I don’t write for money; I’m hardly making any. I don’t write for self-expression; I don’t know what that means. I write, more than anything, for semicolons.
I don’t remember when I started using them. One afternoon a few months ago I looked down and found my page teeming with the little hybrids and wondered whether I was abusing them too badly. I turned to the Internet. The first thing I found was a quote from Kurt Vonnegut: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodite things representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”
I sat upright in my chair, folded my arms, and took it personally. I was surprised, confused, and suddenly self-conscious: Is this what everyone thought of them? Is this what everyone thought of my writing? I read more articles, which linked to more articles, and each author smartly wrote them off as useless, pompous punctuation. “The semicolon is ugly, ugly as a tick on a dog’s belly, I pinch them out of my prose,” said Donald Barthelme. “They are more powerful more imposing more pretentious than a comma but they are a comma all the same,” said Gertrude Stein. This wasn’t the semicolon I knew, the one that quietly joined clauses without making any faces about it. I began to feel bad for it, saw it as the timid girl who people mistakenly took for a snob. These writers wanted her decapitated or, at the very least, buried alive.
Reluctantly, I saw their point. What can a semicolon do that a period can’t? Why was I using them? After all, isn’t the point of writing to discern order and relationships? Narrative requires decisions. And I do believe in burning bridges, in using conjunctions and ending sentences. This or that. Yes so no. I love you but I’m leaving. I believe in finding a cause and an effect, in that order. I’ve believed these things at some points in my life more than others. When I was nineteen, I wrote things such as this: “His wife worked in the garden. He drank tomato juice and went to bed early. He had work the next morning.” An editor once told me that particular story fired like a machine gun, and not in a good way.
And maybe I’ve over-corrected. I still use short sentences, but they’re softer, and yes, full of semicolons. I don’t know why I started using them. I didn’t realize people perceived the semicolon as stuffy or academic, so I never (consciously) used one to sound smarter. I have used some as hiding places, afraid to commit to causation or opinion; as lazy ways out, when I don’t feel like thinking too hard. I’ve treated them as winks, muddying my meaning, choosing self-preservation over clarity. I have carelessly placed others where I really should have used a period: I am the sort of person who postpones endings as long as possible. I read the last pages of a book in slow motion; I buy plenty of extra beers. The semicolon has enabled some of my bad habits, no doubt.
But I still love it. I love that it expresses simultaneity the way most parts of grammar can’t. I love how it slows without stopping, as in Ann Beattie: “Even before we went to look at the property in Garrison, he was planning the afternoon croquet games we were going to play there; we’d play croquet and drink mint juleps, he announced.” I love how Borges uses them more often than anyone else could, in lists too long to repeat here.
Sometimes I am very attached to semicolons in my own writing. You will not talk me out of this one: “He could not figure out where to press the paper towels; he could not figure out where the blood was coming from.” Other times, they function more like scabs and fall off eventually.
“They are young; they are growing.”
A few weeks later I return, revise. “They are young, but they are growing.” I think this is good, this being adaptable.
My therapist would be proud. “Embrace ambivalence,” she always said. “Everything is so this or that with you, passive or aggressive, manic or depressive. You hate people or you love them. You have to acknowledge a middle ground. Your friend did bad things; you love her. You have to try it like this, or you’ll never be happy.”
Almost a hundred years before that, Isaac Babel said, “No iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a period in the right place.” He was right. I’ve been bowled over by a great period more than once. But what drives me to write in the first place — to start a story, not to end it — is the chance to find the rare places where semicolons truly belong, where a period or a word is too reductive. I lay two thoughts side by side and see how they look at each other.