Writing: The Way Of The Words

What a writer writes and how he writes say allot about his attention to the detail of the craft and speaks of his ability to express what weights on his mind.  To write gibberish or fluff is to write without thought.  It is like eating a large bag of popcorn while watching a film, one consumes the bag without much notice, as only something by which one marks the time until the film’s credits roll onto the screen at its end.  It is an occupation of indifference, perhaps sheer boredom.  The choice of words and how they are used in different possible combinations tell the reader why he should continue.  In the thirties and forties popular songs were often written or arranged with introductions, perhaps some ten to thirty seconds that would set the tone and mood for the song and lyrics that followed.  Well, how many songwriters today even try to accomplish that small task?  For the novel and the short story an introduction plays an extremely important part in the story telling.

‘When Samson Shillitoe stepped off the subway the beginning of the poem brushed his brain.  As he mounted toward the late afternoon light the exact words pranced across his teeth, tickled his left lung and then tweaked his colon.  Reaching the street he almost had them, the magnet of his concentration pulling them up, up, up.  Then the clump of rags and whiskers held out a hand.

“Fifteen cents ta’ get me home?”

Shillitoe looked up, the grip of his mind relaxed for a fraction of a second and the words scampered away.  His eyes tried to snag them back, from the pyramid of apples at the fruit stand, from the dusty insides of the Double-Duce saloon, from the pockets of shiny checkered suits hanging in the front of Manny’s Savile Row.  For a moment he stared at Manny’s sign, Going Out Of Business!  Everything Must Be Sold!  flaked from two winters and three summers.  Then, realizing his perfect words were gone, he grabbed the panhandler by the shirt and started to shake him like a fixed slot machine.  But the lack of any resistance made him stop.”

That is the opening to the book, A Fine Madness by Elliott Baker.  Samson Shillitoe is a poet and his thoughts and dialogue reflect that eternal concern with being a poet, constantly driven to create his own kind of poetry.  Look how Baker has used words that describe but action and thought in a very poetic manner.  In less than two hundred words Baker has given you a preview of his main character and the tone of the story.  Go listen to Linda Ronstadt sing Someone To Watch Over Me and see what a musical intro can do.  The same goes for the first couple of paragraphs in a book.  There is that old story about ministers have about learning how to preach their sermons.  One minister when asked why he was so successful in getting people not only to listen but remember his sermons summed it up thus:  “First I tells them what I going to tell them.  Then I tells them.  Then I tells them what I told them.”  The first few paragraphs tell the reader what you are going to tell them.  This is you way of getting their attention.  Once you have their attention then they will believe that you actually have something to say.

“The captain never drank.  Yet, toward nightfall in that smoke-colored season between Indian summer and December’s first true snow, he would sometimes feel half drunken.  He would hang his coat neatly over the back of his chair in the leaden station-house twilight, say he was beat from lack of sleep and lay his head across his arms upon the query-room desk.

Yet it wasn’t work that wearied him so and his sleep was harassed by more than a smoke-colored rain.  The city had filled him with the guilt of others; he was number by his charge sheet’s accusations.  For twenty years, upon the same scarred desk, he had been recording larceny and arson, sodomy and simony, boosting, hijacking and shootings in sudden affray: blackmail and terrorism, incest and pauperism, embezzlement and horse theft, tampering and procuring, abduction and quackery, adultery and mackery.  Till the finger of guilt, pointing so sternly for so long across the query-room blotter, had grown bored with it all at last and turned, capriciously, to touch the fibers of that dark gray muscle behind the captain’s light gray eyes.  So that though by daylight he remained the pursuer there had come nights, this windless first week of December, when he had dreamed he was being pursued.”

That comes from The Man With The Golden Arm by Nelson Algren.  Notice the litany of crimes listed and the order in which they are mentioned.  You can feel the power and the drama in these first two paragraphs.  What is being described?  Is it the onset of winter?  Is it the tiredness of a man long in the years of cataloguing crime and criminal?  What is it that you feel from this introduction?

