Saturday, June 4, 2011
word(s), punctuation as
i'm interested in prose; that is, how WRITTEN words mean. concomitantly, i'm interested in how we teach prose, read prose, learn prose, school prose.
one day, yes, i hope to (self?) publish a (verrrrrrry meta) book on how lingering over certain examples of prose can make us better writers...if not necessarily make us write better (and there is a difference); for now, however, i will confine myself to this blog, the classroom, and the parenthetical asides which continue to metastasize with every post.
okay, so here is something that caught my eye:
in last week's new yorker magazine, rachel aviv wrote, God Knows Where I Am, a stunning narrative-based mental health piece.
I thought the below sentence would be interesting to consider for the purposes of "reading as a writer," which, for me, means reading not only for WHAT the text says, but also for HOW the text says it.
"The hospital's crowded wards resembled those studied in Erving Goffman's 1961 book, 'Asylums,' which showed how, through years of institutional life, people lost their identities and learned to be perfect mental patients--dull, unmotivated, and helpless."
when you see the dash near the end of the sentence, what words are you tacitly filling in? take a second. reread the sentence, and imagine that you have been told to remove the dash and replace it with actual words. what did you insert? most likely, it was something like this: "that is, if you consider the 'perfect patient' to be...."
in effect, the rewritten sentences reads: "The hospital's crowded wards resembled those studied in Erving Goffman's 1961 book, 'Asylums,' which showed how, through years of institutional life, people lost their identities and learned to be perfect mental patients, that is, if you consider the 'perfect patient' to be dull, unmotivated, and helpless."
jeez. how heavy does this sentence suddenly become when we actually insert the words for which the dash was standing in?
and that's what i love about aviv's use of punctuation here. she's able to employ the dash so as to let the reader co-author a critique of the "perfect patient."
it's an elegant style and requires (from the author) a deep confidence in both the reader and the clarity of the sentence.
i should also note that this maneuver of using punctuation to replace words is hardly new nor difficult. we do it all the time--example: "Netflix just sent me Amélie, Y Tu Mamá También, and City of God." the commas are replacing the word "and," just as the comma is replacing the word "but" in "he was an important, now forgotten artist."
in using punctuation in place of word(s), aviv's use of the dash is not some radical difference in "kind," but rather in "degree." and something i admire when done well, and, of course, want to encourage (though very sparingly and with great prudence) in my own writing and my students.