Why it’s hard for a memoirist to write non-choppy prose and sound like a normal human being

I mentioned the other day that in trying to revise the dyslexia passage I became convinced I couldn’t do it just by rejiggering the sentences.

That was a shock. I thought all choppiness, in all cases, could be fixed via sentence combining and de-combining. Now I’m not so sure.

One problem that kept cropping up: when I rejiggered the sentences, I made the author sound (slightly) artificial, or pretentious, or both.

Here’s the passage again:

Aidan had started the project in a moment of despair right after getting back his spring grades in ninth grade. They were disappointing. They didn’t reflect how hard he had worked. We were standing in his room at the time. I had pointed to a poster he had tacked up over his desk of successful adults who have dyslexia. “I wonder how they made it?” I had said.

Jay Leno’s Advice for My Dyslexic Son

The choppiness, which most editors would consider a flaw, also gives the paragraph its authenticity. You feel you’re reading the real words of a real person recounting a real experience. She’s telling you what happened, not gussying her life up for the sake of ego or drama.

In contrast, here’s a short piece of personal writing that isn’t the least bit choppy but would probably be more compelling if it were:

I have never walked out of a speech.

Or I hadn’t, until last night’s opening keynote for the Brisbane writers festival, delivered by the American author Lionel Shriver, best known for her novel, We need to talk about Kevin.

We were 20 minutes into the speech when I turned to my mother, sitting next to me in the front row.

“Mama, I can’t sit here,” I said, the corners of my mouth dragging downwards. “I cannot legitimise this …”

My mother’s eyes bore into me, urging me to remain calm, to follow social convention. I shook my head, as if to shake off my lingering doubts.

As I stood up, my heart began to race. I could feel the eyes of the hundreds of audience members on my back: questioning, querying, judging.

I turned to face the crowd, lifted up my chin and walked down the main aisle, my pace deliberate. “Look back into the audience,” a friend had texted me moments earlier, “and let them see your face.”

The faces around me blurred. As my heels thudded against they grey plastic of the flooring, harmonising with the beat of the adrenaline pumping through my veins, my mind was blank save for one question.

“How is this happening?”

As Lionel Shriver made light of identity, I had no choice but to walk out on her by Yassmin Abdel-Magied 1

Not choppy.

But not as effective as it could be, either.

…the corners of my mouth dragging downwards…

…my pace deliberate…

… the adrenaline pumping through my veins…

These structures are called absolutes. They’re extremely useful, and common, in fiction writing, but when you apply one to yourself, as the author does here, you sound self-important.

That was one of the problems I was having, revising the dyslexia passage: if I used an absolute to make the prose smoother, the author became less appealing.

Without absolutes With absolutes
“Mama, I can’t sit here,” I said.
The corners of my mouth dragged downwards.
“Mama, I can’t sit here,” I said, the corners of my mouth dragging downwards.
I turned to face the crowd. I lifted up my chin. I walked down the main aisle. My pace was deliberate. I turned to face the crowd, lifted up my chin and walked down the main aisle, my pace deliberate.
My heels thudded against the flooring. The flooring was grey plastic. The thudding harmonized with the beat of my adrenaline. My adrenaline was pumping through my veins. My mind was blank save for one question. As my heels thudded against the grey plastic of the flooring, harmonising with the beat of the adrenaline pumping through my veins, my mind was blank save for one question.

I’m not sure about that last one … must ask Katharine to explain the grammar.

1. I came across Abdel-Magied’s essay in Lionel Shriver’s op ed in the Times: Will the Left Survive the Millennials?

AND SEE:
How to turn a list of sentences into a paragraph – 9/20/2016
Get me rewrite – 9/24/2016
Why it’s hard for a memoirist to write non-choppy prose and sound like a normal human being – 9/27/2016

6 thoughts on “Why it’s hard for a memoirist to write non-choppy prose and sound like a normal human being

  1. Interesting! Yes, I think you’re exactly right that the pretentiousness comes from writing about yourself–in the first person. In fact, I think it applies to first person fiction as well, because here the characters are ostensibly writing about themselves.

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    1. To clarify, I’m replying to Catherine on the use of the absolute construction. In other words, the pretentiousness I’m referring to is the pretentiousness of using the absolute construction! I’m not saying that first person writing is pretentious in general: I’m saying that using the absolute construction to refer to yourself (in first person writing) is part of what’s pretentious in the excerpt above.

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  2. Now I’m looking more closely at the last one, “the adrenaline pumping through my veins.” This phrase is actually a reduced relative clause, with the relative clause marker “that”, plus the verb “to be” (“were”/”was”) elided:

    “As my heels thudded against the grey plastic of the flooring, harmonising with the beat of the adrenaline _that was_ pumping through my veins.”

    The other bold faces are absolutes rather than relatives: only the verb “to be” (“were”/”was”) is elided, and not the relative clause marker “that”. If you insert a “that” as well as a “was”/”were,” the result is ungrammatical:

    *“Mama, I can’t sit here,” I said, the corners of my mouth _that were_ dragging downwards.

    *I turned to face the crowd, lifted up my chin and walked down the main aisle, my pace _that was_ deliberate.

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  3. It occurs to me that some of the pretentiousness comes from a kind of narcissistic/self-conscious evocation of a third person perspective. If you’re talking about your heels thudding from your perspective, it’s more natural to say “I thudded my heels” rather than “my heels thudded.” Ditto with “the corners of my mouth dragging downwards”: more natural to say “I frowned” or “I felt the corners of my mouth dragging downwards.” Or, instead of “my pace was deliberate,” to say “I paced deliberately.”

    In saying that “my heels thudded” or “the corners of my mouth dragged downward,” you’re betraying a preoccupation with how you come across to others–and the assumption that all eyes are on you.

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