Writing exercise

Know:  Some say that parataxis creates the immediacy of thought; putting ideas side by side without pauses or full-stops startles the reader. On her Web site, Writerly Life, Blair Hurley says that parataxis is flat and declarative, spare and uncompromised.

Do: Keeping parataxis in mind, compare the rhythm in two passages from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Notice how, in this description of a post-apocalyptic landscape, McCarthy uses sentence fragments, blunt bursts of imagery without subjects and predicates. What effect does the rhythm create, and why would McCarthy employ that rhythm?

On the far side of the river valley the road passed through a stark black burn. Charred and limbless trunks of trees stretching away on every side. Ash moving over the road and the sagging hands of blind wire strung from the blackened lightpoles whining thinly in the wind. A burned house in a clearing and beyond that a reach of meadowlands star and gray and a raw red mudbank where a roadworks lay abandoned. Farther along were billboards advertising motels. Everything as it once had been save faded and weathered.

Notice how in other passages, McCarthy strings together phrases and clauses with conjunctions like “and.” Here he is writing about the binding power of love between a father and son, of a modern-day death and resurrection. Does the rhythm help underscore his theme?

They left the cart in a gully covered with the tarp and made their way up the slope through the dark poles of the standing trees to where he’d seen a running ledge of rock and they sat under the rock overhang and watched the gray sheets of rain blow across the valley. It was very cold. They sat huddled together wrapped each in a blanket over their coats and after a while the rain stopped and there was just the dripping in the woods….

He slept close to his father that night and held him but when he woke in the morning his father was cold and stiff. He sat there a long time weeping and then he got up and walked out through the woods to the road. When he came back he knelt beside his father and held his cold hand and said his name over and over again.

Write: Write a description of a landscape in which you focus on one overriding quality of the natural scene (the freshness of color in early spring, the brittleness of the foliage in November, or the dissolution of shapes at dusk). After you fill your paragraph with vivid details, go back and rewrite using rhythm, maybe even parataxis, to emphasize the theme you are developing