Tag Archives: Bill Roorbach

Bill Roorbach’s tasty syntax

I read Bill Roorbach’s memoir Temple Stream: A Rural Odyssey a couple times last summer. I’d been impressed with his review of my memoir for a prospective publisher, and hired him to line-edit a draft of it. Bill is a novelist, an award-winning short story writer, an essayist, the author of a popular how-to book, Writing Life Stories, the editor of a creative nonfiction anthology, and most recently a blogger.

On my first readings of Temple Stream, I don’t remember consciously noticing what really jumped out at me on my recent third reading, probably because not long ago I’d noticed he does it on his blog: an unusual sentence construction, sometimes technically ungrammatical, that’s wonderfully visual, poetic, and colloquial. I may steal it, if I can, to enliven my own prose.

“Leaves blew down the road, forlorn.”

On the one hand, this is just hanging a strong adjective off the end: “He fell back, wounded” is an example. But Bill tweaks it. This literally says leaves (the subject) were forlorn, but placed next to “road” the word implies the road was forlorn, too—achieving the effect of typing the entire scene: the effect of the leaves blowing down the empty road was forlorn. That elaboration is perfectly clear, but twice the words and half the poetry of Bill’s sentence.

It was strange as I wrote this post to stumble across, in the New York Times Book Review of March 27, a criticism of this same “syntactical short cut” in Ward Just’s new novel Rodin’s Debutante. The reviewer called Just’s move “presumably a side effect of his laudable economy of style but one that creates grammatical ambiguities.” Just’s sentence: ‘She began to describe her studies, utterly fascinating.’”

Very Bill Roorbach-like, that. The construction has an offhand quality, emphasized here in another of Bill’s Temple Stream sentences:

“This dour presence and I gazed at each other through the bubbly old windows until I pointed at the porch door, where I met him, holding Desi and Wally by their collars as they clamored sniffing and snorting, Desi with his back up, theatrical growling.”

Grammatically that would be theatrically growling. But again, it’s a flash of imagery, auditory in this case, in the emphasis spot. It hovers over the whole hectic scene and captures it. Bill’s usages eliminate words, often while implying much more with a dying fall:

“And he described again the dense woods he’d found there, days gone.”

And with a dying punch:

“I say, ‘Okay, boys,’ and the dogs leap out, investigate every hump and knob of snow, piss amply on a pair of spectral snowmen—the ghosts of millers no doubt—while I retrieve my skis from the back of the truck, get them attached to my boots in a rush of bare fingers, painful.”

Again, this allows him to end on a strong word, but also to employ an odd, interesting pattern. And I feel the cold pinch keenly. At least one reviewer of Temple Stream on Amazon noted the book’s delightful wordplay—especially the occasional funny unusual word—and this is part of that, higher order stuff.

Here’s two in a row, perfectly grammatical, and again putting the emphasis on the strong ending words:

“She must have walked down to the stream sometimes to think, grief-struck. Her parents’ house burned down about the same time, more sorrow.”

In the first sentence I might reverse it, except the adjectival modifiers placed where they are seem to surmount the fact they’re otherwise inescapably ordinary, and the paired rhythm is nice. Overall I like this emphasis placement better than poet Mary Karr’s striking construction that appears occasionally in her recent memoir Lit: “Freaked, he was,” to make up a likely example; anyway, hers often stopped me. But Bill doesn’t over-use his pet—not much more in the 300-page Temple Stream than I’ve culled here for the blog—and his construction probably devolved from poetry, too, come to think of it. Even the writer of prose had better be after poetry.

Here’s a Roorbach variation with implied words and also what amounts to a comma splice because of the missing words:

“The day had grown balmy, nice breeze from the west.”

As an aside, I always admire writers who use intentional comma splices well, even if I seem unable to bring myself to do it—partly out of craven conformity, no doubt, and partly because I’m so hard on students who splice unknowingly. Oddly, in that same book review noted above, in a piece on the novel Seven Years, the reviewer said that its “conscientious translations even maintain the comma splices that occur regularly in German but appear as grammatical errors in English . . .” Who knew the Germans merely spliced anything?

