“Oooh—you’re an underliner!” my cousin Karen said when she picked up a book I was reading and found it marked with stars, exclamation marks and illegible scribbles in coloured ink in the margins. “Yes, I’m a book defacer,” I said, half joking, always a bit guilty about my habit. “I am too,” she said. “I love seeing what other people underline.”
I once had a colleague tell me he didn’t think you should read other serious writers when you were writing yourself, because of the danger that you might pick up their style, echo their words, perform a ventriloquist’s act rather than delivering your own monologue. Disposable detective fiction was acceptable, anything “literary” was not. I suppose it’s a risk that you’ll pick up another writer’s accent, their tics and habits. But as I’ve been working away on my own larger project, I’ve found myself more eager than ever to spend my non-writing time on the pages and inside the brains of writers I admire. I don’t think I’m ending up imitating them, but I do know they are inspiring me. (We’ll see when I’m finished writing if this chapter sounds like Meghan Daum, and that one like Patti Smith and this other one like E.B. White…) Watching them do what they do and trying to figure out how they do what they do is a kind of encouragement, and I mark their particularly lovely tricks, their dazzling bits with a four-stroke asterisk or a wobbly underline.
Some things that have warranted putting my pen to their pages lately:
In the Foreword to E.B. White’s This is New York, a meditation on the city written in the summer of 1948 as a feature for Holiday magazine (and assigned to him by a young editor named Roger Angell), White writes “The Lafayette Hotel, mentioned in passing, has passed despite the mention.” Later, he says about the city’s skyline “It even managed to reach the highest point in the sky at the lowest moment of the depression.” And near the end, this gem: “first novels made of fresh memories.” Lovely.
Writers in command of beautiful, long sentences.
Here again, E.B. White in This is New York: “I am twenty-two blocks from where Rudolph Valentino lay in state, eight blocks from where Nathan Hale was executed, five blocks from the publisher’s office where Ernest Hemingway hit Max Eastman on the nose, four miles from where Walt Whitman sat sweating out editorials for the Brooklyn Eagle, thirty-four blocks from the street Willa Cather lived in when she came to New York to write books about Nebraska, one block from where Marceline used to clown on the boards of the Hippodrome, thirty-six blocks from the spot where the historian Joe Gould kicked a radio to pieces in full view of the public, thirteen blocks from where Harry Thaw shot Stanford White, five blocks from where I used to usher at the Metropolitan Opera and only a hundred and twelve blocks from the spot where Clarence Day the Elder was washed of his sins in the Church of the Epiphany (I could continue this list indefinitely); and for that matter I am probably occupying the very room that any number of exalted and somewhat memorable characters sat in, some of them on hot, breathless afternoons, lonely and private and full of their own sense of emanations from without.” Look at what he’s done there: populated a city with all of these stories and characters, including his younger self, and then in a lovely twist at the end, brought us into his hotel room where the weight of the city’s stories pressing towards him tinges it all with a hint of rue.
And then there’s Hilton Als in his essay Islands, originally published in Transition and anthologized in Best American Essays 2015: “Being sent away on summer holiday meant leaving behind our social lives in Brooklyn, where we grew up, and where pebbles were embedded in the concrete and streetlights relieved the darkness and one would see and smell, on summer nights, acrid children in striped T-shirts, musty earth in vacant lots, rusting car parts in vacant lots, older children sitting in those non-automotive cars smoking cigarettes and pinching the small nipples on small-tittied girls whose long legs in their Bermuda shorts or denim cutoffs were like osprey legs in that they would have trod delicately through bay water, had there been any as lapidary as the bay water edging toward my feet moments before I recalled visiting Barbados as a child, which was not the great adventure some parents, like my own, expect their children to have, especially if those parents are interested in geography and are familiar with the terrain they are sending their children off to see, partially in the hope that their past experience will make their children, whom they cannot see, behave in a way that is responsible to the landscape that the parents themselves use to have their wildest dreams of escape on, but won’t admit to, needing to believe in the fiction of family, of geography, in order to maintain some sense of who they are.” Unpack that, my friend: a scene that starts with a memory, flows back towards the rememberer where it pivots to his insight about the need for his parents to both escape from and remain connected to the landscape of their past. That’s a beaut.
