On Writing with a “Personal Style”

If you’ve ever read a McCarthy novel, you already know what I’m getting at. People love him or hate him (I come from the first school), and the latter often feels the way they do because he seems to hold something against the conventional use of punctuation. And, if you’re reading out loud, breathing.

If you haven’t read McCarthy, here’s an excerpt from All the Pretty Horses to illustrate my point:

As he turned to go he heard the train. He stopped and waited for it. He could feel it under his feet. It came boring out of the east like some ribald satellite of the coming sun howling and bellowing in the distance and the long light of the headlamp running through the tangled mesquite brakes and creating out of the night the endless fenceline down the dead straight right of way and sucking it back again wire and post mile on mile into the darkness after where the boilersmoke disbanded slowly along the faint new horizon and the sound came lagging and he stood still holding his hat in his hands in the passing groundshudder watching it till it was gone. Then he turned and went back to the house.

That’s one hell of a run on sentence, but those of us who are fans enjoy the drama it lends. Another McCarthy habit I love both in his and others’ work is the marriage of two words which make a before-now-nonexistent one. See: groundshudder.

Despite my love of Cormac McCarthy’s writing, I can also understand how someone would flinch away from his novels –which, by the way, also neglect to utilize quotation marks. Grammar is important to me. If I sense a writer doesn’t have a firm grasp of the language they’re writing in, it’s more difficult to take their work seriously. To understand it. To enjoy it.

But I think McCarthy does have a firm grasp of the English language. In fact, I think he’s grasping it so firmly he’s making it his bitch. He’s making his own rules, manipulating the language to his magnificent personal effect. To do what he does, to evoke images the way he can, to forget convention and be better for it –that is a form of mastery.

I said before grammar is important to me, but it’s certainly not the most important thing. In a story, all else is subsidiary to style. Even the beloved characters, which I often say are the most worthy piece of any novel, are voiceless if the author has no voice.

I don’t know how many times I’ve had my work critiqued and edited it so aggressively I killed what made it my work. I erased my voice from it. When I was done, I couldn’t have told you whether I or any other person wrote it.

Sure, the grammar was perfect. Sure, it didn’t break any of those ‘rules of writing’ you can find in infographics and author blogs all over the Internet. Maybe there was nothing to ‘dislike’ about it.

But it was also less fun to read.

I’d rather have some who love my voice and some who hate it than inspire a collective bored sigh from my audience.

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