Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Writing Packed with Life

Yes, it's been said before, but let's say it again: writing lives on the life writers pack into their writing. Get only a little life into your poetry or prose, and your writing will soon starve, dwindle, and die. Get a lot of life into your poetry or prose, and your writing may live forever.

The life writing captures may be the personality of the writer, whether that be Emily Dickinson's timid boldness:

I am nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody too?
There's a pair of us—don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.

—or Trollope's wry satire of himself as Mr. Pollock, a "heavyweight sporting literary gentleman," who wakes at dawn, writes for three hours, then goes fox hunting:

...all the world declared he was as ignorant of hunting as any tailor. He could ride, or when he couldn't ride he could tumble....But few knew of the sad misfortunes which poor Pollock sometimes encountered;—the muddy ditches in which he was left; the despair with which he would stand by his unfortunate horse when the poor brute could no longer move...

Or it may be the vigor of the world the writing describes, here a storm painted by Daniel Defoe:

... the night after it blew a dreadful storm...about midnight the noise was very dreadful, what with the roaring of the sea, and of the wind, intermixed with the firing of guns for help from the ships, the cries of the seamen and people on shore, and, which was worse, the cries of those which were driven on shore by the tempest and dashed in pieces.

—or a young woman painted by Balzac:

As she washed her hands again and again in the cold spring water that roughened and reddened the skin, she looked down at her pretty rounded arms and wondered what her cousin did to have hands so soft and white, and nails so shapely. She put on a new pair of stockings and her best shoes, and she laced herself carefully without passing over a single eyelet hole. For the first time in her life, she wished to look her best...

The life in writing pushes up from the page as palpable energy that engages us, awakes our imaginations, directs our attention, makes us see, hear, touch, taste, and smell the world we've been born into. Sixteen years ago I sat at my mother's bedside as she lay dying and re-read David Copperfield. Dickens' life-packed writing nourished my spirit:

He was a dreadful old man to look at, in a filthy flannel waistcoat, and smelling terribly of rum. His bedstead, covered with a tumbled and ragged piece of patchwork, was in the den he had come from, where another little window showed a prospect of stinging nettles, and a lame donkey.
"Oh, what do you want?" grinned this old man, in a fierce, monotonous whine. "Oh, my eyes and limbs, what do you want? Oh, my lungs and liver, what do you want? Oh, goroo, goroo!

The Iliad has lived longer, by several millennia, than most writing, and no wonder. Homer crams every line and every page of its twenty-four books with vibrant life, even though, or perhaps because, he often paints gruesome death—here that of Pedaios:

Meges Phyleides, the master spearman,
closing with him, hit his nape; the point
clove through his tongue's root and against his teeth.
Biting cold bronze he fell into the dust.

Reading Robert Fitzgerald's magnificent verse translation one recent night, I came upon a few pages in Book XII so bursting with life that I whooped in amazement. About one hundred and thirty lines into the Book, Homer describes how the Trojans have driven the Greeks (Akhaians) back to the earthworks they've built as a last defense before their beached ships. If the Trojans get through the log-studded wall, they'll be able to burn the Greek ships, leaving Agamemnon and his allies no way to escape bloody annihilation.

What struck me first was Homer's clarity, his movie-like realism. The Trojan Asios, for instance, drove his chariot "left around the ships to a place where the Akhaians were withdrawing chariots and horses from the plain":

Here he swerved for the wall and found the gates
of planking with great bolts as yet unshut;
men held them open to admit and save
stray fugitives from battle. Straight ahead
he drove his team, while after him his men
ran yelling—for they thought the Akhaians could not
hold, but had to fall back on the ships.

Their hope, however, was "all a delusion," for Asios and his troops found their way blocked by two Lapithian spearmen, Polypoites and Leonteus, who, says Homer, were as "tough as the wargod." The two heroic warriors stood just outside the tall gates and held their ground—

                                                like oaks
that tower on high hills, enduring wind
and rain through all their days, with roots deep down,
tenacious of the earth.

Such natural similes are common in Homer; in Book IV, for example, he refers to swarms of attacking troops as "big waves [running] under a freshening west wind." On the other hand, pages may go by with one or none. Here, only twelve lines later, he again describes the two mighty men with a simile. Now they are not oaks, but wild boars:

Think of two savage boars in a mountain place
awaiting a loud rabble of dogs and men:
they swing their heads from side to side and rip
through underbrush, snapping the twigs off short,
with a sharp noise of gnashing tusks
until some hunter makes the kill. Just so
the bright bronze breastplates clanged...

