Sphere of fictional influence

Following my break from all things academic this past summer, I am discovering that the various authors’ I have read recently have had subtle influences over my writing style in my latest stories.

Raymond Carver’s short and to the point sentences making the mundane interesting in Cathedral. In “The Lottery” Shirley Jackson portrays a dark and twisted community tradition in matter-of-fact light-heartedness. Even though this is a nonfiction example about fiction, Stephen King’s flowing narrative of On Writing is filled with brutally honest prose of carefully selected words laced with wit and self-deprecating humor. Cormac McCarthy’s jarring sentence structures in The Road shifted point-of-views blended with internal dialogue and swift variances in psychic distance to portray a bleak world. All incredible styles, each quite different, sharing the common thread of a little says a lot.

I developed my own unique fiction voice in the early 1990s as a college student, with the influences of Salinger and Hemingway resonating in my brain since high school. Some time after my professional career became focused on commercial creative work, I spent a long time away from fiction – I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t know how long that was – only picking it up again in 2010 with the dark humor horror novel John Dies at the End by David Wong. I loved that book! I was excited again about writing creatively after years of corporate writing.

Interestingly, that abstinence from published fiction allowed (or forced) me to shape my writing style in a vacuum. Now that I have returned to short story writing on a weekly basis, I find that I draw inspiration from each author’s style and repurpose it in my own voice. My sentences vary in length and rhythm considerably more than they used to, combining fragments and run-ons as they illustrate the tone and atmosphere of a scene. My former tendency was artful and fluid all of the time, now those attributes are only reserved for times most appropriate.

In my own roundabout way, I have proven to myself the value of regularly reading other published works as a writer as each contributes another layer to my foundation. In past blog entries I’ve written about breaking the rules to develop style and finding my voice. My work has matured considerably over the past twelve months and continues to mold itself when I’m not looking. It’s a transformation I had not expected; one I fully embrace.

Writing Craft: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road contained an unusual, if not disruptive writing style that immediately struck me on the first page. Sentences varied in odd structures, some abrupt, some run-on, some fragmented. Many contractions were missing apostrophes; quotation marks were completely absent from all dialogue. Some dialogue was intertwined within paragraphs of description, action, and narrative as exemplified in the following:

He screwed down the plastic cap and wiped the bottle off with a rag and hefted it in his hand. Oil for their little slutlamp to light the long gray dusks, the long gray dawns. You can read me a story, the boy said. Cant you, Papa? Yes, he said. I can. (7)

The disruptive writing style, seemingly incoherent at times, stylistically blended with the post-apocalyptical world of The Road. The atmosphere throughout the story was gray and cold, filled with the lifeless charred remains of a once flourishing landscape weighted heavily with despair and innate survival. The text portrayed this with eerie appropriateness. Sentences were cold, words were charred, and prose and dialogue loomed with despair, graced by the smallest nuances of hope. Proper constructs would have been detrimental to the authenticity of the story, its chaotic reality in the reader’s mind.

Dreams and memories blurred with the protagonist’s reality, as did the narration and the protagonist’s inner dialogue. Point-of-view shifted with no warning from third to first person to tell the story as accurately as it could be told. In the following example, a series of third person run-on sentences morphs into the protagonist’s perspective:

They stumbled and fell through the woods the night long and long before dawn the boy fell and would not get up again. He wrapped him in his own parka and wrapped him in the blanket and sat holding him, rocking back and forth. A single round left in the revolver. You will not face the truth. You will not. (68)

The ambiguity of who speaks the sentence “A single round left in the revolver” – narrator or protagonist – is found throughout the book lending to the precariousness and fragmentation of the story’s environment. The two subsequent sentences “You will not face the truth. You will not,” call to question whether this is actually the protagonist speaking to his son, his inner dialogue, or the narrator speaking to the protagonist, further compounding this world of uncertainty dynamic.

The stylistic handling or mishandling of the text contributed to the fullness of the story. Disjointed oversimplified dialogue with minimal clarity of who was speaking helped to illustrate the dismal, desperate environment. While heavy repetition of thematic words solidified the setting: gray, cold, wet, ash, burned, charred, dead. Run-ons punctuated by short fragments and single word sentences accentuated the scenes’ actions and moods.

My take away from The Road is one of creative freedom, of knowing the rules well and breaking them to fit the writer’s intent. The text successfully created a vivid portrayal of the post-apocalyptic world, one that was as rich and thriving in detail as it was gruesome and deadly in story. An exemplary literary work in which every word is used as the hues and thick brush strokes of a Van Gogh landscape.

Starting anew

New semester. New MFA writing. I have been away from this blog during the summer, not for any reason in particular, except for moving to a new home and undergoing some minor medical stuff. The fall semester has begun; a good excuse if any to dedicate time to this thing.

I read over the weekend as I recovered from surgery Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which I will focus on in more detail in a following blog entry. I’m still processing it twenty-four hours later. Deep, dark, heavy, bleak, cold. The commentary on the value of religious belief, human nature, compassion, survival instincts, father-son relationships, trust, and the downfall of human civilization. To dissect McCarthy’s writing style at this moment is a massive undertaking I’m not prepared to take on for this blog, at least not today, but his rule-breaking and the resulting creative freedom is something I can cherish and learn from.

Unusual sentence structures. The lack of quotation marks for dialogue and apostrophes missing from certain conjunctions, like “havent” and “didnt.” The subtle convergence of inner dialogue, dreams, and third person narrative, which occasionally slipped into first person. All to tell the story exactly as McCarthy intended. The first few pages required some adjustment to the odd style, but I fell quickly into his post-apocalyptic world, his style providing foundation and lending to atmosphere rather than creating disruption. His disruptive style became my normal as the reader.

My take away is simple. Style, whether or not rules are intentionally broken, is as much a key part of the story as the characters and plot. Another tool in the writer’s toolbox, to borrow from Stephen King, that creates the indisputable uniqueness of a writer.

The Road has set the stage for an intriguing semester of new writing, new methods, new experiments with style. The perfect kickoff.