I love Cormac McCarthy. I haven’t read all his books yet because it takes me so damn long to read them because I have to stop very often stop and only breathe in the words he is using and the way he is writing and it is too beautiful to read on.
Of course he would be my first choice for my first ‘reading for writing’ post – the series in which I explain how and why reading can be used to help you write.
McCarthy is my go-to writer. Before I say more, settle in, take a mind-clearing breath and read this paragraph from the beginning of All the Pretty Horses:
In the evening he saddled his horse and rode out west from the house. The wind was much abated and it was very cold and the sun sat blood red and elliptic under the reefs of bloodred cloud before him. He rode where he would always choose to ride, out where the western fork of the old Commanche road coming down out of the Kiowa country to the north passed through the westernmost section of the ranch and you could see the faint trace of it bearing south over the low prairie that lay between the north and middle forks of the Concho River. At the hour he’d always choose when the shadows were long and the ancient road was shaped before him in the rose and canted light like a dream of the past where the painted ponies and the riders of that lost nation came down out of the north with their faces chalked and their long hair plaited and each armed for war which was their life and the women and children and women with children at their breasts all of them pledged in blood and redeemable in blood only. When the wind was in the north you could hear them, the horses and the breath of the horses and the horses’ hooves that were shod in rawhide and the rattle of lances and the constant drag of the travois poles in the sand like the passing of some enormous serpent and the young boys naked on wild horses jaunty as circus riders and hazing wild horses before them and the dogs trotting with their tongues aloll and foot slaves following half naked and sorely burdened and above all the low chant of their traveling song which the riders sang as they rode, nation and ghost of nation passing in a soft chorale across that mineral waste to darkness bearing lost to all history and all remembrance like a grail the sum of their secular and transitory and violent lives.
One paragraph in which he calls the ancient into the present. In which he locates the sympathies of his character, in which he bows down to the reverence of the past and reminds Americans just what they have done to the first peoples and their land (and nudges any reader located on another’s land). One paragraph with dazzling sentences that do not tire the reader, serve only the subject of the sentence and that are so mindblowingly beautiful I have trouble explaining it.
Did I mention I love his writing?
Okay, okay, but how does this help my writing? I could be paralysed in the face of such genius – I’m no Cormac McCarthy – but instead of being frightened by him, he instructs me with my writing.
One morning not so long ago, I was stuck with some description. I opened All the Pretty Horses and read the paragraph above and I was inspired. Not just moved to write but felt I could do nothing *but* write in that moment. This is what came out (it has had only minor editing since I wrote it):
There was washing to bring in and the cow to feed and Ida was grateful to leave the kitchen. Outside the air shone. The wind was cool against the heat in the sun sitting fat and whole in the sky. The day had not yet turned to evening time but it was there in the wind blowing from the west all the way from that great ocean sprawled against the wild coast of this land. She stood below the washing line where the garments and sheets flapped lazily like a dog’s tail thumps on the ground behind their sprawled body when they see their owner but it is too hot or too late to get up to greet them. Ida watched a sheet billow out fully, fill with air and breeze from that ocean and then fall back and flap on itself. In the morning, the breeze was a howling wind from the east, racing across the desert in its fierce rush to that ocean so that Ida felt this place was pushed to and fro each day, that she might be carried towards that ocean in the morning only to be carried back to where the sheets billowed before she reached it.
As I said, I’m no McCarthy, but I kinda love this paragraph because I can see how his work has influenced me. I think I can do more with it and perhaps I will at some point.
So what did I do here? Well, there are a few long sentences of course but they aren’t just long for the sake of being long. I’ve tried to contain an image in the sentence so that the image is fully realised. McCarthy does this a lot. He is braver than me because he lets his sentences go on as long as they need to in order to fully realise the image. Look at his last sentence, the one that starts with ‘When the wind…’. There is a lot of detail in that sentence but a couple of other things are also going on.
Firstly, we already know what this image looks like, like every Western film or painting we have seen so as he builds the image he is filling in the things we are expecting to see. That is why it isn’t tiring. He completely trusts his reader to be carried along with this.
He also uses only two commas. Two! Sacrilege surely! But no, it isn’t. If you look at the structure of the sentence you will see that the image between the two commas could be removed and the sentence would still make sense. He is using the commas to flesh out the image and actually force us to confront the ‘ghost nation’ (what a freaking awesome way of saying it), he forces us to look at those people and then he hits us with the fact of their disappearance at the end. That’s some powerful stuff!
The other thing is that he is describing a trail of people walking, riding, carrying, dragging their lives, their worlds with them. The march of these people into the ‘darkness’ continues, pushes past and the sentence doesn’t let up as they go on. I just love writing in which the rhythm, the tempo, the physical structure of the sentence echoes the thing it is describing. It is honestly my favourite thing.
McCarthy does not shy away from repeating words in sentences. Eliminating the repetition of words is supposed to be one of THE rules of writing. But in the example above he has “and the sun sat blood red and elliptic under the reefs of bloodred cloud before him”. Not only does he repeat ‘blood red’ but he has it as two words and then as one. Later, he writes, “and the women and children and women with children at their breasts”. This one is genius because, the way I read it, he is not identifying all women as mothers; there are women and then there are also women with children.
Even the very first sentence of the novel uses this technique: “The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door.” The repetition of ‘candleflame’ is brilliant because there are two of them in the description. This is another sentence that so perfectly mirrors the rhythm of opening, stepping through and closing a door. Read it again and find that rhythm there.
I could go on and on!
How to use his writing to inform yours
You may not like Cormac McCarthy – plenty of people don’t. Mark Tredinnick in his brilliant The Little Red Writing Book, describes the ‘freight-train sentence’ such as the ones McCarthy writes as “insistent. It strikes only one note, but it flows.”. He also says these sentences can be monotonous and disjointed. He says:
…it doesn’t differentiate one piece of action or argument or information from another. It may sound detached, sometimes cold…Musically, too, its dynamics are poor; it has no ups and downs, no softs. And it all goes at pretty much the same pace.
And he is right. These sentences can be like this, especially if you are not reading carefully or not in the mood. Or if they are written by an inexperienced writer (like me!). As a writer you need to practise the art of using them: where do they work best? how do they suit the rhythms of your story? Do they suit the mood or the idea you are conveying?
This kind of writing is something to be tucked into your box of tricks, to experiment with and play with and to develop confidence in. I’m not suggesting you write like McCarthy does (especially not if that is not your style) but there are still things you can learn about sentences and rhythm from his writing that can be used in your own.
Find a piece of description you have written and see if you can widen and deepen it using any of the techniques McCarthy does. Write the sentences a few different ways and challenge yourself to improve them each time. Take risks!!