Monday, September 5, 2011

The Writer as Cowboy: Mon Semblance, Mon Frere

You approach sentences the way a cowboy regards a herd of cattle.  It is probable that your politics and philosophical views have wide chasms between them, nevertheless you share a vision based on your having each amassed a useful experience each according to his trade.  How ever wide the chasm of ideology between you, there is a uniting semblance of brotherhood.

You are no more surprised to see a word having broken from the pack, caught out in an awkward trope or phrase from which there is no easy return, than the cowboy, when he spots the stray, separated from the herd, anxious for a return to the comfort of safety.

Words stray for a number of reasons, all having direct connection to you.  Perhaps you had not been as alert as you might have been when a certain point of grammar was demonstrated.  Worse yet, you may not have cared when the point was demonstrated, the bored, aspiring neurosurgeon turning down an invitation to assist at a tonsillectomy. You may have wondered, What difference will predicate nominatives make in the life you hope to lead?

You may have placed the word now gone astray in a particular order with instinctive awareness that it did not, in American English usage, belong where you'd put it.  No matter; you'd felt the buzz and tingle of risk as you parachuted it down behind enemy lines, where it would send messages--exciting messages--beyond its meaning.

But now, the buzz and tingle are gone.  The excitement at the placement have departed like the audience at a boring lecture.  The message you get from the word now is:  I am lost.  Come get me.  Send money.

You may have placed the word reflexively, because you always use it in a similar context.  Or, you may have used the word to avoid using a growing roster of words you have come to dislike because they do not, in your opinion, carry their own weight of meaning, but rely instead on their neighbors.  Examples:  very, such, interesting, sad.  What do they mean?  How helpful are they?  Can they be done without?  These words--and others like them--are the lounge lizards of narrative.  They lay about, sleek, tanned, their literary equivalents of whitened teeth glinting in the sun of an otherwise vivid, meaningful sentence, waiting to be noticed.

Nice as it is to be noticed with admiration for their perfect smile, this is not the effect you wish your sentences to provide, the aggregate effect you wish to convey.  And so, when the time comes, you, like the cowboy, ride forth, looking for strays, his of the stranded calf, your target the strays of sleekness, suntan, and whitened teeth.

Who was that masked man?

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