Friday, April 8, 2011

From the Humble "It is . . ." to Beauty

Connye Griffin writes My Writing and Editing Coach.

Almost a decade ago, I read a Bill Bryson book, A Walk in the Woods. It satisfied a personal unmet goal, one that I had not found the time or will to meet on my own, and that goal is to walk every inch of the more than 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail. I even bought hiking boots 30 years ago and only gave them away to charity last month.

The idea is laughable really, and you too would laugh if you could see me. I am indeed by no means undergrown (Chaucer). I would huff, and I would puff. I would ache and quake.

Still, I fancied the idea of bearing witness to the changing landscape, to the illusion of Nature isolate and mighty, its nemesis—civilization—distant. I wasn’t sure that I could bear the chill nights, damp earth, and stinging flies, but I wanted to measure my worth and discover if I possess the right stuff. Apparently, I do not. I settled for Bryson’s delightful account of his own foray along the Trail. Traveling with him, I learned to mourn the loss of the American chestnut and laughed loudly at Katz's antics.

Lately, I’ve been reading a 1999 collection of Bryson’s columns, entitled I'm a Stranger Here Myself and first printed in Night & Day magazine, a supplement of the Mail on Sunday newspaper. The essays are brief, manageable snippets that tell of child-rearing, home-owning, and living in New Hampshire after twenty years in England. They are informative, fun, and well-written. One sentence in particular caught my attention yesterday:

It is a truly astounding sight when every tree in a landscape becomes individual, when each winding back highway and plump hillside is suddenly and infinitely splashed with every sharp shade that nature can bestow—flaming scarlet, lustrous gold, throbbing vermilion, fiery orange.

This is a nice sentence, and one that many of us would rewrite. After all, didn’t your English teachers advise you not to rely upon “it is?” It, I can hear her say, is so vague and general, and is is like a red penny among silver dollars—common, of little value, seen everywhere, even on the ground. I say to her: Mr. Bill Bryson begins sentences with “it is,” and I can, too!

Bryson’s sentence has another fatal flaw, at least according to colleagues and that same old English teacher. He uses the verboten passive voice: is . . . splashed. Gasp!

But I barely noticed its presence. In fact, I would have read on, untroubled by passive voice, if I had not decided to stop, analyze, and use this sentence as a model for us to imitate. Only then did the verb form force itself upon me.

What I noticed more than “it is” and “is . . . splashed” are the two parallel clauses beginning with “when” and adjectives, including “flaming scarlet,” “lustrous gold,” “throbbing vermilion,” and “fiery orange” clustered at the end of the sentence. These add specificity, of course, but they also seem to serve as drum beats, emphatically closing a sentence rich in description.

Not only that but the verbs take a back seat to the nouns and adjectives. The trees, its vibrant, dying leaves, roadways, and “plump” hills are and should be center-stage. They are the beauty of Autumn in New England.

Try your hand at Mr. Bryson’s pattern, choosing some season or object in nature. For example:

It is a truly astounding sight when every tree along the hillside becomes small, when the dizzying summit and brushed peak are suddenly and willingly subdued by every fanciful cloud that the sky can host—brilliant white, sun-packed gold, delicate rose, lush lavender.

It is always tough to follow the word choices of another, but the effort leads to new insights about putting words together. Often, the effort leads to sentences that please.

Reading Challenge:

Read one of Bryson’s books. I can recommend A Walk in the Woods and I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to American After Twenty Years Away. I plan to read more Bryson, too.

Writing Challenge:

Today’s post is a writing challenge. Here is one more:

In the same essay, “Fall in New England,” from which I took the single sentence above, Bryson quotes Donald Culross Peattie, author of Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North American, to emphasize the beauty of the trees in New England when the leaves turn. Peattie describes the brilliant sugar maple with the following similes:

like the shout of a great army
• like tongues of flame
• like the mighty, marching melody that rides upon the crest of some symphonic weltering sea, and, with its crying song, gives meaning to all the calculated dissonance of the orchestra

Using Peattie for inspiration, invent at least one simile for one of your favorite trees or flowers. Try to be as elaborate as Peattie in the third simile above.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

Consider the masterful use and placement of adjectives in William Faulkner’s short story, “A Rose for Emily:”

They rose when she entered--a small, fat woman in black, with a thin gold chain descending to her waist and vanishing into her belt, leaning on an ebony cane with a tarnished gold head. Her skeleton was small and spare; perhaps that was why what would have been merely plumpness in another was obesity in her. She looked bloated, like a body long submerged in motionless water, and of that pallid hue. Her eyes, lost in the fatty ridges of her face, looked like two small pieces of coal pressed into a lump of dough as they moved from one face to another while the visitors stated their errand.

In most of the sentences, Faulkner’s adjective use and placement are quite traditional: an adjective or two precedes a noun or, as in sentence two, completes the sentence as predicate adjectives following the verb, “was.” The first sentence is where Faulkner clusters adjectives at the end of a short, complex sentence. He provides specific detail for the very general pronoun, “she.” She is a woman, small and fat, leaning on a black cane, the head of which is tarnished from wear, and wearing a black dress whereon a thin gold chain around her neck descends all the way to her waist and vanishes into her belt. Faulkner, of course, packs all of this information more deftly and rhythmically into his cluster. Try imitating his pattern with a “she” of your own, and by doing so, become more aware of your options as a writer: you may save your adjectives for the end of the sentence, be it simple or complex.