Seventeen lines later he describes the two mighty Lipithians with a third simile; now they're hornets:

                        ...like agile-waisted hornets
or bees who build their hives on a stony road—
hornets that will not leave their homes but wait
for hunters, and in fury defend their young—
these two men, two men only, at the gate
will not give way.

In between these last two similes Homer slips in a third: the Greeks and Trojans pelt each other with stones that:

...shower to earth like snow
driven by a stormwind thick and fast
in a murky veil swept over pastureland.

The blind poet must have loved the image because two pages later, again describing the falling stones, he expands the simile with obvious affection:

flakes of snow that come down thick and fast
on a winter day when Zeus...
                                               ...lulls the winds
and sifts white flakes in stillness hour by hour
until hilltop and foreland are all hid
as are the farmers' meadowlands and fields,
while snow comes down over the hoary sea,
on harbors and on shores. Though running surf
repel it, all things else are muffled white,
weighed down by snow from heaven...                       

In the middle of these few pages Homer leaves similes to paint a word picture as vivid as any I know in literature: an eagle flying high above the battlefield:

                                    ...in its claws
a huge snake, red as blood, live and jerking,
full of fight; it doubled on itself
and struck the captor's chest and throat. At this
the eagle in its agony let go
and veered away screaming downwind. The snake
fell in the mass of troops, and Trojans shuddered
to see the rippling thing lie in their midst.

I bet you're whooping now! This is writing that grabs your guts and won't let go: a chariot charge at a closing gate, stopped by two warriors stout as oaks, savage as boars, and as angry as hornets; stones falling like snow; a snake writhing in an eagle's claws. Listen to the words: "planking...great bolts...tenacious of earth...white flakes in stillness...hoary sea...huge snake, red as blood...agony...veered away screaming...shuddered." None are big words or la-di-da words, but each one hits home like a well-aimed punch. Homer's overall scene is a human battlefield, but he amplifies and enriches his vision and ours by drawing into his words the energy of oak trees, wild boars, buzzing hornets, snowy pastures, a screaming eagle and an unforgettable crimson snake. Writing this bold, this beautiful, this full of life, will never die.

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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

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Comments from our users:

Monday February 4th 2013, 12:28 PM
Comment by: David D. (Seattle, WA)
I am indeed whooping with delight at the selections and the enthusiasm Michael Lydon demonstrates so vividly. I feel challenged to write with more thought of the fire and life that can be brought forth by good word choice.
Monday February 4th 2013, 3:49 PM
Comment by: Meredith C. (Murfreesboro, TN)
Mr. Lydon always increases my desire to write better. This article immediately had me thinking about giving my writing more life, an idea which seems not only possible, but enjoyable. Whether it is or not remains to be seen, but you can bet I'll be remembering the lively examples he's given here as I work at the process of writing and editing.
Monday February 4th 2013, 6:51 PM
Comment by: brian A. (Maple Leaf Canada)
Very nicely done Michael L...the comments by David D and Meredith C inspired me to do the same...I too 'feel challenged' and will be remembering 'the lively examples'...you made your point very well in a few breathless moments of forbidden relationships, thoughtless animal cruelty, the bravery and horrors of war at gates of death and of the unspeakable anguish brought by a steathly drone attack. I suspect that whatever 'story' an author chooses to pen, the response by readers (and the author) will undoubtedly be enhanced by both overt and subtle insights to the human condition. After all...it's all about life...isn't it?
Monday February 4th 2013, 8:42 PM
Comment by: Meredith C. (Murfreesboro, TN)
Brian, you're so right! It IS all about life. The trick for us is to find just the right words to enthrall the reading audience. I was in a writing class once where we were told to write as fast as we could on an enormous art pad. After we finished the writing exercise, I was told that my energy was so high that my writing would be the same way. So I try to make sure that I'm fully engaged when I write, so I can put life into it.
Tuesday February 5th 2013, 8:27 AM
Comment by: brian A. (Maple Leaf Canada)
Meredith, you are right. Energy is good. Focussed energy is more powerful. Be as the sniper...empty your mind, discard the chatter, go to that place of sharpest focus where all is just that. There is no trick...the words that enthrall the you that is there will all be... right...

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