Friction gives parallelism its punch
During my career as a freelance magazine writer, I interviewed some fascinating people: Robert Redford, Brad Pitt and George Clooney among them. But my favorite subject was Bill Shapiro, NPR’s first and possibly only rock ‘n’ roll lawyer.
When he was in school, Shapiro’s father convinced him to become an attorney by day. But young Bill’s first Elvis sighting compelled him to host a radio show, NPR’s Cyprus Avenue, by night. Here’s the kicker:
“Shapiro plans to stick with his law practice, radio show and books and hope that they all continue to grow. He’ll remain a rock ‘n’ roll lawyer — a D.J. with a J.D., a tax attorney who cares more for compact discs than certificates of deposit — the son of his father, but the godchild of the King.
The sound you’re hearing in that passage is called balance. Also known as parallelism, balance works because of the rub between similarity and difference.
“The power of the language, the punch, comes from the friction between parallel elements,” writes Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at The Poynter Institute.
At first glance, these two balanced phrases seem similar. By definition, for instance, parallelism means their structures are virtually the same:
the blank of his blank
the blank of the blank.
Dig deeper, though, and you start to find differences.
Word length, for instance, flips, then flops. Son has one syllable; godchild has two. Father has two syllables; King has one. Now that you mention it, Roy, flipping the longer and shorter words does help give this passage its rhythm.
Where’s the rub?
Clark suggests finding friction in balance from:
- Length of words, phrases and sentences
- Poetics, which he describes as “flow vs. stop”
- Semantics, or the meanings of the words
- Connotation, or the idea or feeling the word invokes aside from its literal or primary meaning
What friction can you spot in these parallel passages?
Poetics. In The Goldfinch, novelist Donna Tartt writes:
“And the flavor of Pippa’s kiss — bittersweet and strange — stayed with me all the way back uptown, swaying and sleepy as I sailed home on the bus, melting with sorrow and loveliness, a starry ache that lifted me up above the windswept city like a kite: my head in the rainclouds, my heart in the sky.”
Here, we can hear the rhythm of the two-syllable rainclouds followed by the one-syllable sky.
Semantics. Oscar Wilde, Irish writer, poet and playwright, said:
“Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.”
Substituting the “n” for the “r” in wherever totally changes the meaning in this passage. The first is a person you can’t wait to see; the second is someone you can’t wait to get rid of.
In Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff writes:
“As no stone portrait of her has yet proved authentic, André Malraux’s quip remains partly true: ‘Nefertiti is a face without a queen; Cleopatra is a queen without a face.'”
Flipping the nouns in the object phrase transform this simple observation into an elegant idea.
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning “biography of cancer,” The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddhartha Mukherjee writes:
“Every drug, the sixteenth-century physician Paracelsus once opined, is a poison in disguise. Cancer chemotherapy, consumed by its fiery obsession to obliterate the cancer cell, found its roots in the obverse logic: every poison might be a drug in disguise.”
Flipping the subject and object gives the final phrase in this passage a whole new meaning.
Finally, I’ll end with a note from my brilliant proofreader, Chris Smith. His late father used to quote Bill Earle’s twice-balanced quip about budgeting:
“If your outgo exceeds your income,
then your upkeep will be your downfall.”