How Things Work

I like trying to figure out how things work and I come to that naturally. My father, my mother, my uncles and aunts were all mid-western farm stock. Everyone knew how to make things or fix things, doubtless because they were poor and had little but maybe because it also made them feel right with their world. What I carry forward even a generation or two away from those beginnings is that knowing how things work makes me feel right in my world though it is a far different one. And what I have found is that most disciplines have “process” in common; painting, acting, cooking, carpentry, architecture, gardening, even parenting. To put a workmanlike spin on it, pretty much anything that asks us to problem solve—like good writing. Is there too much difference between planting at the right time, cultivating and harvesting or, setting an idea down on paper, then letting it unfold and shepherding it along the way? I think not.

I am a great admirer of talent and inspiration, unbidden gifts of prose that transport the reader. I equally admire writing where the craft is invisible enough so that one easily assumes it all comes about in a brilliant flash of creativity and the words shine like jewels. They are not jewels. They are black marks on white paper. Miraculous. How can black marks on white paper land me laughing like a mad person, (Bill Bryson: WALK IN THE WOODS) or gasping for breath while weeping, (the last sentence of James Joyce THE DEAD) or locking all my doors, (Stephen King’s THE SHINING). How does that happen? The Vietnam Memorial is little but a piece of carved granite, a Van Gogh is only clumps of paint on canvas, Michelangelo’s DAVID is hard white marble. It is the artist who makes it so and he does it from the inside out.

Sentences: The musical scoring of prose.

If you haven’t read Hemingway’s A MOVEABLE FEAST since college then make a point to re-visit it. Hemingway is a sentence wizard. Read this one out loud:

“It was a lovely evening and I had worked hard all day and left the flat over the sawmill and walked out through the courtyard with the stacked lumber, closed the door, crossed the street and went into the back door of the bakery that fronted on the boulevard Montparnasse and out through the good bread smells of the ovens and the shop to the street.”

This sentence flows in the same fashion as the walk down and through the courtyard, across the street and through the bakery. It is a graceful long sentence that replicates the action. It is simple. He did this, then this, then this and got to where he was going.

It is worth including the rest of the paragraph so that you can see how the completing sentences work to make up a piece.

“The lights were on in the bakery and outside it was the end of the day and I walked in the early dusk up the street and stopped outside the terrace of the Negre de Toullouse restaurant where our red and white checkered napkins were in the napkin rack waiting for us to come to dinner.”

Another sentence that “walks” as the writer walks. Then, he stops.

“I read the menu mimeographed in purple ink and saw that the plat du jour was cassoulet.”

And look at this fine short sentence topping it all off.

“It made me hungry to read the name.”

This paragraph makes me so darned happy because it felt effortless and familiar. Do I think that was the way it came about, all in one lucky run? Not on your life.

“I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.”

— Oscar Wilde