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.
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
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.
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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