Category Archives: flow

Ernest Hemingway’s incantatory prose

My posts about prose stylist Verlyn Klinkenborg made me think of Ernest Hemingway. Here’s the first paragraph of Hemingway’s 1926 story “In Another Country”:

In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more. It was cold in the fall in Milan and the dark came very early. Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the streets looking in the windows. There was much game hanging outside the shops, and the snow powdered in the fur of the foxes and the wind blew their tails. The deer hung stiff and heavy and empty, and small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers. It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains.

The snowy wind ruffling the fur of dead animals and turning the feathers of living birds  transfixed me as teenager. Spooky, that was—the strangeness of true art. At least, to a broody teen like me who could imagine noticing such details. Now I imagine how hurt Hemingway must have been, how hurt to notice such things. And I sense also the disgusting sentimentality—unearned emotion—that would erupt one day from beneath his stoicism. But he was my first teacher, and a fine one, in how to make sentences.

Consider his first chapter—only two pages—of his 1929 novel A Farewell to Arms. The novel is deeply flawed, to me—he was better at stories, better when he was young (not yet a monster, only hurt)—but his opening is heartbreakingly beautiful. And a better example of Klinkenborg’s “short” long sentences, if very similar to the story of three years before. Here’s the first paragraph:

In the later summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

Hemingway is famous for writing short, simple declarative sentences. Actually his diction is simple, his words as common as dirt, but strong in their plainness. Ford Maddox Ford: “Hemingway’s words strike you, each one, as if they were pebbles fetched fresh from a brook. They live and shine, each in its place. So one of his pages has the effect of a brook-bottom into which you look down through the flowing water. The words form a tesellation, each in order beside the other.”

And his sentences are varied and often complex. Some are quite long. They employ repetition artfully to help them flow with emotion. For sharpening his rhythm, Hemingway said he liked listening to Bach and reading Huckleberry Finn and the King James Bible. He said a lot of things—too many, of course—especially when he aged into a drunken blowhard and bully. I shouldn’t take his fate personally, I know, but since I also tried to make him a father figure I do.

But, oh, his stories. They played to his strengths. This is from “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”:

It was late and every one had left the café except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. In the daytime the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference. The two waiters inside the café knew that the old man was a little drunk, and while he was a good client they knew that if he became too drunk he would leave without paying, so they kept watch on him.

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Filed under craft, technique, emotion, flow, syntax

Noted: ‘Steal Like an Artist’

Your job is to collect good ideas. The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by.—Steal Like an Artist

Austin Kleon is a writer and visual artist—collage and sketches and mashups—whose magical new little book is a smash hit, a New York Times bestseller. I’m eager to read it. Plus he’s from here in Ohio and attended an institution right down the road, Miami University of Ohio. His website and related pages, including blog, are worth your time.

Here are the principles enumerated in Steal Like an Artist:

1. Steal like an artist.

2. Don’t wait until you know who you are to get started.

3. Write the book you want to read.

4. Use your hands.

5. Side projects and hobbies are important.

6. The secret: do good work and share it with people.

7. Geography is no longer our master.

8. Be nice. (The world is a small town.)

9. Be boring. (It’s the only way to get work done.)

10. Creativity is subtraction.

Per the first point: Kleon says good theft honors, results from study, is diverse, credits, transforms, and remixes (versus degrades, skims, steals from one person, plagiarizes, imitates, and rips off).

My friend Paulette Bates Alden, a great freelance writing teacher and editor, happened to just tell me number three (regarding my memoir, which is kind of two books; pick the one you want to read, she said). As Kleon says, what humans know must be stated over and over again because no one was listening the first time.

And the last point about creativity being subtraction I should tattoo on my forehead. Everything becomes Moby-Dick with me! First I build a whole whale, then I pare it into the goldfish it always should have been. I end up covered with blood and guts—and, of course, I’m blubbering.

