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Thursday, October 06, 2011

"what the hell is good writing anyway?"

said the status of my friend Amir.

In typical Lukenian fashion, I went way overboard:

‎"Good writing doesn't persuade you to others' ideas; good writing lets you see through their eyes." -- Malcolm Gladwell (paraphrased)

A word after a word after a word is power." -- Margaret Atwood (a bit of a lower standard maybe??)

"The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do." -- Thomas Jefferson

"True eloquence consists of saying all that should be, not all that could be, said." -- La Rochefoucauld

"One should not aim at being possible to understand, but at being impossible to misunderstand." -- Quintilian

"The whole end of speech is to be understood." -- Confucius

"When you catch an adjective, kill it." -- Mark Twain

"I wouldn't touch a superlative again with an umbrella." -- Dorothy Parker

"An abstract noun neither smiles nor sings nor tells bedtime stories." -- Lewis Lapham

"I have rewritten -- often several times -- every word I have ever published." -- Vladimir Nabokov

"The best writing is rewriting." -- E.B. White

Of course, Emerson said, "I hate quotations; tell me what you know." So I will.

There are three canons of good writing. One is clarity and (without idolizing it) simplicity, which the above, plus Strunk and White, have railed on for ages and ages. Of course, it can be perfectly clear and totally uninteresting.

Also important is plot, which has also been talked about to no end. There are many basic principles of plot and many shapes that conform to them, which have all been done to death; as long as you don't violate them (barring, of course, that you are a masterful genius who can transcend them), your writing will feel "genuine". But it can still be uninteresting.

Indeed, we might say that the above two are not goals to be achieved but pitfalls to be avoided. What goal, then, is to be achieved that will make writing engaging and interesting?

This quality is in the details, especially in the ones that appear minor but which make a strong impression. This sounds paradoxical; it is certainly difficult. Nevertheless, the most obvious details about any scene are not only clichés, they are not even effective; a writer must have the ability to isolate the elements of an experience that affect not the conscious but the subconscious. These more than anything else strike us as being just and true, and force the imagination.

How do you develop this talent? I think if you don't have an eye for it, no matter how much you work on avoiding those pitfalls (and the latter is certainly teachable), your writing will present no difficulties but no enticements either, and the best you can do is respond logically but dryly, not like a writer or poet. But if it is capable of being developed, the only way I know how is patience, both intentional and unintentional.

With intentional patience you must sit down, stop thinking about things, and consider everything in your view. Close your eyes and consider everything you feel, hear, and smell. (If you can taste things, good, but this rarely comes in handy!) Then go to a new place and repeat it. Walk over every square foot of the new place, turning over small objects and observing what is beneath, and what they look like on all sides. If necessary, make major changes to your environment, on the sole condition that you leave it there for a long time and get used to it. These exercises are the best you can do for the moment.

With a more long-term patience, the best you can hope to do is immerse yourself in an environment. You absorb best by doing things in it and interacting with it (and you will retain this best by involving other people and doing it in community; other writers will best understand what you are up to). You know all the intimate details of your house because you have lived there for a long time, and are thus capable of naming what seem second-nature to you but which would take a stranger ages to notice -- the fourth step that creaks, the spot on the blue couch no one likes to sit on because the kitten peed there once when it was afraid, the faces of your mother's maternal grandparents in the dark red frame, where the cereal is and where the granola bars are, the fact that you can hear your parents' conversations while lying in your bed. All those details have sunk in so well that you can evoke your house with extreme specificity to any member of it in three words, as anyone who travels with family can attest to. The difficulty, then, is making yourself so familiar with something that most people are unconsciously familiar with and will recognize even when you use a phrase no one has used before for that king of thing. And this requires patience, habit, and the ability to move on if you want to expand the scope of what you are qualified to write interestingly about.

Which brings me to a final footnote, on being qualified to write about things. It is often said that you should write what you know, and there's some truth in it. I maintain that I can write about ancient Rome, about Moscow, about marriage, and get my facts right -- as long as we're well-read, such a capacity is inevitable. But only in immersing ourselves there, whether in person or with the greatest efforts of imagination, can we be familiar with what is less mentioned, with what tends less often to become a catchphrase but which generates the strongest images, with what is the only thing that comes from our own experience and not some recycled knowledge: the small details whose evocative power outstrips all other description.

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