form & style

A special sentence structure

July 17, 2017 | 15 Comments

Punctuation & my pig tale

July 6, 2017 | 12 Comments

The New York Times isn’t alone in making me ill over its colon usage. But I adore the Times and read it faithfully, so I’m daily aggrieved. The usage I detest: capitalizing the first letter of the clause after a colon. In this style, incomplete sentences escape the initial capital. But independent clauses unfortunately do not.

Here’s a true story in which I’ll use a colon before an independent clause in the first sentence of the second paragraph:

“I knew a farmer who had a sow who learned to escape by ramming herself through an electrified fence. Hot wires hurt. Even if briefly. The swine knew this. But oh, the rewards of freedom! So she’d run full bore, as it were, at the fence.

“And, knowing she’d suffer, she’d start screaming: before she was shocked, she’d start screaming. Which was how the farmer knew his pig was out again. Inside his house, he’d hear her cries as she ran, unfettered and unharmed, at the waiting fence. I wonder if what really motivated her was rage—at injustice, since, technically, the fence hurt her before her crime.”

The idiocy of the alternate stylistic practice is that, following its hazy logic, the first word in an independent clause after a semicolon should really be capitalized too: “And, knowing she’d suffer, she’d start screaming; Before she was shocked, she’d start screaming.”

Now I really feel nauseous. I mean, look at it.

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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.

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A moral master of prose style

April 25, 2017 | 12 Comments

I’m always circling back to James Baldwin. My latest return, reading The Devil Finds Work, his essays on American cinema, was spurred by watching the recent documentary about him, I Am Not Your Negro. I found the film, as a work of history, of racial reconsideration, of brilliantly structured art, quite literally stunning. Based loosely on Baldwin’s unrealized plan to write a book about three slain friends—civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr.—the documentary was nominated for an Oscar. It opened nationwide on February 3, and I saw it shortly afterward in a screening at Ohio State. I’ve been trying since then to watch it again. The film’s power derives, in large part, from its periodic juxtaposition of images of American racists of another era with those who’ve gaped and japed at recent rallies.

Such a stinky revelation of human insufficiency. Hence the timeliness of Baldwin’s urgent message that race is America’s story. Race is where our nation’s transcendent ideals meet the angels and demons of human nature. Is America only an accident of its riches or is it an avatar of the expanding human spirit?

Baldwin sank his teeth in such foundational issues. Which is partly what makes him one of America’s greatest writers. He loved America and its culture, but was an outsider—made doubly so by his race and his homosexuality—and he wrote in fierce, profound clarity and despair. The Devil Finds Work shows you what it’s like for such a man to consider movies he loves and ones he hates. It’s a racial and social deconstruction of American cinema.

Writing of the “mindless and hysterical banality” of the evil in The Exorcist, Baldwin reveals his own feeling of insufficiency before the “heavy, tattered glory of the gift of God.” Any human’s freedom carries the almost unbearable burden of honestly confronting one’s failure to be fully human: “To encounter oneself is to encounter the other: and this is love. If I know that my soul trembles, I know that yours does, too: and if I can respect this, both of us can live.”

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A story structured in shards

March 8, 2017 | 25 Comments

Natalie Portman’s inspired performance and its complex layering of time frames distinguish the film Jackie.

Portman nails Jackie’s breathy finishing-school voice—you imagine it began as an instructed affectation, as an adaption to a wealthier milieu, or as an ambitious adoption that became her. She also conveys Jackie’s sincerity, her flashes of insecurity, her fidelity to duty, and ultimately her pain. After the horror in Dallas, she plans Jack’s funeral, even as she medicates herself with alcohol, comforts her two young children, and oversees the packing of her family’s possessions for their abrupt exodus from the White House.

The movie opens after all that, scant days after the funeral, with Jackie being interviewed. She wants to further her husband’s legacy by cementing his image as a noble leader, as an aristocrat who loved the people, as a demigod. This foreground frame (or recurring braid, if you choose) grounds the narrative. Otherwise a succession of flashbacks, not always linear, the segments reflect Jackie’s PTSD and the nation’s disorientation.

Like many a boomer, I carry memories of November 22, 1963, when Kennedy fell in Dallas and Jackie scrambled briefly onto the car’s trunk: to retrieve a piece of his skull, the movie affirms, not to flee, as it appeared to many at the time. Then, as we watched: Oswald’s killing and JFK’s funeral and John-John’s brave salute. But I’d never contemplated Jacqueline Kennedy’s grief, much less her PTSD.

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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.

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Two titans of prose

July 20, 2016 | 8 Comments

Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, born on the same day in 1809, changed the world with their actions and their ideas. That they continue to influence our lives and perspectives today proves their historic and even evolutionary importance. And it actually all rests on their writing ability, argues Adam Gopnik: “They matter because they wrote so well.”

In Angels and Ages, an engrossing history and analysis of Lincoln and Darwin as writers, Gopnik calls Darwin’s On the Origin of Species “a long argument meant for amateur readers.” But the book is “so well written,” he adds, “that we don’t think of it as well written, just as Lincoln’s speeches are so well made that they seem to us as natural as pebbles on a beach.”

Both loners, Lincoln and Darwin cut through the cant of their day with original thought expressed in compelling sentences. We also get to know Lincoln and Darwin as men whose identities seem inseparable from their prose. The shrewd Lincoln, who had a “tragic sense of responsibility,” was an unbeliever who evolved during the Civil War toward an “agonized intuitive spirituality.” The hypersensitive Darwin possessed a “calm domestic stoicism,” his own private code, but agonized over the effect of his ideas on the faithful—especially on his beloved wife, who was grieving their loss of their daughter.

Lincoln served as an avenging angel who loosed a bloody sword, but his puzzled spirituality in response seems a distilled expression of our species’ very essence—as does the transcendent goal of his tragic bloodletting, justice for all, black and white alike. Darwin also is emblematic, an avatar of our species’ restless spirit to know itself. Darwin’s genius cracked the foundation of the church, as he feared it would. Yet his insights did not destroy religion, broadly defined. He actually deepened religion’s animating mystery, human nature: what is it? where did it come from? why are we mostly good? why does evil exist?

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