Toward the end of Tobias Wolff’s short story, “Bullet in the Brain,” Anders, the doomed book critic, recalls a time before everything reminded him of something else.
The story’s magic resides in Wolff naming what Anders does not recall. The list of seventeen items includes lines of poetry (hundreds) once committed to memory.
He did not remember Professor Josephs telling his class how Athenian prisoners in Sicily had been released if they could recite Aeschylus, and then reciting Aeschylus himself, right there, in Greek.
Before the word, there was the word.
At Young Harris College, Dr. Steven Harvey gave us Master Sentences from Annie Dillard, Toni Morrison, and Montaigne. We were freshmen. We copied the sentence, noted its type, and created our own. We didn’t know better. We did not think it unusual to be asked to craft a sentence in the spirit of James Baldwin. We didn’t know such practice was the craft of a lifetime.
Copy: “to transcribe.”
In Gregory Martin’s creative nonfiction workshop at the University of New Mexico, we read memoirs, essays, and books of narrative nonfiction. He required us to select a Memorable Passage, copy it word for word, and then describe what stood out and why.
From…Copiare: “to write in plenty” (Medieval Latin).
John Bennet, a longtime editor at the New Yorker and adjunct professor at Columbia’s J-School, died earlier this summer. Bennet edited such luminaries as Seymour Hersh, Pauline Kael, John McPhee, and Elizabeth Kolbert. His former student, Rachel Morris remembers:
Finally, every week we were to copy by hand a passage of writing we admired, which, he promised, “does more to improve your writing than anything I will ever say in class.”
Grading student works now and reading their Memorable Passages, what they loved word by word, I forget at times that I’m grading.
See also Copia: “plenty.”
To love inside, and out. To love from abundance.
In his recent book, The Last Days of Roger Federer, Geoff Dyer notes that slogging through massive tomes of nonfiction: “You learn so much. The problem is how little of that ‘much’ is retained after finishing them. Little is sometimes a euphemism for ‘nothing’ ”
In the summers, I like reading more expansive historical fiction. Russell Banks, Cloudsplitter. Gunter Grass, The Tin Drum. Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty. I take dutiful notes on the Reichstag fire, maps of Harpers Ferry, and Soviet computing capacities in the 1950s.
How much of this have I retained? Some? Any?
Dyer argues for a type layering to prevent such reading loss. Instead of a single serving on a historical event, multiple books should be shaded with another to create an overlapping, crisscrossing. This is how knowledge is formed.
What I’m after here is a different type of layering. Instead of reading more, I want to slow down and go word for word over certain scenes. To see again: ancient German church bells melt without sound or song…a train departs Moscow at night…the snow-capped Adinorondacks rise on the horizon.
To savor, admire, emulate.
A writer is a reader, Saul Bellow wrote, moved by emulation. In this space, on a semi-regular basis, I will highlight a passage of nonfiction in the most generous sense. The passage should be between one and three paragraphs and express some unity of scene or idea. I’ll offer a brief introduction on the writer and a reflection on theme or technique, and what strikes me and sticks. The first is here.
What tends to stick?
The golden moth floating across the pages of Annie Dillard. That long cascading line of telephone poles in Eula Biss. All those orchids and wildfires flaming up and fading out through Didion’s White Album. A baseball diamond at the end of Tobias Wolff’s short story “Bullet in the Brain.”
The evergreen outfield is the place Anders returns at the end. The spot where the synaptic lightning of language first struck. All those poems memorized and savored and forgotten had their genesis there.
If they were alive, so was he.
Word for word, they are singular moments unable to be mistaken for something else.