Sentence of the Week: Week 2

“It came boring out of the east like some ribald satellite of the coming sun howling and bellowing in the distance and the long light of the headlamp running through the tangled mesquite brakes and creating out of the night the endless fenceline down the dead straight right of way and sucking it back again wire and post mile on mile into the darkness after where the boilersmoke disbanded slowly along the faint new horizon and the sound came lagging and he stood still holding his hat in his hands in the passing ground-shudder watching it till it was gone.”

In this sentence, Cormac McCarthy describes a train passing across the plains as a young cowboy watches. The passage appears near the beginning of All the Pretty Horses, which is one of my favorite books.  This sentence is, by any measure, a breathtaking description that defies rules yet delivers with power and emotion. It builds with the rush of the approaching train, and you can almost feel the flashing energy as it passes, then fades quickly to the distance. I like to think that the train runs on the rails and ties of the sentence itself.

I offer this sentence as atonement because I’m ashamed of that sorry excuse for a sentence from the New York Times last week. You deserve better. But even worse, I think I left you with the perception that I’m a hide-bound stickler for grammar and syntax. I’m not.

Words matter, and this great big huffing and puffing run-on sentence communicates on so many levels that no reader can be left untouched. Read it out loud, and you will love the way it makes you feel, how deeply you feel the train’s passing. If you could connect with your audience with such emotion, wouldn’t you be willing to break the rules?

Detail from Picasso's "Guernica"

But in order to break the rules, you have to be competent in the vernacular. Picasso, who painted and drew some of the most outlandish, inartistic visions we’ve seen in the 20th Century, was an accomplished artist, capable of refined sketches and classically composed paintings. He chose to explode those conventions by taking pieces of our visual perceptions, breaking them apart, then putting them back together to create something new. Simple, effective, and completely new. His paintings made us approach art and our understanding of the world in new ways.

McCarthy does the same with his writing. I call it “fly-on-the-wall” fiction, because as the reader you feel you’re just a fly observing the scene. No internal dialogue is going to tell you what the characters are thinking or what motivates them. You have to discern it entirely from what McCarthy shows you.

If the dialogue is in Spanish, don’t count on a translation. However, McCarthy controls the language so adeptly that you begin to learn Spanish as you read, because the context of the story illuminates it. That’s what the best communicators do. They teach you how to read their writing as you’re reading it. Consequently, you get to explore new experiences and new understandings of the world around you.

Achieving that is rare though and requires complete control and mastery of the craft.

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Save the Libraries!

Libraries are the natural habitats for words. On cool, autumn days, you can peer between the shelving and sight herds of untamed language – big bullish words, gentle doe-like terms, and gamboling syllables – charging past the carrels, tumbling into corners, then spilling back down along the wall of windows.

But these habitats are in danger because as our economy falters, libraries face unprecedented budget cuts. This is happening at the exact moment when patronage has soared as more and more people use the library to job hunt, take advantage of the computers, and feed their reading jones when they can’t afford to buy books.

Some people just complain and lament our shrinking language habitats, but our good friends at Central Rappahannock Regional Library (www.crrl.org) decided to drive home the point with fun and frivolity. We can all absorb lessons about communication from this video, but chief among them are

Important messages don’t necessarily require a serious platform

and

Electronic media allows (requires?) you to show a lot of personality

Thanks to Sean Bonney and the gang in Fredericksburg, Stafford, Spotsylvania, and Westmoreland, Va., for sharing their efforts.

(I’ve posted the long version below, but if you only want the highly delicious disco segment, you can link to it here.)

It’s Not What. It’s Why.

I have never read a business book that couldn’t have been reduced to a good magazine article. But there are people out there who make me think with greater depth, and I value them beyond reason for that ability. Right now, I’m stuck on Simon Sinek, who has identified what great leaders have that people respond to.

Most of us communicate from the clearest thing to the fuzziest thing. We explain “what” first, “how” next, and “why” last. “Why” is always the most difficult to explain, but it is where our passions reside.

Few of us can be great leaders, but all of us can inspire employees or prospects and establish ourselves as people of worth and substance. We only need to invert our communication tendency, and first explain why we’re doing what we’re doing.

Watch this presentation Sinek gave at the TED conference in Puget Sound.

Want to know more about Sinek? Check out his website.