I recently started reading James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which is, according to the back of my cheap copy, “one of the masterpieces of modern fiction.” The novel is confusing, and if I’m honest with myself, the only thing that kept me going through the first few pages was my discovery that it’s ten times more entertaining if I read it aloud with an Irish accent.
The confusion is intentional, or at least a necessary by-product. It’s like joining a conversation between two children. You know how kids will talk about people you don’t know and expect you to know them?
They go off about how Myrtle bonked Billy’s nose because he likes Tina and not Myrtle and that made Myrtle really mad and when Edna gets mad Edna slams doors and Tommy likes goldfish because they’re never mad. That’s how the first pages of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man are.
Seven Ways to Play With Words
It’s confusing, but also fun. Joyce is extremely playful with the language. Here is Joyce’s “handbook” on playing with words like a child:
1. Talk about Animals
For example, the first sentence:
Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo….
Moocow? What if we called all animals by both their sound and name: Cawbird, Ruffdog, Meowcat, and Hiss-snake? Isn’t that fun?
2. Tell Fairy Tales
Back to that first sentence, I like how he plays with the standard fairy tale line, making it much more fun: “Once upon a time and a very good time it was…”
3. Drop Your Commas
Did you notice, too, how he dropped his commas, giving it a childlike breathlessness?
4. Use Childlike Words
In the first pages, Joyce uses kid words like silvery and nice and mean.
5. Bounce From One Thought to Another
Childlike, he bounces from one memory to another in a blur:
Father Arnall knew more than Dante because he was a priest but both his father and uncle Charles said that Dante was a clever woman and a wellread woman. And when Dante made that noise after dinner and then put up her hand to her mouth: that was heartburn. A voice cried far out on the playground…
6. Focus on the Senses
He focuses on his senses, particularly on warmth or the lack of it.
“When you wet the bed at first it is warm then it gets cold.”
“It would be better to be in the study hall than out here in the cold.”
“He felt his whole body hot and confused in that moment.”
“O how cold and strange it was to think of that.”
“It would be lovely to be in bed after the sheets got a bit hot.”
“There was cold sunlight outside the window.”
Last thing: all the other kids have nicknames like “Nasty Roche” and “Cecil Thunder.”
As you can see, James Joyce is like a method actor, making his prose sound distinctly childlike. Can you add a childlike flare to your own writing?
Practice writing like a child by talking about what happened to you yesterday. Use the techniques above (focus on senses, talk about animals, bounce from one thought to another…), and after you’ve written for fifteen minutes, post your practice in the comments.