Voice, Language, and Perfect Endings

From time to time, Why The Writing Works will repost some of our earlier blogs. This entry was posted in February, 2012.

in Their Eyes Were Watching God

by Rhonda Browning White

Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God tells the story of Janie Crawford’s personal emancipation from a voiceless black woman who didn’t count for much in the grand scheme of her horizon, the Deep South, into a woman who explored the future, discovering strength in herself in spite of other’s opinions.

Strong themes run throughout the story—feminism, racism and classism, for example—but the thing resonant to me throughout is voice, or language, and the way the two intertwine. Metaphorically, Janie has little or no voice in the story, but relies on others to do the talking for her. This is true even as she relates her life story to best friend Pheoby in flashback, prompting Pheoby to repeat her story to others: “You can tell ’em what Ah say if you wants to. Dat’s just de same as me ’cause mah tongue is in mah friend’s mouf” (6). This demonstrates Janie’s complete trust in Pheoby, but it also reveals Janie’s belief in the futility of talk, of voicing her opinion, bearing forth an argument, or trying to convince people to change their minds. “Ah don’t mean to bother wid tellin’ ‘em nothin’, Pheoby. ‘Taint worth de trouble. . . . To start off wid, people like dem wastes up too much time puttin’ they mouf on things they don’t know nothing’ about” (6). Janie left home at sixteen with much to learn, and she returns having broadened her horizon (not only demographically, but emotionally, as well), and she is no longer as prejudiced as she was when she left.

Hurston’s liberal use of the Southern black vernacular spoken by her characters juxtaposed with the narrator’s rich, literary prose provides framework for the setting and underscores the sense of place in which the characters exist. This union of these two radically different styles of language adds depth and knowledge of the culture of 1930s Florida that environmental descriptions alone can’t provide. This change in voice mimics the distinctly different discernments of the scene as viewed through the eyes of Janie, who had never been there before and saw it as another “new horizon,” and Tea Cake, who knew from experience the hardscrabble life they’d live while inhabiting the Everglades. Hurston’s variation in these two interpretations of the place gives the scene a feeling of fact, depth and realism it wouldn’t have if both descriptions had been conveyed using the same regional dialect.

The story’s final paragraph returns to the narrator’s lyrical voice and ends with a reference to the horizon mentioned in the novel’s first paragraph and referred to throughout:

“The day of the gun, and the bloody body, and the courthouse came   and commenced to sing a sobbing sigh out of every corner in the room; out of each and every chair and thing. . . . She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see” (193).

An ending like this that references the beginning is a common trend in fiction, one that feels both necessary and natural. Had Hurston ended the story with Janie giving voice to her feelings, the story wouldn’t have had such power. Janie had finally learned what it meant to love, was at peace with the loss of that love, (because she felt honored to have experienced it for a time), and refused to share that glorious, private feeling of privilege with anyone else. She finally found her voice by defending herself and sharing her life story, but she determined to keep it to herself, to draw it close, cherish and protect it. This, in my opinion, is a perfect story ending.

Hurston, Zora Neal. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Harper, 1998. Print.

The Perfectly Timed Lie: The Lie That Tells a Truth

 by Rhonda Browning White

 John Dufresne’s The Lie That Tells a Truth is broken into three separate sections; “The Process” (3-115), which addresses writing habits and the writer’s life; “The Product” (119-264), a section tackling writing craft issues such as plotting, characterization, point of view and dialogue; and “Other Matters” (267-298), which discusses the importance of critical reading and also gives dozens of grammar, style and word-use tips for writers. In addition (and this is perhaps one of the things that endears this text to me), there are at least a hundred writing exercises and prompts that apply to each specific topic Dufresne discusses. The text is also sprinkled liberally with encouraging, sometimes humorous, quotations from well-known writers.

The chapter “Getting Her Up the Tree, Getting Her Down” (120-131), addresses story beginnings and endings. Story endings are a terrible sticking point for many writers. Dufresne provides a story example in this chapter in which the surprise ending of the example would best make a story beginning, which underscores that it’s important to write freely until we reach the crux of the story, then delete all that came before. Dufresne asserts that, “Endings shouldn’t be loose, shouldn’t drift or dissolve. They have to make a statement. They can be dramatic, but more often are muted, subtle” (125). This tells us that the ending of a resounding literary piece can’t simply go with the flow of what came before it; instead, the end must be evident in the beginning of the story, without repeating what has already happened. Tricky things, these endings. Dufresne also suggests ending a story with “a compelling visual image of the central character, one that is so resonant and compelling that it stays with us when we close the book” (126). I love that idea, don’t you?

The writing exercises and prompts you’ll find throughout this text are inspiring. Utilizing these writing-problem-specific exercises will do more than simply help you fill a page with words; they will help tackle specific areas where your writing needs improvement. This book supportively and helpfully addresses so many writing problems—both craft and style issues—in one place. One inspiring, liberating place. My copy of this text is tabbed, dog-eared, underlined and annotated. It has earned an important spot on my desk, within reach. For me, it is the right guide to writing fiction at exactly the right time. I hope you’ll find it perfectly timed for your writing, as well.

Work Cited

Dufresne, John. The Lie That Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004. Print.

