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A Legendary Essay About The Creative's Life
What Makes Great Writing? #007 - Featuring Ligaya Mishan of the New York Times
My Sunday New York Times arrives on Wednesday.
The Times’ explanation is that my zip code is not within their normal delivery routes. I blame naughty mail gnomes.
A three-day late paper means most of the front cover is old news, so I slide into the back sections: sports, arts, style.
Last week, I ran across a piece by Ligaya Mishan that took my breath away. Knowing the essay would be great material for this series, I dug in with the intent of analyzing the whole 2,412 words.
One sentence gave me 3 pages of insight.
So, let’s look together, slowly and deliberately, at this sentence, unpacking all there is to learn.
Writer: Ligaya Mishan
Synecdoche: a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole
Ascending tricolon - a tricolon increasing in lenght or magnitude
Metonymy (maybe?) - the substitution of the name of an attribute or adjunct for that of the thing meant
Metaphor (maybe?): a word or phrase compared to another in a way that is not literal
Tricolon: a phrase or sentence using three elements
Alliteration: repetition of the same consonant sounds
Assonance: repetition of the same vowel sounds
Personification: treating a non-human thing as if it were human
“Say “the artist’s life” and already we are in thrall to the old romantic myths: the garret in winter with wind lisping through the cracks, the dissolving nights at mirrored bars nursing absinthe, the empty pockets, the feral hair, the ever-looming madhouse.”
Journalism often leads itself to the least-inspiring layouts. The way this sentence is presented hides its poetic excellence.
What if we made it look like a poem instead?
“Say “the artist’s life” and already we are in thrall to the old romantic myths:
the garret in winter with wind lisping through the cracks,
the dissolving nights at mirrored bars nursing absinthe,
the empty pockets,
the feral hair,
the ever-looming madhouse.”
An important note: Ligaya is a wonderful writer, but I’d bet my third-favorite cat that she did not sit down and type this introduction in one go.
It’s more likely her brain pondered the task and hand and said: “Ok ummmm… let’s see… sips coffee… it’s an article about “the artist’s life”… err… chews breakfast…what does the artist’s life look like?”
And her brain replied with “Alright… um… coffee please… ok, artist… some dude… typewriter… cabin… drunken people… sad painter…poverty… people who don’t take showers…insanity? I don’t know. More coffee please”
Sadly, if you write the phrase “some dude” in a draft to the New York Times, you will get laughed out of the building. More to the point, readers will glaze over the phrase because it is neither poetic nor memorable, which is why she wound her way to this wildly more readable result.
I’m going to skip the first phrase and go straight to the examples. When we think of “the artist’s life,” we think of…
“The garret in winter with wind lisping through the cracks,”
Surprise is important for a reader. She starts with a word few of us know (I didn’t) — garret. In addition to matching the meter of “winter,” she’s also able to be more accurate. A garret is “a top-floor or attic room, especially a small dismal one (traditionally inhabited by an artist).”
She continues with alliteration and assonance(win-ter, wi-th win-d), and the assonance continues in the word “lisping.” My guess is that she passed over the word “whipping” because that could have soured an otherwise sweet device. Sentences can be OVER-engineered, after all.
Notice the personification here as well. Wind cannot “lisp.” It can only sound like a lisp as gusts of air slip through silvers in the wall.
“The dissolving nights at mirrored bars nursing absinthe.”
The second example has a parallel structure - (adjective, noun) - followed by the unusual verb (nursing instead of drinking).
Although there is a different meter structure here (it’s not a poem after all), this image of our barfly has exactly the same number of syllables as the first example - 13. This creates a neat pace in our minds, one that will be broken with the next three examples
“The empty pockets, the feral hair, the ever-looming madhouse.”
There’s a lot here. Let’s start slowly.
As a whole, these three examples follow the same parallel structure established in the previous phrase (adjective, noun).
The sequence is also an ascending tricolon, in length and in magnitude. We’re moving from a 5-syllable phrase to a 7-syllable one, from a fairly innocent description (empty pockets) to a threatening one (ever-looming madhouse).
Now for the individual lines. Remember the overall goal of this opening sentence: to introduce the artist’s life. How can we do that?
Ligaya uses synecdoche for the first two. Synecdoche is a cousin of the simile - a subject becomes a body part. In this case, the artist is not a person. She is “empty pockets” and “feral hair.” Why choose the word “feral” instead of “wild?” Because of the assonance.
It’s this last example (ever-looming madhouse) that gives me pause… I honestly can’t decide whether it is a metaphor or a metonymy
Mark Forsyth (my go-to reference for rehtorical figures) describes the difference between the two:
“Metaphors when two things are connected because they are similar, metonymy is when two things are connected because they are really physically connected.”
Metonymy is the device that allows us to say “Elon Musk and Twitter reached a deal.” Did Twitter the entity really reach a deal with Elon the human? No. Really, it was Twitter’s board. But fewer people know Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal, so we use “Twitter” in the headline.
We substitute “White House” for “Joe Biden.” We claim the “the local coffeehouse” ran a promotion instead of its owner “Suzie Smith.”
So, is the artist’s life physically connected to the ever-looming madhouse? It’s hard to say. We are comparing an abstract to an abstract, a non-thing to a non-thing. If we take Mark’s definition in its most strict form, we’d have to conclude that this is a metaphor.
You could also conclude that it doesn’t matter, skip the debate, and read this next sentence.
What matters much more than a quibble about rhetorical figures is Ligaya’s dedication to the craft.
Writing is a means of expression, not just communication. Of emotions, not just thoughts. Of the artful, not just the scientific. Work like this reminds me that despite the dire predictions, neither radio nor movies nor television killed the written word. Nothing will. A well-written passage gives us an experience no other form of media can: a private, peaceful place created by the author specifically for the reader.
No commercials. No loud voices. No interruptions. Only the heart and soul of an idea expressed as clearly as possible, as artfully as possible, to be understood as comprehensively as possible.
Thanks to Ligaya for fighting the good fight.
Much love as always <3
P.S. I do this on Twitter, faster.