Tuesday, May 5, 2015

How to Write Soporific Prose

Just incidentally one day during our To the Lighthouse unit, the professor mentioned that Virginia Woolf's second novel, Night and Day, was aawwwful, a thudding interminable Victorian thing. It's not that I didn't believe her when she said this (I gather that she's something of a Woolfian, so she'd know), but I wondered if "aawwwful" was a relative term when it came to Woolf and/or if the book's Victorian attributes made it much more awful to someone who prefers Modernism. I was dancing through Middlemarch at the time, so I thought Night and Day would make an interesting middle ground between Eliot and what I was reading for class.

Turns out she was right. Night and Day is awful. Aawwwful. It's one of the dullest, most joyless books I've ever read. But man, is it ever an interesting awful. I'm learning so much from reading it.

The scenes are very bad, with all the rhythm of an oompah band at its first rehearsal. The narrated paragraphs are better, but largely descriptive - a lot of telling, much of which never pays off. We are deep inside the characters' heads, reading every last thought and emotional reaction to each gesture of every little finger, but the characters themselves are still remarkably inconsistent and difficult to grasp. Through all of this, I can feel the author trying and trying and trying to get something on the page that matters to her. In a chapter I just finished, I could feel her fever at the theoretical high emotional point of the scene, but I felt no fever in myself. The scene was an endless, stilted conversation between two characters in whom I have amazingly little investment after 300 pages, and I had no idea why it was such a big deal that they were talking to each other about who was in love with whom. Between the lines, it felt as though she was trying to write the scene when Darcy first proposes to Elizabeth. It fell flatter than a cheap stage set.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928).
Apropos of nothing in this post, here's five minutes of stunts from The Great Stone Face.

The book feels like a sort of expungement. As if all the worst habits of a writer are being wrung out in print before she gets on with the business of writing well. Every paragraph is bogged down with prose that takes the longest possible route to get anywhere, and describes everything in exhaustive and unnecessary detail. Abstractions abound. We hop heads constantly, but to little benefit, which makes the book seem amateurish.
There was a brotherly kindness in his voice which seemed to her magnanimous, when she reflected that she had cut short his explanations and shown little interest in his change of plan. She gave him her reasons for thinking that she might profit by such a journey, omitting the one reason which had set all the rest in motion. He listened attentively, and made no attempt to dissuade her. In truth, he found himself curiously eager to make certain of her good sense, and accepted each fresh proof of it with satisfaction, as though it helped him to make up his mind about something. She forgot the pain he had caused her, and in place of it she became conscious of a steady tide of well-being which harmonized very aptly with the tramp of their feet upon the dry road and the support of his arm. The comfort was the more glowing in that it seemed to be the reward of her determination to behave to him simply and without attempting to be other than she was.
Are you asleep yet? Page after page of this! Every little emotional dip and soar of young love, recorded at enormous length, and then contradicted by the next minuscule emotional change, and then around again...oh my God, seriously, it's aawwwful.

But there's so much to learn here. The same mind that conjured this also put together Mrs. Dalloway. What did she gain or lose in between Night and Day and her great novels of the 1920s? What is it exactly that makes this novel so terrible, and how did she not see it as she was writing it? What mistakes did she make here and then leave behind? My exasperation at these sentences is palpable, such that I could almost roll it out like dough, and I wonder if some of it belongs to her. I know how it feels to sit down and try to put something on the page and feel constrained by having to explain what's in my mind, to put it in English words, one pebble after another, to try and say it without leaving anything out (so the reader will understand) and therein saying it in the longest, dullest way possible. It is so frustrating. The hot springs story is like that, I suspect; I was trying to say something specific about friendship and about letting go of an old identity, and what I wrote is tame and run-of-the-mill and positively stuffed with words. Like overcooked turkey with no salt. It pains me, but luckily I don't have a stepbrother who owns a press, so no one has to read it. No such luck for Night and Day.

Do yourself a favor and Google Image search "awful book"

I've recently been watching 30 Rock, which I didn't watch at all on its first run. I like a lot of things about it personally, but more objectively I admire the feeling that there's no fat on it at all, writing-wise. It's like all the best scenes of an hour-long sitcom cut up and squished together into 22 minutes. I think it was Elmore Leonard who advised writers to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip, which seems like har-har-very-funny-asshole kind of advice, but actually...? Write a sitcom that way, and people will laugh at it for a long time.

I wish I could figure out how to do the same on a word-by-word basis, to leave out the words that readers tend to skip. I tried to do it in the secret project, which I honestly do plan to get back to, soon, now that school is out. (I've missed a private deadline for no good reason, and that makes me angry, and that anger ought to fuel my work on it.) I tried writing the prose like poetry, leaving out all the words that a reader like me doesn't need.
I shed the white dress. Crinkle and rustle. It cannot lie flat on the tile. Music brushes the walls, too light to echo. The hot bath, your hands dipping the surface, music, music from the chapel, one hundred sisters singing. Rehearsing for God, before God. For today.

Letty comes back as the skin of my back is warming the floor, as I sport with the white dress and the memory of your hands. "Amelia," and the voice is not yours. She does not drop the glass bottle but it is a near thing.

Letty's eyes know. "You miss her."

Yes. I clutch the dress.

"I met a boy last year at the ice cream social." The faucet gushes. Letty adds capfuls of yellow-clear acid. Spreads her fingers to keep them away. "Sometimes he's my pillow. He's what I hug. Or I kiss my arm, like my sister showed me." She demonstrates, romancing the inside of her elbow.
This is not final (I already found a revision just in this copy/paste), and I freely admit that I don't know what I'm doing, but I'm sharing this fragment of the secret project to demonstrate that I'm reaching for the freedom that Woolf so clearly does not have in Night and Day. In other work I would have felt the need to explain that Amelia (the narrator) has lain down on the floor, that when Letty comes back she gets up, that they both go to the sink to rinse the dress, and that they gesture in between talking. There would also have been specific dialogue attributions, of which there are none here.

Leaving this stuff out was deliberate - something I thought about every time I put down a word. Since I was originally writing the secret project for myself only, I wanted to see how close to the bone I could strip the prose before it became unreadable even by me. But then, when I first reread the draft, I found the secret project exciting in a way that much of my other work isn't. I could be really, really wrong, could be in love with it in the wrong ways, but it feels like a step forward comparable to the one Woolf needed to make after Night and Day. (Again, not saying I'm Woolf, not quite that egocentric, just using her as a benchmark I'll never live up to, etc.)

I really don't care enough about the characters in Night and Day to keep reading, but the badness of it is too mesmerizing for me to stop. The effort of it. The hard labor evident in every paragraph. And it's 500 pages of meticulous demonstration of what I don't want to do - what I want to stop doing forever. I hope, when I'm done reading it, that I'll have an allergy to overwriting of this type that will spill over into my own work.

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