Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Beauty of Language

 As I was reading two books this past month—Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story and Susan Orlean’s Rin Tin Tin: The Life and The Legend, I was struck by the beauty of the language—so stunning at times that it shook me out of the spell of the story to admire the author’s skill with words.

I’m still enjoying each book, but now I’m wondering if such beauty, when overwhelming the reader to the point of interfering with the flow of the narrative, serves the story or the author.

What I’m asking, I guess, is how an author knows when his or her love of language might become a tad self-indulgent, a form of expression serving his or her own passions and interests rather than serving the reader’s main interest: the story.

It’s a delicate balancing game that an author needs to play, a game that leads to a point where the beauty of the language and the pulse of the story are melded together to hold the reader’s attention until the very last page of the book.

If the beauty of the language becomes too beautiful, too stunning, much like a blinding glare in your eyes while driving, the reader will have to pull over to the side of the road, so to speak.

And if the pace of the story slows or stops, the reader will have to wait and wonder when the traffic will begin moving again.

Without that balance between the two—beauty and pacing--the author will lose the reader.

Below are two examples of beautiful—dare I say stunning—prose, the first from Ackerman’s book, the second from Orlean’s. I’d like to invite you to read both examples and, as you read, ask yourself the following questions:
1) Am I conscious of the language as I read these sentences?
2) Does the language pull me deeper into the story or distract me from the story?
3) Does the language propel me further along or does it encourage me to pause and admire the language itself?
The first is an excerpt from Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story:
Each morning, when zoo dawn arrived, a starling gushed a medley of stolen songs, distant wrens cranked up a few arpeggios, and cuckoos called monotonously like clocks stuck on the hour. Suddenly, the gibbons began whooping bugle calls so crazy loud that the wolves and hunting dogs started howling, the hyenas gibbering, the lions roaring, the ravens croaking, the peacocks screeching, the rhino snorting, the foxes yelping, the hippos braying. Next the gibbons shifted into duets, with the males adding soft squealing sounds between their whoops and the females bellowing streams of long notes in their “great call.” The zoo hosted several mated pairs, and gibbon couples yodel formal songs complete with overture, codas, interludes, duets, and solos.
And this excerpt from Susan Orlean’s Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend:
The road to Flirey rose and dipped along a ridge, the soft fields falling away in every direction, the huge churches perched here and there, looming and gloomy and dark. Just outside of Toul I passed a hippie couple walking on the shoulder of the road carrying a million bags and packs and baskets and boxes—they looked more like a parade float than actual people. A raggedy dog ambled along with them; hard to tell what he was at first, but when I glanced back at them in my rearview mirror, I could see that the dog had the high forehead and erect ears of a German shepherd. A minute after I passed the hippie couple, I slowed for a leathery old farmer walking with his dog. It was also a German shepherd, glossy and muscular, lashing the farmer’s legs with his thick tail as they strode along. 
I knew that seeing these dogs was merely coincidence—that since I’d begun thinking about Rin Tin Tin, I was seeing him everywhere, and this after so many years of feeling like I never saw Germany shepherds anymore. It was as if the sheer force of thinking about the dog had made him materialize, as if I had been seeding the clouds with memories of Rin Tin Tin until it rained.
As you compare these examples, ask yourself if the authors have used language in a way that helps you see the world, and then consider trying your own experiment with language:
1) Imagine that you are visiting a zoo. How would you describe it? Would you follow Ackerman’s lead? Why or why not?
2) Now imagine that you are visiting a new place. How would you describe it? Would you follow Orlean’s lead? Why or why not?
The next time that you review your work-in-progress, notice the beauty of your language… and ask yourself if the language pulls you into the story or merely serves as a billboard along the way saying: “Stop! Admire me!”

For more on using language in compelling ways, visit:


Dianne Ochiltree said...

Beautifully written commentary on the beauty of language. Just like watching a magnificent sunrise or sunset feeds the eyes...reading words artistically arranged by a skillful author feeds the mind and soul.
A great blog post, a thoughtful way to start the week.
Thank you!

Bruce Black said...

Thanks so much for your note. Sunrise was majestic this morning--pink-hued clouds splashing the sky above the palm trees--as I went for my morning walk, probably around the time you were sitting at your computer and writing your comment. Enjoy the week!

Pamela Gottfried said...

This is a fabulous post about an important issue, one which I face daily in my writing. Sometimes I know that I get caught up in the beauty of the words I am inscribing on the page. It's an occupational hazard of writers, I guess, and a personality flaw or wordies, perhaps. As a reader, I am not easily distracted by beautiful writing and often I am drawn to elegance and precision in writing. My new favorite (new) author is Erin Morgenstern. Her writing in The Night Circus is exquisite; I felt physically transported to the world she created in her book. It was not unlike reading the Zookeeper's Wife. And I rather enjoy hearing the language say "Stop! Admire me!" The only downside is when I stop at the end of a particularly gorgeous sentence and think, "God, will I ever write like that?!"

Bruce Black said...

Thanks, Pamela, for sharing a glimpse of your own process. Everyone has a different distractibility quotient, I suspect, and language that might distract one reader might transport another reader, as you say, physically into the world created by the author. There are times when I love stopping to admire the language and ask the question: "How did the author do that?" But there are other times when the language itself, as stunning as it might be, merely hides the fact that the author has lost his or her way. Somehow language and plot need to work together, and each writer has to find his or own way to balance the two.