Ta-Nehisi Coates analyzes a passage from Middlemarch, and says:
I was thinking this morning how much I wish I could have taught myself high school composition, when I was in high school–and even English composition in college. I failed English in the eleventh grade and then failed Brit Lit in college.
Among the things I would have told myself is that beauty is an actual, functional thing, and that great sentences are, in fact, functional. So when Eliot gives us these rangy sentences (bolded above in this case) wherein with each semicolon she pounds home the point, the form of the sentence–its awkward elegance–actually makes it stick. There is, of course, a great deal of poetry here, most of it built on hard, muscular words “the report,” “hindrances” daily labors” and “deeper fixity.” Again, the payload is to the back–”his heart to its final pause.”
First, let us observe that this man became a nationally known writer, a writer of beautiful and meaningful prose, yet he failed his English and composition courses as a teenager. What does this tell us about talent and education?
More to the point, Coates makes an unfashionable observation: that beauty is not simply a personal preference signifying sensual delight, but actually does something. I’m thinking right now of a conversation I had in a coffee shop in Oslo one winter’s day in 1994. It was with an art student, a painter who had just graduated. He was furious at his professors. He said they hadn’t taught him or any of his classmates a damn thing about drafting, or anything else. “Whatever we painted, they praised it as genius,” he said bitterly. He felt cheated out of an aesthetic education, and an education in basic craftsmanship. Now he would have to educate himself.
When I started out as a professional writer in my early 20s, I picked out a few non-fiction prose stylists whose writing I admired, and worked to imitate them (Pauline Kael, Tom Wolfe, and Truman Capote were in that stable, but there were others). Of course I studied their prose too, trying to figure out why it worked so well. But I found too that trying to write as they wrote, however feeble my attempt, I came to absorb the structure of their writing in ways that I couldn’t have done merely by studying it in the abstract. To be sure, nobody would have mistaken my writing back then (or now) for Kael, Wolfe, or Capote, but that’s not the point: the point is that in attempting to imitate my betters, I was able to find my own voice. I didn’t have a voice when I first started out. I had the ability to string together words better than most people my age, but that’s not the same thing as having a voice. I had to learn how to string together those words to persuade, and to persuade not so much by the rigors of logic, but by the beauty of the composition. There is an enormous difference between “Four score and seven years ago…” and “Eighty-seven years ago…” — and that difference matters.