Tag Archives: Ernest Hemingway

Lee Martin: the artist must risk failure

Lee Martin, speaking at Otterbein University on April 9, 2013

“Write what you don’t know”: Lee Martin, speaking to my class at Otterbein University, April 9, 2013.

Celebrated novelist & memoirist discusses how he became an artist.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few. . . . This is also the real secret of the arts: always be a beginner. Be very very careful about this point.— Suzuki Roshi, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

A masterpiece of memoir & personal essay

A masterpiece of memoir & personal essay

I’m trying to learn from Lee Martin whenever and however I can, as a writer and teacher. I haven’t yet made it to his celebrated fiction—one of his novels was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize—but I’ve read just about all of his nonfiction. His recent collection of linked memoir essays, Such a Life, is on my creative nonfiction favorites page, but it’s also on my private list of touchstone artistic works. Yes, it’s that good.

Such a Life is my personal textbook on how to write stand-alone memoir and personal essays. That’s how I’ve been using it this semester, in fact, as a textbook, reading it for the third or fourth time with a group of twenty junior and senior college students. The kids love the book, are fascinated by its stories, which are about Martin’s tumultuous growing up years and his middle-aged dilemmas, and some mix those two time periods. I pat myself on the back for choosing Such a Life and for starting my students off with its “Never Thirteen,” one of the most beautiful and affecting essays I’ve ever read, about Martin’s relationship with his first girlfriend. After reading that essay, my students were hooked. They’re still close to their first crushes, after all, and they found Martin’s depiction of the tenderness of the young sweethearts, set against the sour adults around them, thrilling and surprising. I think they’d never read anything like it.

Just as some fiction writers say they’ve typed up Ernest Hemingway’s short stories to learn to write, one of these days I’m going to type up “Never Thirteen.” Having already reviewed the book, I won’t go into more detail about Such a Life here, except to say that Martin is a master at exploiting the enriching advantages of the memoiristic dual narrator—him “then” as a character in the action, him “now” stepping in to comment—and at writing essays that, simply put, are interesting. When he graciously came to my class last night to speak with my students, in answer to one’s question about how he knows his family stories will be interesting to anyone else, Martin said, “If it interests me, I figure it will interest someone else.”

But that’s the end of his long answer and therefore misleading. He told my class he works on an essay for about three months on average; he’s exploring, discovering the whole time, working without a net, no outline (though he plotted during his long apprenticeship); when he writes he doesn’t picture a reader he’s confessing to or entertaining but feels he’s having a conversation with himself, with the different parts of himself. In this regard, one of my favorite quotes about nonfiction comes from him, writing on his excellent blog:

In an essay, I’m always interested in the opening to see what the writer wants me to pay particular attention to, and often that ends up being the layers of the persona which are in conflict with one another.

All semester, my students have been fascinated by Martin’s openness, by his willingness to reveal things that make himself look bad, and a couple asked about that last night. He pointed out that that’s his past self, that we all have faults and have made mistakes. When you portray other people in nonfiction, he said, you are inescapably going to write about their faults, so you’d better write about your own. Besides, he said, he forgives his younger self, or at least views him with some wisdom, from time and age. He writes about what perplexes and bugs him, past and present, testing possibilities and moving toward an understanding he didn’t have. “Write what you don’t know,” he told my students. A good example is Martin’s essay in The Sun, “No Ears Have Heard,” which was spurred by an incident Martin witnessed while waiting to check out at Wal-Mart and grew into an evocative portrayal of the hidden burdens people carry.

Martin told me that it took him twelve years after earning his MFA to pull all elements of craft together and to grasp the intangibles. Where does he stand in a fictional piece with a first-person narrator? How can he view life with Flannery O’Connor’s “anagogical vision,” which means seeing “different levels of reality in one image or one situation”? He said Richard Ford’s famous short story collection Rock Springs helped him find and free his voice. And along the way he learned with help from Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction that a story is not just about a conflict or its resolution but about something else that, by the end, is rising. Call it implication, perhaps, in part. Martin’s persistence and study resulted in his first book, a collection of short stories, The Least You Need to Know.

