Read enough stuff, once in a while you get lucky.
A week or so ago I came across an admonition by a successful editor to go light on the in’ s when writing dialogue.. Example: We’ll be gittin’ up before the sun. As opposed to, We’ll be gitting up before the sun. Once you start, the editor suggested, there is no stopping place. She, the editor, cited Annie Proulx short story collection, Close Range: Wyoming Stories.
I had not thought about Ms. Proulx having written short stories. We have all read, or we certainly should have read, Shipping News, and maybe Accordion Crimes. The former was, of course, the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner, published in 1993. Most of us do not think of Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain, first seen in the New Yorker, October 1997, as coming from the same pen, or word processor, as the case may be. But they do. Perhaps you do know That Old Ace in the Hole or Post Cards.
The Fairview library was the first call. “Do you have a copy of Close Range, Annie Proulx?” I asked. A minute later the word came back, “We don’t have it in house, but it is in the system. … We will order it up for you.” Three days later the email came: your book is in. What a find!
People who pay attention to that sort of thing tell us that the average 16-year old uses 10,000-12,000 words, and 20,000-25,000 for a college graduate. Estimates of Shakespeare’s vocabulary vary from about 18,000 to 25,000 words. The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words.
It isn’t that Ms. Proulx uses words the rest of us don’t use. I didn’t have to get the dictionary out a single time. (When I read Faulkner, I keep a dictionary handy at all times!) It is just the order in which she strings her words together!
Example: From the rodeo cowboy story The Mud Below: she writes With five whiskeys and four beers sloshing, Diamond took a turn, addressing them all, even the two dusty, sweat-funneled ranch hands who’d come in off the baler to press their faces against the cold pitcher of beer Ranny stood between them. You get the picture: a bunch of tired and dirty cowboys in a crossroads beer hall. Telling lies.
… or …
Brokeback Mountain: They had a high-time supper by the fire, a can of beans each, fried potatoes and a quart of whiskey on shares, sat with their backs against a log, boot soles and copper jeans rivets hot, swapping the bottle while the lavender sky emptied of color and the chill air drained down, drinking, smoking cigarettes, getting up every now and then to piss, firelight throwing a sparkle in the arched stream, tossing sticks on the fire to keep the talk going, taking horses and rodeo, rough stock events, wrecks and injuries sustained, the submarine Thresher lost two months earlier with all hands and how it must have been in the last doomed minutes, dogs each had owned and known, the draft, Jack’s home ranch where his father and mother held on, Ennis’s family place folded years ago after his folks died, the older brother in Signal and a married sister in Casper.
I have come to think, especially in the dozen or so years I have been actively writing, that good books, good stories, on the one hand, and good writing on the other hand, are not necessarily the same thing. They might be, they quiet often are. The stories in Close Range are both. … good stories and good writing. This is the best writing I have read in a long time … maybe since The Old Man And The Sea.