Inspiring Quotation: The Wave in the Mind

#wpad blog challenge, day 9 and still loving it.

The inspirational bits and pieces around my desk change from time to time as I discover new authors or images, but this quotation has been pinned up at eye-height for years and will probably stay there forever. Bear with me, it’s a bit long:

“As for the mot juste, you are quite wrong. Style is a very simple matter: it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t go wrong… Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates in this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing … one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing to do apparently with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to find it.”

Viriginia Woolf to Vita Sackville-West, 16 March 1926 (cited from Ursula K. LeGuin, The Wave in the Mind)

It took me quite a long time to begin to understand what this actually means. Or perhaps it is better to say, to feel what it means. But the very first time I read it, it instantly drew me in. Initially it was the combination of the words “style” and “rhythm” that did it (I love music and tap dance) but it soon went deeper than that. Like an ocean wave retreating from the shore, pulling me with it to figure it out.


Ursula K. LeGuin, from whose essay collection “The Wave in the Mind” I took this quotation, is one of my two favourite authors. I will read anything she writes, because everything, including her blog posts about her cat or about Guantanamo, has that style and rhythm. It flows. Same goes for my other favourite author, William Shakespeare.

I love the image of the wave in the mind. Triggered by something that you possibly don’t even notice much, it starts to work inside you. It may be a really exciting story, in which case it probably crashes and tumbles, or it may be something that very slowly climbs towards the beach of your conscious writer’s mind and takes more time to put into words. Whatever it is, there comes the moment when the wave breaks and you know what to write and how to write it.

I don’t know anything about surfing, but I hear that surfers are always searching for the perfect wave. So are writers: searching for the perfect way to express a situation, an event, most of all an emotion.  Hoping for the perfect wave. And sometimes we feel we have it. The perfect words find their way.

A wave also carries enormous amounts of energy. And when the right story builds, it develops its own energy. I sometimes feel that when I “get into it” and suddenly realize that I have been writing for hours when it feels like 15 minutes. That’s a bit like surfing, I guess: being carried by the wave in your mind.

Ocean waves build, break and tumble. But there are also other waves, those that ripple outwards.

wave - rippling

I don’t think Virginia Woolf had those in mind when she wrote to Vita Sackville-West. But as I thought about this post, I realized that the image of the ripple wave is also a great way to look at stories as you build them. One action, one event, one remark drops and its consequences will ripple outwards, affecting the characters in their path. That, I would say, is the story wave rather than the word wave. But like the word wave, it can work on the writer’s subconscious to tell him or her what to write.

So this is my all-time favourite writing quotation. But there is another one that is so brilliantly simple and profound that I must mention it – and I’m sure you all know it.

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

Anton Chekov

Eat your heart out, Robert McKee. No screenwriting guru could have put it better, or as beautifully: show, don’t tell.


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