One of the things I’m learning from reading other people’s work in progress is the importance and unimportance of mechanics. In several groups, I’ve read stuff that’s mechanically exquisite but not very interesting. Then the other day, there was a piece with interesting characters and the rhythm of a good song. But I had to keep stopping to reread because the mechanics were ‘invented’ … no quote marks to set off dialog, one-line paragraphs breaking up thoughts, commas where they shouldn’t be, none where they should be, and so on. Maybe James Joyce or Faulkner can do that stuff, but it’s hard for we mortals.
I’m realizing good mechanics make it easier for the reader to enjoy the story. Sure, breaking convention is sometimes important, but it’s harder to pull off that plain vanilla mechanics.
Yep, punctuation and syntax are merely the conventions that we have adopted for attempting to convey the nuances of spoken language, and without them, reading can be a difficult and unrewarding experience. An author should have a very good reason for abandoning or ignoring the rules, and neither ineptitude nor ignorance are good reasons.
In their poetry, both Emily Dickinson and E. E. Cummings conscientiously broke the rules to great effect, and most modern poets have gleefully ignored the rules of punctuation—often, it seems to me, to a lesser effect and out of imitation and laziness rather than high concept.
In the marvelously constructed short story, “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” Katherine Ann Porter appears to have broken the rules of paragraphing and punctuation and created significant confusion until the reader realizes that the sporadic use of “quotation marks” and inappropriate dialogue paragraphing cues the reader to the fact that the protagonist is slipping in and out of silent thoughts and speaking aloud. Once acclimated to Porter’s use of stream of consciousness and the fact that she is using all the grammatical and mechanical conventions correctly, her story can be seen as a tour de force. It is perhaps the finest short story that I have ever encountered, offering, as it does, such a complex interweaving of character and plot development through the abrupt juxtaposition of flashbacks and the present, metaphorical imagery, exploration and recreation of various thought processes and very believable human emotions and interactions in a very brief piece. I also admire what I perceive (in the story’s closing lines) to be a nod (if not an homage) to Dickinson’s “I Heard a Fly Buzz.”
Another masterful story which knowingly uses the conventions in order to appear to break them and which, like Porter’s story, contains a new revelation to help the reader unravel the complex mystery of the story in nearly every sentence is Richard Matheson’s “Born of Man and Woman.” I used to really enjoy reading both of these pieces with my students.
Thanks for continuing to blog your observations. They are fun and interesting. By the way, we (Carolyn; my brother, Tucker—a great guitarist and vocalist; and I) just got back from ten days in Hawaii with Steve Gillette and Cindy Mangsen on a Traveling Troubadour cruise, and Carolyn and I spent four days over the following weekend in Santa Cruz for Steve’s Songwriters’ Workshop. We had a very small group on the cruise, but a very nice song circle. I thought of you and Beverly—and our very pleasant but brief musical and travel encounters in the Maritimes—many times while we were swapping songs and while we were wandering on our excursions in Hawaii.