Eileen Pollack

Eileen Pollack - CREAHVE NONHCWON ited States Uri .m; U}....

Info iconThis preview shows pages 1–6. Sign up to view the full content.

View Full Document Right Arrow Icon
Background image of page 1

Info iconThis preview has intentionally blurred sections. Sign up to view the full version.

View Full DocumentRight Arrow Icon
Background image of page 2
Background image of page 3

Info iconThis preview has intentionally blurred sections. Sign up to view the full version.

View Full DocumentRight Arrow Icon
Background image of page 4
Background image of page 5

Info iconThis preview has intentionally blurred sections. Sign up to view the full version.

View Full DocumentRight Arrow Icon
Background image of page 6
This is the end of the preview. Sign up to access the rest of the document.

Unformatted text preview: CREAHVE NONHCWON ited States Uri .m; U}. L'- S d n a in w HE .m n TM 0 a Rm C We 0% r h IL W W WE o s k 56 Fm m ,m 0mm mm m w Awnm e i e D. S MR n a c "In a... V Gun Fe .m A w E U Australia ~ Brazil o Japan - Korea - Mexico - Singapore - Spain o United Kingdom An Engaging Voice and Style LANGUAGE Rather than rely on the same tired language that most writers use to report on that day's bombings, Football games, or tornadoes, or to review the latest thrillers at the Cineplex, or to analyze the learning-related impacts of hetow-average Funding on economically deprived and under~resourced inner-city schools, those ofos who write creative nonfic- tion try to use clear, natural language to bring alive the peopie, places, and events we are describing. Granted, there are times when you simply need to sit down and write a clear, straightforward, jargon-free scientific report, scholarly article, legal brief, or analysis ofthe relationship between spending and achievement in poor urban schoois. But ifyou want to present the truth about people, places, and events in ways that your readers will find entertaining, moving, memorable, or poetic, you will need to speak to them in a voice that is entertaining, moving, memorable, or poeticw—or better still, a voice that is entertaining, moving, memorable. and poetic. Joyce Carol Oates, in her introduction to The Best American Essays oftl're Century, describes the allure oflanguage that is fresh and aiive: Where in life we sometimes (allegedly infrequently) fall in love at first sight, in read- ing we may fall in love with the special, singular qualities of another’s voice; we may become mesmerized, haunted; we may be provoked, shocked, illuminated; we may be galvanized into action; we may be enraged, revulsed, and yeti—drawn irresistibly to experience this voice again, and again. It’s a writer’s unique employment of language to which we, as readers, are drawn, though we assume we admire the writer primarily for what he or she “has to say. "1 How do you come up with a distinctive voice—without trying so hard to be distinctive that you overshoot the mark and end up with prose that is overly ornate, stiff, or forced? My advice Would be to try to sound like yourself—~albeit your best self, your most thoughtful or funniest Still. your kindest or most observant or most grammatically correct self—rather than trying to sound like most other people who write abmit your subject. At first, this advice might seem -, frightening. Sound like myself? How could that make me a better writer? But most ofus are fairly I talented speakers. We know how to keep the interest ofour listeners, how to moderate our tone - _ (now serious, now funny, now thoughtful, solemn, wise, now modest and seif—effacing) and vary E»— ‘ This quote appears on p. xix ofthe anthology, which was edited by Dates and Robert Atwan and published by Houghton Mifflin tn aooo. 3 I - 2 An Engaging Voice and Styie our diction (now high, now low. now polite, now profane), how to quote and mimic other people ("You will never guess what he had the nerve to say nextl”). We run into trouble only when we sit down to write and become someone we're not. Trying to sound like yourselfon paper not oniy tends to produce your best prose, it allows your natural—and naturally unique—voice to come through. Or perhaps I should say “voices.” You might write one essay in your jazziest, most street- wise voice and another in the voice you use when offering advice to your beloved younger sister. You may even switch From one voice to another within a single essay; doing so can be jarring to a reader, but with practice, most oF us can learn to play our voices like musical instruments, changing tempo and tone as a given song requires. Still, it’s easy to lose confidence and Fall back on prefabricated language. I once worked with a sportswriter who couldn't churn out a sentence without using at least two cliches. His teams thrashed their opponents on their way to garneringtrophies. His Freshman quarterbacks hailed from all-American hometowns, were uniformly promising, put their noses to the grindstone, gave their teams their all, and made their Families. friends, teammates, and coaches proud. When I asked this reporterwhy he relied so heavily on expressions that so many sportswriters before him had relied on, he said that he assumed such expressions were a sort onroFessional lingo he needed to learn iFhe was going to advance in his field! At another newspaper, I read a stack ofeditorials weighed down by hackneyed allusions to Footbail and war (the members oFthe city council needed to tackle the issue ofunfoir taxation, while the superintendent oFschools was urged to enter thefield and annihilate the disparity in test scores between black and white students), even though the editorial writer turned out to be a pixieish twentysomething Feminist who hadn't attended a single Football