Saturday, July 21, 2012

In Praise of Muscular Sentences

Today is the birthday of Ernest Hemingway.  If you made a list of writers who substantially changed the way we write, Hemingway would likely make your short list.  If you don't believe me, pick up a book, almost any book, from the 19th century.  Marvel at the length of the sentences.  Get bogged down by all the background information.  Allow yourself to be amused by all the side trips that writers made. 

While you're at it, do some arm curls.  Get an upper body workout with the sheer heft of the novel.

Then turn to Hemingway:  those short sentences that aren't bogged down with excess clauses and phrases.  The information given to the reader in sparing bits. 

I used to write muscular prose.  I had a dissertation reader who told me that my sentences were too clear and concise.  I was urged to muddy up my prose.

What does that even mean?  I was teaching Composition students to write in compact sentences.  I tried to train them to say exactly what they meant and to make sure that each sentence says something new. 

I thought of that yesterday when I was told by several department members that an e-mail that I sent out was too complicated.  I was trying to let them know when I'd be out of the office and when my office hours might change.  Perhaps I should have sent out 2 separate e-mails.  Perhaps some of my department members said, "Why does she think we'll care about that?"

These days I probably do approach e-mails in the same way that I approach blog postings.  I probably could pare down my e-mail style.

Hemingway also did a lot to change the way that we see writers.  No longer did writers lock themselves away in their studies.  Now writers who fashioned themselves after Hemingway wanted to have adventures.  Have rifle, will hunt!

That hyper-masculine image shut out a lot of people.  How many people decided not to write because they couldn't compete on that level?  How many women were mistreated by men following Hemingway's model?

If you judge writers by their private lives, you'll find a lot to dislike in Hemingway's biography.  People have said plenty about that.  In my younger years, I'd have dismissed Hemingway solely on the grounds of his treatment of his wives.

Now I wonder how his life might have been improved if he'd had access to the psychotropic drugs that have been developed in later decades.  Now I try to be more tolerant.

I haven't read Hemingway in many decades.  Honestly, I likely won't return to Hemingway.  There are so many writers I'd like to read again.  There are so many writers that I have yet to read.   

If you're ever in Key West, the Hemingway House is worth the entrance price.  For years, I resisted.  But when we were there with my parents, my dad really wanted to go.  It's one of many times that I'm grateful for travelling with others.  It's an experience that gets me out of my own little orbit.  I'd have likely never gone to the Hemingway House on my own.  But it was fascinating, that glimpse of how people used to live, that tropical beauty of a Key West house.

In honor of Hemingway, maybe it's time to look at our own prose.  How many words could we extract from each sentence?  How many sentences could we pare away altogether? 

1 comment:

Kathleen said...

RE: Email. I think many people read the first sentence only. (I suspect Twitter, etc.) If you add necessary info in a second sentence, they don't get it. Also, if you ask a question in the second slot, you never get an answer!!

Here is a great essay on muscular poetry, too: