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How good writing works

Saturday 4/22/23

I thought this would be something interesting that's worth doing. I've done it from time to time in these pages--looking at how writing actually functions and how it works at the level of the sentence when it's good writing.

I'm still working on "Big Bob and Little Bob." It's been a while. What I try to do now is go both fast and slowly--at the same time. There are ways to do this. But these are the lines I want to focus on, which come from the earlier excerpt posted in these pages:

If before the cannons of Antietam could be heard from more than sixty miles away, then now it was like less than thirty. You had to ask him a question about a battle for him to speak of it. There was no volunteering. Life itself was conscription. The battles he was invested in were his own, if he was invested in them at all, which appeared to be infrequently the case.

Let's start with the second sentence, which is comma-less. We know in this story that this character, Big Bob, is a Civil War scholar. He talks about battles, gives life lessons from battles. It's a way in which he sees the world and proffers wisdom.

In the third sentence, we have a gerund (what's usually a verb that ends in "ing" that functions as a noun) in "volunteering" without a modifier. It's a double play on words that follows on from Antietam--which is a battle that comes up several times in the story--and then the further mention of a battle. "Volunteering" means both the volunteering of information and volunteering for war service. We normally wouldn't say "There was no volunteering" to refer to the offering up of information. We'd say, "He didn't volunteer that information." But this is the corollary--and the natural result--of "You had to ask him," because we know that it's information that would be asked for. One sentence takes care of another.

It's highly unusual to have an unmodified gerund that is simultaneously--and clearly--referring to two different things. That's almost a grammatical impossibility. Again, it's a comma-less sentence. Two of those in a row now. Then we get the fourth sentence of the paragraph, which is also a comma-less sentence, but instead of a gerund in this instance, there's the noun of "conscription."

An outright, non-gerund noun has more solidity than a gerund. Once again, there's two meanings happening at simultaneously, but something that was already clear has been further firmed up, though we're not being lectured--rather, it's part of the natural progression grammatically, metaphorically, literally, narratively, and also architecturally, musically, and mathematically.

"Conscription" was when you were forced into joining up in a war, and you hadn't volunteered. You were given no choice. The idea is also that this man is being forced to walk through life--to be alive.

We have, in those three, comma-less sentences, what we can think of as three sustained tones. A chord is three tones or more sounded at once. Those three sentences function as a linguistic chord. But there's more. In the "There was no volunteering" sentence we essentially have one set of twos with the double meaning. In the sentence that follows, we also have a set of twos. The "You had" sentence created a form of a two itself between the expressed need for a question to get an answer; a question and an answer is a dyadic construction. In other words, we have three sets of two in three sentences. You have a chord superimposed on a chord.

Then we get to the last sentence of the paragraph, and what's the design of that sentence? We had one tone, a second tone, a third tone, and now a sentence that is itself comprised of three clauses--or, three tones. That's not an accident. It's part of a design progression.

When I talk about design and physics--and also music--this is the kind of thing I mean with fiction. It's the superimposition of chords. Think of the chord that starts "A Hard Day's Night." It's one chord. But is it? Because it's really the superimpositioning of that chord, if you will. If you get a guitar and just play the opening "A Hard Day's Night" chord, it's not the same, is it?

When someone reads, they're not thinking these things. I am. That's how I read. I read a lot of different ways at once. My own reading is itself a form of superimposition. But here's the key idea: What I just described and broke down, is in there. That means it's getting to the reader. The reader doesn't need to consciously articulate what's happening at this level. But it is what's happening and it is in there and that's adding up to something in the reader.

That's why the language is working, the story is taking the hold it takes. Yes, there are other things. Think of it like a quarterback who knows everything about the opponent's defense. Understands the schemes, processes the coverages as fast as anyone could. They still have to get the ball where the ball needs to go.

There's the plot and the characters and the shape of the story, but it's the language and what's happening at all of the levels of it that get the characters and the story and that shape down the field, to stick to our football metaphor.

As for Antietam: It was the bloodiest one-day battle of the Civil War. Just as what happened to this character in Big Bob was the deadliest outcome of his own life. Each time the battle comes up in the story, it comes up differently. And also with a reminder as to what we learned about it before. You can't assume that anyone knows anything about anything. You can use whatever you want. Any word, any reference.

