I’ve been reading a delightful book about writing by Ben Vagoda, and normally any discussion of it should go in my Reading Table section.
The nuggets it contains, both voluminous quotes from great authors on writing, and the writing of the book itself, though, have been so compelling that I wanted a taste of it all, at least, to go on my “front page.” I’ll also be giving this book for Christmas (If you haven’t received it by now, run out and buy one yourself!). Try this, from Toni Morrison on Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright: “I didn’t feel they were telling me something. I thought they were saying something about it or us that revealed something about us to you, to others, to white people, to men.” And then this, on drafts: “I never say, ”She says softly.’ If it’s not already soft, you know, I have to leave a lot of space around it so a reader can hear that it’s soft.
When I do a first draft, it’s usually very bad because my tendency is to write in the language of everyday speech, which is the language of business, the media, the language we use to get through the day.
If you have friends you can speak to in your own language, you keep the vocabulary alive, the nuances, the complexity, the places where language had its original power, but in order to get there, I have to rewrite, discard and remove the print-quality of language to put back the oral quality, where intonation, volume, gesture are all there.”
A bit later on (p. 60) comes this: A few stylists ave borrowed a bit from each preceeding genius. Because of its verbal inventiveness and its recipe of conviction-minus-pretension, there is no style more entertaining than that of Raymond Chandler, who spoke trhough his narrator-detective Philip Marlowe. It alternatve between just-the-facts-ma’am tersenes (mostly used for exposition) and highly rhetorical figuration, usually deployed when Marlowe is emotionally invested in the subject at hand, as in this great riff from The Long Goodbye…
“There are blindes and blondes and it is almost a joke word nowadays. All blondes have their points, except perhaps the metallic ones who are as blond as a Zulu under the bleach and as to disposition are as soft as a sidewalk. There is the small cute blond who cheeps and twitters, and the big statuesque blonde who straight-arms you with an ice-blue glare. There is the blonde who gives you the up-from-under look and smells lovely and shimmers and hangs on your arm and is always very tired when you take her home. She makes that helpless gesture and has that goddamned headache and you would like to slug her except that you are glad you found out about the headache before you invested too much time and money and hope in her. Because the headache will always be there, a weapon that never wears out and is as deadly as the bravo’s rapier or Lucrezia’s poison vial.”