The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – ’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning. Mark Twain
John Updike was a Harvard Graduate and a long-time contributor to the New Yorker. He wrote numerous short stories, some of which could be called memoirs, and he also wrote The Witches of Eastwick and many, many other things. You could probably say that Updike’s writing and Twain’s writing were about as different as lightning and lightning bugs, but even Updike, the Ivy League writer, recognized the brilliance of Mark Twain’s Down-Home, River Rat Voice, which would probably NOT be called Stylish. Mark Twain’s voice was filled with a Huck-Finnishness that was “right” for Huck Finn. Therefore, while Mark Twain may not have written Stylishly, he definitely had Style.
In a Paris Review interview, Updike said the following about Mark Twain’s voice and his authentic use of language–or his Style:
It comes down to what is language? Up to now, until this age of mass literacy, language has been something spoken. In utterance there’s a minimum of slowness. In trying to treat words as chisel strokes, you run the risk of losing the quality of utterance, the rhythm of utterance, the happiness. A phrase out of Mark Twain—he describes a raft hitting a bridge and says that it “went all to smash and scatteration like a box of matches struck by lightning.” The beauty of “scatteration” could only have occurred to a talkative man, a man who had been brought up among people who were talking and who loved to talk himself. I’m aware myself of a certain dryness of this reservoir, this backlog of spoken talk. A Romanian once said to me that Americans are always telling stories. I’m not sure this is as true as it once was. Where we once used to spin yarns, now we sit in front of the tv and receive pictures. I’m not sure the younger generation even knows how to gossip. But, as for a writer, if he has something to tell, he should perhaps type it almost as fast as he could talk it.
“When a prisoner of style escapes, it’s called an evasion.”
― Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
“To achieve stye, begin by affecting none.”
― E.B. White, The Elements of Style
E.B White was another person who wrote for The New Yorker, and he was the co-author of The Elements of Style, which is the quintessential guide for writing correctly. White’s book Charlotte’s Web is considered to be the perfect junior fiction novel, but he wrote other things equally well. His essays are beautifully written. E.B. White could have affected in words any style that he wanted, but he realized the futility of affectation. E.B. White was satisfied writing as himself–in a style that William Zinsser calls Breeziness.
“There is a kind of writing that sounds so relaxed that you think you hear the author talking to you. E.B. White was probably its best practitioner, thought many other masters of the style–James Thurber, V.S. Pritchett, Lewis Thomas–come to mind. I’m partial to it because it’s a style….The common assumption is that the style is effortless. In fact the opposite is true: the effortless style is achieved by strenuous effort and constant refining. ” Zinsser, William. On Writing Well, pgs. 232-33.
In his book On Writing Well, William Zinsser said the following about the importance of a writer’s voice:
“I wrote one book about baseball and one about jazz. But it never occurred to me to write one of them in sports English and the other in jazz English. I tried to write them both in the best English I could, in my usual style. Though the books were widely different in subject, I wanted readers to know that they were hearing from the same person…. My commodity as a writer, whatever I’m writing about, is me. And your commodity is you. Don’t alter your voice to fit your subject. Develop one voice that readers will recognize when they hear it on the page….” Zinsser, William. On Writing Well, p. 232.
“One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed. [p.117]
”Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful. If you hesitate and cogitate, you will come up with another word…but it won’t be as good as your first one, or as close to what you really mean.”― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, pgs. 117-118.
“Must you write complete sentences each time, every tie: Perish the thought. If your work consists only of fragments and floating clauses, the Grammar Police aren’t going to come and take you away.” Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, p. 120.
King listed some of his pet peeves: “That’s so cool,” “and “at the end of the day.” Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, p. 122.
“You should avoid the passive tense….Suppose, for instance, a fellow dies in the kitchen but ends up somewhere else. The body was carried from the kitchen and placed on the parlor sofa is a fair way to put this, although ‘was carried’ and ‘was placed’ still irk the shit out of me…. What I would embrace is Freddy and Myra carried the body out of the kitchen and laid it on the parlor sofa. Why does the body have to be the subject of the sentence, anyway? It’s dead, for Christ’s sake!” Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, p. 123.
For 30 years, Mary Karr has taught memoir writing at Syracuse University, and in her book The Art of Memoir, she offers some great thoughts about the importance of the writer’s voice and his style [Note–Karr’s advice is good for writing in genres other than memoir, too]:
“Each great memoir lives or dies based 100 percent on voice. It’s the delivery system for the author’s experience–the big bandwidth cable that carries in lustrous clarity every pixel of someone’s inner and outer experiences. Each voice is cleverly fashioned to highlight a writer’s individual talent or way of viewing the world. …It may take a writer hundreds of rough trial pages for a way of speaking to start to emerge unique to himself and his experience, both carnal and interior experiences come back with clarity,and the work gains an electrical charge. For the reader, the voice has to exist from the first sentence. [p. 35].
“Because memoir is such a simple form, its events can come across–in the worst books–as thinly rendered and haphazard. But if the voice has a high enough voltage, it will carry the reader through all manner of assholery and tangent because it almost magically conjures in her imagination a fully realized human. We kind of think that the voice is the narrator. It certainly helps if the stories are riveting, but a great voice renders the dullest event remarkable.
“The secret to any voice grows from a writer’s finding a tractor beam of inner truth about psychological conflicts to shine the way. While an artist consciously constructs a voice, she chooses its elements because they’re natural expressions of character. So above all, a voice has to sound ike the person wielding it–the super-most interesting version of that person ever–and grow from her core self.
