If there’s one activity that monopolizes my time, it’s reading. Reading RSS feeds to catch up on news and culture and randomness, reading magazines, reading books and reading more books.
Within the last year, I’ve fallen in love with Cormac McCarthy. Or his writing, anyway. The Road blew me away (the movie, by contrast, was pretty awful. I do not advise it). I read All the Pretty Horses and decided I could jump right in to the rest of The Border Trilogy, so I did. I am now about a third of the way through The Crossing. If you’ve read McCarthy, you know that his prose is rather sparse. You don’t get long-winded narratives or descriptions (you’ll get a lot of run-on sentences, but there’s a reason for that, too, when it happens). You’re lucky if the dialogue has anyone speaking anything more than a five word sentence at a go. My boiled down “example” (inspired by The Road) is this: “Dad, are we going to die?” “No, son.” “Okay.”
So, in the midst of that sparse, western (not as a genre, but as a flavor) prose, it’s a bit overwhelming to come across the shocking moments in The Road or the beautiful (but still tidy) descriptions I came across in The Crossing. I’ve got examples!
“The indian took it and squatted before the fire with that same marionette’s effortlessness and set the cloth on the ground before him and opened it and lifted out the beans and set the cup by the coals to warm and then took up one of the biscuits and bit into it.”
“He stood twinned in those dark wells with hair so pale, so thin and strange, the selfsame child. As if it were some cognate child to him that had been lost who now stood windowed away in another world where the red sun sank eternally.”
Emphasis mine to point out the words that hooked me somewhere behind my solar plexus. I was discussing this effect with a friend at work and how my favorite writers are the ones that manage to do this. People have recommended “book club” books to me in the past and I’ve found that I don’t really like them; they’re usually very story-focused and the stories are usually written in a way that tells you how to feel. Sort of like sad violins in a movie. Or happy trumpets. But they lack original or beautiful wordsmithing; I’ve read The Time Traveler’s Wife; it’s OK, but the words are there to tell the story. They’re not inextricably linked to one another and working to accomplish the same goal. The words are just friggin’ lazy, really.
I can take or leave a “good story”, honestly. I want to get lost in the words themselves; if the wordsmithing is part of an engaging or compelling story (like Lolita or most books by Ian McEwan), that’s just a bonus. I fixate on phrases and how they convey (or evoke) such a vivid and unique image. I mean, “marionette’s effortlessness”? That’s incredible. You don’t need the rest of the sentence or the novel to picture what that motion looks like and the set of emotions that accompany it.
Which leaves me thinking that I need to get back to writing – poetry is my medium. I say this at least once a year, but when I sit down to write, I start second-guessing myself and realize that I’m always writing the same thing and drawing on the same emotions or stories. And I also find my writing confidence evaporating when I read a great poem or a great novel and think that I might be able to come up with a phrase, but I doubt I could sustain it.
Still, the one lesson I learned in all my creative writing classes in college was to write every day, no matter what it is and no matter how crappy you think it is. Just write. Last week, I was inspired to cobble together some haiku verse, inspired by my commute on NJ Transit. This is my favorite:
Red nails, greasy bag
This woman clearly enjoys
Her garlic plantains.
Please – I know it’s nothing to crow about, but we’ve all got to start somewhere.