Rhythm in the head — or notes — of a writer

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One of my feature writing students has had a particular problem this past semester with a piece of writing I assigned, Paul Theroux’s road trip portrait of a decaying slice-of-life in   America: “The Soul of the South,” which appeared in July in Smithsonian Magazine.

The student most recently asked me, rather vaguely- maybe desperately so–  to “explain this sentence construction to me.”

The admittedly run-on sentence she took issue with:

Here was the corpse of a motel, the Elite—the sign still legible—broken buildings in a wilderness of weeds; and farther down the road, the Sands, the Presidential Inn, collapsed, empty; and another fractured place with a cracked swimming pool and broken windows, its rusted sign, “Cresent Motel,” the more pathetic for being misspelled.

Here’s what I wrote, for what it’s worth:

Let me take a stab at this, then.

I have said before that there is no single way to express a thought in English. The language is old and complex and convoluted, influenced by and informed by many other languages ( basic Anglo-Saxon and Germanic and Latin and French and who knows how many African and Native American tongues). A writer today, particularly if not limited by a formula specific to the use to which his words are to be put (like basic news reporting, or press release writing, or advertising) has a basically unlimited palette from which to work. He can use poetry forms and considerations like rhythm and meter in his prose, for instance.

A feature writer, like a novelist, is not required to write in a straightforward fashion. He can exhibit as many twists and turns in his pursuit of a point as he likes. The sentence you’re having trouble with above is an example of a writer exercising his literary license to create a long, involved, multifaceted, multi-clausal statement about the disintegration of a piece of Southern society. He has the freedom to do so.

He could just as easily have written it this way:

Here was the corpse of a motel, the Elite, its sign still legible; broken buildings in a wilderness of weeds; and farther down the road, the Sands and the Presidential Inn, also collapsed and empty. And there was another fractured place with a cracked swimming pool and broken windows. Its rusted sign, “Cresent Motel,” was all the more pathetic for being misspelled.

He also could have written it this way:

Here were broken buildings in a wilderness of weeds — the corpse of a motel, the Elite, its sign still legible; farther down the road the Sands and the Presidential Inn, collapsed and empty. And  there was another place with a cracked swimming pool and broken windows, its rusted sign, “Cresent Motel,” all the more pathetic for being misspelled.

What’s my point? I have reworked Theroux’s material two different ways, ways which suited my personal preferences and taste better.Does that make me right and Theroux wrong? No. Both of us used correct English. Both of us spelled words correctly and  exhibited the proper relationships between clauses and subordinate clauses. Both of us made the same point about the scene.

Why did Theroux choose to do it the way he did? Probably something to do with how he took notes as he drove by, or walked along or stood by the scene he described. It might have something to do with the particular rhythm that words created in his head when he was writing. It feels to me like both factors may have been involved.

I say it “feels” that way, because I have had experience with the rhythm of words and with taking rapid stream of consciousness notes to capture a scene. Sometimes there is a beauty the writer can sense in the juxtaposition of words and the flow of their syllables; to Theroux it may have felt like music or creating art. But the beauty may not translate to everybody equally – it is a subjective thing – which is why they say, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Just as you may have experienced looking at a piece of art hanging in a museum or a gallery and not liked what you looked at (even if others declared it to be great), you may simply not like what Theroux likes in his writing. But having studied and practiced art and writing from both the creative and the practical, more commercial sides, I can both see what he’s doing as valuable, and see how to change it to suit me.

I hope that in time, you won’t be troubled by seeing work you would not have done yourself. You’re not supposed to copy his style or anyone else’s. Writing is an art form, and ultimately the artist controls the brush. That said, if you’re writing for a client, or employer, or a specific audience — which is what journalists do — you do have to stay on the canvas acceptable in the given circumstances. Theroux’s work met the test of his editors and of a substantial number of his readers, which was his intent, I think. The fact that he did  not reach you – and I know this isn’t your first complaint about “Soul of the South” — may not be something which can or must be remedied.

What you should try to do, if you’ll accept a piece of advice, is to understand the basic artistic merit of the work, and accept that there are others who see it without difficulty, even if you don’t. That’s also a useful skill when you visit an art museum, by the way.

Hope that helps.


Author: nickpattersonfreelance

I'm a professional reporter, writer, editor, teacher, storyteller. A former travel and features editor for Southern Living, I started Velleity because people keep offering me travel stuff and you may as well benefit from it.

2 thoughts on “Rhythm in the head — or notes — of a writer”

  1. Excellent points, Nick! And a good reminder for anyone who writes and is criticized — or who reads and criticizes. My mother, who has taught English at the University level, often points out my consistent use of sentence fragments, but, as I have explained to her, that his how I hear my story in my head so that’s how I write it and I know not to use fragments in formal or business writing. Thanks for sharing your comments!

    1. Thank you for sharing your perspective Audrey. I get what you’re saying. As writers we know the rules we’re breaking. There’s a great interaction that happens when readers connect with that!

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