“On this Sunday morning in May, this girl who later was to be the cause of a sensation in New York, awoke much too early for her night before.  One minute she was asleep, the next she was completely awake and dumped into despair.  It was the kind of despair that she had known perhaps two thousand times before, there bing 365 mornings in a calendar year.  In general the cause of her despair was remorse, two kinds of it: remorse because she knew that whatever she was going to do next would not be any good either.  The specific causes of these minutes of terror and loneliness were not always the words or deeds which seemed to be the causes.  Now, this year, she had come pretty far.  She had come far enough to recognize that what she had done or said last night did not stand alone.  Her behavior of a given night before, which she was liable to blame for the despair of any today, frequently was bad, but frequently was not bad enough for the extreme depth of her despair.  She recognized, if only vaguely and then only after conquering her habit of being dishonest with herself, that she had got into the habit of despair.  She had come far away from original despair, because she had hardened herself into the habit of ignoring the original, basic cause of all the despair she could have in her lifetime.

There was one cause.”

That is the first paragraph from the novel, Butterfield 8 by John O’Hara.  One becomes attenuated to some of the oddities of his syntax (awoke much too early for her night before) that make the reader reread for the meaning.  One may not be sure what her night before is referring to, was it last night or is it tonight?  She will be a cause of sensation but for now she is bothered by some problem of despair.  But then she attempts to rationalise this despair but never really seems to succeed.  Again, the power of ordinary language can be a very strong inducement to know more when the words are arranged is such a manner.  Writing like this takes great thought and cannot be huried.

“We had been climbing ever since midnight, my father’s second cousin and I.  Since he could whistle beautifully, everybody called him “The Flute” except myself.  I tried once, about three months ago, when Father, he and I went fishing, but Father said I mustn’t call him “The Flute”, for it sounded disrespectful for a boy of eleven to call a man of sixty-five anything but Uncle Luis.

We climbed in silence which did not bother me, but I knew it must be bothering Uncle Luis, for he loved to whistle when climbing.  We had not rested for more than an hour, the last time when we reached the forest.  He puffed like a railway engine and I puffed too and he asked me whether I wanted to sit down, but I told him that I was playing trains to pass the time.  He stopped all the same for he had got so tired that he couldn’t even puff any more.  He asked me if I knew where we had got to and I told him that we were near the woodcutter’s hut from which you could see the waterfall and where I once saw a bear while collecting wild strawberries.  Everybody said it couldn’t be true, no one has even seen a bear in these parts, but Father declared that he, for one, believed me for I had the eyes like a hawk and somebody said I had a nose, too, like a hawk and everybody laughed except my father and, of course, myself.”

The first two paragraphs from Killing A Mouse On Sunday by Emeric Pressburger.  Notice the rather simple usage of language.  “I got”, rather than I have or had.  And the use of commas instead of periods so as the prolong the length of the sentences as a child would run them together in speaking.  Here we have a prime example of how exposition can be used instead of dialogue and still affect a sense of action as well as a sense of explanation.  There isn’t much description in these two paragraphs and to try and describe the woodcutter’s hut or the waterfall would detract from the introduction.  The trek is not about observing nature in all her glory.  The first question is why would a boy of eleven be climbing a mountain, we are not told it is a mountain but with the huffing and puffing of the uncle we may assume that there is at least elevation involved.  But the second question is where is the Father?  Obviously we may ascertain that the boy had been where they are now with his father before.

So I have provided you with four introductions to novels and four examples of the use of language, of words and phrases.  Usage matters in the telling of a story.  It matters when we try to describe the scene, the mood, the feelings and emotions of our characters.  To write blindly without much thought to the words, the phrases, the devices that amplify language into a very powerful tool to convey meaning, is to write without depth or feeling.  One might as well be writing computer code.

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2 thoughts on “Writing: The Way Of The Words

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