Saturday, March 6, 2010


There are any number of rules, edicts, and perorations relative to what is acceptable in written prose, but when you either write something egregious or read it in the work of another, you suspect there need to be even more cautions than there are.

Some of your recent favorites emerged a few weeks back at a Friday morning coffee soiree, beginning with the observation that paragraphs should neither be begun with "And" or "But." You took immediate issue to these and as well another ventured edict against one- and two-word paragraphs, causing a stirring within you that you were more fond of the paragraph than you had realized. Or perhaps it was that you felt a proprietary interest to them that began, as you eventually reckoned, back to the days when you were a student at Central Beach Elementary School, Miami Beach, Florida, where you were introduced to the concept that every paragraph had a topic sentence. You'd come to accept the notion that painful experiences were filtered from memory much in the same way one of your early favorites from comic books, The Shadow, had the ability to fog men's minds (and render himself invisible).

Not so.

You recall countless exercises in which you and your classmates were presented with paragraphs from which you were bidden to seek out the topic sentence, then defend your choice, whereupon you were presented with yet another dictum: one idea per paragraph. You, where no stranger to mere perversity by this stage of your life, argued that there was no reason why a paragraph could not have more than one idea, a view that understandably drove the teacher beyond the limits of patience when she observed with tart hauteur, "Perhaps they do in California, but rules there don't seem to count for much."

You were not about to take that rebuke in good grace. "Perhaps if Florida had been on the winning side in the Civil War--" you began, only to be interrupted with "You mean The War of Northern Aggression, don't you?" It was and remains a conflict in which a sixth grader has little hope for immediate redress and must instead nurse wounds and humiliations and boredom for that magical time when the language seems to bloom like stands of wildflowers along the outer reaches of the state highway, then assumes the even greater tenacity of volunteer flowers, springing up unexpectedly where asphalt and concrete would seem to preclude them. Language that is yours come over you like a wave of puberty, causing you unutterable and sometimes embarrassing excitement and abandon, which you simultaneously try to express and repress. Language brings such invasions to your entire being that the feelings of lust mixed with adoration and previously inexperienced admiration for the likes of Lita and Gloria and then Pauline could be shrugged off as youthful folly; language was not only your new steady, language returned your lust by revealing more secrets to you, reminding you that rules and topic sentences and sentences ending with prepositions were as child's play. You were now an adult and language was not only a remarkable tool, it was a responsibility.

Today, egregious means to you too many adverbs, too many adjectives, long defensive streams of attribution that suggest you or anyone else using this remarkable language as a tool are arguing and not terribly sure of your ground in the first place. When you read a writer such as Muriel Spark or Joan Didion or George Orwell or Michael Chabon, you no longer experience the hum of envy sparking to life in your belly as you did when friends and schoolmates got bicycles or toys that seemed so magical, you sense a membership in a guild or trade union where these journeymen and women have achieved the knowledge of our condition, the human condition, and are now showing us ways to use our condition for the optimal results.

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