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Filed under aesthetics, discovery, experimental, flow, modernism/postmodernism, NOTED

Noted: A moving essay on loss

The current New Yorker (December 13, 2010) includes an essay by Joyce Carol Oates, “A Widow’s Story,” subtitled “The last week of a long marriage,” about the unexpected swift decline and death of Oates’s husband of forty-seven years, the editor Raymond Smith, at age seventy-seven. “So much to say in a marriage, so much unsaid,” she writes simply of her regret. “You assume that there will be other times, other occasions. Years.”

Here’s an excerpt:

Ray read little of my fiction. He did read my essays and my reviews—he was an excellent editor, sharp-eyed and informed, as countless writers who were published in Ontario Review, the journal he edited, said. But he did not read most of my novels and short stories, and, in this sense, it might be argued that Ray didn’t know me entirely.

I regret, I think. Maybe I do.

For writing is a solitary occupation, and one of its hazards is loneliness. But an advantage of loneliness is privacy, autonomy, freedom.

In our marriage, it was our practice not to share anything that was upsetting, demoralizing, or tedious, unless it was unavoidable. Because so much in a writer’s life can be distressing—negative reviews; rejections; difficulties with editors, publishers, book designers; disappointment with one’s own work, on a daily or hourly basis—it seemed to me a good idea to shield Ray from this side of my life as much as I could. For what is the purpose of sharing your misery with another person, except to make that person miserable, too?

This passage shows, as well as any, what makes Oates’s essay remarkable: the plainspoken candor, the rhythmic variety of the flowing, balanced sentences, the hard-earned insights. Not that all her truths hit me comfortably: what she says about writing is compelling, but at first her comment about not sharing one’s daily “misery,” because its only purpose is to make one’s partner equally miserable, seemed rather sweeping.

But I believe Oates believes this subjective principle, that it helps her live with what she’s generalizing from: her husband wasn’t a reader of her life’s work! (Note to self: don’t feel guilty for not keeping up with Ms. Oates’s output.) While couples do commonly spare each other the details of more prosaic labor, writing, to a writer at least, seems different—so public a self performance. Maybe that explains her insight: spouses don’t love writers as writers, but as people. They love them apart from, or even despite, their vaunted work of words. As Oates says, she lived with Ray Smith as a wife, not as a writer, and she’s bereft as a widow, not as a writer.

Oates has distilled in her essay what others have, written entire books about—without necessarily saying more. The piece is illustrated by a full-page photograph, taken in 1972, eleven years into their marriage, when Smith was about forty-two and Oates about thirty-four. He’s slumped in the background on a couch, looking affable, and Oates, dressed in a thin cardigan and mini skirt, with pearl earrings dangling from her ears, perches on the edge. She gazes into the camera soulfully with dark, doe-like eyes, her pretty almond-shaped face unsmiling.

Oates’s years of writing practice show in “A Widow’s Story,” which grows in power and profundity because of its unwavering focus on a universal but mysterious human experience, how it feels to lose someone to death. Oates’s alchemy happens in the details, as always, which are carried here in prose that seems to flow directly to us from her “stunned, staring eyes,” as she describes her aspect when, having briefly left her husband’s beside to resume daily tasks, she encounters a harsh example of the world’s indifference. Inside the hospital, though she tries to avoid blundering into others’ sorrow, she cannot escape the “memory pools” in waiting rooms and intensive care units. She cannot escape, dwelling within a hospital’s “slow time,” the “melancholy that is the very center of memory.”

The essay’s ending, with Oates in the room with her dead husband, a week after she admitted him for treatment of pneumonia, hits you like a punch to the gut. You grasp not only her experience but also the unending nature of her loss.

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Filed under essay-narrative, flow, memoir, NOTED

Lessons from writing my memoir . . .

Five years ago I began writing a memoir about my experiences farming in Appalachian Ohio. My official start was September 1, as I recall, but I was gearing up at this time of year, in late August, when the common Midwestern wildflowers are blooming. Right now, you can see flowering together in fertile meadows and damp unkempt roadsides: purple ironweed, saffron goldenrod, yellow daisies, and, above it all, the airy mauve bursts of Joe Pye weed. Shade trees look dusty and faded; their heavy foliage sags, their branches storm-wracked. The other day, looking out my window at the parched lawn, I saw a spatter of yellow leaves twirling above the grass. It was elegiac. I know we’re supposed to love the back-to-school frenzy, but I don’t. And I’ve always hated the end of summer. I couldn’t help but reflect.

