What can you say about a piece that starts out like this:
You stand there, braced. Cloud shadows race over the buff rock stacks as a projected film, casting a queasy, mottled ground rash. The air hisses and it is no local breeze but the great harsh sweep of wind from the turning of the earth. The wild country–indigo jags of mountain, grassy plain everlasting, tumbled stones like fallen cities, the flaring roll of sky–provokes a spiritual shudder. It is like a deep note that cannot be heard but is felt, it is like a claw in the gut.
What can you say? Like Stephen Crane in “The Blue Hotel,” Proulx includes us from the first word, “You.” We are all guilty. And look at the rhythm and sound of her writing. Listen to “braced” and then “race,” and feel the alliteration of the “b’s” and “r’s.” Notice that she writes not “causes” or “makes” but “provokes” a spiritual shudder. Notice the wonderful use of a comma splice in the final sentence of the paragraph. Why? She didn’t want to slow down the connection between the two complete thoughts, as a semi-colon or a period would have done. Remember, punctuation determines the speed at which your writing runs and is read.
If you dare, read “People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water.” If you dare. I thought of Stephen Crane the whole way through. If I had a Steve Allen show, I would put Stephen Crane and Annie Proulx on it together. What fireworks! What fun! They could discuss lines like this one from Proulx’s story, “Other cultures have camped here a while and disappeared. Only earth and sky matter.” And the last haunting line–”If you believe that you’ll believe anything.” Notice, too, that she doesn’t put a comma after the introductory clause, “If you believe that.” She doesn’t want to slow down the impact of this last zinger of a line.
You must read this story. It is a hard story to read. Dr. Bill Rice said he didn’t know if he’d ever be able to read it twice. Nor do I.
Dare! Read! Be bold! Advanced Comp students–Never let yourselves choose the low road of despairing over writing. No! Be brave! Be bold! Write! Rewrite! And rewrite some more!
Dr. Carmen Butcher