More:

“The Temple entered at a turn before a stretch of real white water, entered flat and deep, a lost lagoon stained golden black with leaf tannins, strong current.”

“Outside the wind blew, frosty night.”

A variation is to use these descriptive, modifying bursts in the middle of sentences:

“Already exhausted, late morning, I drove my truck by our house four times: reconnaissance.”

“In her note back, fierce handwriting, Professor Mills declared I was the one who was obscure, and how about that?”

“He shook the fearsome ax at me, brandishing it with one hand, enormous strength, admonished me in a low rumble . . .”

Or Bill uses these visual bits to come rushing at the end, the classic additive sentence:

“The road dipped down, and down a little more to where it crossed the watercress brook, which we found flowing with authority through its galvanized pipe under the road into cattails and ice knobs on sedges, sandy bottom, gold glints of mica, hearty flow, jubilant babble of bare languages, washed rocks cased in ice.”

And here tumbling after a short declarative start and fetching up against an arresting detail on a ninety-degree Maine day:

Bill Roorbach, maestro

“He was enormous, wide beard untrimmed, two streaks of gray in it, thick mustache that fell over his mouth, flannel shirt, top button ripped, thermal-underwear shirt beneath despite the heat, massive shoulders, massive arms, massive hands black with engine grease, massive chest pressing the bib of a huge pair of Carharrt overalls, legs like tree trunks, big leather shoes that looked to be shaped by a chain saw, unlaced, heavy rawhide dangling, one pant leg rolled up showing long johns.”

I sent all the above this to a friend and he said, “Anyone who can write as well as he does can do whatever he wants to with the English language because he’s inherited the poetic license Shakespeare, Faulkner and Joyce had.”

He added, “It seems very masculine to me, authoritative. It’s a highly conversational style and these seem to me confidential asides to the reader, sort of ‘Between you and me that dog’s growling was purely theatrical.’ Or, ‘Let me tell you something, the way he shook that axe in just one hand showed he had enormous strength.’ Except he’s figured out a way to do it without the verbiage. I bet it’s a colloquial idiom wherever he came from. I’m definitely going to read the book, strong stuff.”

See, it’s catching. I’m not a grammarian or a literary critic and don’t pretend to be, but find this usage interesting and effective: visual, telegraphic, emphatic, colloquial. I plan to try it myself very soon, diligent student. 🙂

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Filed under craft, technique, memoir, NOTED, style, syntax

Q&A: Ira Sukrungruang

Following my review of Talk Thai: Adventures of Buddhist Boy, I emailed some questions to its author. Ira Sukrungruang responded with uncommonly helpful answers. He’s only thirty-four, but maybe that’s why: he’s been writing seriously since he was a senior in college and is still close enough to what he’s learned, his big breakthroughs, to help illuminate writing’s craft. Here are my questions and his answers:

On your blog you call your memoir The Book that Took Too Long to Write. Could you discuss its evolution? What did you learn about writing in the process?

You can say I started writing this book as soon as I began writing seriously. I was an undergraduate at Southern Illinois University, discovering creative nonfiction for the first time because of an autobiography class taught by nature writer Lisa Knopp. I found my material. I began writing essay after essay about my childhood, about my confusions as an immigrant son. I originally thought about writing a collection of essays because I didn’t think I had a memoir in me. Not yet. Not when I was twenty-two. Not when I was in the midst of self-discovery and though that discovery was revelatory, it was also difficult to sift through at the time. I took a few years more to see my life as a memoir. I needed those years to mature, to process, to understand. Time also helped me back away and write the exposition that was needed in the memoir. I didn’t have that yet. Everything was still really close. Also, for the longest time I labored over the essays, trying to write the bridges to connect them. I was driving myself nuts. It wasn’t working. Finally, I thought, “Screw it. Write the whole thing over.” I felt liberated. I felt I could write the book I wanted to write.