As he explains in his most recent blog post:

This writing business takes a thick skin, persistence, a willingness to fail, to listen to why I failed, to figure out a way to not fail again while at the same time accepting that I will. Developing as a writer takes an intelligence, an ability to look at one’s work as if you’re not the one who wrote it, an acceptance that there are other writers who know more than you do, who are more talented, who are farther along. Steal from them whenever you can.

• • •

It took me six years to begin to answer these questions for myself:

1. From what world do I wish to speak? (the small towns and farming communities of my native Midwest)

2. What’s my material? What am I obsessed with? (issues of violence and redemption, the consequences of deceit and betrayal, the blending of the moral and the profane)

3. How is the person, Lee Martin, connected to the writer, Lee Martin? (I spent my adolescence balanced on the thin line between my mother’s compassion and my father’s cruelty; it finally struck me that everything I wrote was in some way an attempt to navigate that boundary.)

Lee Martin makes a point.

Persistence, acceptance, humility: Lee Martin makes a point.

I asked my students what they thought of Lee Martin after meeting him in person rather than just through the page. “He’s so soft-spoken,” one said—a few may have been concerned, after the darkness of some of his stories—“but he’s funny!” Yes, they agreed, he’s funny. He’s a lifelong teacher, and by all accounts a great one, so I must’ve expected humor to be part of his quiver of tools. Beyond that, he was funny like a Zen master is funny, which seems to involve laughing through well-dried tears. But they saw that too, my students.

The medium was, in the end, the message. Isn’t it always? Martin revealed himself in tangible and intangible ways—through his craft advice, his candor, and his persona, at once crafty, wry, and sincere. Through great effort, he’s made himself into an artist. Maybe that’s no more rare or precious than becoming a successful businessman or “learning to think like a lawyer,” though of course to me it is. And it was to a classroom of students, here at Otterbein University, who’ve been touched by his art.

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Filed under essay-narrative, essay-personal, fiction, honesty, memoir, MFA, Persona, Voice, POV, teaching, education

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

Klinkenborg’s hymn to prose

Verlyn Klinkenborg’s long poem celebrates short sentences.

The Rural Life by Verlyn Klinkenborg. Back Bay Books, 224 pp.

Several Short Sentences About Writing by Veryln Klinkenborg. Knopf, 224 pp.

“You’ll make long sentences again, but they’ll be short sentences at heart,” writes Verlyn Klinkenborg in Several Short Sentences About Writing. Is that wise and poetic or opaque and unhelpful? This passage from Klinkenborg’s The Rural Life, 2003, may show what he means:

The Fourth of July steals over a small town daydreaming the summer away. A young boy rides his bicycle in a serpentine pattern down the middle of a dusty street. Blue sky divides a broken pavement of clouds. The road out of town seems to stretch farther than usual before it fades out of sight between fields of corn or soybeans, alfalfa, or cotton. Near a railroad siding, the silence of noon is broken by the sound of a mechanic’s hammer ringing against steel in the darkness of a repair shop. An old horse sleeps in a small corral behind the drive-in. The mail fails to arrive. A firecracker goes off in the alley.

It’s hard to believe that such towns still exist. Harder still to realize how many of them there are, once you leave behind the cities and the suburbs and the unincorporated sprawl and break out into the open. But in those towns the Fourth seems to come into its own, whether it’s a hamlet like Texas, Ohio, little more than a bait shop on the north bank of the Maumee River, or a place like Lander, Wyoming, where the Fourth goes off like the crack of doom.

Here and everywhere in this book Klinkenborg showcases his spare declarative chops. Just when you think he’s risking syntactical repetition, he shifts. (As he says in Several Short Sentences About Writing, “Variation [in length and in structure] is the life of prose . . .”)

My wife gave me The Rural Life, and I avoided reading it for a year or two. I assumed it was another of those “I-live-on-a-farm-and-grew-a-tomato—aren’t I cute?” books. How mistaken I was. The book is organized by months, a new chapter for each. His activities and observations are shaped by the seasons. There’s a pleasurable lack of connective tissue; sometimes we gather that he’s traveled with his horses from the East, where he lives on a farm, to the West, where he rides and looks.

