Stories are like meals. Some I tear through the way I attack a greasy mountain of chili cheese fries. I slurp them down, satisfying guilty cravings that sometimes leave me regretting the experience. Others are like expensive sushi, and I let each morsel linger on my tongue, willing it to melt slowly into memory.
I think I’ve always written like a short-order cook. Only recently has it occurred to me that maybe I can learn to craft gourmet prose. I have little formal training, but I can discover verbal delicacies that delight me and try to deconstruct and duplicate them. Here are three, and I hope you will share your own favorites in the comments:
From the opening paragraph of Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan:
Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and, most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven.
When I read this, I find that the structure and rhythm and imagery of this passage reinforce the description of rambling vines and the chaotic, crumbling urban sprawl. The words Peake uses to capture the Tower of Flints hints at the nature and character of the people and events that will rise out of the slowly decaying ruins of the Groan dynasty.
This next excerpt is from Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. This Hugo, Nebula, Locus and Sidewise-award winning novel is set in a world where a temporary Jewish homeland is founded in the Alaskan panhandle. I love the following passage because Chabon manages to convey Landsman’s sister’s unique character while also reinforcing the Jewish yearning for Palestine in combination with features of the Alaskan setting. He makes his words multitask for him:
It was from an early boyfriend that she had caught the itch to fly. Landsman never asked her what the attraction was, why she had worked so long and hard to get her commercial license in the homoidiotic world of male bush pilots. She was not one for pointless speculation, his dashing sister. But as Landsman understands it, the wings of an airplane are engaged in a constant battle with the air that envelopes them, denting and baffling and warping it, bending and staving it off. Fighting it the way a salmon fights the current of a river in which it’s going to die. Like a salmon–that aquatic Zionist, forever dreaming of its fatal home–Naomi used up her strength and energy in the struggle.
The final sample is from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita:
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
This prose is perfection. I can’t help but read this out loud; my mouth wants to feel this string of syllables, and my ears envy my eyes if I don’t sound them out. I would like to learn to write with this rhythm. It’s hard to believe that this man, one of the greatest masters of the English language, wrote his first nine novels in Russian. The narrator is as much in love with his words as he is with the underage Dolores.
It’s your turn now! What passages do you as a writer find the most delectable, and what have you learned (or hope to learn) from them? (Note: please limit any excerpts to no more than a few sentences.Deli)