But you have to make sure to put safeguards in place, to have the meaning reinforced. So that you don't leave any readers behind. You also don't want it to seem like you are providing for would-be stragglers, saying "Come on, slow poke." If a seam shows, or a signpost shows, you've failed. It has to happen with no one knowing you're doing it.

But again, you're thinking about that person on the other side of the table in everything you do. And this is not what other writers ever do. Any of this. They couldn't take a paragraph of theirs and walk you through the design and physics of it. They're just trying to think of anything at all, really. It's hard for them. Then, other people help them out and give them things, put them in places, hand them money, deals, and say lies about their work. That's all it is. It's not because of anything that's actually in the work or what the work achieves as work and what the work is as work.

The artillery of Antietam could be heard more than sixty miles away. When do you ever see anything in someone else's fiction that you didn't know? We are free to use anything. I just used the football example above. But no one knows anything. They are always "pulling" from less. And they definitely don't know anything about human nature, and what I earlier termed that which is behind the mystery behind the veil.

So how are you going to compete? What do you have? What are your tools? You were someone who came from money who got an MFA who writes fiction about you? That's all it is, right? Or something they took from someone else.

What's "Cat Person" from The New Yorker? It's a bad story that the author stole from someone else who had it happen to them. But it's not even something that happened in the sense of story. There's no story there. It's just "people are kind of dicks and here's a really typical, not noteworthy example."

Nothing different. Surprising. Nothing new. It's barely something that you'd share with someone. "That person I was dating..." It's hardly a thing. What's not a thing? Getting a coffee at the cafe is a thing. Is it a story? Just in and of itself? For the writer of genius the getting of coffee may be the root of a masterful story. But to whom does that ever apply?

And she had to steal that story from someone. She couldn't even make it up. She can't invent. Create. And then that's that person's whole life. That one thing that they stole that wasn't even interesting. When she dies, that's it. That's the obit. "Wrote this one thing that she ripped off that got attention because there were no standards at the time and it was the whole #metoo thing that it turns out no one was even really sincere about."

Right? If people were sincere about it, then Lia Thomas wouldn't be encouraged to flaunt an unfair advantage over women in swim meets and then change in the open in the woman's locker room after without even a consideration of consent. And also wouldn't be decorated and celebrated for that. To give just one example.

There aren't perceived, recognized, understood things anymore--there are agendas. And ways to try and be monetized and platformed that have nothing to do with sincerity, concern, ability, product value, or justice. Or very rarely.

If people can get those things--money and a platform--without having earned those things, all the better. Because they can't get them any other way. Earning suggests ability and legitimacy to have a claim on those things or for receiving those things; people don't have ability and they're don't have legitimacy. So then it's about the fake.

How far can you fake something? Or, more to the point, how do you get to a group of people--or get yourself inside of a system--publishing is one example--that is going to go along with the fake and help you sustain that, without exposing that you're working with nothing? And that you're also probably a terrible, duplicitous person. And commonly worse.

Amanda Gorman found dumb, monied white women who want to be seen as one of the good ones (a form of actual racism) and who could wouldn't know the difference between "Roses Are Red" and Hamlet, and wouldn't read either, and don't read Amanda Gorman any more than I do. No more than a hermit crab in a tidal pool does. Not really. That's not why they bought the book or followed her on social media.

Everything is a form of that. It's a con. The key is in finding people who enable the con. Help grow it.

"Antietam" is itself kind of a chord-word. Highly poetic, highly musical, with three tones. Sound and sense work in tandem. Along with design, physics, math, the architecture of the sentence. A story like "If You [ ]" in Brackets makes this explicit--it's really a kind of linguistic architecture, isn't it? But it's also a story. But you could also look at the text as a form of visual design if you didn't happen to be able to read the language.

What matters most with all of this is that it's in there. This is where a hold is taken. It's in the language, which is what gets us to everything else and allows us to connect as we do, to feel what we do. But the design must inform the top, he middle, the bottom, and everything in-between. It has to go all the way through. You're getting something from the design on multiple levels at once, just as you're in turn getting this experience on all of these levels at once.

They're in there, and now they're in you.


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