He’s in high reporter mode, his beat anywhere humans and nature intersect. There’s a somber, wistful meditation on America’s 1969 manned lunar landing. The Rural Life is no Norman Rockwell portrait: he views America as venal towards the land and rural folk. He employs metaphors and words that emotionally characterize: a berry is “mordant pink,” headlights cast a “nullifying glare,” a “predatory” snow falls “clumsily,” and another is “fox-deep.” His vignettes are precise, the result of looking at nature closely and of looking things up, the types of clouds and the parts of plants:

Along every road, every path, a fringe of opulent grasses grew, ligules shading into lacquered purple, blades into the blue of dusk, awns into an almost roanlike coloration. In the waste clearings grew foxtail barley—supple, iridescent. Sagebrush rose along the fence lines in sharp-scented thunderheads. South of Sheridan, near Ucross, the hayfields are edged with sloughs, and in uncut pastures, yellow-headed blackbirds hovered momentarily before settling onto grass heads that dipped slowly beneath their weight. A buckskin horse at liberty in one of the unmowed fields showed only his back and ears, an island of contentment.

From the time the dew dried in midmorning until full dark, the windrowers moved across the fields, following the curves of the creek bottoms and the sidehills, laying the grass out in narrow rows like the isobars on a weather map. The balers followed once the grass had dried, and for a few days birds gathered on the tops of the round bales lying in the fields, looking out over a terrain that had lost much of its softness.

One might call his writing in The Rural Life not just declarative and spare but lyrical and shyly romantic. We use terms like lyrical loosely. What I presume we mean is prose about the world’s beauty in which we sense the writer’s feelings: grass blades that carry the “blue of dusk” and how harvest changes a hayfield from soft to bristly. And it’s romantic to say a town “daydreams the summer away.” Yet we assume or intuit emotion and outlook and personality from what’s on the page. Klinkenborg doesn’t tell you what he’s feeling or ask you to share it; overt emotion is restrained. So is his persona—like Joan Didion whom he admires, he’s cool. He bares his intellect, not his soul. But the content and the shape of his prose say something else is going on, too, in a way reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories. In all that buried feeling, a love for the green earth.

You may wonder, Who notices what he notices? How can I? His periodic columns in the Times are surprisingly diverse; in some of them his persona is warmer. Appreciations of John Updike and Jacob Riis and David Foster Wallace and John Lennon—and Michael Jackson and J.K. Rowling. Meditations on e-reading and iTunes and writing on computers and overly polite female student writers—and Jim Morrison and Brian Wilson. Thoughtful and generous, his concise essays are models of precision, of how to distill an elixir from the slurry that overflows your ever-noticing heart.

Like all good writing, his makes you want to be more awake. Not just to write better but to live better. How to foster this quality of mind, the writing mind, lies at the heart of Several Short Sentences About Writing. As the epigraphs I’ve used show, his writing advice is presented like poetry. Technically it is poetry because often he’s controlling the length of his lines. This compulsively readable declarative poem runs for 149 of the book’s 204 pages, the balance being examples of prose, good and bad, and concise commentary. Here are some of his gnomic stanzas that interested me:

If you notice something, it’s because it’s important.

But what you notice depends on what you allow yourself to notice,

And that depends on what you feel authorized, permitted to notice

In a world where we’re trained to disregard our perceptions. . . .

Is it possible to practice noticing?

I think so.

But I also think it requires a suspension of yearning

And a pause in the desire to be pouring something out of yourself.

Noticing is about letting yourself out into the world,

Rather than siphoning the world into you

In order to transmute it into words.

. . .

The longer the sentence, the less it’s able to imply,

And writing by implication should be one of your goals.

Implication is almost nonexistent in the prose that surrounds you . . .

 

Try making prose with a poetic seriousness about its tools—

Rhythm, twists of language, the capacity to show the reader

What lies beyond expression,

But with the gaits of prose and a plainness in reserve

That poetry rarely possesses, an exalted plainness.

Implication seems to be an aspect of writing that’s hardly ever discussed. Eudora Welty commented on it in One Writer’s Beginnings, discussing one of her stories, about a girl who learns in painting to frame scenes with her hands, only to see unwelcome reality thereby intrude. Welty writes, “The frame through which I viewed the world changed too, with time. Greater than scene, I came to see, is situation. Greater than situation is implication.” (Lee Martin has an astute recent post  on his blog about implication.)

