Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Naturalistic use of language

Over in Boot Camp, where I learn my writing craft, we're having a discussion just now about writing styles. I quoted this, from Don DeLillo's Falling Man, describing the moments after the first plane had crashed into the Twin Towers:
He began to lift, his face warm with the blood on Rumsey's shirt, blood and dust. The man jumped in his grip. There was a noise in his throat, abrupt, a half second, half gasp, and then blood from somewhere, floating, and Keith turned away, hand still clutching the man's belt. He waited, trying to breathe. He looked at Rumsey, who'd fallen away from him, upper body lax, face barely belonging. The whole business of being Rumsey was in shambles now. Keith held tight to the belt buckle. he stood and looked at him and the man opened his eyes and died.

This is when he wondered what was happening here.

This, I thought (and think) is a good example of sparse writing. We have a bit of a tendency within Boot Camp to try to write like this - aftercarveritis, it might be called, but we often get it badly wrong and it comes out like Janet and John writing - "I did this. I did that. She did that. I didn't like that." And so on...

We agreed that this is a decent example of decent writing, although Alex suggested ways it could be improved. Nancy provided another quote - from Philip Roth's Everyman:
He was in the hospital for thirty days. The nurses were mostly agreeable, conscientious young women with Irish accents who seemed always to have time to chat a little when they looked in on him. Phoebe came directly from work to have dinner in his room every night; he couldn't imagine what being needy and infirm like this and facing the uncanny nature of illness would have been like without her. His brother needn't have warned him not to let her go; he was never more determined to keep anyone. Beyond his window he could see the leaves of the trees turning as the October weeks went by, and when the surgeon came around he said to him, 'When am I going to get out of here? I'm missing the fall of 1967.' The surgeon listened soberly, and then, with a smile, he said, 'Don't you get it yet? You almost missed everything.'

Wow! Isn't that even better than the DeLillo? The way it flows. The naturalness of it, the way everything has a point. Take the turning leaves, for example. How often do you read completely pointless descriptions of weather or seasons? Here it provides a bit of colour, a bit of freshness to the language, but it also means something. It tells us something important.

And, as Alex noted, look at the pacing of this extract, how it is a crescendo rising to that ending. As Alex says, "the best writing is brilliantly invisible." What better description could there be of that Roth passage?

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