Years ago, an author of many books said to me during an interview, “It’s not that I’m talented or hard working, but I can sit there hour after hour. A lot of people can’t do it. They’re smart, talented but just can’t.” I learned to my relief that I could do that, sit there, usually five days a week though often six and sometimes seven. Longer breaks are dangerous: for each day away it takes a day to get back in—vacations can derail a book. My optimum keyboard stint seems to be three hours. If writing is going well, my brains are mush after three; if the writing is hard, I’ve suffered enough. I yearn to be a four-hour man, though. I treasure the memory of one inspired day when I put in eleven hours (I’ve since cut that chapter). I also discovered how much I enjoy solitude. And how, if I did have a whole day, I could pass it happily writing, reading, editing. Such productive bliss is addicting. The day passes in a blur. But, on a really hard day, three hours takes an eternity. Better to switch to editing.

Early on, about that first November, there came a day when I hit a problem I hadn’t faced and didn’t understand—now I see it was dramatizing a particular event, bringing it to life, when I had some memories but some gaps and too few images. I had a little meltdown. I thought I couldn’t write the book, and sent Kathy a despairing email, which she wisely ignored. Then, later in the winter, I ran to my desk each morning to write another chapter. So the average day during initial composition was pretty good. I learned that my page-production speed was about one sheet an hour. Three pages for three hours. Getting four pages a day was, and would be, heaven. But, as someone pointed out, if you faithfully write only a page a day, in a year you’ve piled up 365 pages—a book.

It took me a year and a half to finish, but my first manuscript draft was 500 pages. My goal had been 300; it took work to pare it down. Which reminds me of a rule of thumb I learned in book publishing for estimating the length of a book from its typed or printed-out manuscript pages: Take the number of printed pages and multiply them by .887. So 300 pages x .887 = a 263-page book, which is a nice, optimum-upper length for most publishers. This formula is based on a book with a 6 x 9 size and typical design format.

Five years. If I had a manuscript three and a half years ago, what gives? Well, I’ve rewritten, polished, and cut every sentence, paragraph, and passage many times. And now I’m on my fourth whole-book rewrite. Not to be defensive, but I like Annie Dillard’s rule of thumb: for someone not a genius, it takes two to ten years to write a publishable book. That’s an average of six years, which is what I’m on track for, with luck. I know people who have done it in much less, but if they write more than one book I suspect Dillard’s average will apply. A screenwriter I know said he was almost ruined for life by his first play, which poured out of him right after he got his MFA; it won an award and was produced in London; it’s never gone that way again. And a full-time writer of popular young adult novels told me that after she’d been writing for years a “gift” book just flowed out of her. She said it would have destroyed her if it had been her first book because the others aren’t ever that easy.

I could have shaved years off my process if I only knew then what I know now. I was fifty when I started, and although I’d been an “award-winning journalist,” as they say, and a magazine writer, gardening columnist, occasional essayist, book reviewer, and book publisher, I hadn’t written a book. It’s true that the only thing that teaches you how to write a book is to write one. Reading helps, but mostly the reading you do while you are writing. On the plus side, I had desire, a pretty good story, notes and ideas, and a strong voice. But I didn’t fully understand dramatic structures, especially classical three-act structure. Trying to figure out how to cut my monster by 200 pages, I read Philip Gerard’s useful Writing a Book that Makes a Difference, which indicates that after your second-act climax, a dramatic narrative should wrap up quickly because its audience is dying to find out what happens in the final act.

I happened to watch the 1953 western Shane that summer and saw it was a beautiful example of classical three-act structure. A mysterious stranger, Shane, played by Alan Ladd, gets hired by a sodbuster, and the bad guys, cattlemen, immediately show up to threaten them—first act climax. In the long second act, Shane befriends the sodbuster’s son and demonstrates his shooting prowess, and when the thugs kill a hapless farmer Shane pummels the sodbuster to prevent his trying to seek revenge, then heads off to fight them himself—boom, big second act climax. In the short third act, Shane rides into town for the showdown, kills the hired gunslinger, played with reptilian menance by Jack Palance, is wounded himself and fades into the hills, to die or to rise again. The climaxes flow from each other, and with a certain rhythm.

