In high school, I enjoyed reading William Faulkner's meandering sentences. I often contrasted Faulkner's verbosity with Ernest Hemingway's short, punctuated descriptions. Despite their dramatic stylistic differences, both writers excel as story tellers, but it was the writing itself, the technique, that made or broke a piece.
These days, though I'm more inclined to read non-fiction, I struggle through poorly crafted work, no matter how excellent the narrative or the conceit. I'm a pretentious reader, I suppose. Fortunately, there are many contemporary essayists who excel at their craft. The prose of Edward Hoagland and William Gass, to offer two notable examples, is often so compelling that I am moved to read it aloud.
Superior writing should not remain on the page; it must be released, through annunciation. This is most often true of poetry. Designed for the ear as much as the mind, the best verse floats somewhere between abstract instrumentation and lucid communication.
I was therefore delighted to stumble upon William Gass's essay "The Sentence Seeks Its Form: What Can We Do To Find Out How Writing Is Written?" in the most recent issue of BookForum. Gass's best passages make me purr with satisfaction or, less happily, make me aware of my relative failings as a writer. Consider the following selection.
"When we breathe, we take in the oxygen we need to live, but we also acquire at the same time the air necessary to form words, and these are sent forth, when we exhale, in the same way that the lion growls or the hyena chortles. Breath (pneuma) has always been seen as a sign of life and was once identified with the soul. Don't fall for phrases like 'gut feeling' or 'coming from the heart.' Language is born in the lungs and is shaped by the lips, palate, teeth, and tongue out of spent breath - that is, from carbon dioxide. That is why plants like being spoken to. Language is speech before it is anything. It is born of babble and shaped by imitating other sounds. It therefore must be listened to while it is being written."A friend once told me that he sometimes became sexually aroused when reading good literature. At the time, I laughed off this idea; I was convinced that he was exaggerating. Years later, I'm not so sure. Though my literary pleasures are never sexual, they remain a form of intense arousal, a brief euphoria that can be cultivated and revisited. As Gass puts it, "That is why plants like being spoken to. Language is speech before it is anything."
Photo credit: ripped from the Access Excellence Health website