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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

coherence, a willful entrapment of footnotes within footnotes or: some thoughts on cohesion and



i have my favorite authors (Gladwell, Krakauer, Franzen, David Foster Wallace, Michael Lewis, Hunter Thompson--feel free to stop me anytime), yet i'm not always certain why i love their work. is it their style? sure, but, what about their style do i find so effective? what's the operative ingredient at play in their prose? and is that even a valid question?

who knows. all i can say is that it's a valid question for people still looking to make the Great Leap Forward in their writing. we (correctly?) assume our favorite writers have discovered that special something which elevates language into art--and we hope by pinpointing that rare and elusive flame, we might ignite our own candles by their fire.

and i guess that's what separates mere "reading" from the more self-reflective "reading like writer": the former suggests an activity that's information and entertainment based, whereas the latter involves being less a consumer of the text and more a kind of "scout" or "researcher" (or even "borrower") of technique. and, come to think of it, that's what i love about the work of Gladwell, Krakauer, et al.: the feeling that--somehow, someway--i'm being transformed by their prose. and just as a writer. but also as a person.

here's all i know: we will never unearth the exact magic that runs through the Great Works of literature. yet we most certainly can grasp (and apply) some of the lesser (but still radically important) features of good writing.

with that in mind, i want to share what i've been focusing on lately: cohesion and coherence. for cohesion, the writer wants to make sure the sentences and paragraphs contain proper thematic ties (words and phrases that logically link and unify ideas). for coherence, an author seeks to strike a kind of pragmatic balance among the three points of the rhetorical triangle (writer, reader, text). for coherence, moreover, the author gives greater consideration to his or her audience, gives greater consideration to the purpose and exigence of the work.

we might even say, moreover, that coherence operates at the macro level: a zone where the author seeks (by the final draft, anyway) to present a cogent structure that unfolds not by simple free association but through a system suited to an underlying purpose. cohesion, on the other hand, operates at the more micro level: a space where the author seeks to unify his or her sentences using grammatical, syntactical, and mechanical (punctuation) ties.

now i personally find cohesion in writing much easier to achieve (after all, there are innumerable handbooks out there that--if you don't follow their rules too rigidly--can prove immensely helpful). coherence, however, can be much more challenging. i am not always sure whether i’ve chosen the correct structure to best unfold my ideas, the pattern that's the most helpful, most logical, most effective. yet i remain encouraged because, well, i enjoy the trial-and-error aspect of questing toward coherence, of trying out different structures in an effort to unfurl my ideas as sincerely and clearly and naturally as possible.

coda: for all my talk of cohesion and coherence, it might seem a bit counter-intuitive that my all-time favorite book is American Psycho, a novel of such unwieldy digressions and unreliability that some of the more tame moments occur when, say, the protagonist--the unforgettable Patrick Bateman--takes page after page after page to properly adumbrate the true "meaning" of Phil Collins.

and it also may not seem obvious why David Foster Wallace--whose style can be rightly labeled as a sort of willful entrapment of footnotes within footnotes--remains my favorite author of non-fiction.

to both, here's why: Ellis and Wallace are such deft masters of both cohesion and coherence that they intentionally fracture their narrative structures, consciously disturbing the text's linearity in an effort to mirror the thematic ends their work seeks to probe. click here to watch Wallace briefly explain this idea on Charlie Rose.

hope that helps.


Saturday, July 2, 2011

writing, some more notes on



i selected the below paragraph because it foregrounds two effective writing techniques--alliteration and word precision. as you most likely know, alliteration is when neighboring words share the same "starting sound," and thus create (among other effects) a kind of sonic repetition. word precision needs no explanation--though i can't stress enough its important. (consider the differing effects between writing, say, "the test was hard," vs. "the test was difficult," and you begin to see what i mean.)

in this excerpt from the film review in this week's New Yorker, i've highlighted all the moments that (for me, anyway) are working either formally or informally as alliteration.

The educator who matters in “Terri” is Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), an assistant principal with a problem. His problem is Terri Thompson (Jacob Wysocki), a mountain in his mid-teens, with a penchant for wearing pajamas to school. Add the soft, unhurried waddle of the lad’s gait, plus the seconds that tick by as he ponders the answer to a simple inquiry, and you start to wonder if Terri is less of a student than a sleepwalker. It is Mr. Fitzgerald’s chosen task to awaken Terri to the world, along with other worrisome cases—Chad (Bridger Zadina), say, who claws at his scalp as if trying to get at the itchy thoughts inside.

now writer Anthony Lane's use of alliteration here might seem excessive, but only because i've drawn such attention to its salience; the repeating Ps and Ts and Ws would be invisible to a reader who hadn't been tipped off to their presence ahead of time. (though, it needs to be mentioned, the "invisibility" of alliteration does
not mean the effect is lost; rather, what gives most literary devices their power is precisely their ability to subconsciously stir us without our knowledge.)

now let's take another sweep through the text, this time coding for word precision. my findings are highlighted.

The educator who matters in “Terri” is Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), an assistant principal with a problem. His problem is Terri Thompson (Jacob Wysocki), a mountain in his mid-teens, with a penchant for wearing pajamas to school. Add the soft, unhurried waddle of the lad’s gait, plus the seconds that tick by as he ponders the answer to a simple inquiry, and you start to wonder if Terri is less of a student than a sleepwalker. It is Mr. Fitzgerald’s chosen task to awaken Terri to the world, along with other worrisome cases—Chad (Bridger Zadina), say, who claws at his scalp as if trying to get at the itchy thoughts inside.

each of the words Lane selected--and i which i've highlighted--conveys something their more general counterpart does not.

gait v. walk.
tick v. go by(?)
ponders v. thinks about
inquiry v. question
scalp v. head

i could go into a detailed analysis of each of these examples--drawing attention to, say, the onomatopoeic resonance of "tick" over something dry and pallid like "go by" (or "pass")--but i won't. i think the logic behind Lane's choices are self-evident.

okay, so that's it. i hope i've shown that alliteration should be subtle but powerful. and our diction should be precise without being overly technical or awkward.