What Peter Egan taught me about writing: "Dynamics"

Dynamics?  Yes, dynamics.
  1. In musicdynamics normally refers to the volume of a sound or note, but can also refer to every aspect of the execution of a given piece, either stylistic (staccato, legato etc.) or functional (velocity). The term is also applied to the written or printed musical notation used to indicatedynamics.
 I've read Peter Egan obsessively for years:  I have dead-tree copies of 2 of 3 Side Glances compilations, and one edition of Leanings that stoked a motorcycle obsession I've had since 2008.  Prior to that, I'd pick up copies of Road & Track in the Winn-Dixie in my hometown, read the Egan article and then place it back on the shelf above the sign, "IF YOU READ THEM BUY THEM. THIS AIN'T A LIBRARY [sic]."

Indeed:  Libraries don't smell like cigarettes and rotting meat.

Thirty years on, Gearheads venerate Peter Egan, but I think that limits too much to our particular obsession.  Really, anyone who aspires to write or narrate anything can benefit from Egan's style, much like listening to various modern-day Chatauqua speakers benefit from Garrison Keillor or The Moth.  Like them, it's not so much the content--though with Egan it's almost always interesting--it's the way it's delivered

I'd like to deconstruct just one thing that makes that style great, drawing a parallel to music.  Remember back to music class in elementary school when you learned about 'dynamics'?  You know, how the composer of a piece intends a particular passage to be played with those fancy Italian words:  Staccato, legato, grandissimo, forte, fortissimo, piano, pianissimo. 

Or, if you're from my hometown: Sharp, smooth, grandly, loud, dang loud,  quite ("quiet"), or "I can't hear it it's so soft."

Said another way, composers tap into a central part of humanity:  We get bored really, really easily.  No matter how technically interesting or melodic the passage or lyric, if you don't vary how loud or soft you play it, people eventually tune-out.  Green Day's "Nimrod" album goes like this: PUNK, PUNK, PUNK, "Last Ride In," PUNK, PUNK, "Time of Your Life," PUNK.  The soft bounds the loud and gives it meaning and emotion.   That's the brilliant thing about Egan:  He does the same thing with his writing, by varying his paragraph length just when the reader needs it.

Let's dive in and look at a passage from Egan's last "Side Glances" column.

I sold the Beetle for $350 to a kid who was building a dune buggy, and then used borrowed test bikes from Cycle World to get around until I could afford another car. A Datsun B-210. This car was stultifyingly dull, but the fenders were attached to the body, and it ran on all four. Three years later, I took a job with Road & Track, upstairs in the same building as Cycle World (these two publications were owned by CBS at the time), and I've been contributing to both magazines ever since. Thirty-three years at CW,and 30 years at R&T.
Anyway, that loyal but rusty Beetle was the last VW product I owned, despite my having an irrational weakness (active to this day) for the Volkswagen Thing. But no more Vee-Dubs until now.
Why now?  
Well, because I'd like to retire.
 In a nutshell, the above is that 'Dynamics' I'm talking about.  Long Paragraph, short paragraph, Punch, PUNCH.  The above is the climax of the column, the point at which Egan's announcing his retirement.  The following paragraphs will explain, detail, and valedict, but this is the turn.  Look, how ordinary it is.  This is weighty, dramatic stuff, but he just offers it up in a short snippet without drama or ornation.

Nice, isn't it?

I don't know what to call that from a writing style perspective aside from 'dynamics'--the shape and complexity of the prose varies with pauses and interludes between major passages that capitulate the previous and introduce the next in a way wholly designed to refocus the reader, whether that's a guy reading R&T cover-to-cover or an ADD kid in a Winn-Dixie.  These dynamics make the writing digestible and they make the reader comfortable.  Simple to explain, hard to practice.

Since reading Egan intentionally with an eye to his style, I've tried to do the same, to have discipline on the shape of the prose I'm writing, much like I (attempt to) have with the code that I'm writing.  As my colleague Pete once said, "I can just scroll through this file and tell you it's a bad design, the shape of the code is wrong."  More and more, I see the same thing with short-form prose, and email, and even public speaking.

And, it seems like it's getting worse.

I've noticed something about the better prose, though:  It looks lots like Peter Egan's.

Popular posts from this blog


On "Avengers: Infitnity War"

Closing, 2017