I was lying in bed, awaiting sleep but trapped by my own lucidity. The headboard of my bed abuts with my bookcases, and turning on the bedside light I reached up and took down my much thumbed copy of Blood Meridian. Idly I turned to page 147, and read again my favorite passage which I quoted almost two years ago here on this blog.
It gives me pause, such writing. Words are like surgical tools; they can be wielded adroitly or crudely. But they are more than that; they are containers, the sum of their letters holding a universe of nuance and implication, a historical trail of usage that extends as far back as their etymological roots, so that a writer of brilliance can deploy them in novel and startling ways that startle because even as you read them so employed, you think, yes, this is correct, this is good, this is proper, and yet utterly new and different. Words as simple as ‘wore’ can give me pause when used by one such as McCarthy. For example:
In the acute light the sheer stone wall wore strange contours and the horsemen seemed very small even unto themselves.
The stone wall ‘wore’ strange contours. I would never have thought to use those words in such manner, even though all are familiar to me. They are familiar, but not intimate; I do not grasp them as intuitively as McCarthy does, I do not understand their implications as deeply or naturally. So when I seek to express myself, I am limited; limited by my own ability to channel my thoughts through the words and means of stringing them together that I know.
The reason McCarthy is able to write so powerfully despite his simple style is because he is able to put put thoughts directly on the page unfiltered or censored by such limitations. Words are limber and flexible in his hand, yet are not distorted by his usage.
How to attain such mastery of the language? I believe it can only help to be well rested, healthy, and energetic. Sleep, food, and exercise. Then, once the mind is sharp and agile, one can turn it to the task of expanding one’s mean of self expression. Learn vocabulary, read challenging books, attempt to write carefully and with great precision. Do that for five years, ten years, and perhaps one can begin to write well, forcefully, with power and great clarity.
But achieve the natural mastery of a genius like Cormac McCarthy? Sadly that, my friends, is impossible.