Starting in January, 2011 "First Page" will be a regular column feature in The Writer Magazine. Look for it!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Trinity of Miracles

Wordsworth defined poetry as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility [italics mine]."

If we broaden the definition of poetry to include poetic prose, and then broaden it further still to include writing that successfully evokes subjective experience, then—if Wordsworth is right—the best condition for good writing isn't one of feverish frenzy, but one of calm equilibrium. This of course flies in the face of the popular cliché: the masterpiece produced in a "white heat," with author foaming at the mouth while spilling his blood and guts on the page (the visual artist equivalent: Van Gogh as played by Kirk Douglas, gripping his straw hat and licking this brushes in the midst of the mistral).

Assuming such masterpieces exist (facts speak against it: if van Gogh succeeded as a painter he did so despite his frenzied circumstances, not thanks to them), for every work achieved under such conditions there must a hundred times as many abortions and failures. The unromantic truth being that successful art is produced by sane people under calm—or relatively calm—circumstances.

On the first page in question a woman gives birth during a storm. The opening itself is a tempest of frenzied and feverish language. Among adjectives alone we get swollen, dilated, labored, grunting, uncontrollable, torrential, desperate, exhausted, agonizing, gutteral. Verb choices are no less turbulent: cracked, pushed, ripped, moaned, cried, clung, fired, pleaded, begged. Whether this opening was produced in a state of fervor or one of serenity I have no way of knowing, but here we have emotions presented not in calm or even remotely objective terms, but in a verbal squall.

That's not to say that the writing here isn't effective; it is. But then so is a kick in the stomach. In fact the prose here is so intent on visceral jolts that reading it feels something like sticking your fingers into an electrical socket. Ever sentence packs a punch. And just as by the third paragraph this pummeled reader found himself gasping for breath, so did the writer, his sentences spluttering and coughing with ellipses.

This sort of breathless, over-the-top prose stuffs the pages of bestselling novels, especially horror novels (I'm thinking of The da Vince Code and Stephen King at his italicized worst). It sells lots of novels. But is it good writing?

For me, the marriage of frantic subject with frantic prose is an unhappy one. Instead of complementing what's going on in the story, the style works against it. It's overkill—like putting butter on gravy. The sensational experience isn't allowed to speak for itself (compare with, "I was born in the belly of a white elephant during a 30-day dry Northeaster"—the opening of Christopher Cook Gilmore's Atlantic City Proof); instead, we listen through the author's screams.

Another risk of heaping breathless prose on furious events is that of unintended comedy. Benjamin Cheever once explained comedy to me this way: "You take a very tragic event, make it more tragic, then make it even more tragic. Then it's funny." He gave an example of a woman in labor driving herself to the hospital at two in the morning. On the way she gets a flat tire. It's raining. She jacks up the car only to find her spare tire missing. As she stands there weeping a trailer truck passes through a mud puddle, spattering her in her pajamas.

When I relate this scenario to my writing students before I even get to the trailer truck they are laughing. Reading The Da Vinci Code, I had a similar experience. By the end of the prologue when the museum director writes an encrypted code on his chest with his own blood, I found myself laughing—not, I gather, what the author intended (though for all we know Dan Brown may have laughed, too: all the way to the bank).

Personally, I'd rather have dramatic actions speak for themselves than have an author shouting them in my face.

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