I saw that after my second act climax—I get badly injured on the farm—essentially I started the story over again and took my sweet time getting to that third act resolution. As if Shane, instead of going after the gunslinger who’d just murdered, had dawdled and diddled around on the farm, perfecting his plowing.

My next major lesson was realizing that I didn’t grasp the importance and the power of dramatized presentation—scenes—to convey experience. Like many a rookie writer, I leaned too hard on summary—and, let me tell you, scenes are infinitely more powerful, and much harder to write. Yep, show don’t tell. Also I wasn’t driving enough narrative threads through the entire book; I did that with the development of the protagonist, me, and with the book’s villain, but not with many other themes. I tended to write each chapter almost as a stand-alone essay. In Chapter Ten, say, I’d introduce a character and dispose of him in a big event, when the reader should have met him in Chapter Two. It’s amazing how readers love you for having them remember what you told them. They’ve seen a character in action, made their own judgment about him, and then, hey, here he is again! Like life. But now I sometimes feel I’m planting little timed-release land mines for readers, and that’s difficult when the first mentions feel thin, as if they’re just being done to set up a payoff. I sit and stare, trying to figure out what’s interesting in a first meeting or a minor event and where it might fit just so in the narrative chronology. Finally, if I can’t solve the puzzle, the subconscious will pitch in to help—after I’ve sufficiently suffered.

In addition to nailing down the balance between scene and summary, the memoirist must reflect. This has been another late and more subtle tweak, this differentiating between the writer now, at his desk, who’s telling the story and sometimes musing on it, versus the character in the story—the narrator’s earlier self—who doesn’t know what’s going to happen or even, sometimes, what is happening. Not wanting to kill narrative drama, I had too little reflection. Memoirs vary widely in their balance among scene, summary, and reflection, but especially in the amount and the nature of the writer’s reflecting upon meaning.

Five years. I tell myself that I must learn to love process because, like life, writing a book is process. I’d never have believed when I started that I could rework for four or five years what took me a year and a half to write. “That’s the fun part,” a writer said, implying ease. It’s true that the raw material is mostly now available, but I’ve found the last two rewrites hard work. Seemingly harder than initial creation—my ignorance was indeed bliss—but it’s getting difficult to remember. I’m more aware of narrative techniques, and more in command of them, but more challenged. Such strong, humble tools still twist in my clumsy hands. I now fully subscribe to the truism that writing is rewriting, though I think an experienced book writer could have done it in half the time or less, in three drafts.

But oh, my sentences! After two years they were better, more fluent and varied. Yet I’ve discovered that I desire them lyrical, every one poetic, and sustaining lyricism has been impossible for me in this long narrative. And to strain for it risks purple prose. So I feel at some level a plodding failure. Sometimes I go to an admired book just to see how plain most of the sentences are—not what I remembered at all—but then I notice their rhythm, their flow. Thankfully I’ve also learned how much I love making, and remaking, sentences. How much difference one or two sentences more, or less, can make in a paragraph. How you see that a passage wasn’t as clunky as you’d feared, but that another wasn’t as soaring. How in time you can hardly tell inspiration apart from perseverance.

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Filed under braids, threads, design, Dillard—Saint Annie, discovery, editing, film/photography, flow, memoir, MY LIFE, scene, structure, syntax, working method

Rhythm & flow in works of prose

Clarity is a high virtue, but so is beauty; and increasingly I see that it DamSizedis from varying length and sentence structure that writers achieve voice, rhythm, emphasis, and musicality. Variation works because we naturally vary our speaking rhythm when we’re emotionally connected to what we’re saying:

“He fouled me! That jerk! Coach! You’re always telling us This is just a scrimmage—we’re still on the same team—don’t get carried away. Didn’t  you see him hit me after the whistle? I don’t care if he’s first string. It isn’t right.”

