implication

A special sentence structure

July 17, 2017 | 15 Comments

The long & short of sentences

June 28, 2017 | 8 Comments

Richard Ford’s new memoir, Between Them, a short book made of two long essays, is a vocal performance. And he’s in good voice. Forget scenes: he’s telling. In contrast, Brian Doyle, a prolific writer of novels and narrative nonfiction who died in May, was a master of the short, tight essay made of long, loose sentences. “His Last Game,” an essay of only 1,184 words,is about an outing with his older brother, who was dying of cancer, in 2012. It feels almost wrong to analyze some of his essays rhetorically, since they’re about what’s sacred. But such study leads to imitation, and that’s what makes writers, even before they know they’re doing that lowly, necessary act, so that, when the greatest joy blesses them or the hardest fate befalls them, they can sing truthfully in their own voices.

Ford seems ambivalent about the semicolon, using only a few in his new memoir, but plenty of dashes, short sentences, and sentence fragments. His style is undergirded by and reflects his forthrightly imaginative approach to his parents. Like they’re two of his fictional characters he’s made up. So he writes confidently, almost over-confidently. As in that great, cheeky (borderline smarmy) “only inexactly” line about his mother’s happiness. But we see in his judgments and generalizations the same confidence (and speculation and limits) we possess in musing upon our own ordinary yet mysterious parents.

He’s skating beautifully for us, in the southern Scots-Irish rhetorical tradition, on thin ice. Take his parents’ early days together. Sprung from loose-limbed, garrulous, backwoods clans—with stomping grounds and boon companions, and surely also with fresh collards and raw elbows—they drank companionably, and sometimes to excess, and in those sepia honeymoon years they “roistered.” His father settled into a bland career as a traveling starch salesman, and his mother accompanied his excursions across the South, until Richard came along.

You keep opening Between Them for their boy’s vocal performance. You can feel Ford’s implicit wink at us as he conjures his parents. His manifest love is how he escapes sentimentality in asking us to share simple affection for them. These ordinary forgettable people from Arkansas, who landed in Jackson, Mississippi, left no trace aside from their gifted only child.

[Read More]

Word by word

September 7, 2016 | 8 Comments

English departments inherently espouse reverence for thoughtfulness, sensitivity, and comely expression. I codified this recently for myself while speaking with my college’s enrollment director. Strolling down a sidewalk, we’d begun discussing a sharp drop in English majors at our institution. This is endemic nationwide, actually—part of a falloff across the board in the traditional liberal arts. Kids are understandably aiming at paying careers. Across academe, however, lamentation ensues. Today, college seems viewed primarily as career training, not primarily as preparation for living a good (conscious) life. A student can still major in creative writing, say, and get a decent job upon graduation—if she’s been canny enough to obtain internships along the way. But increasingly, in doing so she’s actually seen as bucking the system.

Later, I was writing and got wondering what, exactly, I was trying to do. At the sentence level, where I was laboring, what was I trying to achieve? I’ve been writing with my screen zoomed to 225% and in a font enlarged to 16-point type. The hugeness of the display means only about a paragraph shows on the screen. And it makes each word and sentence I see feel huge. This reminds me to place emphasis where I am, because that’s where the reader is going to be.

Feeling my way syntactically and thematically, I’m discovering the story—so that’s one big thing I’m doing. Another is trying to be clear. Another is trying to be elegant. To do those things I fiddle with words, vary sentence structure, and try to end sentences and paragraphs and passages with emphasizing words or ideas. All in an overarching effort to both convey and discover insight. Where, I wondered, before stopping myself so I could work, are such values coming from? Of course they’re broadly espoused in academe. But thankfully, reading itself inculcates them by example and by implication.

[Read More]

My essay in Assay

September 1, 2016 | 8 Comments

The fall 2016 issue of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, online today, includes my essay “Classics lite: Teaching the Shorter, Magazine Versions of James Baldwin’s ‘Notes of a Native Son’ and Jonathan Lethem’s ‘The Beards.’ ” These are beloved essays. And as my title indicates, they exist in longer and shorter versions—in fact, the periodical versions are technically the “originals,” since they were excerpted to advance the writers’ subsequently published collections.

But since the book versions are canonical, condensations may seem heretical. Especially since the famous book version of “Notes of a Native Son” also deals with America’s great topic, race, and tampering with it, in particular, seems at first blush a sacrilege.

In a seminar in graduate school, I studied these two classic American essays—their longer, book versions—together. Both concern the loss of a parent, but they take very different approaches. Hence they’re a nice pair for writers to study and for teachers to teach.

Baldwin’s, about the demise of his preacher father when Baldwin was 19, unrolls in a warm, formally structured, and syntactically orotund procession. Lethem’s essay employs a modernistically fractured and conversational approach to portraying his devastation in the wake of his mother’s death, when he was 14.

