Thursday, March 22, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 14: Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf begins her 1-page, 2-paragraph, 9-sentence, 334-word introduction to "The Common Reader" with this observation:
There is a sentence in Dr. Johnson’s Life of Gray which might well be written up in all those rooms, too humble to be called libraries, yet full of books, where the pursuit of reading is carried on by private people.
 In this brief piece, Woolf has only one point to make, subtle, complex, and profound though it be, and she uses 39 words, or 11 percent, of her message to directly quote her reference, Samuel Johnson, using it as a springboard for that point. If you want to know the Johnson's sentence, you'll have to read the first chapter of "The Common Reader" yourself.

What interests me is not so much Johnson's observation, but  Woolf's remarkable, circuitous 95-word final sentence, which serves as a nod to Johnson, a praise of literature, and an appreciation of us, the common reader. You can read "The Common Reader" here.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 13: William Styron

Reading a William Styron essay is like meditating on a topic, the very objective a great writer hopes to achieve for readers. As a case in point, read these first two sentences of "An Elegy for F. Scott Fitzgerald" (New York Review of Books, November 28, 1968):
It is perhaps inevitable that all very good writers seem to be able to inspire the most vehement personal reactions. They might be quite dead but their spirits remain somehow immortally fleshed, and we are capable of talking about them as we talk about devoted friends, or about a despised neighbor who has just passed out of earshot.
So what is Styron doing in these 58 words to keep us engaged?

1. He slips in slowly. Leading with the protracted 15-word It is perhaps inevitable that all very good writers seem to be able to inspire, instead of the more concise 5-word Great writers seem to inspire. In doing so, he shows a great reliance on his reputation, a confidence that we will read on regardless of how circuitous a path he sets for us. He also uses this marker language to get us into a reflective mood.

2. He hedges heftily. Words like perhaps, seem, quite, and somehow not only prevents an absolutist viewpoint, but adds a feeling of bewildered existentialism to the opening.

3. He shifts suddenly. The absolute most vehement shows a shifting in gears from the hedging that preceded it, keeping us in a state of surprise.

4. He ditches an unnecessary transition. Styron trusts that his readers know the sentences following the first one are examples of the first, so he doesn't need the useless for example to lead the second sentence.

5. He mixes in the mysterious. Styron's use of somehow in this context evokes the enigmatic nature of writers, baffling us about the inexplicable circumstances that make us react so viscerally to them.

6. He conjures metaphysical imagery. Words such as spirits, immortally, and fleshed elicit flashes of the divine.

7. He uses subtle humor. Before we can ever wonder what it might feels like to be quite dead, we laugh at the thought that he would place these words alongside each other.

8. He shifts person. Styron makes shifts frequently here, notably moving from they (the writers) to we (the readers), and from plural (devoted friends) to singular (a despised neighbor) advancing a conversational style, as if he is sitting on our couch talking to us.

9. He shows our sinister nature. Only when we lose our reason can our most vehement nature emerge, and only when we are at our conniving worst can we unload scornful remarks about a despised neighbor who has just passed out of earshot.

The essay is a worthwhile read not only for a great writer's provocative homage to another great writer but as a study of what makes good writing tick, and makes us readers tock.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 12: Maureen Dowd

I tirelessly tell people in my writing classes that they will find the right language, the appropriate grammar, the apt punctuation, once they have something to say. Writing well is not the application of any number of arbitrary grammar rules; rather, it is the imaginative relating of information. Once we have something to say, I tell students, readers will not dwell much on our syntax and diction because our content will compel them to turn the pages of our narrative until they reach our conclusion. We can achieve this effect by forcing people to think about any issue, no matter how common, from a new angle.

As a case in point, note how Maureen Dowd opens "The Hillary Effect," her New York Times op-ed piece (November 18, 2017): 
Would the war against preying on women be blazing so fiercely had Hillary Clinton been elected?
In the few words that follow this lead sentence, Dowd sharply criticizes both men and women, as well as Democrats and Republicans, for their blatant hypocrisy on the sexual harassment issue over the past two decades. 