As with any advice, in the crucible of your practice you must test the utility for yourself of  Klinkenborg’s opinions—he calls them “conclusions, not assumptions.” But he urges wariness about all dogma, even his. Contrary to so many process-based writing theorists, including the influential Peter Elbow, he says the creative and critical functions occur simultaneously. Elbow calls writing this way “the dangerous method” because it invokes the mind’s editor at the same time as it asks for creation.

Klinkenborg isn’t buying it:

Revise at the point of composition.

Compose at the point of revision.

Accept no provisional sentences.

Make no drafts

And no draft sentences.

Bring the sentence you’re working on as close to its final state as you can

Before you write it down and after.

Do the same for the next sentence

And right on through to the end.

Think of composition and revision as the same thing,

Different versions of thinking,

Philosophically indistinguishable.

Or as he said at Goucher College:

The critical and creative mind are not separate. I never write drafts. I write one good sentence to another. All writing is revision. The last piece you delete is the part you’ve been trying to save. You have no idea where you are going. I want to hear the voice of discovery. Writing is not cobbling things together. Every moment is an act of discovery.

See my previous post on him, “A Life Sentence.”

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Filed under implication, REVIEW, style, syntax, working method

Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Sketch of the Past’

From it all I gathered one obstinate and enduring conception. That nothing is to be so much dreaded as egotism. Nothing so cruelly hurts the person himself; nothing so wounds those who are forced into contact with it.—Virginia Woolf, writing about her relationship with her father in “A Sketch of the Past

Having posted so much lately on scenic narrative, I do penance by featuring Virginia Woolf, a most reflective writer. Toward her I feel a kinship, which for some time struck me as odd. Then I realized that, in her deep art, her delicate nature, and her spiritual sensibility, she had replaced my boyhood idol Ernest Hemingway. What bookends to have as literary heroes! He, killed by his egotism and his rage, she killed by her sensitivity and her pain.

I admire his courage and his artistry as a young writer; I lament the shameful boor he became. I write that feeling like a son striking against his father, because when I was a lonely and pained adolescent his stoic myth gave me hope and his stories artistic delight. As a teen I read everything I could by and about him, and first saw the link between outlook and art. As an adult I feel that his efforts to grow as an artist, and perhaps to deepen his tragic view of life, were doomed by the prison of image he’d constructed.

Barely having dipped into Woolf to the same extent, I nonetheless find the depth of her artistry breathtaking, and am in awe of the resonant hints of spirituality I find in her work, especially in her concept of “moments of being” that she discusses in “A Sketch of the Past,” collected in Moments of Being. Ever since I read that long, unfinished essay I’ve been thinking about it—how dominated she was by her father, how she lost her mother so young, how she was molested and bullied by her cretinous stepbrothers, how her account still feels modern. In it Woolf makes her famous statement that although she reads many memoirs, most are failures because they are mere narratives of events and “leave out the person to whom things happened.”

Here she is on her parents’ dysfunction:

Every afternoon we ‘went for a walk’. Later these walks became a penance. Father must have one of us go out with him, Mother insisted. Too much obsessed with his health, with his pleasures, she was too willing, as I think now, to sacrifice us to him. It was thus that she left us the legacy of his dependence, which after her death became so harsh an imposition. It would have [been] better for our relationship if she had left him to fend for himself. But for many years she made a fetish of his health; and so—leaving the effect on us out of the reckoning—she wore herself out and died at forty-nine; while he lived on, and found it very difficult, so healthy was he, to die of cancer at the age of seventy-two. But, though I slip in, still venting an old grievance, that parenthesis, St. Ives gave us all that same ‘pure delight’ which is before my eyes at this very moment. The lemon-colored leaves on the elm tree; the apples in the orchard; the murmur and rustle of the leaves makes me pause here, and think how many other than human forces are always at work on us. While I write this the light glows; an apple becomes a vivid green; I respond all through me; but how? Then a little owl chatters under my window. Again, I respond.

