by Jerry Waxler
While most of the memoirs I review are book length, I recently read an award winning short story “The Head Clown” by Sean Toner, published in a wonderful online literary collaboration called “webdelsol.com.”
“Head Clown” is about Toner’s summer by the ocean, where he worked in a bookstore, and to earn a few extra dollars he took a job dressing up as a clown and selling balloons on the boardwalk. From this mundane situation, the author has crafted a brash, luxurious tale that worked the magic all good stories are supposed to do. It opened a window into the author’s world, his people, his attitudes, his sweaty palms. By focusing tightly on each moment he brought me into his world, endowing scenes with color and character, creating depth of emotion and variety of insight. Toner’s exquisite attention on small details provided me with so much pleasure I was sorry to see it end.
One of the writer’s noblest jobs is to offer his or her self-awareness to the reader. In fact, when I was younger I received much of my appreciation for the nuances of life through the eyes of authors like Samuel Beckett and Charles Dickens. Their wordplay revealed the creative power within each moment, providing some of my most intellectually stimulating sensations.
Nuance versus clarity
Despite my passion for rich writing, I had no idea how to emulate it myself. Writing in a journal for years, words flowed freely, but without an audience, my style never grew. Then to earn a living, I wrote technical manuals. When I finally turned my attention to a broader audience, I focused entirely on clarity. I achieved simplicity, but my “just-the-facts” style lacked the verbal pleasure my favorite authors had given me.
Sean Toner’s story awakened memories of sitting with a book and enjoying the words rolling around in my mind, making strange connections, sending shivers of activity through my brain, setting off other recollections too distant to even identify, like the rumbling of thunder that seemed to rattle the substrate of reality itself.
“Head Clown” comes to me at a perfect moment in my journey as a writer. I recently listened to an audio course from the Teaching Company called “Building Great Sentences, Exploring the Writer’s Craft” by Professor Brooks Landon of the University of Iowa. In it he regrets the loss of style in modern prose. His observations started me pondering.
As a hippie in the 1960’s, I lived in Spartan rooms, sleeping on the floor. Piles of books fed my mind, but no decorations or knick-knacks personalized my space. Professor Landon and Sean Toner, like participants in a literary intervention, helped me see I had done the same disservice to my writing style as I had done to my life style. With their help, I gained the courage to fling off my literary hair shirt and open up to the joys of excellent sentences. Here are a few tips I took away from Sean Toner’s “Head Clown” and Professor Landon’s Teaching Company lectures.
Short is not the goal
One of the measures of effective writing, according to many modern systems, is to reduce the length of sentences. Software programs even use sentence length as a measure of “good” writing. Landon warned against judging a sentence by its length. Some long sentences are horrible, and others are beautiful, clear, and uplifting. He showed the difference, and offered suggestions for long sentences that inform and entertain.
One plus one equals three?
When I edit, I often try to simplify my descriptions, following Sol Stein’s famous advice, “one plus one equals a half.” In his book “On Writing,” Stein said it’s punchier to use one adjective than two. While his idea enhances simplicity, it risks stripping away nuance.
Brooks Landon offers an alternative. He observes that if the first word that comes to mind is insufficient, you naturally want to say it again a slightly different way to express the truth. By adding a couple of different approaches to an idea, you can offer the reader several slants that elaborate on your view.
While Sol Stein’s advice often leads to tighter writing, I appreciate Brooks Landon’s permission to say something in more than one way. His perspective expands my options to give more to my readers.
When writing a scene, we are taught to look to the senses, what we see, smell, hear, taste, and touch. But this formula misses the additional vein of material running behind our eyes and between our ears. Our thoughts provide the reader an additional way to relate to our viewpoint. For Landon, this is the hallmark of good writing: “Bring your unique self to your reader.”
Sean Toner offers an excellent example. He looks out the window at a woman crossing the back yard. She stops and talks to some children. He can’t see what they are looking at, so he offers several possibilities. His speculation intensifies my curiosity, drawing me into the external scene and also providing a glimpse into Toner’s mind.
Landon loves metaphors, but he has a hard time convincing his writing students to use them. I know why his students are reluctant to follow his advice. Metaphors are as risky as crossing a pit of alligators by crawling along a slimy log. A bad metaphor sounds weird, and so the writer must work harder and take more chances. It’s easier just to walk around. Sean Tone is not shy about metaphors. For example he compares a tall fair-skinned man to a golden sycamore, allowing me to see the sun shining through the canopy of a forest. The image deepens my connection with both Sean’s imagination and this aspiring clown’s appearance.
When Toner looks out the window and tries to understand what the woman and children might be pointing to, he speculates that they may be looking at a dirty magazine or a man buried up to his shoulders in dirt. The resulting laugh creates an extraordinarily sophisticated psychological sensation. By pulling me so far into his own mental process, Toner has created a moment of intimacy, like brushing up against a stranger at a party, a thrill of forbidden contact. The laugh provides an abrupt and pleasurable discharge of that tension.
This interplay between intimacy and distance is one of the purposes of memoir. We tell about our life experience, which brings us all closer. At the same time, we turn the events into a story, which allows us to take a step back. Whether your memoir is as short as a man buried up to his shoulders, or as tall as a golden sycamore, you too can use word play, speculation, metaphor, and humor to contribute to the multi-dimensional power of your story.
Follow each of these strategies from “Head Clown” to add style to your anecdote.
For more about Sean Toner, see his home page.
For more about the Teaching Company lecture series, by Brooks Landon, University of Iowa, click here.