Lethem’s essay shows his loss structurally: “The Beards” is organized according to his mother’s state of health or length of time dead—but the segments aren’t in chronological order. This implicitly helps show Lethem’s grief as transforming and ongoing. He steadily but subtly plants this notion until he shatters the cool, elliptical façade of “The Beards” with a few heartfelt statements.

[Read More]

A dying writer’s memoir

August 10, 2016 | 14 Comments

Paul Kalanithi had his life mapped out: 20 years of medical practice followed by 20 years of writing. Amidst that span, marriage and children, vacations and celebrations—plenty of time to repair the strains in his marriage caused by his tenacious pursuit of medical excellence. Found riddled with cancer late in his surgical residency, already a gifted neurosurgeon at age 36, he soldiered on for a time. While terminal himself, he operated on others.

Finally lacking the endurance for surgery, he concentrated on writing When Breath Becomes Air. In just under two years left to him, he wrote about his cancer treatments, about medicine as a high calling, about his past and ongoing life. He also became a father, nine months before he died, at age 37.

His cancer responded well to initial treatment, but returned. He explains his reaction to seeing those scans, which told him his end was coming fast:

“I was neither angry nor scared. It simply was. It was a fact about the world, like the distance from the sun to the earth. I drove home and told Lucy.”

Few have been more prepared than Kalanithi to make sense of mortality. Growing up in Arizona, the son of a cardiologist, he’d planned to be a writer partly because of how hard his father worked. The price of medicine seemed too high. But then he became a neurosurgeon.

Weaving stories of surgeries he performed or treatments he witnessed with his own experiences as a patient Kalinithi reveals himself not only as intelligent but as deeply empathetic to patients. ­Like the rest of us, as a patient himself he had fine doctors and fair—and one awful resident who almost killed him, it seemed as much from ego and lack of empathy as from inadequate experience. When Breath Becomes Air might be assigned in medical schools to address what seems a vexing nub: always building technical expertise while blending that skill with one’s humanity

[Read More]

What has gone missing?

May 25, 2016 | 14 Comments

Serendipity occasionally tosses books together on a reader’s platter, thus multiplying the impact they might have had if encountered separately. If you like to chew on ideas, consuming books in combo can become an art as subtle as the pairing of food and wine.

Two titles from the year past are polar opposites in many ways, yet explore the same underlying idea: What have we jettisoned in our transition to the electronic era? One publication is a collection by an established older essayist on the East Coast and the other is a debut novel by a young emerging writer in the Rockies. Both authors edit literary journals. Each book in its own way addresses the digital conversion of our lives and the consequences of that progress. In their explorations of the Internet Age, both authors establish what has disappeared and then illuminate the ramifications.

Sven Birkerts, editor of AGNI, turns a searchlight on technology’s threat to creativity in his collection of seventeen essays (all previously published individually in a variety of journals). The titles in Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age are intriguing. A sample: “You Are What You Click,” “The Hive Life,” “The Room and the Elephant,” “Notebook: Reading in a Digital Age,” “Idleness,” “Bolaño Summer: A Reading Journal,” and “The Still Point.”

Birkerts examines what has occurred in the twenty-two years since he wrote The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age.

He pitches questions and then marshals quotes from well-known writers to augment his answers, sometimes agreeing with their points of view and sometimes not. As Birkerts converses with their ideas, he presents his own stance while at the same time enlisting the reader’s attention to consider the situation along with him.

[Read More]

Shining prose, timeless insights

March 2, 2016 | 2 Comments

Eudora Welty’s short story “A Worn Path” depicts an aged African American woman, Phoenix Jackson, making an arduous journey through woods and fields along the Natchez Trace, an ancient trail, to the small city of Natchez, Mississippi. She’s challenged by the terrain and menaced by a stray dog and by a white quail hunter.

Reading “The Worn Path” again, for the first time since I was an undergraduate, summoned its effect on me at twenty. Then, I marveled at why she went to town, revealed near the end, as if her motive was a trick Welty planted. This time, I marveled at how Welty got her there.

What sent me to this masterpiece of empathy and imagination again was that last week I stumbled across Lee Smith’s essay in Garden & Gun magazine about how James Still and Welty influenced her. In their work, Smith recognized her own subject—her people, as they say in the South. What happened is that Welty came to Hollins College to read, and 19-year-old Smith watched and listened, transfixed. Welty read “A Worn Path,” Smith writes, in “her fast light voice that seemed to sing along with the words of the story.”

By the time the hero of “The Worn Path” meets the white bully and some clueless city folks in town, we know her well. And as she tries to get help in town, the story’s full implication blossoms. Having given life to an old lady in a hard situation, Welty achieved one of narrative’s highest arts—associated with fiction but possible in nonfiction—of giving readers an experience and letting them add two and two for themselves.

[Read More]