This point is obvious when someone’s upset and emphatic, but syntactical variation works as well to convey any strong feeling in the subtext. And rhythmic sentences can sing to us, perhaps moving our emotions by bending our ears toward the ancient roots of language in music and epic. Consider the opening of Leslie Rubinkowski’s essay “The Funeral”:

 

Gertie is my favorite aunt, her apartment is four miles from my house, and I haven’t seen her in twelve years. I got lost trying to find her, so lost that the fifteen-minute drive stretched to an hour, so lost that I navigated one-way tubercular streets with a map across my knees before I found the Doughboy guarding Lawrenceville—Penn bends into Butler, I knew that, I didn’t really forget—and I have to force myself not to run to her when I see her across the room: my sweet Aunt Gert in her fawn-colored suit with satin lapels and rhinestone angel pin, her hair, as ever, upswept and immaculate; and I lean in to touch her arm and study the fine familiar fuzz on her cheeks, the broader, softer version of my own jaw line, and the rafts of pink roses that cover her coffin and climb the walls.

The complex structure of the second sentence—with dashes, beaucoup commas, a colon, and a semi-colon—is compelling in its movement and in its tumbling cascade of detail and memory toward the surprise for the reader at the end, a surprise that mirrors the writer’s shock at her loss. Yes, it’s a long sentence. Don’t try this at home, kids! Actually, do. Most of us are stuck at the middling length, when we need short, medium, and long sentences.

As Roy Peter Clark says in his pithy book Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, “Until the writer tries to master the long sentence, she is no writer at all, for while length makes a bad sentence worse, it can make a good sentence better.” And a well-made long sentence carries the proof of its achievement in our delight. (I once counted 199 words in a jaw-dropper by Virginia Woolf in To the Lighthouse. Of course, there are longer sentences, but the longest ones seem famous just for being long.)

 

Ernest Hemingway is famous for his simple declarative sentences. Actually his diction is simple, his words as common as dirt, but strong in their plainness. Ford Maddox Ford: “Hemingway’s words strike you, each one, as if they were pebbles fetched fresh from a brook. They live and shine, each in its place. So one of his pages has the effect of a brook-bottom into which you look down through the flowing water. The words form a tesellation, each in order beside the other.” And his sentences are varied and often complex even though they’re clear. Some are quite long. They also employ repetition artfully to help them flow with emotion. For sharpening his rhythm, Heminway liked listening to Bach and reading Huckleberry Finn and the King James Bible.

Consider this passage from his story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”:

It was late and every one had left the café except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. In the daytime the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference. The two waiters inside the café knew that the old man was a little drunk, and while he was a good client they knew that if he became too drunk he would leave without paying, so they kept watch on him.

 

(I’m grateful for this example to David Jauss’s Alone With All That Could Happen: Rethinking Conventional Wisdom About the Craft of Fiction.) Here’s part of a passage, also cited by Jauss, from D.H. Lawrence’s story “Odour of Chrysanthemums”:

The trucks thumped heavily past, one by one, with slow inevitable movement, as she stood insignificantly trapped between the jolting black wagons and the hedge; then they curved away towards the coppice where the withered oak leaves dropped noiselessly, while the birds, pulling at the scarlet hips beside the track, made off into the dusk that had already crept into the spinney. In the open, the smoke from the engine sank and cleaved to the rough grass.

 

Notice how in the long opening sentence the first clause’s words mimic the clanking train and how, after the semicolon, the sentence becomes more flowing as the train recedes. I tell my students to try to infuse their writing, through word choice and sentence structure, with the emotion (joy, love, delight, anger, inexorable movement) they’re trying to convey.

Here’s a bit of “Kathy,” an essay in which I tried to show my love for her and my awe for her questing nature (which, this indicates, she came by honestly). The passage ends with a pungent colloquial farming word:

To appearances another tanned Ohio farm girl who played in the mud, she was eccentric, a birthright that ascended. When she was ten her mother cut her hair short, and Kathy clamped a sailor’s cap atop her head. That summer, a pet duck loved her; Huey’s trust shined from his leaden blue eyes. She carried the white drake around, which he tolerated, and dropped him in a wading pool, which he polluted. Although the family was busy farming, the duck and that useless circular hat got noticed—something about the combination unsettled her parents. Kathy was the only one of his five daughters Karl routinely punished physically, the only child who defied him. Secure in his love, she tolerated his tantrums but drew the line at tyranny. He dangled her by one ankle to spank, his hand hard on her bottom. She kept cussing. Like him, bullheaded.

