Monday, March 1, 2010

A Man Is Lucky Indeed...

I forget about the power of language sometimes (inexcusable given my profession, I know) but a recent article by Chris Jones in Esquire Magazine reminded me. Fellow blogger George Rede summarizes and quotes the article that profiles film critic Roger Ebert. I won't do that again, here, except to point out my favorite part that describes how writing provides him the voice that he physically lacks:

Reading [Ebert's online journal] from its beginning is like watching an Aztec pyramid being built. At first, it's just a vessel for him to apologize to his fans for not being downstate. The original entries are short updates about his life and health and a few of his heart's wishes. Postcards and pebbles. They're followed by a smattering of Welcomes to Cyberspace. But slowly the journal picks up steam, as Ebert's strength and confidence and audience grow. You are the readers I have dreamed of, he writes. He is emboldened. He begins to write about more than movies; in fact, it sometimes seems as though he'd rather write about anything other than movies. The existence of an afterlife, the beauty of a full bookshelf, his liberalism and atheism and alcoholism, the health-care debate, Darwin, memories of departed friends and fights won and lost — more than five hundred thousand words of inner monologue have poured out of him, five hundred thousand words that probably wouldn't exist had he kept his other voice.

Ebert writes, "When I am writing my problems become invisible and I am the same person I always was. All is well. I am as I should be." The story strikes me because of the voice and world writing has opened up for Roger Ebert. But equally, I'm struck by the beautiful portrait Chris Jones has drawn. It is everything that the Vanity Fair piece wasn't; sensitive and nuanced, Jones allows his readers to think of Ebert and themselves in a new light.

At the beginning of each quarter, as I introduce some of the basics of writing, we talk about paragraphs. I contend that being able to write a strong, effective paragraph is more important, practically speaking, than being able to write a decent essay. Outside of school, few of us need to write these longer pieces of work--one-thousand words comparing this and that, twelve-hundred words persuading an imagined audience to alter its opinion on the death penalty--but most of us will have reason to craft shorter, to-the-point groups of sentences. Whether writing a cover letter, a memo, or an email to a child's teacher, students need to be able to effectively and concisely communicate information.

"A paragraph," I say, "is a sentence or group of sentences that forms an idea." We look at two examples of "strong paragraphs": the first, the opening paragraph to a Judith Ortiz Short story, demonstrates how a writer can use simple but powerful sentences to great effect; the second, from an E. B. White essay, shows how even a paragraph smack dab in the middle of a larger piece can stand on its own:

I guess I have watched my coon descend the tree a hundred times; even so, I never miss a performance if I can help it. It has a ritualistic quality, and I know every motion, as a ballet enthusiast knows every motion of his favorite dance. The secret of its enchantment is the way it employs the failing light, so that when the descent begins, the former is clearly visible and is a part of day, and when, ten or fifteen minutes later, the descent is complete and the coon removes the last paw from the tree and takes the first step away, groundborne, she is almost indecipherable and is a part of the shadows and the night. The going down of the sun and the going down of the coon are interrelated phenomena; a man is lucky in deed who lives where sunset and coonset are visible from the same window. (White, 1977, p. 44)

White turns the ordinary into the magical in just four sentences. And that's the power of words and language - it stirs something in us that's reachable no other way.

White, E. B. (1977). Coon Tree. In Essays of E. B. White (pp. 41-55). New York, NY: HarperCollins Books.

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