I am impressed not by the evenhanded way that Dowd renders her trenchant commentary, for she has displayed this proclivity time and again throughout her years of writing for the Times. Rather, I was taken by her opening intriguing questions, which I had not considered until she raised them. And that, my friends, is what makes a a fine writer.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 11: Gore Vidal

"I particularly like New York on hot summer nights when all the ... uh, superfluous people are off the streets." Those were, I think, the first words Tennessee addressed to me; then the foggy blue eyes blinked, and a nervous chuckle filled the moment's silence before I said whatever I said.
This is the beginning sentence of "Some Memories of the Glorious Bird and Earlier Self," Gore Vidal's essay mingling a review of Tennessee Williams's Memoirs with a gushing homage to one of America's greatest playwrights and a self-congratulatory treatment of his own literary achievements. Vidal serves up several rhetorical devices here:
  • He establishes Williams's sophistication by choosing particularly as opposed to especially or most.
  • He moves the reader along a bit quicker by dropping the comma between hot and summer, leaving hot to describe summer nights, and not to mean hot nights and summer nights.
  • He makes Williams appear simultaneously thoughtful and natural by including the ellipsis and filler (... uh). 
  • He creates an immediate enigma with superfluous, which both equivocates about the superfluous people in the speaker's disposition and conjures humorously ambiguous images of who the non-superfluous people are. 
  • He adds I think as a playful way of assuring his readers that he is taking literary license in directly quoting Williams.
  • He closes with before I said whatever I said as an uncharacteristically humble way of shedding more light on his subject and less on himself.
And now we want to read the rest of Vidal's essay.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 10: Joyce Carol Oates

So much happens in Joyce Carol Oates's sentences. Take these two from the first paragraph of her article "Kid Dynamite: Mike Tyson Is the Most Exciting Heavyweight Fighter Since Muhammad Ali" (Life, March 1987):
If Tyson takes away the World Boxing Council heavyweight title from thirty-three-year-old Trevor Berbick, as he promised to do, he will become the youngest champion in the sport's recorded history. He will fulfill the prophecy made by Cus d'Amato, his boxing trainer, mentor, and guardian, that he would one day break the record of another of D'Amato's prodigies, Floyd Patterson, who won the title shortly before his twenty-second birthday in 1956.
Oates makes a lot of rhetorical choices with these 75 words. Here are just five of them:
  1. She writes long sentences (33 and 42 words). Forget about the so-called experts who tell us to limit sentence length to 15 words. They have not written enough to issue such an order, and if they have, they continually break their own rule. Oates's sentences are pretty.
  2. She uses a colloquial verb instead of a more formal one apparently befitting a writer of her stature. Oates writes If Tyson takes away the World Boxing Council heavyweight title, instead of If Tyson wins or attains. But she is writing about the "sweet science" of boxing, which is loaded with hyperbole and slang. Ayn Rand admonishes writers to let their subject matter dictate their word choice.  
  3. She suspends the base clause of the first sentence by 21 words (he will become the youngest champion). Joseph M. Williams, author of Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, and others created an Eight-Word Test, which basically says that a clear subject and verb should arrive no later than eight words into the sentence. Those authors violate the very tip they endorse in their explanation of it. Oates is fearless in letting 21 words pass before her subject; she correctly trusts her readers can follow her narrative. 
  4. She gives possession to a nonliving thing (sport's recorded history). Narrow-minded grammar snobs will tell us that we can give possession only to people and animals, but not to inanimate objects. They would tell Oates to write the recorded history of the sport, but this is why she is a great writer and they are narrow-minded grammar snobs.
  5. She uses 33 words of that second 42-word sentence simply to qualify D'Amato's prediction. She suspends the sentence at mid point to add greater value to Cus D'Amato, not only as a foreseer but as a force in Tyson's life. Of course, Oates could have written, "He will fulfill the prophecy made by Cus d'Amato that he would one day break the record Floyd Patterson, who won the title shortly before his twenty-second birthday in 1956. D'Amato is Tyson's boxing trainer, mentor, and guardian, and Patterson is another of D'Amato's prodigies." But now we have a longer 45 words in 2 sentences and a sequencing problem that slows down the narrative line. Her sentence shines in its depiction of history and human relationship.
If you want to develop your writing skills, study the sentences of Joyce Carol Oates, who has her singular way of starting with what matters.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 9: T. S. Eliot

"What I have to say is largely in support of the following propositions: Literary criticism should be completed by criticism from a definite ethical and theological standpoint."
This opening sentence from T. S. Eliot's essay "Religion and Literature" reminds us that we lose nothing by getting to the point with our premise in our first sentence, as long as we skillfully support that premise.

