Friday, December 16, 2011


Not long after you’d taken the need to commit multiplications to a degree of muscle memory, you were faced with yet another chore for your memory, valence, the number of bonds of which an atom of a particular element is capable.  The atoms of some elements have multiple capabilities for bonding, meaning they have more than one valence and you were supposed to memorize those so that you could write equations based on the observed valences of each element, producing such things as NaCl and H2So4.  By doing so, you’d be demonstrating your basic understanding of hoe elements bonded, formed compounds.  You’d in effect be able to speak to and understand concepts in chemistry and physics.  The world would be a bit less mysterious to you, and if you truly grasped the significance and language of valence, your immediate future was organic chemistry, where equations grew sophisticated in ways you’d not have suspected before.

You did not do well in chemistry.  By a series of accidents, you did well in physics, which was every bit as much a confusion to you as it was to your instructors.  It did not make sense for you to be so good in the latter and so unresponsive in the former.

There was a time when you were so desperate to understand chemistry that you set about trying to assign valence to words, tracking the way they bonded with one another.  At one point, you tried to connect the words in the sonnets of Shakespeare, which caused you to appreciate the sonnet as a poem and the sonnets of Shakespeare as deft constructions that had an inner resonance, but there was no help in your understanding of chemistry.

The thing about your attempt to construct a valence table for words had to do with the reality of certain words sounding clunky, awful in fact.  Some of these words were “that,” “therefore,” “potentially,” “suddenly,” “very,” and “just.”  To be sure, there are other words that had a rebarbative effect for you; you wanted as little to do with them as possible.  These words seem to have the effect lifeguards attribute to some individual swimmers they have had to rescue.  These imperiled swimmers, when being rescued, would panic and make their rescue more difficult because of their panic-driven clinging to the person rescuing them.  Some words—in particular “that”—attach themselves to sentences and drag them below the surface.

For the longest time, you were obsessed by the sounds of words running well together and words producing a kind of clunky, jerky atmosphere, making you want to get past them whenever you encountered them.  You were alternately trying to pull apart the sentences of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, two writers whose styles were as polar as you could imagine. Surely you could, by studying them, evolve your own.  The notion appealed to you, but it never quite paid off; you of course sounded like neither, picking up from Hemingway the use of the word “and” to connect independent clauses, while picking up from Fitzgerald the tendency to stuff words into your sentences to the point where they more resembled sausages than narrative.

The question you learned to ask everyone you came in contact, including yourself, was “Who are you?”  The answer to this seemingly koan-like enigma is answerable.  Your belief is that it energizes the way your sentences come forth, the way you dramatize, describe, even conflate.

Style is what comes after the thinking, writing, and editing; it appears as the story—if the work is fiction—begins to appear, or as the narrative—if the work is nonfiction—steps forward to take responsibility for the direction of revelation.  If clothes make the man or woman, which is to say present the individual to an audience, style gives the narrative its distinct flavor, to which the true condiments, herbs, vegetable stock and essential agreements impart personality and substance.

Beyond all metaphor is the voice, the attitude and intent of the writer in the choice of words, the cadences, the inner rhythms, pacing, and sense that this narrative accurately and honestly speaks the language of story.

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