John Tang

Being Tone Deaf also applies to Writers

Posted in Short Stories and Excerpts by Jt's Item Roster on March 11, 2012

I have this feeling I don’t have a voice of my own. Writing my last story about a toad-man, I have the crisp prose of Ernest Hemingway; now what I mean by crisp, I mean lines are complete from one sentence to the next as if they can stand on their own. Sometimes they can sound too clipped. That’s my main concern. I want my prose to sound like music, from one sentence to the next, without pause or end in the thought until we get to the passage. But it seems I’m tone deaf and I lack a cadence in speech. Before Racleo, my friend and piano teacher, left for South Dakota, he told me I was tone deaf. I asked him to teach me how to sing, and as we went up and down the scales, I couldn’t really match pitch or keep harmony with the chords.

“Is there a problem with me?” I asked, taking my fingers off the keys of the baby grand piano.

“No, there isn’t.” Racleo said. “You are just tone deaf.”

“Is there way I can improve my ability to hear?” I asked. “Is there a way I can learn perfect pitch.”

“I don’t know.”

It devastated me to know I can’t listen to music well as others. The quartets, the bebop, soul, hiphop’s drum and bass, rock’s sharp guitars, all of that has no meaning to me. I’ve been feeling the wrong emotions when I listened to them. Then I see the deficiency bleed into my writing. I can’t keep a steady voice like my heroes before me, who can command language to swing and pause like song, who can end a passage intensely as a crescendo, who can take us through a dream state with the subject simple as the coffee mug sitting on the corner of the desk. Why do I not have a strong voice?


It reminds me of my revision process. When I finished my manuscript and printed it out, I would go ahead and correct the grammatical errors in each sentence. But sometimes my eyes would glaze over the beginning of the sentence with a conjunction perhaps, like But, and I quickly think to myself if I can remove it or not; do I want to begin with the tone of the sentence with a contradictory? But I forget where that sentence belongs in the passage. Maybe I’ve rendered the atmosphere in a positive light, but at the end of the paragraph I wanted something a bit darker because the character was about to appear on stage and disrupt the atmosphere:

All his things on the table were out of order, or as David liked to call his room, the perfect example of Chaos Theory. Half the things he owned didn’t really have a place on the table. Time left it there. There was a day-old coffee, its whip cream beginning to smell better. There was an empty ketchup bottle lying against the mug of loose change. There were books, bottles, staplers, notebooks, computer mouse, and folders with student’s manuscripts. What could he be using all this for? David was lying in the bed that sat beside his work desk. He woke up and got behind the laptop and began writing the worst sentence. He lifted the coffee and didn’t realize how old it was until he felt the weight. The bitter odor reminded him of body odor. The books took up half of his working space. He saw the ketchup bottle leaning against the mug of loose change, picked it up, and threw it away. What could I be using all this for?

I don’t know if I rendered the example clearly as I want, how our psychology reflects how we treat objects. I wish I could muse over the Things in my room like Rilke and Pamuk, but it seem stories don’t always do that, unless your character is a poet. And this fact seems very restricting for an author.


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