Mavis Gallant, in her brief essay about style in writing, says, “The only question worth asking about a story—or a poem, or a piece of sculpture, or a new concert hall—is, “Is it dead or alive.”
A piece breathes life, in part, from the style in which the writer has chosen to bring it to the page. As Gallant goes on to point out, “If a work of the imagination needs to be coaxed into life, it is better scrapped and forgotten.” Style, she says, should never be separate from structure, by which I take it to mean that the manner of telling should always be in the service of what’s being told. Put another way, style is part of the form, and the form and the content and the meaning must be part of the same whole in order for the writer to say what he or she has come to the page to say.
Style has always seemed like an instinctual matter to me. A voice emanating from the world of the work, a world the writer knows so well, he or she can’t help but speak its language. It’s amazing how an intimate knowledge of that world can make all sorts of decisions for a writer. Know your worlds and everything falls into place, including the style of the writing.
Still, within any distinct style (yours might not be mine and vice versa), there are tricks of language to be learned that we can adapt to useful purpose in any style that we use in our own work.
With that in mind, I turn to these passages from Ann Beattie’s story, “In the White Night.” This is the story of Vernon and Carol, parents grieving the death of their daughter. The story opens with them leaving a party. Their host calls to them, “Don’t think about a cow.” This is a carry-over from a game they’ve been playing at the party. “Don’t think about an apple,” the host says, and, of course, Carol, our point of view character can’t get that image out of her head. This is a story about the adjustments we make in order to go on living in our grief. We try to put the images of our losses out of our minds, but, of course, we’re never fully successful.
My writing activity this week involves two passages from Beattie’s story and asks you to think about some of her strategies with language and then put them to use in sections from a piece of fiction, creative nonfiction, or poem that you’ve written, or are writing.
The first passage takes place as Vernon and Carol are driving home from the party:
They passed safely through the last intersection before their house. The car didn’t skid until they turned onto their street. Carol’s heart thumped hard, once, in the second when she felt the car becoming light, but they came out of the skid easily.
Here we have a passage that begins with two declarative sentences that states the safe passage of the car though the last intersection before home. Those sentences put a steady sound into our heads. Then we’re surprised with a new sound that comes from a variation in sentence structure in the third sentence, which contains the moment of the car’s slide and Carol’s response to it. The sentence thumps us the way “Carol’s heart thumped hard, once. . . .” Notice the choice of the verb, “thumped,” with its “th,” it’s “mp,” its “d.” This is a word that bangs its way onto the page. Notice, too, the caesura that Beattie creates with the word, “once,” set off with commas, that pause, while the car is skidding. Finally, notice how the subordinate clause, with its subject and verb echoing the declarative sentences that began the passage, returns us to steady ground once the danger has passed. The sentence structure in this passage expresses the emotional content of the action being described.
Writing Prompt #1
1. Find a passage in your draft that describes an action. Use sentence variety to express the emotional content of the moment.
The second passage comes just as Carol and Vernon are leaving the party and are making their way to their car.
In the small, bright areas under the streetlights, there seemed for a second to be some logic to all the swirling snow. If time itself could only freeze, the snowflakes could become the lacy filigree of a valentine.
The first part of the sentence, “In the small, bright areas under the streetlights. . .” Beattie strings two adjectives together in spite of all the advice we hear about paring out our adjectives and adverbs. Those two stresses slow the sentence down and serve to emphasize the bright areas being presented to the readers. The pace of the sentence forces us to look at what’s being described. In the midst of the swirling snow, Beattie allows the language to be a little loose, to be expressive of what she’s describing. Notice how the sentence opens with a subordinate clause and the rest that comes at its end. It’s into this pause that the snow comes. Notice, too, the assonance and consonance, the repetition of the “f” sound in “freeze,” “snowflakes,” and “filigree”; the rhyming action of “snowflakes” and “lacy” and of “freeze” and “filigree.” Finally, notice how Beattie makes a metaphor from the detail of the snowflakes, saying that, “If time could only freeze, the snowflakes could become the lacy filigree of a valentine.” In a story about a couple trying to live in the aftermath of their daughter’s tragic death from leukemia, this metaphor is not only descriptive but also expressive of the sort of regret that couple experiences while at the same time making the adjustments necessary to their comfort.
Writing Prompt #2
Find a passage in your fiction, nonfiction, or poem that you think could better express what you’ve come to the page to explore. Write one sentence that uses successive stresses, or any other means, to slow the pace and call attention to a detail or a description. Then write another sentence, in which you construct a metaphor from a detail, a metaphor that becomes a container for the emotional center of the story.
Prose writers, don’t think that language is only the domain of the poets. Pay attention to sentence variety, word choice, prose rhythm, the sounds of words, metaphor, pacing, and the next thing you know, you’ll be stylin’!