Tapping into the Reader’s Inner Ear

Books are a print media. So it makes sense that writing should be a visual art. And in fact, we do think about how the words look on the page. We consider how much white space there is, how the varied paragraph lengths look on the page, and try hard to eliminate those one-word “orphan” lines (they drive me crazy).

Some take it deeper than that, considering how the words themselves look. Short sentences and short words in an action scene promote tension, for example. But even more than that, the particular letters that make up a word can convey a visual sense of the word. Consider “faint” and “swoon.” They mean pretty much the same thing, but just looking at them gives a different sense of the action. The upright, skinny letters in faint give it a quick, hard look. The rounded, wide letters of swoon stretch out the action.

Clearly, however, writing is not considered a visual art. We don’t say to one another, “That sentence doesn’t look right.” We say it doesn’t sound right. And not just about dialogue, although that is especially important. There’s a reason we are told to read our novel aloud when editing: We need to know how it SOUNDS.

Writing is an aural art. We describe rhythm and pace, the cadence of the sentences. We talk about alliteration and assonance and onomatopoeia. We say words resonate, or a work speaks to us. We discuss a writer’s voice and tone. In short, we rely on the reader’s inner ear.

Which makes me wonder what the reading experience is like for people who are deaf.

I have, for a variety of reasons, become interested in American Sign Language (ASL). Because of that, I took an ASL course. Our teacher was deaf. She explained to us that she spoke ASL, and although she read in English, English was her second language. I had never thought about that before.

So now I wonder how people who have been deaf from birth or who have no memory of spoken language experience reading. The cadence of the sentences is missing for them. The suggestive sound of the words does not exist. Whereas they have one sign that can mean various things based on context, we have many words that all mean the same thing. And although we writers agonize over getting the dialogue to sound natural, it will never read as natural for ASL speakers, because ASL has a very different grammatical structure than English does.

Is reading dull for them? Do they feel that they are missing one level of the meaning? I know when people write about smells or taste, I (who have no sense of smell) often feel disconnected from the passage or the meaning they are trying to convey. But a writer’s reliance on the inner ear (his own and the reader’s) is more than just a stray passage here and there—it goes to the core of writing. It is in every word.

My writing is usually devoid of any reference to smell or taste, as they are not factors in the way I experience everyday life. Similarly, a deaf person’s perception of the world is fundamentally different that someone who can hear. I wonder, then, if a deaf person’s style of writing would be intrinsically different than a hearing person’s?

Does anyone know of any fiction writers who are deaf?

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