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 On the subject of imagery—and not only that, but concerning any element of style—Hemingway makes a good point about simplicity and writerly excess: “No matter how good a phrase or a simile he may have if he puts it in where it is not absolutely necessary and irreplaceable he is spoiling his work for egotism.  Prose is architecture, not interior decoration, and the Baroque is over” (1201).  This amounts to economy of another sort; writers (or their editors) do well to check the impulse to show off virtuosity where it does not serve the work.  Here is a quality that, if it is done well, can not be demonstrated; if a work lives up to this standard, its proof is the absence of unnecessary ornament.  Unless writers take particular care, they are likely to toss around simile and metaphor unnecessarily.  Some rules of thumb that I believe best govern imagery are: such comparison helps clarify an otherwise difficult concept; or by comparing an entity to something more familiar the comparison depicts more economically than straightforward description might; or it serves a motif in the work.  Sometimes, however, one might fiddle with the definition of “necessary and irreplaceable.”  Sometimes imagery is a matter of voice.  But it allows only so much fiddling—you do not want fluted columns holding up a cabin porch.
     Even before I returned to school (and occasionally since), I reviewed Strunk and Whites’s The Elements of Style, so that like a Hebrew with the word of God affixed to my forehead, I go into the world believing above all else that “Vigorous writing is concise.  A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary parts”; and this requires that “every word tell” (Introduction xiv).  The Biblical allusion above explains an aspect of prose-writing more economically than I could have spelled it out, which validates the image.  Yet, to have preceded it with “White was my Moses, leading me into [etc.],” as I was tempted to, would have added nothing; it would have been ostentatious, the reason Hemingway preaches against it.  Imagery must be constructed of tight parallels.  The comparison should seem so obvious that it suggests itself, as if the writer plucked it from the air fully formed.  Like so much else in writing, it should appear seamless.
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     Like Crane, I have adopted no grand literary precepts based on theory.  Instead, it all comes down to style—without it you’ve got nothing, and from the start it has been my chiefest concern.  Beginning with Strunk and White’s Elements of Style I worked to reduce abstraction in my work, to avoid nominalization, for instance.  I’ve studied William Zinsser, John Gardner, Strunk and White, to mention the most prominent ones.  Possibly I have paid too much attention to style at the sentence level, and not enough to overall structure, topical organization, narrative tension; and lately I’ve been playing catch-up in those areas.  But I work for voice.  I’ve learned to read my work aloud and listen to it.  (“John McPhee has never published a piece of writing without having read it aloud to someone at some stage in the composition, customarily after the second of his usual four drafts” [Strachan 229].)  I once believed the story is the thing, but now I believe it is almost incidental to the voice that tells it.  Story lives and dies on voice.  To whatever extent possible, I prefer vivid, concrete nouns and verbs, set in simple, declarative sentences.  (Yet some ideas seem best-served by extended, Faulknerian treatment.  I’m not sure why.)
     And I revel in linguistic color, sonorous gems like: finagle, harangue, sumptuous, turmoil, lurid, ravish, guile, cajole.  The w’s, for instance: someone wanting to learn storytelling could begin by opening a dictionary to the w’s (and especially any word with a wh- in it) and stocking up: whelp, wheedle, wheeze, whipsnake, whiskey, whomp, wince, winsome.  I listen for long vowels, and words with an “ou” in them.  (People wonder why novelists and storytellers are concentrated in the South, but it’s simple, really—the Southern voice is better equipped to do justice to a long vowel.  Plus, it converts every short vowel to a long one.  When it comes to holding a listener’s ear, the voice that can stretch two or three syllables out of “house” or “hell” has a natural advantage over its Northern cousins.)  For the most part I avoid polysyllabic, Latinate abstractions, although certain voices get rhythmic, King-Jamesian splendor with words like “nomenclature.”
     Although I value subtlety, I work to make accessible stories—I like Crane’s approach: “write plainly and unmistakably so that all . . . might read and understand”—simple words and sentences, stories packed tight with meaning.  I’m comfortable accepting mystery or ambiguity, but I hate compounding it with complexity; the world has ample complexity under its own power.
     I admire effortless-sounding, seemingly casual prose that you know someone sweated over to achieve that effect.  Ideally each sentence, and the story itself, should look simple, inevitable, seamless—as if alive in its own right, telling itself, and I just repeat it.  A good story leads the reader to feel, naively: anyone could do this.
     I’ve listened to storytellers for guidance.  Garrison Keillor, for instance—on paper his stories are uninspiring, but get his voice behind them and there’s some sort of magic vitality involved.  My neighbor Allen—one Sunday morning I slipped a mini-cassette recorder covertly into my shirt pocket and stood visiting with Allen in his back yard (I was not using or patronizing him; other than getting him on tape, this visit was like a hundred others) recording him so I could pay attention later to cadence, inflection, and such.  Allen, who works for the city street department, is a gifted storyteller.  In the midst of discussing a local character’s misadventures in the cattle business, Allen referred to a low-lying field as: that goddamn frog hatchery north of town.  It piles color on top of unmistakable meaning.  You can’t get all the rhythmic cadence of speech onto paper, but to whatever extent possible, it’s an invaluable contribution to a story.  A sentence can be made—or ruined—by rhythm and meter.
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     In the end, I like good stories; it’s that simple.  It makes me profoundly uncomfortable to examine the business too closely.  Not because of some romantic notion that we just let fly with imagination and words, and the gods will shape them well.  But because whatever I say about one story contradicts another.  And what I believe today won’t square with who I am tomorrow.  If a story “works,” it says something that other ways of saying can not equal; talking about a good story in other ways— especially in abstractions—may taint it.
     And surely I’m motivated more by self-indulgence than some virtuous-sounding conceit.  But I do think that at the most primal level of human consciousness, you’ll find open flames and storytelling bucking up the human soul.  I like what Nick Bottom the weaver says, “I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream” (IV, i).  And don’t say I’ve quoted him out of context, because that can’t be done, the way I read the play.  I like Mark Twain’s prefatory note to Huckleberry Finn: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”  I don’t think that means necessarily that you can’t find those elements in the story, so much as: leave ‘em the hell alone.

CB Bassity ©2000  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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