“Pretty much all the great memoirists I’ve met sound on the page like they do in person. If the page is a mask, you rip it off only to find that the writer’s features exactly mold to the mask’s form, with nary a gap between public and private self. These writer’ voices make you feel close to–almost inside–their owners. Who doesn’t halfway consider Huck Finn or Scout a pal?
“The voice should permit a range of emotional tones–too wiseass, and it denies pathos; too pathetic, and it’s shrill. It sets and varies distance from both the material and the reader00from cool and diffident to high-strung and close. The writer doesn’t choose these styles fo much as he’s born to them, based on who he is and how he experienced the past.
“Voice isn’t just a manner of talking. It’s an operative mindset and way of perceiving that naturally stems from feeling oneself alive inside the past. That’s why self-awareness is so key. The [p. 36] writer who’s lived a fairly unexamined life–someone who has a hard time reconsidering a conflict from another point of view may not excel at fashioning a voice because her defensiveness stands between her and what she has to say. Also, we naturally tend to superimpose our present selves onto who we were before, and that can prevent us from recalling stuff that doesn’t shore up our current identities. Or it can warp understanding to fit more comfortable interpretations…..
“However you charm people in the world, you should do so on the page. ….Charm is from the Latin carmen: to sing. By ‘charm,’ I mean sing well enough to held the reader in thrall. Whatever people like about you in the world will manifest itself on the page….You’ll need both sides of yourself–the beautiful and the beastly–to hold a reader’s attention…. [p.36]
“All the good lines can’t be the memoirist’s. Karr, Mary. The Art of Memoir, pgs. 35-38.
“Unfortunately, nobody tells a writer how hard cobbling together a voice is. Look under ‘voice’ in a writing textbook, and they talk about things that seem mechanical–tone, diction, syntax. Dho, the writers says with a forehead smack. Diction is merely word choice, what variety of vocabulary you favor. Syntax is whether sentences are long or short, how they’re shaped, with or without dependent clauses, etc., Some sentences meander, others fire off like machine-gun runs. Tone is the emotional tenor of the sentences; it’s how the narrator feels about the subject. Robert Frost said anytime he heard wordless voices through a wall, tone told him who was angry, who bemused, who about to cry. For me, psyche equals voice, so your own psyche–how you think and see and wonder and scudge and suffer–also determines such factors as packing and what you [p. 45] write about when. Karr, Mary. The Art of Memoir, pgs. 45-46.
“…voice grows from the nature of a writer’s talent, which stems from innate character….e don’t see events objectively: we perceive them through ourselves. And we remember through a filter of both who we are now and who we once were.
So the best voices include a writer’s insides. Watching her mind feel around to concoct or figure out events, you never lose sight of the ego’s shape, its blind spots, dislikes, wants.” Karr, Mary. The Art of Memoir, pgs. 47.
“…a memoirist can’t help but show at each bump in the road how her perceptual filter is distorting what’s being take in. In other words, she questions her own perceptions as part of the writing process…..
“The noise each makes speaks his character into being. …
“But how dare I speak of truth in memoir, when it’s common knowledge that the subjective, egoistic perception is a priori warped by falsehood–perhaps mildly so in self-serving desires, or wildly so in hardwired paranoia?…
“…the self-aware memoirist constantly pokes and prods at his doubts like a tongue on a black tooth. [p. 48].
“The goal of a voice is to speak not with objective authority but with subjective curiosity. …
“To chirp my story like some bouncy cheerleader would be to lie. That grimness has to make it in. …
“A quest for self-knowledge drives such a writer to push past the normal vanity she brings to party dressing. She somehow manages to show up at the ball boldly naked.” Karr, Mary. The Art of Memoir, pgs. 45-49.
“A quest for self-knowledge drives such a writer to push past the normal vanity she brings to party dressing. She somehow manages to show up at the ball boldly naked.” Karr, Mary. The Art of Memoir, p. 49.
In summary, it would seem to me that a writer who has style is one who is not trying to be stylish. He is simply a person who talks to his readers, and his words are recorded on a page. He is also a person who is honest about who he is, and he is able to communicate with that honesty. To quote Mary Karr again:
“Any memoirist’s false selves (plural_ will take turns plastering themselves across his real mouth to silence the scarier fact of who he is. Writing as directly as possible out of that single ‘true’ core…will naturally unify pages. Otheri=wise, there will be inconsistencies that read as fake.
“False choices based on who you wish you were will result in places where the voice goes awry or the details chosen ring false. If Helen Keller wrote from the viewpoint of a nearsighted girl rather than a blind one or if May Angelou made herself [p. 151] an orphaned paraplegic or a light-skinned black girl who could pass in the Jim Crow South . . . well, you can see how their stories would’ve been bled of raw power.” Karr, Mary. The Art of Memoir, pgs. 151-52.
“No matter how much you’re gunning for truth, the human ego is also a stealthy, low-crawling bastard, and for pretty much everybody, getting used to who you are is a lifelong spiritual struggle…..The best you can hope for is to rip off each mask as you find it blotting out your vision.” [p. 153].
“We each nurture a private terror that some core aspect(s) of either our selves or our story must be hidden or disowned.” Karr, Mary. The Art of Memoir, pgs. 153-54.
©Jacki Kellum September 21, 2016