game or served a clay in the military. “What have I done?" she moaned. “t‘m the first woman to hold this job, 7 and I guess i thought I needed to sound like one ofthe guys." Happily, all she needed to do to develop an original voice—and win an award For her editorials—was to stop trying to sound like all the other editorial writers she had ever read. Not that a reliance on jargon or stale expressions is limited to sports reporters or editorial writers. In some academic disciplines, earning a PhD can seem like an exercise in stringing together whatever buzzwords are in vogue. Even in daily life, when we sit around talking about love or work or child rearing, we often Fall back on pop-psychological jargon about Families that are dysfunctional, significant others who refuse to communicate about theiir issues or commit to a relationship, and bosses who were abused as children and thereFore suffer From post-traumatic istress disorder and pass along their issues and baggage to their employees. We may think we ' know preciseiy what we mean, and maybe we do, but other people don't. Suppose I write: “When I was a child, my Father had a problem with alcohol that caused him to engage in domestic abuse with the rest ofour Family. This impacted on me when i was young, but eventually I learned to deal with the situation." The reality behind this necklace ofciichés might be that my father was a drunk who would come home From the Factory, go through a case ofbeer, then accuse my mother ofcheating on him with everyone From the letter carrier to the checkout clerk at the AM”, after which he would hurl her against the refrigerator or twist her arm behind her back until she confessed to whatever infidelity he wanted her to conFess to. The “impact” ofthis "situation" might be that l cowered in my room with my hands pressed against my ears, wishing that l were big and strong enough to protect my mother. And my eventual ability to “deal with” my Father might mean that when I hit seventh grade, I grew ten inches, put on fifty pounds, and started working out at the gym, with the result that the next time he attempted to stuFfmy mother's hand down the garbage disposal. l was able to yank him off her and knock out two ofhis teeth, after which I threw his clothes in the street and changed the locks. Language I 9 Then again. my Father's “problem with alcohol" might describe a dad who occasionally drank too much bourbon and called me a stupid. ugly slut. Maybe, when l was young, I believed what he said. But after my mom divorced him and sent me to see a therapist, I realized that I was neither stupid nor ugly nor any more promiscuous than other girls my age. Best ofall. a few years ago, my dad joined AA and begged my forgiveness for the terrible names he used to call me. Whatever the case, you wouldn't really know from that original description oimy father's “problem with alcohol" and the "impact" otthe “situation” on my ability to “deal with it” or not. Years ago. a humorist named Frank Sullivan wrote a series ofcolumns in which a “cliche expert” named Mr. Arbuthnot testifies on subjects as diverse as love. politics. Christmas. and nuclear energy. Ordered (under oath!) to explain the effects ofthe first test of the atomic bomb. Arbuthnot attests that it “ushered in the atomic age." Pressed as to whether the atomic age could have arrived by means ofany other verb than "usher." Arbuthnot repiies that no, "'Usher' has the priority." His questioner prods him Further. Now that the atomic age has been ushered in. what will never be the same? A[rbuthnot]—The world. iQiuestioner]—Are you pleased? A~—I don’t know. The splitting of the atom could prove a boon to mankind. It could pave the way for a bright new world. On the other hand. it may spell the doom of civilization as we know it. Q—You mean that it has—~— A—Vast possibilities for good or evil. Q—At any rate. Mr. Arbuthnot, as long as the bomb had to be discovered, I am glad we got it first. A—If you don’t mind, I will be the one to recite the clichés here. You asked me to, you know. Q—I’m sorry. A—Quite all right. I shudder to think. Q—What? A—Of What might have happened if Germany or Japan had got the bomb first. Q—What kind of race was it between the Allied and German scientists? AMA close race. Q—What pressed? A—Time pressed. QwWith what kind of energy did the scientists work in their race to get the bomb? A—Feverish energy. Had the war lasted another six months the Germans might have had the bomb. It boggles. Qw—What boggles? A—This tremendous scientific discovery boggles the imagination. Also stirs the same. Q—Where do we stand, Mr. Arbutlinot? A—~At the threshold of a new era. Q—And humanity is Where? A—~At the crossroads 2” "The Cliche Expert Testifies on the Atom" first appeared in the November 17. 1945, issue of The New Yorkcr; it atso I . can be found—along with transcripts of Mr. Arbuthnot's testimony on other subjects—in A Rock in Every Snowball. . a collection ofFrank Sullivan's humor pieces published by Little. Brown and Company in 1945. I0 I 2 An Engaging Voice and Style Writing in cliches not onty makes your language state, it makes your thinking stale. I once heard a fiction writer say that he tried never to usa a phrase that he had heard any other writer use. Rather than describe a bruise as "black and blue," he preferred to say “blue and black." This advice struck me as useful, but it doesn’t go far enough. Reversing the order ofthe terms in a ciiché still leaves you with a ciiched Way of seeing. I don't know about you, but when i walk into a table, I develop a lump as hard and purpte as a plum, after which the bruise fades to a sickly yellowishgreen puddle that spreads slowly across my skin. The most pleasurable