Tuesday, September 6, 2011

it's all about the words

My favorite class in grad school was Stylistics; that is, the study of writing style, or how words are put together. Each week the professor would give us a text—a set of poems, some ad copy, short fiction, etc.—and we'd analyze the number of words, sentences, commas, words in italics, words in sentences, one-syllable words, two-syllable words, and so on, never quite sure if what we're attempting to explain made any sense, or quite fully grasping the phenomenon of a finished piece of writing.

The exercises were especially fun: making lists of our favorite words (sound familiar?); putting together words from those lists in no particular order (ostentatious cookie bunny), and yet feeling compelled to make meaning somehow; guessing which word lists belong to which of our classmates. We learned rhetorical stylistic devices (amplification, antithesis... I always seem to remember all the A- devices first, probably because I learned them all alphabetically). We also occasionally had to read extremely dense texts about metaphor (I'd rather get my eyes lasered... hey, a metaphor!). Perhaps the best assignment was our mid-term, in which my professor gave each of us a short story, cut off halfway through. Our job was to write our own completion to the story in the style of the author so flawlessly that she wouldn't be able to tell where the original author left off and we picked up. Moreover, we had to submit an accompanying analysis both of the original piece and our own.

I nailed that one. But it took constant re-reading, analyzing, studying.

By the end of the semester, I couldn't read the label of a cereal box without thinking about it in stylistic terms. How do these particular words, and the order they're in, contribute to the rhetorical purpose of the reader? How do they persuade the reader to think, feel, act, keep reading? Why these words?

At that time my brother, a musician and producer, had created a website containing his discography and a short bio. He had asked me for feedback on the site's layout, visual appeal, etc. As part of my feedback, I told him that his wife did a good job with the bio. Shortly after, he called me.

"How did you know she wrote the bio?" he asked.

I proceeded to do a mini-stylistic analysis. Because English is my sister-in-law's second language (actually, I think it's her third), I noticed a preciseness in the grammatical structure of the sentences. I also noticed she'd used the word steely as part of the description of my brother's musical style—it wasn't a word I'd ever seen my brother use in his own writing.

When it gets right down to it, it's all about the words.

There's a difference between ire and irk. There's a difference between sad and blue, between mad and manic. There are times when the f-word is absolutely the right word, and other times when just plain ol' f-word suffices.

And I don't care what your K-12 English teachers told you: ain't is most definitely a word.

As writers, it's our job to put the best words together, in the best order (and I just replaced right with best both times), with the right rhythm and cadence and meaning (should I change that last right as well?). We achieve this by studying the style of our favorite writers. I know that Aaron Sorkin, for instance, likes the word feckless, and Nora Ephron doesn't like the name Thelma. I stole the phrase “paused for a beat” from Richard Russo, and occasionally try to mimic Stephen King's “folksiness”. I pay attention to other things, too--use of em-dashes, repetition, italics, numbers.

Says Sam Seaborn on The West Wing: “Good writers borrow from other good writers. Great writers steal from them outright.” I never set out to write like Aaron Sorkin or any of my other favorite writers, but just as I hear the influence of The Beatles in my brother's songs—a drum fill or a guitar sound or a particular harmony—so occasionally will a reader find a Sorkinism, a Russoism, and so on, in my novels. And yet, my brother's style has become inherently his own, as has mine.

One last style story, again musical: Eric Clapton was recording the From the Cradle album and was listening to the track he'd just laid down, shaking his head in dismay.

“What wrong?” asked the producer.
“I don't like the way it sounds,” said Clapton.
The producer looked at him incredulously. “I don't understand, it sounds fantastic. What's wrong with it?”
“It just sounds like me playing a Muddy Waters song,” said Clapton. “I wanted it to sound like Muddy Waters.”
The producer said, “That's exactly why it sounds fantastic. We've already heard Muddy Waters play it. Now we wanna hear Eric Clapton play it.”

Learning the style of others is important. My brother Ritch learned to play guitar just like Eric Clapton, all the while developing the style of Ritch Lorello. My brother Mike can produce the Jeff Lynne sound practically better than Jeff Lynne can; and yet, he has perfected his own repertoire. (And the ultimate compliment? Producers hire other keyboardists and ask them to play it like Mike Lorello would!) In the end, however, don't try to write like Fitzgerald, Welty, Grisham, Sontag, etc. because you think doing so will sell more books. We've already read those guys (I considered replacing guys with authors for the sake of political and gender correctness, but it didn't sound like me!). Don't try to be “the next” anybody. Read. Read more. Play with the words. Put them together like jigsaw puzzle pieces, and see the picture that forms. Then write it the way you would.

Need a start? Try making a list of your 20 favorite words, in no particular order. Better yet, make it 50. Then let the games begin.

In fact, please do share some of your favorite words here.


Elspeth Antonelli said...

I can write like other authors, but I've never given the process this sort of analysis! Gracious. Of course, this is why you're a professor and I'm seriously not. Then again, I can direct.

Elisa said...

It also qualifies me for geek status, because I actually find such analysis interesting -- to conduct more than to read someone else's, I would think.

It also comes in real handy when detecting students' plagiarism...


Anonymous said...

A smattering: arouse, giggle, aham brahmasmi, contemplate, amble, shanti, namaste

Elisa said...

"amble" is a great word! (And you know I love "namaste")


Andrew said...

Epistemological, incendiary, neophyte, polemic, reification, onomatopoeia, fiduciary, ingratiate, polysyllabic, cinematographic, oligarchy, etc...

This list goes on. Words rule.

Elisa said...

"Words rule."

Indeed, Andrew! Thanks for sharing some of your faves.