Tales of the Roaring ’20s, or adventures in grammar and syntax

By Fenton Johnson, Creative Nonfiction Faculty

Herewith, I record in print what many have heard me say in workshop: I will have inscribed on my tombstone, “He was the enemy of the ambiguous ‘it’.” In fact I have leaned on this topic so heavily that the most excellent Brittni Caudill has chosen “it” (ahem) as the topic of her graduation lecture. In deference to her lecture—and with the fervent hope that you will pull “it” up to watch and heed—I’ll defer my comments on the topic.

Be aware, however, that in general, pronouns are not your friends. If one subscribes, as I do, to the creation and maintenance of a smooth path for the reader, pronouns are a speed bump. Even when situated close to their appropriate antecedents (“Mary had a little lamb / whose fleece was . . .”) they require the brain to pause and think, “What’s the antecedent?”. Of course, they also provide pleasing variety and allow the writer to avoid awkward repetitions (“Mary had a little lamb / and Mary’s lamb’s fleece was . . .”). All the same: Be wary. In general, make certain that pronouns and their antecedents are in close proximity.


Only today I discovered that, in addition to a subtext-laden first initial “J.”, I share with the great deconstructionist J. Hillis Miller, R.I.P., a decision to change my college major from physics to English. This is of great consequence, because I spend my writing days searching for verbs that will express the flow of energy that constitutes the universe and thus good writing.

I ask my undergraduate students, “Why is movement so important in your prose?” I listen to their theories until silence reigns, at which point I say, “Because at the end of reading your essay, I’ll be a half-hour closer to my death.” This brings about an uneasy shifting in seats accompanied by nervous titters, but the statement is inarguably true.

Suzuki Roshi

Asked to explain Zen Buddhism in ten words, Suzuki Roshi, being a good Zen Buddhist (as well as a good writer; some might argue these are inextricable), took two words: “Everything changes.” The dynamic flow of the universe is ever and ongoing. The writer faces the challenge of incarnating in the most abstract of mediums—squiggly black lines on the page—this impossible triple backwards somersault flip, i.e., embodying movement, the unspooling river of life, in words, without even the theater of face-to-face conversation to help out.

You already know that forms of the verb “to be” are all but useless in conveying movement, since “being” is a static state taken for granted in many languages, which don’t even possess an equivalent to “is,” “are,” “was,” “were.”

Finally, bear in mind that so-called “helping” verbs (in English, forms of “to be” and “to have”) are more properly thought of as “hindering” verbs. Typically, the simple tenses—past, present, future—will best serve the writer’s goal of creating a smooth fictive dream. “Chop ‘would’!” I am known to say.

Our incarnate world contains an ever-obvious correspondent to past, present, and future: “I was born, I live, I will die.” Conditional and subjunctive tenses have no one-to-one correspondent in our lived experience—they are arabesques of the imagination. “Had her mother not been ill, she would have attended the dance”—a grammatically correct and even elegant sentence that requires a lot of synapse firing, since it requires the reader to imagine several events that did not in fact happen.

Alice Munro

At the same time, abstract verb tenses and their accompanying verbs can be useful in manipulating narrative line—Alice Munro is especially adept at their use. Almost any one of her stories deserves careful study. By way of illustrating this point, I will attach here a remarkable document created by my undergraduate student Brandon Spektor and used with his permission, in which he drew a graphic rendition of two classic stories, Alice Munro’s “Vandals” and Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral.”

Brandon drew a visual representation of the chronological time line of the story, with the story’s events arranged in chronological order—the earliest at the top, the latest at the bottom. Then he numbered every place where Munro or Carver shifts time and/or place. The resulting line enables us to perceive visually both how the events unfolded in “real” time and how the writer ordered them, to better represent the workings of memory as well as to tell the most powerful story.

On the whole, however, even where the use of helping verbs / abstract tenses is warranted, the writer may use the helping verb construction once, to set up the conditional moment; then chop the “woulds” and invisibly shift to the simple past/present/future. Often the writer will return to the overt conditional at the end of the section, to remind the reader that the events just described happened, not in “real” time, but in an imaginary conditional moment.

And now a word about death. Bear in mind, in your search for vivid verbs, the Hindu wisdom that every force contains its opposite. Death is always present in life. In fact, the dualism “life/death” is as necessary and as false as the other dualities we live by, e.g., day/night, male/female. Virginia Woolf posited that the greatest writers and artists are those who achieve androgyny—who transcend dualities to achieve unity, with all of gender, indeed, all of the universe contained and expressed in a sugar bowl, a metaphor I come by courtesy of your friend and mine Paul Cézanne.

Because writers are allowed to plagiarize ourselves, I conclude by quoting a relevant passage from my current book, At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life, in which you may substitute “story” for “painting” and “wrote” for “painted”:

“Cézanne understood that every successful painting had to express the unity of all creation—it had to be so precise in its particularity, so thoroughly seen, that it became a stand-in for everything that is. ‘People think a sugar bowl has no physiognomy, no soul,’ he wrote. ‘But that changes every day, too. [As with people], you have to know how to take them, how to coax them, those fellows.’ We can say he’s crazy—perceiving a soul in a sugar bowl?—or we can listen to what he’s telling us, in his letters and in his work, which is that the sacred exists in every particle and atom, the sacred is what is, and our job is to pay sufficient attention so that we too can perceive the psychology of the earth—its living, feeling, expressive self, made manifest in rivers and seas and mountains and tornadoes and earthquakes.

“In Concerning the Spiritual in Art,” Wassily Kandinsky, a radical in his own right in his use of color, wrote that ‘Cézanne made a living thing out of a teacup, or rather in a teacup he realized the existence of something alive. He raised still life to such a point that it ceased to be inanimate. [Cézanne] painted these things as he painted human beings, because he was endowed with the gift of divining the inner life in everything. . . . A man, a tree, an apple, all were used by Cézanne in the creation of something that is called a ‘picture,’ and which is a piece of true inward and artistic harmony.’

“The artist or writer does not impose harmony on reality but—with sufficient reverence and diligence and selflessness and solitude—uncovers the harmony that is always there but that we conceal from ourselves out of a preference for material comfort and fear of the consequences a full and unreserved embrace of harmony requires. This faith in the underlying harmony roots itself in a love of and appreciation for nature, because there, no matter how extreme the human abuse heaped on her, we find the quiet, continual knitting and healing of life, ever dependent on death to make herself anew. ‘Art is a harmony parallel to nature,’ Cézanne wrote—not identical with but parallel to nature. Art of any kind, undertaken with attention and focus and as part of a commitment to discipline, is an effort at reenactment of the original creative gesture—the precipitation of the universe at the moment of its creation. That is why we sing, paint, dance, sculpt, write—that is why we set out to create something from nothing, and why the creative impulse is essentially religious or, if you prefer, spiritual. We seek to re-create the original creative gesture, whatever or whoever set it in motion; the bringing into being of what is. We seek the center of beauty.”

Fenton Johnson‘s most recent book, At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Lifewas released this Spring by W.W. Norton. He is the author of The Man Who Loved Birds (University Press of Kentucky), which was published concurrently with new editions of his earlier award-winning novels Scissors, Paper, Rock and Crossing the River. He has published as well Geography of the Heart: A Memoir and Keeping Faith: A Skeptic’s Journey among Christian and Buddhist Monks. His collection of essays Everywhere Home: A Life in Essays was selected for the Bruckheimer Series in Kentucky Literature, published by Sarabande Press. Going It Alone: On the Dignity and Challenge of Solitude (W.W. Norton), based on his most recent Harper’s Magazine cover essay, was published in 2018.  Geography received the American Library Association and Lambda Literary Awards for best LGBT Creative Nonfiction, while Keeping Faith received a Lambda Literary and Kentucky Literary Award in Creative Nonfiction. Johnson has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He was recently featured on Terry Gross’s Fresh Air and writes regularly for Harper’s Magazine. For more information:  www.fentonjohnson.com.


One thought on “Tales of the Roaring ’20s, or adventures in grammar and syntax

  1. Fenton, this is a lecture in a capsule. Gorgeously written and valuable information here; among other advice, I love and will remember, “Chop would.”


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