Another stunner: the opening paragraph of Rebecca Solnit’s Arrival Gates, published in Granta and anthologized in Best American Essays 2015. I’m going to leave you to find that one yourself, because at 444 words, reproducing it feels like I’m putting a toe over the line of copyright infringement. (You can find it on the Granta site, though you’ll need a subscription to access it. Or you could buy Best American Essays 2015—a worthwhile investment, if you ask me. And there’s always the library.)
One tip: If you want to really get a sense of how a sentence or a paragraph is constructed, try typing it out (or even, gasp, writing it longhand). I think it’s a bit like playing someone else’s song. When you do it, you see the sentences from the inside out, find out where you would stumble in its construction, feel where the leaps and the hold-your-breath plunges happen. One thing I noticed as I typed is that the only punctuation in Als and Solnit is the humble comma (with a period at the end, of course). White uses one semi-colon; other than that, he’s a comma man too. There’s a lesson in that, if you’re looking for one.
The power of a well-turned insight
A couple of years ago my friend Jill Lambert recommended Stephen Grosz’s book The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves. I ordered it, but then it got lost in the stack of guilt next to my bed. A few weeks ago, it worked its way to the top and I cracked it open. For anyone interested in human behaviour (if you’re human, how could you not be?), it is filled with gems. Grosz is a psychoanalyst, and his book is a collection of short pieces, each focused on a particular patient. The writing is clear and uncluttered, but where Grosz really shines is in his ability to capture an insight about human behaviour in a beautifully turned sentence, like “when we succeed in feeling nothing we lose the only means we have of knowing what hurts us, and why.” Or “It is less painful, it turns out, to feel betrayed than to feel forgotten.” And “The future is not some place we’re going to, but an idea in our mind now. It is something we’re creating, that in turn creates us. The future is a fantasy that shapes our present.” Or this pointed observation: “Envy often comes disguised in a correction—a father deflates his enthusiastic child with words like ‘cheeky’ or ‘precocious’: a mother complains that her child is ungrateful: ‘You don’t know how lucky you are,’ ‘I never had a such-and-such like this.’ When we envy our children we deceive ourselves—we think too little of them and too well of ourselves.” Delicious.
What it is I’m doing here
What’s your elevator pitch? Students in the MFA program I teach in at King’s have all been trained to come up with that quick encapsulation of their project, the pitch they may need to call on when asked by a prospective agent or editor what it is they’re working on. And so as I dipped into Meghan Daum’s Unspeakable, I was intrigued to watch as, in her introduction, she distilled the point of her book from a paragraph to a sentence. Here’s where she starts:
“For much of the time I worked on this project, when people would ask me what it was about I would say that it was a book about sentimentality. I would say that the essays covered a range of subjects—death, dogs, romance, children, lack of children, Joni Mitchell, cream-of-mushroom-soup casserole, to name a few—but that collectively I hoped they’d add up to a larger discussion about the way human experiences too often come with preassigned emotional responses. I wanted to look at why we so often feel guilty or even ashamed when we don’t feel the way we’re ‘supposed to feel’ about the big (and sometimes even small) events of our lives. I wanted to examine the ways in which so many aspects of contemporary American life—where we live, who we love, when or if we choose to settle down with a partner, what we eat, why we appreciate the art and music that we do, how we expect to die and what we expect of the dying—seem to come shrink-wrapped in a layer of bathos.”
Later, she distils it to this:
“At its core, this book is about the ways that some of life’s most burning issues are considered inappropriate for public or even private discussion. It’s about the unspeakable thoughts many of us harbor—that we might not love our parents enough, that ‘life’s pleasures’ sometimes feel more like chores—but can only talk about in coded terms, if at all. It’s about the unspeakable acts that teach no easy lessons and therefore are often elbowed out of sight. In some places, the book is about literally not being able to speak. It’s about what happens when words fail in the truest sense.”
And finally, she’s gets to the elevator pitch: “This book is about the spin we put on our lives.”
It’s a terrific book. You should add it to the pile of guilt next to your bed.