I want to talk about circumlocution. Why not? No one else seems to be letting the cat out of the bag. It’s like it’s some big secret. Well–here goes: I made an earlier post in praise of Ernest Hemingway and I just finally finished my third book by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald: A New Collection. It took me quite a while–around three months maybe. When I find a book that really clicks with me I read it very, very slow.
After this slow process of reading most of the short stories of Fitzgerald I learned why many consider him to be one of the greats of the twentieth century: he had rhythm. And this rhythm came from not only his mastery of economy like Hemingway but his mastery of putting in just the right extra words. He was a master of circumlocution.
And it seems that maybe the forgotten tricks of Fitzgerald are of the utmost importance to us today in our rush and haste.
Before finishing this collection I must admit I was somewhat brainwashed by what I’d learned from reading Hemingway. When one reads Hemingway it seems as if he’s constantly taking words out for effect and to make us do more of the work ourselves. After this book, it’s become apparent to me that both these writers were adept at strategically putting extra words back in at just the right time to enhance a sense of rhythm or suspense. Both these writers were brave enough at times to take up space on the page and make a reader work for their reward. This process of stretching things out to make a reader push just a little further or wait just a moment longer is effective whether we’re talking about a sentence or a paragraph or an ending.
It seems it takes more than just stretching things out, however, to make the technique work. Both these writers seemed to understand the temporality of their prose. By this I mean that any piece of prose under consideration, be it a sentence or a paragraph or a scene must have a beginning, a middle and an end. The beginning grabs attention, the middle builds upon an effect and the ending in particular has the unique capability of being able to leverage the strength of all that has come before it. In realizing this, I pay special attention to how these writers begin and end their sentences, their paragraphs and their entire works.
Another aspect involved in the magic of both these writer’s circumlocution and economy is how they employ repetitions. Hemingway is famous for repeating entire words while Fitzgerald is known for the lyrical repetitions of his syllables. Whether a writer repeats a whole word or a series of syllables, the effect, if done right, can be, I believe, to ease the strain of interpreting the writing. In the same way that saying lines with a certain flow of repetitions allows for ease in recitation it can also allow for ease in reading (at least that’s my theory).
Regardless, these techniques are easier said than done and my research of various writers in general has shone that most put away a writing and come back to it again and again to help ensure that what they have done may in fact be something special and is not just simply ambitious overwriting. And that’s the risk of trying for greatness; isn’t it? The more a writer attempts to push the envelope, the more they can leave themselves open to criticism. On the other hand, isn’t it more fun to take a few risks and not write exactly like everyone else?