A few years ago, I set off on a journey to the heart of Christian contemplation, both in practice and with studies. I began doing Centering Prayer, a form of meditation rooted in monasticism and the teachings of the mystics, and reading works from the mystical margins of Christian tradition—St. John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, Theresa of Avila, Bonaventure, the Patristic fathers—and sharing all this with an international contemplative community. It’s been thrilling. The work transforms me from the inside out, and will have a profound on my writing, teaching, and living for years to come.
Because I love and trust language so much, the hardest part about these past years has been my inability to talk about what I’m learning. I put down a book or return from a symposium feeling like my internal furniture has been rearranged, but I can’t say how, or why, or what. I’m a blubbering fool. (more…)
Here’s a law of physics that every preschooler knows: To have fun on the seesaw (or I should say teeter-totter now that I’m a Minnesotan), you need two people. Movement, balance, and those joyous bumps all depend on having weight at both ends.
This is true for so much else as well! A good conversation needs two people with different opinions and a willingness to listen. A healthy relationship needs tension as well as commonality. A productive solution to any problem addresses multiple aspects of that problem. The truth itself is never singular but always sitting right in the center of paradox.
As you’ve probably guessed, I’m pondering our public rhetoric, especially around the upcoming election and in response to ongoing, systemic racism in our country. (more…)
I write about love because I tell stories; and it is impossible, I believe, to tell any kind of powerful or valuable or meaningful story without writing about love. And, too, I have found that it is impossible to write a story without love. The writer must love her characters, must open her heart to them, give the whole of herself to them, in order for those characters to give themselves back to her.
–Kate Dicamillo, “Characters who Love Again”
Today I’m pondering love’s role in the making of literature. Love is a basic ingredient, like water in a soup. Without water, you have no soup.
Before there’s any hope of writing well or of an audience appreciating your work, you must love writing itself. You must love being alone, tending the wondrous workings of your own mind and heart. You must love questions. You must passionately love the way silent stirrings inside you take form when given language. You must adore words. You must open your being to the many ways words change you.
Before there’s any chance of rendering your material with accuracy and interest, you must love it. You must love people, in all their grit and grime and brokenness and inconsistency. You must be willing to look as directly as you can at what is, and not shy from representing this truth to others. You must love the truth.
If Kate Dicamillo is right and it’s impossible to tell any kind of meaningful story without writing about love, love itself must be our centerpiece—desire for it, lack of it, how it malfunctions, how it transforms, why we deny it, how it surprises, where it originates, how it ends… Isn’t this the stuff of literature?
To connect well with readers you must love connecting. You must love the intimacy of entering another’s story, and you must love welcoming others into your own story.
All this makes me wonder: Couldn’t learning to write well, then, be an exercise in learning to love well? Or the reverse: Mightn’t learning to love well benefit our work? Is it possible that writing instructors have been misdirected, giving our attention to teaching craft when in fact we should be working through the craft on the human heart? Or is it possible that craft itself is our means for learning to love?
“Look,” writes Brian Doyle. “I don’t know much, but I know these things uncontrovertibly and inarguably: One: stories matter waaaaay more than we know. Two: all stories are, in some form, prayers. Three: love is the story and the prayer that matters the most.”
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
I’m a great proponent of the triage method of revising: Take care of the big problems first and gradually work your way down to the details of language. This is a great policy—in the abstract. If there’s such a thing as a time-saver, prioritizing is it. And generally writers DO pay more attention to word choice, sentence structure, rhythm and sound the closer they get to publication.
But in reality writers, to varying degrees, can’t help but pay attention to language from the start. On one extreme are writers who must perfect each sentence before continuing to the next. While this method works for some, I wouldn’t recommend it as it poses far too many opportunities for a new writer to get stuck. Most of us grow attached to sentences we’ve polished and this attachment interferes with our ability to remain flexible and open-minded. It’s hard to fundamentally restructure an entire book or to lop off a chapter that took you six months to write when all the sentences are beautiful.
On the other extreme are blessedly sloppy drafters who spew out text, trusting that revision will tighten their prose. I know writers who, when unable to conjure up the right word, insert asterisks instead. Preserving the flow of ideas is too important; the right word can arrive later. When we’re not attached to particular words, it’s easier to play with the large elements that form a work—structure, character, themes, plot, voice…
Most writers fall between these two extremes. We try to stay loose but can’t help but consider our word choices. Luckily, language is quirky; just as a strong working title can give direction to a draft, the right word can also unlock material. An accurate description can reveal to the writer a character’s nature or the truth about a memory. Precision in word choice can expose new ideas worth exploring. There are benefits to occasionally slowing or even stopping one’s “flow” to deliberate over language.
We don’t always know which words or sentences are worthy of careful construction early on and which are distractions from the hard work of composing. Only much later will we discover which passages are germane—which is why it’s always wise to keep a repository for cut passages. Generally, though, staying alert to our motives keeps us on track. Is a particular quest for accurate language motivated by genuine questions about the content? If so, our work with language reveals the heartbeat and is worth pursuing early on. Is our struggle with language about presenting material to the reader? If so, consider tackling this work later. Better find the core of your story first and then polish the surface.