Here she writes on the early blows of losing her mother and then a sister to death:

My mother’s death had been a latent sorrow—at thirteen one could not master it, envisage it, deal with it. But Stella’s death two years later fell on a different substance; a mind . . . extraordinarily unprotected, unformed, unshielded, apprehensive, receptive, anticipatory. That must always hold good of minds and bodies at fifteen. But beneath the surface of this particular mind and body lay sunk the other death. Even if I were not fully conscious of what my mother’s death meant, I had for two years been unconsciously absorbing it through Stella’s silent grief; through my father’s demonstrative grief; again through all the things that changed and stopped; the ending of society; of gaiety; of the giving up of St. Ives; the black clothes; the suppressions; the locked door of her bedroom. All this had toned my mind and made it apprehensive; made it I suppose unnaturally responsive to Stella’s happiness, and the promise it held for her and for us of escape from that gloom; when once more unbelievably—incredibly—as if one had been violently cheated of some promise; more than that, brutally told not to be such a fool as to hope for things; I remember saying to myself after she died: ‘But this is impossible; things aren’t, can’t be, like this—the blow, the second blow of death, stuck on me; tremulous, filmy eyed as I was, with my wings still creased, sitting there on the edge of my broken chrysalis.

On how she gained insight into foreign pleasures and strangers:

Once, after we had hung about, tacking, and hauling in gunard after gunard, dab after dab, father said to me: ‘Next time if you are going to fish I shan’t come; I don’t like to see fish caught but you can go if you like.’ It was a perfect lesson. It was not a rebuke; not forbidding; simply a statement of his own feeling, about which I could think and decide for myself. Though my passion for the thrill and the tug had been perhaps the most acute I then knew, his words slowly extinguished it; leaving no grudge, I ceased to wish to catch fish. But from the memory of my own passion I am still able to construct an idea of the sporting passion. It is one of those invaluable seeds, from which, since it is impossible to have every experience fully, one can grow something that represents other people’s experiences. Often one has to make do with seeds; the germs of what might have been, had one’s life been different. I pigeonhole ‘fishing’ thus with other momentary glimpses; like those rapid glances, for example, that I cast into basements when I walk in London streets.

On how fiction and memoir feed upon and devour memories:

Further, just as I rubbed out a good deal of the force of my mother’s memory by writing about her in To the Lighthouse, so I rubbed out much of [my father’s] memory there too. Yet he obsessed me for years. Until I wrote it out, I would find my lips moving; I would be arguing with him; raging against him; saying to myself all that I never said to him; how deep they drove themselves into me, the things it was impossible to say aloud. They are still some of them sayable; when [Woolf’s sister] Nessa for instance revives the memory of Wednesday and its weekly [bank account] books, I still feel come over me that old frustrated fury.

But in me, though not in her, rage alternated with love. . . . ‘You must think me,’ he said to me after one of these rages—I think the word he used was ‘foolish’. I was silent. I did not think him foolish. I thought him brutal. . . .

Woolf died by her own hand before she made of this memoir a literary work equal to her fiction. It feels like a draft still searching for its structure, and ends abruptly. But what a memoir, and the very model for those who believe memoir must, as they say, “interrogate memory.” “A Sketch of the Past” is better for my money than another classic memoir, the gorgeously written Speak, Memory, since, lamentably, I find Vladimir Nabokov’s cold-fish persona in it repulsive. Woolf, in contrast to the guys, seemingly stands naked before her readers, a wounded creature working to understand her life, and life itself, with true courage and great artistry.

Next: Woolf’s concept of “moments of being” from “A Sketch of the Past.”

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Filed under emotion, memoir, NOTED, religion & spirituality

Craft, self & rolling resistance

I spied this incredibly silver BMW in the Frankfurt, Germany, airport, itself a futuristic spectacle

“Writing is not a bundle of skills. Although it is true that an ordinary intellectual activity like writing must lead to skills, and skills inevitably mark the performance, the activity does not come from the skills, nor does it consist of using them.”—Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose

For such an intense period in the past four years of crafting a memoir have I written, rewritten, pondered, read books, cut, restructured, taken classes, and reread my work that there are periods, like right now, when I don’t know a thing about writing. I don’t know what I know—or what I ever thought I knew. Perhaps this comes from trying to understand writing in terms of craft—and while craft is vital to art, it’s secondary, a conduit. Which begs the craft question that forever devils me: What works and how does one do it?

Adrift, I seize on theorists who make sense and read the writers on my blogroll with amazed delight—so funny, so deft—wishing I could at least blog as seemingly effortlessly, as gracefully.