 

Consider the variety of rhythms in the opening of Truman Capote’s essay “Hand-carved Coffins: A Nonfiction Account of an American Crime” in his collection Music for Chameleons:

March, 1975

 

A town in a small Western state. A focus for the many large farms and cattle-raising ranches surrounding it, the town, with a population of less than ten thousand, supports twelve churches and two restaurants. A movie house, though it has not shown a movie in ten years, still stands stark and cheerless on Main Street. There was once a hotel, too; but that has also been closed, and nowadays the only place a traveler can find shelter is the Prairie Motel.

 

Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories says of this:

“The opening phrases are blunt. The sentence fragments cut the rhythm short—shorter, that is, than our ears expect. This chopping isolates the fragments’ beat from the beats of the full sentences that follow. But Capote doesn’t allow those longer sentences to flow, either. He breaks them with commas, a semicolon, with subordination, interruption, and apposition. This is the vocal rhythm of someone with bad news to tell: hesitant, throat-clearing, yet resolute. And note that each of the last words in these sentences ends with a tongue-stopping (and beat-stopping) T, except the last sentence, with its motel, whose T echoes the earlier stops, but trails into the “el” sound, enough to carry the music forward into a new paragraph. Capote wants the delivery halting, but not so halting that the reader stops and turns elsewhere. Note that you can’t read this paragraph in a joyful rush.”

Roorbach contrasts this with “one you could sing,” a passage trilling with alliteration, bouncy with humor and singsong rhythm, in Doris Lessing’s memoir Impertinent Daughters:

Modern-minded John William McVeigh, proud of his clever daughter, was thinking of university for her, but was confronted with a rebellious girl who said she wanted to be a nurse. He was horrified, utterly overthrown. Middle-class girls did not become nurses, and he didn’t want to hear anything about Florence Nightingale. Any Skivvy could be a nurse, and if you become one, do not darken my door! Very well, said Emily Maude, and went off to the old Royal Free Hospital to begin her training. It was hard: conditions were bad, the pay was low, but she did well, and when she brilliantly passed her finals, her father was prepared to forgive her. She had done it all on her own, without him.

“Note . . . how hard the [opening] sentence lands on the word nurse, which turns out to be the critical word of the passage (an instance of rhythm providing meaning),” Roorbach writes. “Note the tongue pleasure of the phrase ‘utterly overthrown.’ I want to say it again and again. . . . The repetitions in structure here . . . give the sound of a folk tale, very nearly a folk song. . . .

“Rhythm should be attended to in each sentence we write, in each paragraph, but there is a rhythm of paragraphs, as well, a rhythm of sections in an essay, a rhythm of chapters in a book, and all of it ought to be in your control as you write.”

In my own writing, I’ve noticed that passages that flow during composition do so because of my strong emotional connection to the material. But they take a lot of work, anyway, to get right. The writing that doesn’t flow—the bulk of it—can be helped to move by consciously varying the structure of sentences and paragraphs and passages. This isn’t mere whitewash or a trick: varying structure seems to connect me emotionally with the content and its subtext.

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Filed under aesthetics, audience, craft, technique, emotion, evolutionary psychology, flow, structure, syntax, teaching, education

A nifty concise essay

David Bailey—magazine journalist, restaurant critic and worker, foodie and barista, knockabout North BaileyshoesCarolina writer, and my friend—has posted a delightful concise essay, “Daddy Needs a New Pair of Shoes,” on his blog, My Pie Hole. It’s a ramble, with visuals, voice, and flow. A taste:

“I’ll admit that the kitchen dress code was easy to comply with: t-shirts, white sox, black pants and black shoes. The shoes were a trifle irksome, though. One pair admittedly looked a little worse for wear — and leaked, especially when you stood at an industrial dishwasher for eight hours or when you waded around in a pool of duck fat that you had just helped to spill. . . .

