Writing Tip 7: Loosening up the linear. Having fun with parataxis.


Edgar Allen Poe

Edgar Allen Poe

‘Distance and duration are one.’ Edgar Allen Poe.

Poe had the insight in the 1840s, but it would be seventy years before Einstein formalized the maths, and identified space-time as a unity for the first time. For a long time writers have played with the variables of distance and duration, duration relating to time and narrative, while distance relates to space and geography. Descriptions of place will slow the pace of narrative; a faster narrative will tend to displace other, non-narrative elements. Space and time come together in consciousness, in point of view.

(Readers interested in the wider issues raised here might like to note my comments on Bob Dylan’s ‘Tangled up in Blue’ in my Bobcat blog, and the section entitled ‘The Collapse of Opposites’ in my book Angel Of Compassion.)

‘Distance and duration are one.’ Edgar Allen Poe.

‘Distance and duration are one.’ Edgar Allen Poe.

Narrative is constructed out of the raw materials of memory and experience, rather than being ‘natural’ or inherent. We create an identity (see ‘Who is Mike Johnson?’) out of these same raw materials, a sense of identity that will shift and change over time. Even a short period of time.

Reader’s expectations are that the connection between sentences must be linear and logical, as if the linear and logical is somehow more ‘natural’ than the intuitive or the mosaic.

In her essay, The Rejection of ClosureLyn Hejinian argues for the limitations of a language that is ‘directed towards a single reading.’

Lyn Hejinian

Lyn Hejinian

‘The writer experiences a conflict between a desire to satisfy a demand for boundedness, for containment and coherence, and a simultaneous desire for free, unhampered access to the world prompting a correspondingly open response to it.’ Lyn Hejinian.

Only by entering into this conflict can the writer find his or her own balance in terms of how open or closed their language might be in relation to any particular project.

‘We can say that a “closed text” is one in which all the elements of the work are directed toward a single reading of it. Each element confirms that reading and delivers the text from any lurking ambiguity. In the “open text,” meanwhile, all the elements of the work are maximally excited; here it is because ideas and things exceed (without deserting) argument that they have taken into the dimension of the work.’ (Rejection of Closure)

In her now classic My Life Hejinian uses mostly ordinary sentences, but radically rewires them in terms of how they connect. Don’t mistake this for ‘stream of consciousness’ (a much abused term) or ‘beat’ writing of some kind. She’s putting these sentences together with the precision of jeweller, bringing code-switching to a high art. Freed from the constraints of linear and logical connection, the sentences can float in a sea of multiple relationships to each other, the composite forming the complete experience.

See example from My Life by Lyn Hejinian

For the writer who is testing his or her ground, understanding the parataxical effect of Hejinian’s prose poetry can be liberating. Not that we all want to write like Hejinian, but as writers we often find our prose too logical, too linear, and therefore predictable. Kerry Hume has talked in terms of casting a wide net when finding language for a book. Hejinian casts a very wide net indeed.

For those interested, check out Lisa Samuels’s case for the canonisation of Hejinian here.

More on Lyn Hejinian