I think we all acquire a style, in how we talk, write letters, draw, or make friends, by around age 30, and the style is hard to lose.
See Picasso vs. Warhol.
It’s clear who’s who. If I mentioned the one of them who “gravitates to explicit pain and sex, and to his own abstractions,” and you knew how these guys expressed themselves in art, you’d get which I meant.
I’ve been thinking of the fixed aspects of expression in light of the recent New York Times review of Annie Proulx’s new book, Bird Cloud, in which the reviewer dares to typify or characterize the one way in which Proulx writes.
Proulx is a writer who tends to create her novels (this time: a memoir) specifically by focusing on details from the physical world. That’s where her eye shoots; it’s her personality or style in the world. She relies on technical names, for things like flowers, foods, and towns, to give texture to ideas or invite people in. Her details jolt you, says Dwight Garner of The New York Times:
“What is that signature style?” he writes. “Reading Ms. Proulx’s prose is like bouncing along rutted country roads in a pickup truck with no shock absorbers. Her books are packed with arcane flora and fauna and eccentrically named towns and characters. Many writers employ unusual verbs and adjectives; Ms. Proulx likes weird nouns. Her cluttered style is, in a kind of reverse way, as jewel-encrusted as Gustav Klimt’s.”
Garner’s review presents at least one interesting task: Can you describe your own voice—your way of organizing the world—so specifically? In this sense, being a literary critic is a bit like being a psychologist who names the typical choices a patient makes. I would say the following of me and my writing style: I tend toward the confessional. I use short sentences that want to be philosophical but try to bend back to the practical. I jolt a bit, using verbs that look like nouns.
As with psychological truths too, there are reasons why we grow into our particular styles.
Biology’s big. Some people are born with an aptitude for detail; some are born attracted to a bigger picture. I tend toward the abstract, and am not great with detail. This is true through and through for me. I can’t fold things neatly; I’m a bad baker but a better cook; details bore me and stuff-ness of large-swabbed expression thrills me. This is all party inborn: Think of Darwin being born versus Jackson Pollock being born. They could never have been each other, and that’s the difference biology brings.
Childhood shapes the thumbprint. Even though I am excited by huge abstractions and philosophy, I tend to use simple sentences because I grew up through a series of teachers who told me to scale back, to get practical, to use active tense and avoid longer words. “Be practical, not in the clouds.” Because I took that molding process seriously, it became my gait. Changing the gait—the very way you walk—late in life is hard.
The bigger culture shapes a thumbprint just as much. Proulx’s work comes from a woman who’s close to the outdoors and rural life. Those are her tools, her details. In this sense, there are books that are written by people from the South, books written from German minds, books from Victorian minds, and books from Italian Renaissance minds. I tend to write with the details, images, values, and ideas particularly accessible to a woman in New York City in 2011. See my references and politics. They shape what I say.
Can you be your own critic, and describe your style? How’d you come to that style? Have you read, and do you like, Annie Proulx?
Ilana Simons is a therapist, literature professor, and author of A Life of One's Own: A Guide to Better Living through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf. Visit her website here.