When tweaking language during the final stages of revision, strive for clarity first. Language is meant to communicate. Sound, rhythm, pacing, word choice, sentence structure, punctuation, paragraphing—all stylistic choices—should convey the content rather than call attention to themselves. Take Strunk and White’s advice: “The beginner should approach style warily, realizing that it is an expression of self, and should turn resolutely away from all devices that are popularly believed to indicate style—all mannerisms, tricks, adornments. The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.”
But within the scope of clear language are many choices, and fine writers opt for words that show as well as tell. Let’s look at a passage from Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories:
When I am the reader, not the writer, I too fall into the lovely illusion that the words before me which read so inevitably, must also have been written exactly as they appear, rhythm and cadence, language and syntax, the powerful waves of the sentences laying themselves on the smooth beach of the page one after another faultlessly.
But here I sit before a yellow legal pad, and the long page of the preceding two paragraphs is a jumble of crossed-out lines, false starts, confused order. A mess. The mess of my mind trying to find out what it wants to say. This is a writer’s frantic, grabby mind, not the poised mind of a reader waiting to be edified or entertained.
These paragraphs feel effortless, unpretentious, and perfectly clear. But look carefully at Hampl’s choices. In the long, undulating sentence about reading, she pairs “rhythm and cadence” and “language and syntax,” simulating “powerful waves” of sentences. In the paragraph about writing, she omits the “and” in her list: “crossed-out lines, false starts, confused order.” She follows this with two incomplete sentences, giving her readers a visceral experience of stopping and starting. The word “grabby” is colloquial, tactile, and low-brow. Her language shows as well as tells.
Whether readers are conscious of these choices is irrelevant. Readers feel language; we have bodily responses with or without consciousness. Writers succeed when every aspect of their work serves the work’s heartbeat.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
Great premium is placed on language in our literary culture today. Is it fresh? Is it witty? Does it dazzle? The question I wish reviewers and publishers would ask about language is “Is it true?” We need writers who name the vast diversities of our reality with language that illuminates rather than obscures.
Truth, of course, is relative. But the truth I’m referring to isn’t singular or objective; it’s resonant, as full of mystery as fact. We’ve all had the experience of reading a passage that describes a familiar object or event in a way we’ve never considered but which feels absolutely right. Here are a few of my favorites:
The rooks too were keeping one of their annual festivities; soaring round the tree tops until it looked as if a vast net with thousands of black knots in it had been cast up into the air; which, after a few moments sank slowly down upon the trees until every twig seemed to have a knot at the end of it. Then, suddenly, the net would be thrown into the air again in a wider circle this time, with the utmost clamour and vociferation, as though to be thrown into the air and settle slowly down upon the tree tops were a tremendously exciting experience. –Virginia Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth”
Woolf’s image of a knotted net is an accurate description of birds rising and returning to a tree. The comparison aids the reader; we see more clearly because of it. Both the image (quite ordinary) and the language (quite simple) help the reader experience this moment. Nothing in this passage calls attention to the language or the author.
She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation. Then Janie felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid.
–Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God
Here’s a passage where language does call attention to itself, but not for the sake of the author’s self-aggrandizement. Rather the extreme word choices here—“panting breath,” “sanctum of a bloom,” “love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree,” “a pain remorseless sweet”—help us understand Janie’s teenage point of view. Janie knows extremes of passion that are inconsistent with the dull prospects of the rest of her life. Inhabiting her perspective is intense, ecstatic, and memorable.
The truth revealed in these passages is dual. First, these authors name their physical reality accurately and beautifully. They represent the “facts” on the page in a manner that is fresh but also accountable to real human experience. Second, they choose details that point through physical reality to some emotional, spiritual, relational, or psychological truth—the inner story.
But it’s possible to create resonant truth with expository language as well:
It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength.
–James Baldwin, “Notes of a Native Son”
Even abstract words, placed well and applied intelligently, can make beautiful prose. Note how Baldwin’s repetitions ring like bells. Note how, despite the complexity of these sentences’ construction and the paradoxical nature of the ideas he’s conveying, his words are quite plain. Above all, he wants to communicate. The integrity of his language extends naturally frm the integrity with which he explores his struggles with racism.
The authors I respect most choose their words with integrity. They do not seek to impress; they seek to discover, to uncover, to name what is. Fresh words serve the story.
So how do we find language like this? I’m no authority; I’m still seeking it myself. But here are a few techniques that serve me well:
- In early drafts, write quickly and plainly. As best as you can, use your natural language. Because you are a unique person with an inherently fresh voice, your language will be fresh if you show up on the page.
- Throughout revisions, return to a journal to reflect on your work. Writing for no audience eliminates strain and self-consciousness from language.
- When clichés appear, take note. Keep going if you’re writing an early draft, but later return to these passages and ask yourself what this easy language is covering up. Clichés usually show us places we’ve taken on others’ explanations of the world rather than inventing our own. They always point to shallowness in our thinking—an acceptable naming of reality rather than a naming that digs.
- Strive to serve the story and not some sense of writerly writing. Choose words that reveal, not conceal. Use the thesaurus to find accurate words, not fancy ones.
- Use the dictionary. Whenever you are uncertain about a word’s meaning or its implications, look it up.
- With each crucial word choice or description, first ask yourself, “Is it true?” Only then ask, “Is it fresh?”
- Read Strunk and White’s Elements of Style every few years. Their advice is spot-on and modeled by their language: “Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew