First came the vacation and then the next term and then vacation again and then again another term and then again the vacation. It was like a train going in and out of tunnels and that was like the noise of the boys eating in the refectory when you opened and closed the flaps of your ears.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce
Without Joyce telling you, you know the speaker is a child. The diction conveys this, and so do the syntax and figurative language. Joyce’s sentence plunges you into the mind of a child.
Stephen as a young boy experiences time through a punctuated rhythm. His life is organized by whether he’s in school or on vacation. It’s a marked and profound pattern for a child.
To write like this is to slip out of your adult being and become, again, a child. It’s a delight for the reader because what you’ve accomplished is defamiliarizing the familiar. Defamiliarization, first coined in 1917 by the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky in his essay, “Art as Technique,” describes the artist’s project of presenting the ordinary in a different way so the reader/audience sees the world anew.
“It is the function of art to renew our perception,” wrote Anais Nin in The Novel of the Future. “What we are familiar with we cease to see. The writer shakes up the familiar scene, and as if by magic, we see a new meaning in it.”
To do this work, Joyce’s sentence invokes the syntax of a child, with its overabundance of conjunctions. (The other common syntax of a child is the simple sentence). In the first sentence, there are four “ands” and one thing flows into the next, especially with the lack of commas. The use of the definite article “the” before “vacation” conveys that this is a significant event.
I included the second sentence to show how Joyce further inhabits the young child’s mind through similes. Young Stephen’s experience of time is deepened with two similes: by comparing it to a train going through tunnels; then by comparing the train to the noise and cessation of noise when he closes and opens his ear flaps in the refectory. I love how time becomes a sensate experience. Both similes use antithesis, or opposites, with “going in and out” and “opened and closed.” The key, again, is to surrender your adult mind and inhabit the child’s to find the appropriate images.
1. If you have a child or work with children, you’ll find these sentences are within your mental framework. Think of an ordinary thing or experience. How would a child describe it? With Joyce’s sentence, he took the concept of time and turned it into an experience.
2. Is there a way to include conjunctions? If not, try simple sentences, a subject and a verb predicate.
3. Now add two similes that elaborate on the first sentence. Again, stay in a child’s mind to think of character-appropriate images.
Tell me how it goes!
What else do you see?
I’ve taught “Style in Fiction,” “Word for Word” and “Cultivating Your Prose” at the University of San Francisco and Stanford Continuing Studies since 2007. In each of these classes, we spend 10 to 15 weeks drenched in the beauty of sentences, reading them and writing them. It’s such a pleasure! I’ve watched my writing and my students’ writing blossom with this practice of paying close attention to the sentence.
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“It is the function of art to renew our perception. What we are familiar with we cease to see. The writer shakes up the familiar scene, and as if by magic, we see a new meaning in it.”
This reminds me of the wonderful Devin Kelly: "I think, though, that one of the poet’s jobs—of many—is to dwell in the space of forever-unknowing, not with the intent to seek an answer, but to allow oneself better ways of understanding mystery and wonder. The poet does not give us answers. The poet gives us new ways to live and see and love without answers."
Thank you for the Words.
Faulkner and Joyce were my first loves, the experience of language that illuminated consciousness with mere words (and creative syntax). Now I think I need to take a fresh look at both The Sound and the Fury and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Thank you, Nina!