Guest Post, Matthew Blasi: The Many Lessons of Barry Hannah, Part 3: Break it Down

Here’s a thing. Finish your story and print. Then read that sucker out loud. Does it sing? Does it have rhythm? Have you driven all music from the mouth? Even the best of us run a few sentences to bedlam. Myself, I used to whittle, say, five thousand worn down to three. I believed I’d done the piece justice, a day’s good labor. From there, I believed, there would be little in the way of heavy editing. Just a bit of spit shine here and there.

But think back to my last essay. A good spit shine is neither about whittling nor bulking. Those are just the crude transactions we make upon the page. No, a good polish only comes through purposed editing, a thorough break down of every sentence to better fit it to the writer’s natural rhythms and voice. It’s less the work of rough demolitions, more a careful tailoring. I got another name for it. I call it filling.

Barry Hannah was the master of filling. Take a gander at this excerpt from the Tennis Handsome:

Barry Hannah B&W

Please,” begged Word. “Something to eat. But no coon, no turtle, no snake.”


Daryl went to a wooden box and lifted out a whole cabbage. He walked to the cot Word lay on and slammed it down into the empty pit of Word’s belly.


Word lost consciousness.

Note the second sentence of the second paragraph. A lesser writer might be tempted to trim some of the fluff from that sentence—“the empty pit of”—to get what many of us seek: tight, concise sentences. But such a cut destroys the music, the tone. The threatened clause lends a layer of detail to the scene, informs us on Word’s condition, his gauntness, his privation. When taken with the dialog it’s altogether pleasant medicine whose effect is felt in the belly, the ribs. The next sentence, broken into its own paragraph, is effect. Word blanks out. So too the narrative eye, switching lenses in the following paragraph to the abusive captors until a sudden shift sends us back.

Filling must be used cautiously. That’s about as close to a hard rule as I like to get on it. But I’ll go a step further: filling must be used to preserve the natural rhythms of the storyteller provided it does no harm to narrative functions (plot progression, character development, and so forth). That’s a good deal clunkier than I’d like but you get the idea. Filling’s not about the length of the sentence. It’s about delivery, tone, rhythm. It’s about music. No coincidence music played such a big part in Hannah’s life and stories. The man understood that a good ear for rhythms and melodies, pitches and refrains and all the many parts of a good tune make for a perceptive writer. And mind, I don’t mean perceptive in the traditional sense, that of the eye, the voyeur. I’m talking something else entirely, an awareness of and fondness for space, for sound. I mean a real love for the music of human beings, human things.

What makes Hannah’s work so unique is the abundance, the clarity of the man’s music. It’s in every sentence, rich but never saccharine. Good writers pull it off once or twice per book. Hannah threads it in every sentence. In the strictest sense, his beats are up tempo, somewhere in the range of one hundred and ten, twenty. Unlike Baldwin, Hannah is pure rock and roll, aggressive and driven and rarely cacophonous save for the finer moments of entropy. Late in The Tennis Handsome Mr. Edward, father to French, struggles to get his mind straight. He’s got animals upstairs, a naked wife, beauteous. He’s got noise. He leaves on a rather apt note:

“Mr. Edward’s eyes went shut again.

Olive, the music.”

But here’s a thing in closing. I don’t think such music is beyond the ken and craft of other writers. We can learn from Hannah, take his lessons to heart. We may not have Gordon Lisch but we have Hannah himself. We can break his sentences down, figure out the notes, the melodies. We can ask ourselves probing questions. Where is my music? Where are my notes?

9 thoughts on “Guest Post, Matthew Blasi: The Many Lessons of Barry Hannah, Part 3: Break it Down

  • March 2, 2014 at 2:25 pm

    Great examples of what filling is. I think a lot of times I break out the chainsaw when some pruning would probably work out better. I’ll keep this in mind next time I write, and try to find my rhythm.

    • March 2, 2014 at 6:06 pm

      Oh, I completely agree. I am currently working on a short and I felt so lyrical while writing the first draft. Then, while editing, I began re-writing with the goal chopping in the interest of concision, and somewhere in the midst of that revision the lyrical moments I love disappear.

      • March 5, 2014 at 1:19 pm

        I find that reading the piece aloud gets the job done. Once I hear something read aloud, I’m able to pinpoint where the sentence has gone wrong, where the dynamics have gotten garbled.

  • March 2, 2014 at 2:58 pm

    I think that there is a fine line in between deleting things versus revisions as needed. I think that that skill is developed over time and you learn to find your niche and tempo.

  • March 3, 2014 at 1:53 am

    Filling is one of those things that writers strive to find a balance of, that you don’t want to bloat your sentences with too much but you want to have something that can connect with people. Looking at it as music and rhythm would allow for a different look at when to use fillers

  • March 22, 2014 at 7:09 pm

    As much as I hate to admit it, I know nothing of Hannah’s work. You have made me a believer. Your reverence for the man’s work is truly inspiring, and I am now looking forward to checking him out. Also, you have made some incredibly useful points here. I tend to over-edit my work, and feel like the more I play with it, the worse it becomes. It does tend to lose that great rhythm that it gets when you’re on a writing role. I also find that reading aloud really helps to bring it back.

    • March 23, 2014 at 10:23 am

      There’s just no substitute for reading aloud. Your ears pick up what the eyes and brain, enamored, miss. Glad you liked it and glad you’re digging into Hannah. Skip Bats out of Hell and Geronimo Rex and you should be fine.

  • March 24, 2014 at 3:56 pm

    Speaking about filling, here’s a sentence from your second essay on Hannah, “Too, we learn the difference between volume and clarity.” If you can have volume and clarity like a perfectly ripe peach or a perfectly ripe virgin, that’s the grail. Artistic license, like the ability to tell a good lie, shouldn’t be used for any other reason.

    People will forgive a clear lie if it’s very well told. Somehow, Southerners know this in their marrow. Listeners don’t mind being strung along if there’s a pay-off. But there must, as you say, be music in the act.

    I worked at an art school this morning. I’m driven to say that Hannah paints with a very wet brush. Colors bleed into each other. And there’s always the joy, also native to many home schooled Southerns, of doing something perfectly imperfect. Like a self-taught banjo player or truck mechanic. I could also say that Hannah swamps his paintbrush with feeling, and succeeds in spite of today’s bias towards hyper-rationality and, let’s say, moral refinement. He doesn’t seem to care about moral refinement. As you’ve pretty much said, as a Southerner Hannah looks to nature for model behavior, and not the post-Industrial and forehead heavy city.

    • March 27, 2014 at 10:41 am

      That feeling you’re talking about, that mushy stuff on the end of his brush, it’s love. Plain and simple. The man knew how to love his characters no matter their foulness, their bad habits.

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