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Listening and examining the 'writer's ear'

April 26, 2009 | 12:15 pm


The opening gambit for this panel of women writers at the L.A. Times Book Festival on Saturday was what exactly is meant by the "writer’s ear."

Moderator Louise Ermelino answered her own question as “stylistic choices and language.” She then read selected phrases written by each of the panelists – Sarah Shun-lien Bynum ("Miss Hempel Chronicles" and "Madeline Is Sleeping"), Laila Lalami ("Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits and Secret Son") and Julia Leigh ("Disquiet").

In response to a question about her style, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum related how she has been a lifelong word collector since fourth grade, when she began recording vocabulary on index cards. Her favorite word at the time was “luscious.”

Laila Lalami was asked about a particular narrative technique that repeats the same language for different characters. In her answer, she outlined the difficulty and beauty of switching among languages -- in this case, Moroccan Arabic, French and English. The stylistic distinction found in Leigh’s work is a lack of interiority; she described using gesture to convey emotion instead.

Ermelino asked the panelists whether they read their work out loud (presumably using the "writer’s ear"). Each writer had a different relationship with the way she reads her work aloud, from muttering to practicing dialogue to avoiding such revision techniques until the end. Varying thoughts on revision were also shared; Bynum admitted to feeling like a hypocrite for counseling her students to revise constantly while not taking her own advice. Lalami, on the other hand, revises over and over.

The panelists then weighed in on the relationship between writing and reading. Leigh felt strongly that beauty in language could be honed through reading, while Lalami stressed the need to listen to create effective dialogue. Bynum reads Eisenberg, Munro, Paley and Williams and attempts to emulate the writing she loves, whereas Leigh likes to read poetry and use it as a tuning fork.

The panel was turned over to audience questions fairly early.

Questions addressed translation, writing schedules, subject material and, most interestingly, title choice. Lalami shared the original title of "Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits -- The Things That Death Will Buy."

Leigh went through several titles, including "Leavetaking" and "The Revenant," before ending up with "Disquiet." Bynum revealed that "Madeline Is Sleeping" was the automatic name given to the Word document. Overall, the panelists showed that the writer’s ear is best used in close concert with the reader’s ear.

-- Chris Daley

Photo: Chris Daley

Click here for more photos of the Book Festival.