Sunday, February 9, 2014

An aside . . . on finding the right word

Allow me to digress for this post, and write about writing.

For about 7 months I have been reading TransAtlantic, by Colum McCann. Or rather, I've been picking it up and putting it back down.  McCann mixes historical and fictional characters, in Ireland and America, from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s.  So far, so good. I'm enraptured by some of his writing, and aggravated by other passages.  We encounter Frederick Douglass giving a book tour in Ireland, and Brown and Alcock, the first two men to cross the Atlantic in an airplane. There are no chapter headings, and little guidance for the reader, other than dates when the action moves from one time period to another, either backwards or forwards.

I tell my students that they need to demonstrate they know the standard conventions of writing; then they can break the rules.  McCann is a luminous writer. . . and he likes to break the rules.  He breaks one rule frequently. Fragment sentences.  It's hard for me to even write one!  Here is an example, taken from near the end of Brown and Alcock's trans-Atlantic flight:
        It is close to sunrise--not far from Ireland--when they hit a cloud they can't escape.  No line of sight.
        No horizon.  A fierce gray.  Almost four thousand feet above the Atlantic.  Darkness still, no moon, no
       sight of sea.  They descend.  The snow has relented but they enter a huge bank of white.  Look at this
       one, Jackie.  Look at her coming.  Immense.  Unavoidable.  Above and below.
But then,  just when I get frustrated and want to put the book down, McCann pens a paragraph like this one:

       Stories began, for her, as a lump in the throat.  She sometimes found it hard to speak.  A true
       understanding lay just beneath the surface.  She felt a sort of homesickness whenever she sat down at a
       sheet of paper.  Her imagination pushed back against the pressures of what lay around her. . . The best
       moments were when her mind seemed to implode.  It made a shambles of time.  All the light
       disappeared. The infinity of her ink well.  A quiver of dark at the end of the pen. . . The elaborate search
       for a word, like the turning of a chain handle on a well.  Dropping the bucket down the mineshaft of the
       mind.  Taking up empty bucket after empty bucket until, finally, at an unexpected moment, it caught  
       hard and had a sudden weight and she raised the word, then delved down into the emptiness once


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