Seeing Other Choices

Revising does not always mean correcting errors. Moving from rough draft through revisions to final copy can also mean changing something good into something even better, or developing a description or line of reasoning from an entirely different angle. There is no arguing with the fact that we all need models to follow in learning to do something well. Writers read, not only for pleasure but for practice as well, and one very helpful technique in closely reading the good work of others is to ask what else the writer could have written: what other choices were possible and what would have been the literary effect of them?

Here is a passage from Mark Twain’s very short short story A Literary Nightmare (I quote it from James Daley’s 100 Great Short Stories, Dover, 2015). It is a humorous little piece (with, arguably, a more serious symbolism as well), and the character Twain is describing in these two sentences has fallen victim to the “remorseless jingle” of some lines of doggerel he can’t seem to get out of his head:

“Then, on Tuesday evening, he staggered into my presence and sank dejectedly into a seat. He was pale, worn; he was a wreck. He lifted his faded eyes to my face and said,–“

The energy of most sentences arises first from the verbs, and so it is good practice in both revising our own work and in reading closely the work of others to consider what choices the writer has made to build a predicate. In the first sentence here, the two verbs staggered and sank together form a compound predicate for the subject he. Every subject must have a verb; a verb creates a predicate (that part of a statement where something is actually being said about the subject), and together subject and predicate compose a clause. When a subject is given only one verb, the predicate is said to be simple; when the subject has two or more verbs associated with it, the predicate is called compound.

Our strictly logical attention does not like compound predicates. The great power of logic and its resulting rationality lies in its intense focus: to the pure white light mind of logic, we can really say only one thing about one subject at one time: he staggered and he sank. There we would have not one clause with a compound predicate (as Twain wrote the sentence), but two clauses, each with a simple predicate. The clarity in such an arrangement is blinding, and if logic held ultimate authority in all things (a predominance too often granted it), our writing would reach no heights greater than robotic transcription.

To bring more closely together what logic wants always to keep separated and isolate is to bring the whirl of common life to a sentence. Twain’s compound predicate means to suggest that the subject’s staggering and sinking were of a piece, an event perceived and to be communicated whole and entire, only separated otherwise by the demands, the inherent limitations, of the art of writing. In composing a compound predicate, Twain is able to keep that ineluctable separation to a minimum. Our logical mind wants it all clear cut, but the energy of the statement, its power to reproduce a living moment of exhaustion and collapse we have all experienced, is preserved by the simple technique of combining the verbs of two logical predicates into one compound statement.

And Twain does something interesting in the next sentence: He was pale, worn; he was a wreck. Here we have two clauses of roughly equal size and significance separated by a semicolon, a structure that is classified as a balanced sentence. The first clause has continued the design of the sentence before it, only this time predicate adjectives (pale and worn) compound the predicate. The effect is to conflate those two conditions of the subject; to have included the conjunction and would have been to defer to the demands of our inner logician, isolating and segregating what in truth the author saw as one. But the second half of this balanced sentence then concedes some ground and begins a separate statement afresh (he was a wreck); and for that isolated singularity of one subject and one predicate, some heightened power of observation and consequence is brought to end the description.

We must be careful, of course, to respect the limits of such analysis. We can chop the logic too fine, and in doing so take the living life out of a sentence or passage. But reading closely can, in right measure and at the right time, both teach us technique and deepen our appreciation. And what we appreciate—what we value—is usually something we take very good care of.


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