Sunday, March 25, 2007

Wave Watching

When you stand at the edge of the sea watching the waves roll toward shore, you can feel a rhythm, almost a heart-beat, as the water rushes toward you.

Each story has a rhythm, too, a heart-beat that you can feel as you turn the pages. It's formed, not by waves, but by the words, sentences, and paragraphs that an author builds into waves that carry the story forward.

Every paragraph is like another wave... building toward a crest of white, falling forward in a spray of foam, rushing over the reader, retreating, even as the next paragraph rushes forward.

Let's watch a single wave--a paragraph excerpted from a book--and try to understand how the author infuses the words and sentences with the rhythm of the sea to carry readers deeper into the story.

Today we'll stand on the beach with Sharon Dennis Wyeth and focus on a paragraph from her novel, A Piece of Heaven (2001), a story about 13-year-0ld Mahalia Moon as she comes to terms with her mother's deep depression and her older brother's arrest for selling stolen goods.

Once her mother's admitted to the hospital and her brother is taken to a juvenile detention center, Mahalia (Haley) is left alone, with only her neighbor, Mrs. Brown, and her friends, Nirvana and Dill, for support.

When a social worker named Terry arrives to move her into a nearby group home, Haley refuses, wanting to stay in her own apartment, close to her memories of Ma and her brother, Otis.

Wyeth describes Haley packing in preparation for the move this way:
Ma had taken the suitcase, so I packed my things in my box. Once upon a time, I had imagined that Ma had slid into a well, but now I was the one sliding down. I was slipping on all the feelings I had inside. One minute I felt like crying, and the next minute I felt like hitting Terry over the head and breaking the walls down. I knew I should cooperate to please Ma, but I felt like locking myself in the closet and never coming back out. I slammed my Grimms' into the box with my pajamas. I rolled up Grandma Dora's earrings in one of my socks. While Terry wrote something on a piece of paper from her notebook, I got my money out of the cookie jar and shoved it into my wallet. It was hard to think what to take; I wouldn't be gone long, I told myself. I couldn't be! Overalls, shirt, Monkey, the snake. I grabbed Otis's toothbrush, forgetting my own. I also took my thesaurus, though a word had not yet been invented for the way that I felt. (p. 147-8)
What do you notice about this paragraph? What did I notice?

I found the echo of Ma's absence in the first two sentences striking. Not only does Wyeth convey her absence... she reinforces Haley's own solitude by revealing her inner despair and fear of falling down the same well as her mother, except now she is "the one sliding down."

Throughout the paragraph, I love how Wyeth interweaves concrete details of the external world--suitcase, closet, box, pajamas, earrings, socks, cookie jar, wallet--with the more abstract details of her imagination and emotions: sliding, slipping, crying.

To show the reader how Haley feels, Wyeth conjures up a sequence of effective images: Haley feels like hitting Terry, breaking walls, locking herself in the closet. She slams her book into the box. She's so flustered that it's "hard to think what to take." All of these images... actions that Haley thinks of performing or actually a reader understand what she feels in this moment

This interplay between Haley's emotional world and her external world is what I find so compelling about this paragraph. Wyeth manages to create a living, breathing character in the space of this paragraph so effectively that readers can't help but find themselves drawn into her world... the external world that she inhabits... as well as the interior world of her emotions and imagination.

What else do you notice?

The paragraph moves the story forward, doesn't it? Each sentence shows us Haley performing--or resisting--certain tasks that need to be done in order for her to leave the empty apartment with Terry for the group home. Until she packs her box, she can't leave, can she?

Within the paragraph we're given a glimpse of the things that Haley treasures most: her book of fairy tales, earrings from Grandma, her stuffed monkey and snake, her thesaurus.

Ending the paragraph with the thesaurus is the perfect way for Wyeth to bring the paragraph to a close because earlier in the story we learn of Haley's love of stories and words... and of her vivid imagination. So it comes as especially heartrending to see just how upset she is at this moment, so distraught that she thinks "a word had not yet been invented for the way that I felt."

But enough of my response to this passage.

What catches your eye or strikes you as compelling? How do you feel about Haley after reading it? Do you think she's a character with the strength to overcome her troubles? Or will she, like Ma, sink into depression? What gives you this hint?

Most of all, can you feel a pulse, a rhythm, that links you to a larger understanding of the story... and of Haley's place within that story?

Reading this paragraph feels a little like letting a single wave wash over me ... and trying to imagine the larger sea out of which it flows.

Take another look at this paragraph.

Then write down what you see or hear or feel in it.

And when you get a moment, perhaps you'll share your discoveries with Wordswimmer.

For more information about Sharon Dennis Wyeth, visit her website:


carrie jones said...

Lovely, lovely job here, Bruce.

Thanks for this post.

Bruce said...

Glad to know that you're wave watching with us.

Jack said...

One of the things I like about this sample of Wyeth's writing is how she's integrated Mahalia's imaginative story world with her own circumstances.

"Once upon a time, I had imagined that Ma had slid into a well, but now I was the one sliding down."

Pure "Grimm's Tales," isn't it? In a typical one, "Mother Hulda," the stepchild falls into a well, which is the entrance to a magical world--the fairyland threshold. I haven't read Wyeth's book, but perhaps this imagined falling into a well is Mahalia's entrance into her own storyland, the foster home situation, where she'll have to pass various tests to receive her ultimate reward.

Nice selection, Bruce.

Bruce said...


You've hit on a crucial aspect of structure in fairytales which Wyeth uses here.

There's the threshold, which, as you suggest, is the moment when Haley starts "falling"... and then there are the various "tests" that she has to pass (ie, obstacles that she must overcome) in order to "receive her ultimate reward."

In this case, her "reward" means finding a surrogate family in her closest friends by the end of the story... and, also, discovering that, though she has fallen down the well, she has survived whole and stronger.

Thanks for sharing your insights into this piece.