“Why spring for an expensive pair of chef shoes, I wondered. Instead I switched to my venerable dress wingtips, witnesses to any number of funerals and weddings. In a way it was a gesture of optimism.”

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Filed under essay-concise, essay-narrative, flow, NOTED

That old fly on the wall

“Dialogue for me is the most effective and most interesting way of defining character, making it unnecessary for the writer to intrude with any song-and-dance routine of his own,” explains literary journalist Lillian Ross in Reporting Back: Notes on Journalism. “Moreover, as in a play or movie, dialogue moves the action along. That is why so many readers write to me and say that they felt, while reading a piece, that they were right there, with me.”

“A tape recorder gets in the way, too,” she goes on. “I, not the machine, must do the listening. And you must be selective Ross-Reportingin listening to the characters. If I edit the dialogue a bit to make it more truly theirs, I do it in a way that is not noticeable to the talker or to anyone else.”

Ross explains that real, back-and-forth dialogue brought to life her famous New Yorker “Portrait of Hemingway,” later published as a book. The piece caused an uproar because many readers thought Hemingway came off as an egotistical monster, and they condemned him; and because others supposed Ross had maliciously made the writer, then a battered fifty, appear a crazed blowhard. Students, I’ve found, usually like the writer as oracular bon vivant that Ross apparently intended to present. She has explained that she adored Hemingway—they were friends and corresponded—and that he found her account accurate and funny.

What I’ve seen no comment on is the irony that Ross used Hemingway’s own favored point of view: severely limited, direct-observer, third person in which the narrator lacks access to thoughts or emotions and doesn’t interpret or judge, only depicts what can be seen and heard. This “fly on the wall” viewpoint has the effect of forcing readers to stand back and analyze rather than sympathize. Without characters’ inner life or the writer’s commentary, dialogue is crucial to revelation. By careful use of details and dialogue, Hemingway could make you feel awful and sense past, or coming, horror. As it happens, so did Ross in her portrait of the writer. Had she added her own, sympathetic point of view her piece might have read less like a short story and would have made the journalist a more obvious character in it. But it wouldn’t be the same classic profile, for good or ill.

In any case, Ross used limited third-person narration rigorously in her “Portrait.” She showed and did not tell, an aesthetic principle that dovetails nicely with journalism’s ostensible focus on the subject rather than the writer. In literary journalism the existence of the writer is usually at least acknowledged, however. The paragraph below consists of Hemingway discussing my favorite passage in all of literature, the opening of A Farewell to Arms—the novel’s entire first chapter is but two amazing pages—and subtly admits Ross’s presence:

“As we walked along, Hemingway said to me, ‘I can make a landscape like Mr. Paul Cezanne. I learned how to make a landscape like Mr. Paul Cezanne by walking through the Luxembourg Museum a thousand times with an empty gut, Hemingway-Farewelland I am pretty sure that if Mr. Paul was around, he would like the way I make them and be happy that I learned it from him.’ He had learned a lot from Mr. Johann Sebastian Bach, too. ‘In the first paragraph of Farewell, I used the word and consciously over and over the way Mr. Johann Sebastian Bach used a note in music when he was emitting counterpoint. I can almost write like Mr. Johann sometimes—or anyway, so he would like it. All such people are easy to deal with, because we all know you have to learn.’”

Joan Didion called Hemingway’s heartbreakingly beautiful first paragraph of A Farewell to Arms “thrilling and mysterious,” four sentences which in their arrangement achieve a “liturgical cadence.” Hemingway’s sentences are often said to be “simple” —but they aren’t. They’re  rhythmical, with artful repetition, and their construction is varied and complex. His sentences’ weirdly powerful effect resides in this and in their words, which in contrast to the syntax that carries them are simple indeed, as plain and elemental as earth. Here’s the famous paragraph, rendered in that old fly-on-the-wall point of view; emotion arises from the details the narrator emphasizes and from the rhythm of his telling, rather than from explanation:

“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.”

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Filed under dialogue, fiction, flow, journalism, NOTED, Persona, Voice, POV, syntax