Writers Talk About Writing
Good Writing: Through a Glass Clearly
You and I want to be good writers, but what will make our writing good? Inspiration, perspiration, determination, and endless revision — all fine answers, but the biggest answer is: good writing captures life.
The little black marks of good writing don't squat dully on paper as do the little black marks of poor writing; good writing's marks burst up from the paper with all the color and energy of life itself. The heaving waves of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans overflow Moby Dick's cardboard covers; the seething crowds of London and Paris elbow their way out of the pages of A Tale of Two Cities.
So how can we make our writing capture life?
Let's make an analogy with acting. When watching good acting — Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull or Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice, for example — we know DeNiro is not an aging boxer, and we know Streep is not a refugee forced to sacrifice her child, yet we react to them on the screen as if they were the characters they portray. We enjoy their acting even as we're fooled by their acting. The more DeNiro disappears into his role, the more his skill becomes evident; the more Streep tricks us, the more we applaud the honesty of her performance.
If we sense, however, that an actor is drawing attention to him or herself by sending out subtle or blatant signals that say, "Look at me, aren't I acting up a storm?" then the illusion collapses, and we realize that we're not seeing Hamlet or Hedda Gabler suffer and die, but that we're watching a small-minded egotist overact in a soon-to-be-forgotten hour on the stage.
Likewise, good writing doesn't draw our eyes to its own excellence; good writing instead becomes a window through which we can see so clearly that only on second or third reading do we notice how well made is the window we're looking through. Here, for example, is a passage from Gustave Flaubert's immortal masterpiece, Madame Bovary, found by letting the pages fall open where they may:
The table was laid under the cart-shed. On it were four sirloins, six chicken fricasées, stewed veal, three legs of mutton, and in the middle a fine roast suckling pig, flanked by four chitterlings with sorrel. At the corners were decanters of brandy. Sweet bottled cider frothed around the corks, and all the glasses had been filled to the brim with wine beforehand.
Flaubert uses no writing device to make us notice his skill — could any sentence be more mundane than, "The table was laid under the cart-shed"? — yet this is superb writing. Why? Because the writer, having seen Emma's rural wedding feast in his imagination, uses plain food and drink words — sirloins, chicken fricasées, stewed veal, mutton, roast suckling pig, chitterlings, sorrel, brandy, cider, wine — to makes us see, smell, and drool over the rich repast as if we were among the lucky guests.
Compare that with this sentence from A Farewell to Arms:
The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust and the leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.
Many critics have ooed and ahhed over these fifty words, but I find this writing poor. For one thing, Hemingway's few adjectives, "dusty, bare, white," leave his nouns vague: are those trees poplars, planes or olives? His version of Flaubert's sentence might have read like this:
On the table were beef and chicken and calf and sheep and pig meat and there were decanters of brandy and bottles of cider and glasses of wine.
Far less appetizing, wouldn't you say?
Still more damning to me are Papa's famous seven "and"s. Why? Because all those comma-less conjunctions create a sentence structure so unusual that, when reading it, we notice the writing more than what the writing reveals. This window isn't crystal clear, it's cloudy because it's overly decorated. Compared to Flaubert's quiet clarity, Hemingway's sentence has a pushy "Look at me, aren't I clever!" subtext that I find narcissistic.
Here's a sentence from Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald:
Neither individually nor as a crowd could they be said to dominate the environment, as one comes to dominate a work of art he may possess, no matter how esoteric, no one knew what this room meant because it was evolving into something else, becoming everything a room was not; to exist in it was as difficult as walking on a highly polished stairway, and no one could succeed at all save with the aforementioned qualities of a hand moving among broken glass — which qualities limited and defined the majority of those present.
This window is opaque! If anyone reading this can elucidate Fitzgerald's ninety-three word sentence, please leave a comment below. "As one comes to dominate a work of art," the room was "becoming everything a room was not," "aforementioned qualities" — excuse me, but huh? Unlike the Flaubert passage, this Fitzgerald sentence is purest gobbledegook, and like the Hemingway sentence, it's pompous gobbledegook. "Ah, only world-weary sophisticates like you and me know how romantic it is to be beautiful and damned!" — that's the self-centered subtext I hear from Fitzgerald.
Not that writing must be as prosaic as the Flaubert passage above to be good. Shakespeare, Sterne, and Nabokov come instantly to mind as writers who use every known writing device — alliteration, allusion, antithesis, balanced phrasing, double entendres, puns, rhyme, and all the rest — to make their writing snap, crackle and pop. Reading them, we feel as thrilled by the verve of the word window as by the vision the window discloses. Even modest Flaubert, patiently searching for le mot juste, could bend his sentences to poetic lyricism:
She remembered the summer evenings all full of sunshine. The colts neighed when anyone passed by, and galloped and galloped. Under her window there was a beehive, and sometimes the bees wheeling around in the light struck against her window like rebounding balls of gold. What happiness there had been at that time, what freedom, what hope!
— and to poignant meditations:
...no one can ever give the exact measurement of his needs, nor of his conceptions, nor of his sorrows...human speech is like a cracked tin kettle on which we hammer out tunes to make bears dance when we long to move the stars.
Flaubert, however, didn't write the poetry and philosophy of these passages to show off his own brilliance. He wrote the first to deepen our insight into his doomed heroine, the second to deepen our insight into her cynical lover, and he wrote both so that we could look with him through a window of words and see the never-ending, ever-amazing, twists and turns of the human heart.
That is good writing.