Tuesday, August 27, 2013
All right. I want to warm up, and one way to do that is to find a game to play. This game is an old one, not the first time down this road for me. I told one girl in my class that she might want to play this game for a while and see what turns up on the page. "So why not try it?" I thought. And so here I am, peck, peck, peck, one small word at a time. How long can I keep this up? Well, for a while, at least. At times I ask kids to try and make it all the way down the page, and not have it sound weird or out of sync with the way your mind works. The goal is for it to be smooth and clear and not so odd that it gets smoked out right from the start. Of course there are a lot of words that you want to use that don't fit, so you have to sort of fudge it. Some (you?) may think it's a dumb thing to do, but what the heck, not much at stake, not much to lose, might as well go for it.
Then there comes a time when you think, I've gone on in this vein too long, I need to switch gears. But which ones? I could stay with the short word thing but write about, say, clams or young love or the way the clouds move in the dark blue sky when a storm is on the way. Or I could let go of the rule I started with just let a few key polysyllabic words creep in here and there just to get the juices flowing. Or I could just scale the whole thing and say, you know what, I was using this exercise as a warmup, as I pointed out at the start, and now that we're warmed up and on our way there's probably no compelling reason to continue to write with one hand behind my back, so to speak.
However, a return to normal diction and more or less automatic writing, while it has the salutary effect of liberating the writer (in this case me) from the artificial self-imposed constraints of monosyllabism, creates the conditions for different kinds of writerly challenges to manifest themselves, as for example the perennial conundrum that faces even the most intrepid of would-be authors facing the intimidating expanse of the blank page: what am I going to write about? An archetypal dilemma indeed, and one which one might be tempted to avoid by the invention—of course not entirely invented, nor, for that matter, entirely random—of a different kind of five-finger exercise, abandoning the Hemingwayesque—however reluctantly, for it has its charms—for the more rugged Faulknerian terrain which, daunting though it may be, with its elevated diction and labyrinthine syntax, also provides by reason of its lushness and malleability potentially munificent aesthetic rewards for those willing to push beyond the boundaries of conventional usage, not the least of which is the discovery, after the fact, that the search for a suitable topic has been brought to a satisfying conclusion simply by virtue of the means by which the search was conducted.
Are we having fun yet? Well, maybe. Some of us are, anyway.
This little exercise did in fact arise from a conversation I had with a student this morning. In doing the first assignment of the semester, she had elected to play with more elaborated, adjectivally embellished diction than what most of us would be likely to use in everyday conversation. While that's always an interesting thing to do, there is a predictable danger involved: you can push just so far before the language being used to communicate begins to overwhelm the idea being communicated. I very much admired the spirit of what she had set out to do, and told her so. But I also suggested that she might want to try a related experiment and go in the other direction, seeing if she could write more or less the same piece but making a conscious effort to use simple words and simple diction, a la Hemingway, just to see what that would feel like, and how it would compare to what she did first. So tonight I thought I'd try it myself. (As a matter of general principle I have always made an effort to do whatever assignments I give my students, for all of the reasons you might anticipate and a couple more you might not.) As I indicated before, it's an exercise I've done before, and somehow it always winds up leading me somewhere I had not really expected to get to. In this piece for example, I had intended to just stick with monosyllables. But as I told my students today in class when we were looking at a poem that had a turn in it about two-third of the way through, it's a simple fact that a writer starts by doing something and then continues doing that thing until he starts doing something else. And that notion was apparently in the back of my mind as I was writing this, because I made the very conscious decision to shift gears and then to shift again, and found myself reversing the poles, moving from the style of writing I had suggested to her to follow up with, to the style of writing she had begun with, thereby traversing a stylistic arc and providing the piece with a kind of internal narrative structure as well. And that's all (s)he wrote.