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A Few Words About A Few Words
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
I once got tapped by a local arts organization to help out with a city-wide scholastic writing contest, and being a generous, civic-minded sort I of course agreed, though if I had known at the time what the job would actually entail I probably would have cussed my contact out and slammed down the phone. The gig certainly sounded innocuous enough, at least at the beginning--the organization was sponsoring a competition for young writers, mostly high school students and some middle school, and I was enlisted to help pick out the best parts of the winning stories and poems.
I wasn't even being asked to judge anything, I didn't have to go through the mountain of manuscripts and separate the wheat from the chaff; I just had to highlight the best-written sections of what the judges had already selected. What I chose from the winning entries, then, would be typed onto a placard and placed on the wall at the local gallery where the awards ceremony was going to be held. Attendees of the ceremony could them get a brief sampling of the best writing as they milled about and congratulated the winners of the competition.
It should have been an easy gig, or at least one that I could have attempted with a bit of equanimity, but after going through the first four entries, I started swearing under my breath, and after the tenth entry I did that thing that all miserable workers do--I went to the end and tried to figure out how many entries I would have to get through before I got there. When I saw that the number was well over a hundred, I made a little whimpering noise. It's like that feeling you got when you had to read "Paradise Lost" in college, or Faulkner —exhausted after three thorny, twisty paragraphs, and then you check and discover the damned thing is 8000 pages long.
I'm usually quite empathetic and tolerant of the first scribblings of fledgling writers; I understand how hard it is to find a voice at that age and just to get words on paper is sometimes a great achievement, especially in an era that's rather disinterested in the written word. Unfortunately, though, at the time of the competition, the "Twilight" books were at the peak of their popularity, and it seemed that every bit of fiction that I had to read was influenced in some way by Stephenie Meyer's hideous prose. Most of the stories took place in high school, surprisingly enough, and featured a misunderstood heroine who was picked on by all the popular kids but had a heart that thudded with the fury of a thousand warrior princesses. None of her classmates or teachers bothered to look beyond the facade of her shyness and her geekiness to see the cauldron of churning passions that lurked just beneath the surface of her alabaster skin. Until, of course, the new boy moved into the school district, the loner, the boy with the gentle eyes, the soft voice. . . when he first sees her in Latin class, the air cracks with electricity as they lock eyes, neither breathing, for they both know they've just met their kindred spirit, their destiny. . .
I mean, seriously, you read a couple of stories like that and you just want to gouge your eyes out. And I've got nothing against using imitation as a writer's device, but for God's sake, you should be imitating Fitzgerald and Hemingway and McCarthy and Roth and not some dope like Stephenie Meyer. It occurred to me as I pored through these winning selections that I ought to consider myself lucky that I wasn't given the judges' job: if these were the best, I could only imagine how excruciatingly bad the other entries had to be.
But my job was hard enough: I had to select the strongest, most illuminating parts of these stories, and this presented me not only with a great challenge, but with something of a moral dilemma as well. For I knew that at the awards ceremony, the authors would want to see their most passionate descriptions and histrionic dialogue highlighted up on the wall, and I just couldn't imagine allowing that; I didn't want to validate what I knew was hideous writing. My initial impulse was to comb through all that overwrought prose in each of the stories and find some simple, unfussy declarative sentence that didn't clog up the story and simply highlight that. I knew it would be disappointing and possibly embarrassing to the winning writers if I were to do this: there, on the wall, after their name and title of the story, would be some innocuous sentence like, "He tried the car door, but it was locked; he took off running, desperate to find another way." No exciting descriptions, no purplish prose, no passionate metaphors. Just a quick hit of a sentence that advanced the plot, nothing more.
In the end I decided that my initial impulse was correct; from each of the stories I selected the cleanest, most direct declarative sentence as the best example of the quality of the story's writing. I'm sure my selections confounded a lot of the attendees at the gala, but I didn't really care, for at that point the whole process had thoroughly exhausted me, and besides, I was the one who knew how cringe-worthy most of the prose was. And with my selections I knew I could sleep peacefully, knowing that I hadn't violated some personal code of writerly ethics.
There was one benefit I derived from the whole scholastic writing contest nightmare, however — I discovered that I was developing a new appreciation for the simple declarative sentence. In my own writing I found that I was trimming down a lot of my florid excesses and intricate sentences and just going for the throat, the way the great hard-boiled writers used to do. I also noticed how many iconic, great "first lines" in books were declarative sentences — "Call me Ishmael," of course, but also "It was a pleasure to burn" and "I am an invisible man" and "Mother died today." In the American Book Review's list of "100 Best First Lines from Novels," over half are simple declarative sentences, and some of them are so sharp and exquisite that they catch your breath — "All this happened, more or less," from Kurt Vonnegut, and "This is the saddest story I have ever heard," from Ford Madox Ford. Perfect, simple, honest.
My personal favorite opening line comes from that notorious party guy Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the guy who began his "Notes from the Underground" with "I am a sick man. . . I am a spiteful man." Now, that's a pretty awesome opener, but it's not my favorite. My absolute favorite comes from Dostoyevsky's short novel, "The Dream of A Ridiculous Man," which begins, "I am a ridiculous person." Bam! Winner! Now, that's how you open a story. (Almost as good is the second line of the book: "Now they call me a madman.") Though his opening sentence lacks any churning passion or desperate longing (or pale-faced vampires, for that matter,) it does manage to get the point across.