One of the things that is awfully complicated about using the “I” pronoun in nonfiction is that it continually evolves. The writer I am now is not the writer I was then. What was frustrating in revising those old essays was that I was trying to revise an older version of me, instead of writing a new book entirely. That was the biggest lesson I learned when writing Talk Thai.

Talk Thai opens with your enrollment in first grade and proceeds to high school. The book appears to be a straight, narrative-driven chronology, but that impression may be misleading in the sense that, while it feels complete, it’s concise and much must be left out. How did you work out the memoir’s form?

I always go by Bill Roorbach’s example of creative nonfiction in his textbook Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: The Art of Truth. Roorbach compares creative nonfiction to food styling. On the cover of cooking magazines, one sees the perfect turkey, perfectly brown, without the burnt parts. That perfect brown is motor oil. Real turkey doesn’t look appealing. Real turkey cooks unevenly, the skin pale in spots. Here, for example, is a picture of the turkey my wife and I had this Thanksgiving, cooked by a couple of friends while we were camping in Florida.

Ira Sukrungruang relates this, his Thanksgiving turkey, to creative nonfiction.

This turkey was delicious. That really dark spot was an explosion of flavor. Under the pale skin was the moistest turkey I have ever tasted. But by looking at it, you wouldn’t know. Real life is like this turkey; though good, showing it as it is doesn’t quite work.

When I began writing Talk Thai I needed to find the dramatic thrust of the book. The main questions that arose were how could I find myself in this Thai immigrant family, in America, in school, in temple, in anything? There are so many instances I wanted to put in the book, but some of them represented the same thing, and some of them slowed down the momentum of the book. Part of writing a chronological narrative is the art of sifting through all that is in a life, sifting through all the memories to get at what best represents what you want to illustrate. The book started off at five hundred pages, but a lot had to be cut and a lot had to be added until it finally found its final version. (Though, I must admit, I loved some of the cut sections, so on my website, I included a few omitted sections and a different ending. )

Speaking of endings, before I wrote the book I had to decide on a beginning and an ending of the book. I needed to have the ending point. I needed to know I was working toward something, shaping something. And the beginning—the natural beginning was my entry into the first grade. It’s when the world opened up to me. It’s when I was faced with America and all its confusion.

I enjoyed your narrative, an unfolding of events interwoven with reflection, because it conveys experience so well, but wonder if you were tempted to write more essayistic set-pieces about growing up Thai in America? The latter seems more popular in academic literary journals, while book publishers crave good stories.

A good story is good, but a memoir has to be more than a good story. It needs those thinking and reflective moments that you get in a good personal essay. I didn’t write Talk Thai because I had a good story. In fact, nothing truly traumatic happens in my life. I’m also not one to think being Thai or ethnic is reason enough to write a memoir. The story is secondary. A good memoir is about how one understands life, not the life itself. I turn to what Vivian Gornick says in The Situation and the Story: “Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.”

This is why I read memoir.

A note on book publishers: The best memoirs are coming out of independent and university presses. I love the memoirs that are coming out of University of Nebraska Press, the ones from University of Iowa Press, from Graywolf and Sarabande. These books are not only about the good story. A good story is forgettable if there isn’t anything else to cling to.

How and when did you end up getting an MFA after your undergraduate years? Since so many people of all ages are now pursuing MFAs, do you have any advice for prospective or current students about making the most of the experience?

I was student teaching at a high school in Illinois and I realized I wasn’t writing anymore, and at the time, that’s all I wanted to do. I decided to abandon my career path as a high school teacher and get an MFA. It was the best decision I ever made. And hardest. You don’t get an MFA because you want a job. I got an MFA because I wanted to learn more about the craft of writing and be around others who share the same passion. My advice: because you will be saturated in the writing world—reading, writing, teaching—you need to have an outlet. I needed to have one or two days out of the week where I did something else, like play tennis or work out. That was essential during my three years in the MFA program. My students who have gone on to MFA programs also played hockey or poker or something other than writing. It’s healthy sometimes to step away.

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Filed under Author Interview, essay-personal, memoir, MFA, narrative, revision, 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