Maybe this time the sound will take off. The sentence will flap its wings, earth will drop from beneath its claws. This is why bright kids put the commas in and take them out.
The point isn’t to avoid bad sounds, or even to produce sounds that are compact and fleet and therefore pleasing. It’s to produce sounds that insinuate, touch, tickle, and haunt. They bleed into what’s said. Your meaning shows up in the reader’s nerve endings and then the reader’s brain. The meaning wells into the brain.
The fatal discovery that leads to this thinking: every item in the sentence is a unit of sound as well as meaning, and that the two qualities slide against each other. They produce effects, and the wordsmith orchestrates these effects into a show, known as a sentence. These shows pile up into a larger show. That show is writing—“my writing,” as the wordsmith will call it. Patches and slabs of this writing fill up notebooks, which get carried about or left by mattresses.
Almost nobody attains the goal. They don’t sound wonderful, or don’t get to feel like they do. All right, there’s Michael Chabon. He’s published, he has awards. But most people. Those bright kids don’t feel happy about their writing. That’s my impression from a lifetime spent among them. There’s Chabon and a bunch of wipe-outs. The wipe-outs try to feel better by making people laugh with an office email.
I’ll be poetic and put things this way. Writing is a dread goal, something put off and guilty that still holds a sky’s worth of glory. Between the glory and you lies the very close and dire tangle of resolutions and second-guessing and self-psychologizing that makes up the amateur’s daily (or semi-monthly or annual) encounter with the writing experience.
When people write, they want the writing to tell them they’re special. We live in an age of stars, and bright kids think maybe they’ll star on the page. It could happen. Nobody knows who has talent. Perhaps this sentence will show that you do. Of course, if it doesn’t, then it’ll show that you don’t. Therefore, you’re laughable for exhibiting yourself.
From this mind-set grows a lifetime’s writing habits. Firm habits, well-rooted: procrastination, completion anxiety, inability to settle on ideas. That’s been my experience. Of course, that’s been my experience with many things. What surprises me is the overlap that writing provides between me and others. The way I feel about so many things, writing notable among them, is the way many bright kids and ex-kids feel about writing in particular. In that corner of their lives, a corner that’s important but discrete, they live beneath the dread that governs most corners of my existence.
Why? To be French, I’d say the answer is bound up in the knots of our modern existence. There’s some silly attitude, some distorted posture of mind, that we must maintain for society, as it currently understands itself, to stay on its feet. That we all have a chance to be more special than everybody else, I suppose. Apparently, kids sitting in decent schools learn this attitude as they learn to write. The result has been low-level misery and Michael Chabon.
—Follow C.T. May on Twitter: @CTMay3