Dashing

Diary writers have an affinity for the dash, a fluid and flexible punctuation mark used to propel spontaneous writing forward.  Hinged on a dash, the sentence pauses before starting to swing in another direction. Or a voice momentarily interrupts itself, cutting off an unfinished thought to launch a new idea.

Physically, when writing by hand, a dash is quickly accomplished by scooting a horizontal mark across the page, even before figuring out whether you’re ending a sentence there or planning to extend the same sentence in your next phrase.

Consider how Frances Burney writes in her diary, upon learning that the great Dr. Samuel Johnson has praised her first novel, Evelina: “But Dr. Johnson’s approbation!—It almost crazed me with agreeable surprise—it gave me such a flight of spirits that I danced a jig to Mr. Crisp, Without any preparation, music, or explanation;—to his no small amazement and diversion” (August 3, 1778).

According to Anna Jackson, who devotes a full chapter of her book Diary Poetics to the dash, a dash-filled passage conveys the sense of prose flowing at a rapid pace. With a series of dashes, the writer may easily leap from one idea or item to the next without having to explain the connection or insert a logical transition. The resulting series of images or details can pile up into a list, strung together into an indefinitely long series.

The relationship among items on a list separated by dashes doesn’t need to be spelled out. If each new diary entry starts afresh, juxtaposed to the last entry but holding no expectation that it must refer back to what was said before, a sentence containing dashes does the same thing on a smaller scale, mirroring in miniature the diary’s formal parataxis.

Especially when combined with exclamation points or question marks, a habit of using the dash can produce an effect more like natural speech than like formal prose. Before completing one thought, the dash leaves off to take up a new idea, as in conversation with a close friend, where mutual understanding makes explanations unnecessary.

In this casual mode, the dash can suggest that we’re following the writer’s thought process in real time. Dashes imitate a mind at work, as each phrase seems to prompt the next by association or proximity. Sometimes the dash is followed by a correction or comment on what went before, or it prefaces the discovery of what Jackson calls “the perfectly chosen word” to crystallize what the diarist has, up till this moment, been attempting to say.

As for mood, depending on the subject matter a profusion of dashes may convey a sense of agitation and lack of focus—or conversely, the dash could create a deliberate pause or gap, to slow things down where normal syntax would shove the message onward. As an example, Anna Jackson cites the reflective and delicate mastery of this punctuation mark in Emily Dickinson’s poems “to open up an interior, emotional space” (121). Whether that space in a Dickinson poem holds reflection open at the end of a line or inserts a gap in the middle of a line, it compels the reader to pause for a moment and think (or feel) before going on.

Because a dash, like taking a breath, can be followed by almost anything, it seems (again, like the diary itself) to resist finality and closure. Toward the end of her chapter on the dash, Anna Jackson suggests that these moments point toward what can’t be contained, and so befit themes and material that exceed what the writer is able to express. In this sense, the dash gestures toward the limits of language.

Katherine Mansfield recalls seeing a foaming wave “suspended in the air before it fell” and writes: “In that moment (what do I mean?) the whole life of the soul is contained. One is flung up—out of life—one is ‘held,’ and then,—down, bright, broken, glittering onto the rocks, tossed back, part of the ebb and flow” (Journal, p. 150).

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