way ofinoculating yourselfagainst hackneyed prose is to write a column in which your own cliche expert testifies about whatever subtect you intend to cover, be it computers, literature, golf, education, Abstractionism, or Existentialism. Then ban every cliche that shows up in the transcript. Finding your own language might take longer than grabbing the first cliche that raises its hand and begs to be given the job, but it’s a much more effective—«and enjoyable—w—way to write. Wouldn't you rather provide two horrifying examptes ofyour sixth— grade gym teacher's brutality than simply dismiss him as "the gym teacher from hell"? Nothing ts wrong with using a vague generalization or a hackneyed phrase as a sort of placeholder in a rough draft. But don’t forget to go back and substitute fresh, specific details or examples later. When you catch yourselfusing a phrase you've heard before (“btack and blue" or "gym teacher from hell”), ask yourselfwhether the cliche’ actually describes what you're trying to describe (your bruises, your gym teacher} or whether some other word or words might be more accurate (or funnier or more exciting) in conveying what you saw, heard, smelled, tasted, felt, or experienced. Not onty is it more enjoyable to think up a good detail. you won't find your voice as a writer—or the true subject ofyour essay—until you get down at least a few specific sentences. And one specific sentence usually leads to a second detailed sentence, which leads to a third and fourth, ifnot to an entire essay. _ The exercise I like to use to iltustrate this principle is to ask everyone in the class to compose a sentence that conveys something essentiat about one of the adults who raised him or her. Then we go around the room and read our sentences aloud. "My mother works from sun up to sun down to pay for the things we need," a student might write. or: "My aunt always makes me crack up," or: "My father is the most forgiving man in the world.” But as is true with any generalization, these examples raise as many questions as they answer. Does the first student's mother wake at 4 am. and take the train to Manhattan, where she shouts herselfhoarse on the floor ofthe Stock Exchange so she can buy the student and her sister thousand-dollar handbags? Or does she spend ten hours a day cleaning houses and washing laundry so she can pay the rent on the shabby bungatow the writer and his six siblings share on the outskirts ofa small Kentucky mining town? Does the second writer's aunt tell knock-knock jokes until her nephew chokes on his fried chicken, or does she imitate the sermons delivered by his father. a priggish and not very successful Baptist minister? As to the assertion that the third writer's father is the most forgiving man on the planet, doesn't it beg you to disagree? In the first class i ever taught, a student wrote a similar sen- tence, prompting us to ask what made her father any more forgiving than our own. "After all," one young man said, "I totaled my father’s Porsche, and the only thing he ever said was that he was glad I didn't get hurt." Another student said that his father had forgiven him for getting expelled from high school for smoking pot—three times. Then the student who wrote the sentence explained that her grandfather used to berate her father for being lazy and stupid and beat her father so badly that he broke both ofher father’s legs, yet her father now worked two jobs so that he could support the old man in a private nursing home rather than let him liVe out his days in the dilapidated and poorly run institution financed by the state. Not only did we Exposition and Scene 11 concede that her father was forgiving. we wanted to read an essay about his deeper motives in working so hard to support a man who had beaten and berated him when he was young. Most writers don't need long to figure out that a detailed sentence is more memorable and convincing than an unproven generalization. ("My father rarely laughs," one of my students wrote. After a quick revision, the same description read: “My father’s laughter is a beautiful silver fish that leaps From a quiet stream." Another student told us that her fatherr was "an asshole," a description she revised to read: "My mother doesn't appreciate my father's habit ofshowing our dinner guests photos this mistresses”) But some writers become so enamored ofusing details that they don't know when to stop. A sémpfe sentence meant to convey the fresh smell and silky Feel ofthe spring a%r on prom night in a small Ohto town might become so overstuffed with sensory detail that the description becomes laughably fussy and overloaded, siowing us to the point that we never make it to the Holiday lnn {or the actual event. In "Finding a Focus" {Chapter 3), we will discuss how to figure out which detaits to keep and which to cut. For now, tet's just say that most such decisions are a matter ofasking your- selel1ether a detait is relevant to what you are trying to do in a given sentence. paragraph, or scene and whether you are putting in so many details that your readers will become impaw tient to move ahead to what happens next. lfyou can't answer these questions. try coming back to what you've written a few days later and seeing ii'the prose strikes you as cluttered or overwritten, or give your manuscript to a trusted reader and ask him or her which details should stay or go. For most writers. a paucity otdetails is the more common problem than an overload ofthe same. ...
View Full Document

Page1 / 6

Eileen Pollack - CREAHVE NONHCWON ited States Uri .m; U}....

This preview shows document pages 1 - 6. Sign up to view the full document.

View Full Document Right Arrow Icon
Ask a homework question - tutors are online