Here Eliot argues that literary standards alone are not enough to judge a work of literature; a moral standard is necessary, one that coheres with an ethically sound relationship with society. Eliot's proposition is arguable, of course, but the high quality of his trenchant style is not. 

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 8: Ernest Hemingway

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. 
With these 26 words, the first sentence of the 1952 Pulitzer Prize-winning short novel The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway plainly summarizes old man Santiago's lonely present (who fished alone) and unsuccessful recent past (he had gone eighty-four days now). Some fishermen might actually enjoy fishing alone, taking such an activity as a sign of success. But Hemingway quickly intensifies Santiago's misfortunes and loneliness in the next two sentences by mentioning how a boy, whose parents forbade him from fishing with the old man, pitied him, helping him onshore at dusk to carry his fishing gear whenever he could. The last sentence of the paragraph, describing not Santiago but the sail of his skiff, epitomizes his failure:
The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.
The word the preceding flag in this sentence is especially striking. If Hemingway had used a, he would have generalized Santiago's malaise, but the makes clear that only one flag of such futility can possibly exist. 

Such simple words, rendered powerfully by the imagery they convey, are what made The Old Man and the Sea a great but sad adventure story when I read it at age 14, and a tale of a man's existential defiance in the face of certain defeat when I reread it as a college student at age 21. Recalling this passage, I urge writing students to use plain language because the subject matter they need to deliver is complex enough.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 7: Robert Penn Warren

Why do we read fiction? The answer is simple. We read it because we like it. And we like it because fiction, as an image of life, stimulates and gratifies our interest in life. — Robert Penn Warren, "Why Do We Read Fiction?" The Saturday Evening Post, October 20, 1962
By the time Mr. Warren wrote this fascinating essay, he had already won two of his three Pulitzer Prizes, one for fiction (in 1947 for All the King's Men) and one for poetry (in 1958 for Promises: Poems 1954-1956). He had already co-authored with Cleanth Brooks Understanding Poetry (1939), Understanding Fiction (1943), and Fundamentals of Good Writing: A Handbook of Modern Rhetoric (1950), textbooks used throughout American universities. Most editors of nationally published magazines would not grant writers the license to write the first three sentences of an article with 5, 4, and 7 simple words. But those writers are not Robert Penn Warren. Then his fourth sentence, at 18 words, more than doubles the length of the paragraph with more sophisticated words (stimulates and gratifies) and complex ideas (image of life and interest in life). 

Warren might have justified using such plain language by saying that the article ruminates about children's fascination with literature and that he had a younger audience in mind. I prefer to think that he chose to open with such an uncluttered style because, with his reputation as an author and English professor, he could.  His transparent approach here is a good reminder to all of us who need to write at work or for publication. Get to the point; keep it simple.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 6: Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein is renowned for his scientific genius, but he does not get enough credit for his rhetorical power. In an article on education in The New York Times (October 5, 1952), he wrote:
It is not enough to teach man a specialty. Through it he may become a kind of useful machine but not a harmoniously developed personality. It is essential that the student acquire an understanding of and a lively feeling for values. He must acquire a vivid sense of the beautiful and the morally good.
With plain language and brief yet fluent sentences, Einstein argues gracefully against the culture of efficiency that advocates for a vocational schooling, a system which merely prepares people for a technical skill, one which may become obsolete, rendering the preparatory education useless.

Expressing ideas directly with simple words and short sentences equates to a powerful style.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 5: Helen Keller

In "The Simplest Way to Be Happy," a 1933 article appearing in Home, Helen Keller wrote:
My theme is that happiness is not the work of magic. Happiness is the final and perfect fruit of obedience to the laws of life.
In that 25-word, 2-sentence opening to her descriptive essay Keller uses three hallmarks of getting to the point: simple language (magic, fruit, life), repetition (happiness twice), and contrast (is not and is). Such is the stuff of an engaging style.