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Music in Prose, Ocean Vuong
In the classic stand on the elements of style, writing is neither a way of thinking something out nor an art that exists for its own sake. Writing is an instrument for presenting what the writer has already thought.*Clear and Simple as the Truth, Writing Classic Prose 2nd Ed by Francis-Noel Thomas & Mark Turner, p. 57
Authors Thomas and Turner changed the way I think about writing, as an intellectual and philosophical activity. Classic writing means the author has done her thinking before writing, a difference the authors suggest is as wide as the difference between cooking and serving. The preparation and work is done in a kitchen, while the results are served in a dining room. There, the atmosphere is serene and presentation suggests that “perfection is routine and effortless, no matter how hectic things get in the kitchen.”
Readers often miss this, failing to recognize the thought behind the writing craft. Consider Ocean Vuong’s passage.
I am writing because they told me to never start a sentence with because. But I wasn’t trying to make a sentence–I was trying to break free. Because freedom, I am told, is nothing but the distance between the hunter and its prey.On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, p. 4
This is served up for readers in the dining room, if you will, each word thoughtfully written by a writer who is also a poet. And in that final position comes the most important idea of the passage–freedom is nothing but the distance beween the hunter and its prey. Vuong uses the word ‘because’ twice so that he could break free from the strictures of grammar and begin the last sentence with the conjunction. He liberates his writing and in so doing, he liberates himself from the shackles of oppressive society. Because he will not be prey to such a hunt.
That night I promised myself I’d never be wordless when you needed me to speak for you. So began my career as our family’s official interpreter. From then on, I would fill in our blanks, our silences, stutters, whenever I could. I code switched. I took off our language and wore my English, like a mask, so that others would see my face, and therefore yours.Vuong, p. 32
Vuong resolves to help his Vietnamese mother. Her school had been bombed during the war and she was illiterate in her own language and unable to explain in English the cut of beef she wished to purchase at the market. After miming a cow and making mooing sounds, she made the butchers roar in laughter. Vuong decided then and there to know the words, to speak for his mother, to complete the sentence, fill the silence, make up for stutters. He would shed Vietnamese and put on English so that he could be understood and seen, not just for himself, but for his mother. So that others would see my face, and therefore yours.
In this pivotal moment, Vuong would break down the barrier between insular and familial existence with that of the world; he would be his mother’s official interpreter. He wore English, so he could help his family. He wore English, so he could help himself. In this way, he takes first steps towards becoming himself.**
Classic prose is suitable for much writing and appropriate for most, because it puts the reader and writer on equal footing and presents the results or work (thought) that has already been done. My own writing style as with many creative writers, depends on the form my writing takes, and will meander on the page and, as in this letter, address the reader directly. Hey YOU! pay attention because I write this as a letter to share with you things I’ve learned and found important. These are not classic elements, but through the iterative writing process I use I try to make each sentence worthy and maybe even elegant, so that the reader may come along for the discovery.
For the large portion of technical writing, however, classic prose is preferable. The contents of Clear and Simple as the Truth could make up the entire curriculum of a graduate writing course.
*Clear and Simple as the Truth, Writing Classic Prose 2nd Ed. by Thomas and Turner. (Princeton University Press, 2011)
**On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (Penguin Press, 2019). Bio excerpt from his site:
“Born in Saigon, Vietnam and raised in Hartford, Connecticut in a working class family of nail salon and factory laborers, he was educated at nearby Manchester Community College before transferring to Pace University to study International Marketing. Without completing his first term, he dropped out of Business school and enrolled at Brooklyn College, where he graduated with a BA in Nineteenth Century American Literature. He subsequently received his MFA in Poetry from NYU.
On his name and personal life: Vuong has described himself as being raised by women. During a conversation with a customer, his mother, a manicurist, expressed a desire to go to the beach, and pronounced the word “beach” as “bitch.” The customer suggested she use the word “ocean” instead of “beach.” After learning the definition of the word “ocean” — the most massive classified body of water, such as the Pacific Ocean, which connects the United States and Vietnam — she renamed her son Ocean.
At 34 years old as an immigrant, here are his awards according to Wiki.