A Different Sense of Place: Where a Story Begins and Ends

by

Rhonda Browning White           

Ron Rash’s Burning Bright: Stories is an anthology of short stories set in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina; specifically, the Haw River area. This collection of short stories provides an amazing depiction of the heart, soul, fervor and fatalism that is Appalachia. The stories span centuries, but each of them is flavored with the bittersweet of that ancient chain of mountains and the people they’ve birthed. From “Lincolnites” set during the Confederate war, to “Back of Beyond” that might have occurred yesterday (or tomorrow), each of these stories paints a realistic, vivid, heartbreakingly honest image of the North Carolina mountains (Rash193; 19). 

In this collection, Rash brings each of his stories full-circle, ending them by addressing the same problem, topic, or setting with which they began, yet the main character (and perhaps even the reader), has emotionally changed over the course of the story. For example, the first sentence in “The Ascent” reads, “Jared had never been this far before, over Sawmill Ridge and across a creek glazed with ice, then past the triangular metal sign that said SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK” (Rash 75). In the last paragraph of the story, Jared sits in an inoperable, crashed airplane, awaiting death by hypothermia. He is leaving—life: “Jared looked out the side window and saw the whiteness was not only in front of him but below. He knew then that they had taken off and risen so high that they were enveloped inside a cloud, but still he looked down, waiting for the clouds to clear so he might look for the pickup as it followed the winding road toward Bryson City” (Rash 90). Indeed, Jared has never been that far before.  

Likewise, in the title story “Burning Bright,” Rash begins with, “After the third fire in two weeks, the talk on TV and radio was no longer about careless campers. Not three fires. Nothing short of a miracle that only a few acres had been burned, the park superintendent said, a miracle less like to occur again with each additional rainless day” (Rash 107). In the course of the story, we learn that main character Marcie is in love with a man who she suspects may be the firebug. She isn’t willing to give him up, despite his suspected arson. In the last paragraph, instead of asking him to leave, she curls up in bed alongside him, hoping and praying for a similar, yet different miracle: “She prayed for rain” (Rash 123). Rash’s technique of beginning and ending the story with the same hope (though for different reasons), offers more than just good story closure: it offers the reader a chance to take a breath and question what they’d do—perhaps what they’d pray for—in a similar situation.

Not only are the beginnings and endings of stories crucial, but a direct interrelation, a sense-of-place-journey that ends near where it began, yet with the main character (and the reader) changed, makes for breathtaking fiction.

 Work Cited

Rash, Ron. Burning Bright: Stories. New York: Harper. 2010. Print.

Spoilers Ahead: Beginning with the Ending

By Nick Hinton

When major characters die in a story, it is often at the climax of the tale. However, like any other rule in fiction, this too can be broken. Being Dead, by Jim Crace, is a novel about two people who die before the novel begins, yet it is still worth reading. From the first paragraph of the novel the reader knows Joseph and Celice are murdered in the singing salt dunes at Baritone Bay. In most novels, no matter how strongly it was hinted at, the main characters wouldn’t die until the end. Because there is a specific story that Crace aims to tell, one that involves the death of Joseph and Celice but is greater than the two of them, the novel is split into three distinct chronologies. This works well in Being Dead because it allows the reader to make a connection with the dead lovers while also following their daughter as she uncovers their fate. Death lies in the very center of this story, a fact which is never hidden from the reader.

Crace’s challenge in Being Dead is to make the reader interested in and invested in characters that we know will not make it to the end of the story. Not only that, but the regular method of storytelling, following a character through an escalating series of conflicts (be they physical or emotional) until a final climax, gets thrown out the window for Joseph and Celice after they perish. This normal method is used with Syl, the daughter of the deceased, when the narrator follows her around until she finds her parents. But most of the meat of the story is how Joseph and Celice ended up there on that specific day. Crace makes this story tantalizing, something worth reading, by weaving the tale of Joseph and Celice meeting with that of their demise. If Being Dead was only about the death of the two zoologists it would be a snippet on one of the back pages in the local newspaper. Without humanizing the two doctors, showing us their struggles and triumphs, it is impossible to be invested in their characters and therefore touched by their deaths. In order to make the story of two murdered doctors compelling, without making it a murder-mystery, Crace follows them backwards in time starting from their death, forwards from the start of their relationship, and follows their bodies forward in time until they are finally separated. These divisions break the narrative up into three different timelines. To have any fewer would deprive the novel of its humanity, or its scope that stretches beyond a single family. The timeline which follows them backwards from their death to waking up that morning provides a tragic note by showing the reader that any number of different choices would have prevented Joseph and Celice from meeting their demise on the dunes that day. But, as all pieces of good fiction must, it serves another purpose. The backwards-moving segment also connects the couple’s initial meeting to their death through the dunes. Joseph’s determined effort to get them back to where they first made love makes their deaths tragic yet inevitable. And without the addition of the timeline following the lovers posthumously the novel would not have the encompassing commentary on death; how it is an integral part of life, how it unites us with nature (fitting considering the dead were zoologists), and how, despite our best efforts, nothing remains of us after death. “If there was any blood left in the soil from Joseph and Celice’s short stay in the dunes then it could only help to fortify the living murmur of the grass,” (195).

Being Dead is one case where the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts. If any one of the three chronologies had been omitted the story would have been weaker for it, because it is how the timelines intersect that imbues the story with a true, human feeling.

Crace, Jim. Being Dead. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.