Thursday, March 29, 2018

Starting with What Matters, Part 15: Walker Percy

Walker Percy's essay "New Orleans, Mon Amour" amounts to a philosophical love letter to the city that serves as the setting for his first and most famous novel, The Moviegoer. Percy imaginatively begins the article, which first appeared in Harper's (September 1968), with this paragraph:
If the American city does not go to hell in the next few years, it will not be the likes of Dallas or Grosse Point which will work its deliverance, or Berkeley or New Haven, or Santa Fe or La Jolla. But New Orleans might. Just as New Orleans hit upon jazz, the only unique American contribution to art, and hit upon it almost by accident and despite itself, it could also hit upon the way of the hell which has overtaken the American city. 
In the paragraphs that follow the opening, Percy gives every reason to believe that New Orleans will, in fact, be the first American city to go to hell. He stacks the intellectual deck so fiercely against his beloved city that a historically uniformed or linguistically careless reader might conclude The Big Easy is doomed to an abominable self-destruction. 

But not so. Percy was a lifelong resident of the Deep South, save a journey north to obtain a medical degree from Columbia University, practice medicine in New York City, and convalesce from tuberculous in Saranac Lake, New York. He cared deeply about New Orleans, writing about it in fiction and nonfiction. His admiration of the city despite its complexities, calamities, and perversities is legendary. You can read "New Orleans, Mon Amour" Percy's 1991 nonfiction collection Signposts in a Strange Land.

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.