Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Give Them Punctum

By Greg Hardin

I want to start this blog about writing, by talking about photography instead.  Not surprising, since I’m a photographer by trade more than a writer, but bear with me. The philosopher and theorist Roland Barthes wrote a book, Camera Lucida.  In it he coined a couple terms and phrases that influence how many look at photographs.  One of those terms is, “Punctum.” Latin in origin, the term was used by Barthes to refer to the part of an image that jumped out at the viewer, that would arrest their attention for some reason or another.  It was not a hard and fast definition.  And not all images have punctum. It could be very subjective.  While one person could be captivated by a detail in an image, another person might think nothing of it. Sometimes the punctum would not be part of the image at all, but rather knowledge of the photograph gained outside the image, able to transform it, nonetheless.

I started thinking about punctum in writing.  (Yes, I am finally getting to writing.) There are many pieces out there I love to read: books, short stories, poems, and dare I say – blogs.  Many of these I love to read because they are a good overall product.  I like the story told, or I felt good after reading them, or that kept me entertained.  There is nothing wrong with writing of this bent.  If you have entertained your reader and have kept them engaged till the end, no matter how long the piece, than you have succeeded in no small degree.  However, there are other pieces that contain something more.

When I think of punctum in writing, there are some obvious examples: reading a Sylvia Plath poem about death, knowing she killed herself some time after writing it.  That knowledge changes the way the reader absorbs the poem. 

But I don’t want to talk about that type of punctum.  I don’t think it’s a very attainable goal in writing, so it shouldn’t concern us very much.  I want to discuss the turn of phrase, or the well-worded sentence that sticks with the reader many paragraphs later.  For this, I think, is a form of punctum that we find in some of our favorite authors.  These are not the authors for who we say, “I loved their series,” but these are the authors of which we say, “they are a really good writer; the way they use words is amazing.”

I suppose an example is required now.  Evev keeping in mind that punctum is often subjective, I don’t think I will be alone in saying J.D. Salinger is this type of writer.  I finish his stories exciting not only for the journey, but for some snippet of dialogue, for some perfectly placed word, for a sentence that flowed better than I felt sentences were capable of.

In Salinger’s Nine Stories, I think I find the most examples of punctum.  In his short story, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” he describes a girl by saying, “She was a girl for who for a ringing phone dropped exactly nothing.”  I love that phrase.  Love it.  I could care less what the story was about.  I just want to repeat that line over and over.  And I don’t care if you disagree. 

When I finish reading a Salinger piece, I often want to start reading it again, not because of the story – often the depressing subject matter is a reason not to read it again – but because of the mastery with which he crafted the piece.  I’m left with the question, “how did he do that?”  There is a polish.  And there is punctum.  There are little literary moments when I feel something in the writing grab me and command my attention. 

It’s probably easier to achieve these affects in poetry.  Word choice is everything there.  But I challenge you to do it in all of your writing.  Find those moments when you can write something that your reader will keep coming back to because they can’t forget it, and they don’t want to. Give them punctum.

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