Sunday, September 16, 2012

A Swimmer's Strokes

The words that we choose—their precision, their arrangement, their sound and sense—determine what our readers see and feel, and, much like the strokes of a swimmer, they move us (and our readers) forward through the water of our stories.

Here are three examples of the way Wendell Berry selects and arranges words in his novel, A World Lost, a complex and compelling story about a young boy whose uncle is murdered and who spends his life trying to comprehend the murder and understand the man who was his uncle and figure out exactly why he was shot.

First, let's look at the way Berry describes the boy's uncle (through the eyes of the narrator as a young boy):
At times he seemed to be all energy, intolerant of restraint, unpredictable. His presence, for so small a boy as I was, was like that of some large male animal who might behave as expected one moment and the next do something completely unforeseen and astonishing.
 What do you notice in this excerpt? The words “all energy,” “intolerant of restraint,” and “unpredictable” strike the reader immediately, and they are offered as images of a man who appears almost larger than life in the eyes of a young boy (“for so small a boy as I was...”). Uncle Andrew loomed over the narrator in his boyhood in the shape of a “large male animal” whose actions were “completely unforeseen” and “astonishing.” In this paragraph the writer gives us a palpable sense of his uncle’s presence--almost like a huge untamed animal--and, because it’s written from the perspective of a mature man, it hints at the unexpected act on which the entire story turns.

And this, another way of looking at Uncle Andrew: 
When Grandma and I looked through her collection of photographs that had come with letters from various family members, we would come to a picture of several men in army uniforms squatting in a circle, shooting craps. One of them unmistakably was Uncle Andrew, who had sent the picture, and she would always say “Hmh!” and she would laugh. The laugh seemed both to acknowledge her embarrassment and confess her delight. She delighted in him though he had grieved her nearly into the grave.
 In this excerpt, we gain a sense of how another relative, the narrator’s grandmother, feels about Uncle Andrew, deepening our own experience of him and the narrator. As in the earlier excerpt, the scene is revealed through the eyes of the narrator, the events viewed (and shared with the reader) through the screen of the narrator’s own feelings for his uncle.  Is Grandma’s embarrassment and delight at the sight of the picture truly her own emotional response? Or are we offered the emotions of the narrator, which he layers, intentionally or unintentionally, over the scene?

What’s interesting here, too, is how, by inserting Grandma’s response to the picture, using a single syllable (“Hmh!”), the reader can make his or her own assessment of Grandma’s response. Notice how Berry lays out the words: “The laugh seemed both to acknowledge her embarrassment and confess her delight.” It seemed to embarrass and delight her. But that delight had to be moderated in the narrator’s mind: “She delighted in him though he had grieved her nearly into the grave.” In this way, Berry shows us how delight was part of what one felt knowing Uncle Andrew, but always with an underlying sense of grief. 

And this look back at Uncle Andrew from the perspective of the narrator as an adult: 
He was on my mind forever too, as I now see. But I was a child; for me, every day was new. I lived beyond my loss even as I suffered it, and without any particular sympathy for myself. And what I have grown into is not sympathy for myself as I was but sympathy for Grandma and Grandpa as they were. I see how time had brought them, once, their years of strength and hope, energy to look forward and build and dream, as we must; and I see how Uncle Andrew took all they had vested in him, their precious one life and time given over in helpless love and hope into the one life and time that he possessed, and how he carried it away on the high flood of his recklessness, his willingness to do whatever he thought of doing.
Here, again, we can feel Uncle Andrew’s presence as a palpable thing in the narrator’s life. But we feel something new, too, a sympathy not for himself and what he had lost but for his grandparents… and how, from the narrator’s perspective, it seems that Uncle Andrew took from them their love and hope and “carried it away on the high flood of his recklessness…” as if Uncle Andrew was a force of nature, as wild and unruly and life-threatening as a flood. It’s the metaphor that gives this passage its power, the choice of image and words. Its through the narrator’s words that we come to feel a sympathy for Grandma and Grandpa, too, understanding (through the narrator’s eyes) how Uncle Andrew’s recklessness was something uncontrollable, stemming from a “willingness to do whatever he thought of doing.” And doing it without thinking of the consequences for himself or for those who might love him.

How do you feel after reading these passages? Why do you feel that way? Can you identify the words that cause these emotions to rise to the surface? Can you notice how the writer puts together a sentence, chooses a word, suggests an image which brings you deeper into the story and helps you experience the world of the story as if you are standing inside it, right beside the narrator, hanging on his every word?

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