Recently I felt the struggle, inspiringly if not directly helpfully, in a physical sense: away from this intense keyboard work for two weeks, traveling in May with my son through Germany, Austria, Italy, and Denmark, I felt like a potter missing his sticky ball of clay. I yearned to thrust my hands into the book as if it were physical. And I had that mental image of the nature of this work so powerfully that I almost threw my tensed hands into the air and grappled with my invisible but palpable opponent.

Maybe I did. I felt as if I were in withdrawal from slamming around something material but unformed, instead of from manipulating immaterial symbols. My son says I spoke strangely at times, issuing gnomic bulletins apropos of nothing, though our memories of specific incidents are at variance, and I recall my statements as responses to his own. He’s also a writer, at work on a novel.

Just before leaving on my trip I’d realized that my recent Chapter One rewrite must be recast yet again. I’d taken a mighty swing and missed, again. Another rewrite will affect the first four to six chapters. I’m on Chapter Five, and will keep going and refuse to loop back just yet. A writer who helped me see the issue with Chapter One urged me to outline all my chapters, from memory, during my trek.  I told her I couldn’t do it, which surprised her. Which depressed me. But I still resisted the very idea of trying.

I’m want to take my inability as a difference between writers, not as evidence of my worthlessness. I admire her ability to outline her chapters freehand, but though I have outlined my book’s timeline and its turning points, my most helpful outlining always seems to come after I’ve written. And the way I am already proceeding seems to be working, mostly. One of these days perhaps I will break down my game, start over from scratch, the way Tiger Woods supposedly rebuilt his golf game after he already was great. But I doubt it. I don’t have this game down, and it appears I never will.

Trans-Atlantic flights and airline snafus and recuperation time in our walkup pensione in Florence did allow much time for reading on this journey. At the start, United Airlines couldn’t send me to my trans-Atlantic departure point of Dulles because of a mechanical problem, so United put me on an Air Canada flight to Toronto. From there, Luftansa would take me to Copenhagen. But in Toronto, scowling Luftansa functionaries at the gate, to which I’d raced like a crazed donkey, told me United hadn’t “protected” my seat. They bumped me and told me to talk to United, which denied culpability. Anyway, the plane was gone and now I was in Air Canada’s hands. I was forced to spend the night. None of the three airlines involved in buying and selling me among themselves could tell me where my luggage was. I’d fallen between the system’s huge cracks, and it became apparent that airline employees understand only their tiny piece—if that—of their business. The eventual consensus among Air Canada’s clerks, the most helpful and kindest of the lot, was that my bag had gone on to Copenhagen with Luftansa. (In the fullness of time, that proved to be the case.)

Meanwhile I had my carry-on, so was able the next day, sitting for twelve hours in the lobby of a Marriott attached to the terminal, to finish the novel Shiloh by Shelby Foote and then to read it again; it is cleanly written, well-told from different characters’ points of view, and conveys viscerally the Civil War’s mud, boredom, and terrifying combat. In Italy, I reread two favorite memoirs, RFD by Charles Allen Smart and This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff. I was more critical of the former, a monologue with brilliant flashes, but This Boy’s Life remained spare and perfect, and impressive for Wolff’s honest portrayal of his flawed adolescent self. I was more accepting of his two major flashforwards, the second of which, in wrapping up the book by telling what happens to the kid, I had felt on my first reading was an artless move he never would have made in his artistic fiction.

In Copenhagen and returning, I read A Farewell to Arms, which I’d bought for my son in the futuristic Frankfurt airport; I’d first read it when I was his age, though over the years I’ve dipped into its perfect first chapter, two pages of incantatory and heartbreakingly beautiful landscape-and-setting prose. But Ernest Hemingway’s cloying male-female dialogue distressed me—it’s possible to get that his characters are shattered by a malevolent world and still want to strangle them for their brittle, willfully unreflective stiff-upper-lipped-ness—they seemed, this time, nauseatingly sentimental creations—not to mention their annoying adverb-heavy speech. As a tonic, I googled, downloaded, and reread “In Another Country,” Hemingway’s perfect short story that’s also set in Italy during the war, perhaps an outtake from the novel.

Next to writing itself, reading during a writing project is the most helpful activity for writers because they notice things they otherwise wouldn’t—there, there’s something I know about writing after all. I saw more in the books I read because I’d been working hard, making sentences and scenes. Not always big things, mind you. But even how someone would or wouldn’t use a comma would stop me.


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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

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