Sunday, August 12, 2012

Layering Currents of Time and Emotion

In Wendell Berry's A World Lost, time and emotions are intricately layered to give readers a remarkably full sense of the depth of a character's life.

The main narrator is a child when his Uncle Andrew is murdered, and that loss haunts him throughout his life as he tries to fit together the pieces of the puzzle of what happened on that fateful day.

At different stages in the narrator's life, his perspective of the event--and his emotional response to it--changes, as does his understanding of the people who are as much a part of his life as the event itself--relatives, friends, people who knew his uncle. 

The question of what happened to his uncle--and why it happened--is at the heart of this story, driving the plot forward, deepening the mystery of the narrator's experiences. 

But it is Berry's skillful use of language throughout the story--the flow and beauty of the words--that carries the reader into the story as much as the mystery of the story itself. 

Berry turns a phrase like no other writer. He can write a sentence in prose and make it sound like poetry to give the characters in the story the kind of depth and fullness that make them come alive in the reader's imagination.

Here are a few examples of his work that might inspire you to pick up A World Lost to learn how to create such depth and fullness in your own work:
When I came over the ridge behind the house and barns and started down toward the lot gate, I was pretending to be a show horse. Our father had taken Henry and me to the Shelby County Fair not long before. We had watched the horse show in the old round wooden arena, and I had brought home a program that I read over and over to savor the fine names of the horses. And often when I was out by myself I did the gaits.
And this:
The laughter itself seemed to draw Uncle Andrew and Mrs. Partlet to their feet. He extended his left hand; she granted her right. He placed his right hand on her back and waltzed her around the room to a tune that they both appeared to have in mind, the two of them laughing and Minnie laughing from her chair. Uncle Andrew danced Mrs. Partlet backward to the tub of soaking diapers, where to keep from falling in she had to push against him and she did. And then she whooped and ducked away, still laughing, under his arm.
And this: 
Her term of execration was "Hmh!," which she could deliver as concussively as a blow and in tones varying from polite disbelief (for the benefit of guests) to absolute rejection. Her term of contempt was "Psht!" With it she could slice you off like the top of a radish.
It's astonishing, really, how Berry can provide us with these layers of a person's life. 

He gives us a full picture, using words to bring out the emotions flowing through a character's life and a sense of time flowing beneath the surface of that life so that we, like the characters themselves, are swept up, too, in the flow of life.

For more on Wendell Berry, visit:

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