document, the one where I keep all my favorite and most helpful lines. When I feel confused and lost, if I don’t know where I’m going or what I’m going to do next, and when it feels like I’ll probably never finish a piece of fiction again, I just go back to the document and start reading. Almost inevitably, something changes. I think there’s never been a time when that hasn’t sparked something in me, and given me an idea or a thought that can bring me back to my own writing—back to the pure fascination with sound where I love to live.