Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Today's Wednesday Essay is from a highly talented woman, Jane Merryman, whose work deserves to be widely published.

Attention Depth Disorder
by Jane Merryman

I don’t read reading anymore; I read writing.

I often catch myself reading as a copy editor, finely attuned to the typo, the esoteric grammatical error, the usage “infelicity.” Since I began trying to do some writing myself and participating in a writing class, I not only read my own work more critically, but I also read everyone else’s work as if it were in the hot seat in front of the class.

I first noticed this when I succumbed to an uncontrollable urge to red pencil Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse when I read it for my book group. She has a maddening quirk of separating her pronouns from their nouns, a scenario in which “he” becomes so lost that the reader has no idea to whom this pronoun refers. Her conversations are long and each character’s contribution is marked only by quote marks, not X said, Y said. After half a page I don’t know who is saying what.

Other authors get my copy editor’s goat for much less. I love Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels, so gritty and irreverent, and sexy, but she constantly spells all right as alright. Arrgh! I get so distracted by such errors I can’t enjoy a good story.

I long to give Doris Lessing a good drubbing. In The Summer Before the Dark she makes the point in the first few pages that her protagonist has spent twenty years as a good wife and mother, completely at the service of others. Then Lessing spends pages ruminating and rolling around in it. We get it already. Let’s move on and see how this situation forms the premise of a good story.

My impatience with repetition stems from what might be called the wabi-sabi school of writing, to which I belong. Wabi-sabi is a Japanese aesthetic of simplicity, naturalness, and intimacy. It is unpretentious and wants to get rid of all that is unnecessary. Things wabi-sabi are small, compact, quiet, and inwardly oriented—a tea bowl, an old barn, crows cawing in a winter field. They are the opposite of the slick, saccharine, corporate style of beauty that prevails around us.

Sometimes I think I may have fallen into the malaise of the age: the ten-minute time byte. I worked in a high school from the early seventies to the late nineties. During that period the staff increasingly complained that students’ attention spans had shrunk to the amount of time between commercials on the average television sitcom. My problem is not so much attention span as it is attention depth. I’ve heard all the story lines—the variations on those grand themes, greed and lust. One of the vexations of maturity is that experience has put me in the FasTrak lane. I want to whip through the toll plaza and get into the heart of the city, that roaring, pulsating rush at the center. Perhaps the role of literature is to travel in the slow lane of the information highway and carry us along in a leisurely way. I only ask that, if I must be patient, the words be graceful and elegant.

A critic said of Mozart’s compositions, “Too many notes.” I say of contemporary writers too many misspellings, too few helpful punctuation marks, too many pronouns separated from their nouns.

When I was in elementary school, I wanted to grow up to be a teacher. I thought correcting papers looked like fun. Now I hate my schoolmarm self. I would prefer to read reading, for the pure joy.

Jane Merryman lives in Petaluma, where she tends her eclectic, crowded garden and walks by the river at dawn. Her personal essays have been published in Fine Gardening magazine, Anderson Valley Advertiser, Petaluma Argus-Courier, and Redwood Coast Review.


At 2:12 PM, Blogger Stephanie said...

As always, the essays you choose really seem to be able to shift from the particular to the universal really well. And this one hit home as well!

At 2:34 PM, Blogger Jordan E. Rosenfeld said...

What can I say, I'm a genius !


At 5:43 AM, Blogger Susan Henderson said...

I have this condition, too! But I could never write about it this well. What a great essay!

At 2:01 PM, Blogger down_not_out said...


Thrilled to know I'm not the only one.


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