A Book for Writers

CaptureOnly occasionally do I post a piece on writing. And writers. When I do, it is something I feel can be useful to my fellow writers. I try to avoid repeating insights you can find on other blogs. With this in mind, today I’d like to recommend What We See When We Read by Peter Mdndelsund, art director and book designer at Alfred A. Knopf.

It answers so many questions I have had about description over the years. What to leave out and what to put in. Insights into how a writer should describe a character. How much of that description a reader will remember.

He interviewed readers of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, asking them to describe Anna. You will find the responses very interesting. Throughout the book, he refers to a number of great writers besides Tolstoy and how they have used description. Writers such as Charles Dickens, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Kafka, Herman Melville and Gustave Flaubert.

Here are some of the writerly insights I found in the book:

1.Build the opening sentence solely from verbs. Make the verbs matter in the opening paragraph.

2.Focus on what the character does and how they do it, not how they look.

3.Different actors can inhibit a role in a play. and we accept those performances as true to the role. See how many actors have performed Hamlet. That’s because Shakespeare didn’t spend a lot of time describing Hamlet.

4.We hear more than we see when we are reading. So use appropriate sounding words to create a rhythm to a paragraph.

5.If the reader has to keep going back and re-reading a section because they are confused, the writer has lost the reader.

6.Describe a character or setting the way a character experiences them through their senses.

7.Show the world through the character’s eyes, not through the author’s.

8.When using a detail to describe a setting or a character, make it memorable and important. Then repeat it. Tolstoy mentions Anna Karenina’s “slender hands.” We remember Cyrano as big nosed. “Which aspect of a character is chosen to represent the character is crucial.” (p.394)

9.Don’t tell the reader everything. Give the reader a chance to use their imagination.

10.When using detailed description, make sure this matters. Such as showing what’s in a character’s closet or in their refrigeration. This probably isn’t needed unless the writer wants to reveal the character’s obsession with clothes or food. For instance, a writer might want to describe a character’s bathtub because the character obsesses over cleanliness.

11.When the writer creates a character, they are creating a world.

Note: I am in no way associated with this writer or his publisher. I have not received a book to review.

Read a Good Story Lately?

I am a sucker for short stories. Short stories by such amazing writers as Anton Chekhov, Ray Bradbury, Alice Munro, Kurt Vonnegut, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Lorrie Moore, Tim O’Brien and Kevin Brockmeier often blow me away. For my money though, the Irish writer William Trevor is one of the best, a real master of the craft. If you love short stories the way I do, you’ll enjoy his Selected Stories.

There’s nothing like a good start to a story. Here’s the opening sentence from Trevor’s “The Piano Tuner’s Wives”: Violet married the piano tuner when he was a young man, Belle married him when he was old. When a story gets off to a good start like that, I know I am in for a treat.

The story, “A Friendship”, opens with a practical joke two brothers play on their father. But soon the tale turns into the story of a slowly dissipating marriage. As is true for many of Trevor’s stories, it doesn’t take you where you thought you were going. When I finished the story, I could see the influence Trevor may have had on another writer, Alice Munro, and her “Runaway”. In his “Child’s Play”, there is the story of two children. They use their imagination to create dramas to help them overcome the pain of separation from their divorced parents.

If you think Trevor only creates tragic stories, think again. For instance, there’s “A Bit of Business”. Two thieves see an ideal opportunity for burglary on the day the Pope visits Dublin. They’ve done their business for the day. It’s been a successful business. Then, on a whim, they decide to do one more house. One more house. That will always get you into trouble.

Trevor’s endings can be just as stunning as his beginnings. Such is the masterpiece of a story called “After Rain”. A woman entering her thirties finds herself ditched by her boyfriend. She returns to the Italian hotel where her parents took her when she was a girl.

It concludes with this: She sees again the brown-and-green striped tie of the old man who talked about being on your own, and the freckles that are blotches on the forehead. She sees herself walking in the morning heat past the graveyard and the rusted petrol pumps. She sees herself seeking the shade of the chestnut trees in the park, and crossing the piazza to the trattoria when the first raindrops fell. She hears the swish of the cleaner’s mop in the church of Santa Fabiola, she hears the tourists’ whisper. The fingers of the praying woman flutter on her beads, the candles flare. The story of Santa Fabiola is lost in the shadows that were once the people of her life, the family tomb reeks odourlessly of death. Rain has sweetened the breathless air, the angel comes mysteriously also. These closing lines remind me of another Irish master of the short story, James Joyce, and the end of his most famous story, “The Dead”.

Trevor’s stories often have echoes of other great predecessors of the short story, most of all Anton Chekhov. Trevor does for Ireland what Chekhov did for Russia. He explores the landscape of a country and its people, giving each character her dignity. With a rich, lush language, he is as likely to offer the life of a woman as he is a man, of a Catholic or a Protestant, and to burrow in deep to find out what that character carries in his or her heart.

In his stories, there are priests, wives, businessmen, tramps, blind piano tuners, farmers, children, burglars, auto mechanics and dressmakers, people from many of the nooks and crannies of Irish society. And there is love, or the desire for love no matter the consequences. Trevor shows us that it’s the little things, the quiet moments that matter in a life, and that a life can mean so much.

His particular way of saying things often makes me stop in awe and question how I might write like that. Lines that soar. Lines that are more than lines. There never is fairness when vengeance is evoked or Their own way of life was so much debris all around them or This no-man’s land was where Gerard and Rebecca played their game of marriage and divorce or All the love there had been, all the love there still was–love that might have nourished Ellie’s child, that might have warmed her–was the deprivation the child suffered or gratitude was always expressed around this table. It’s a great writer working his magic and I am never disappointed with that magic. He always leaves me wanting more.

Hands

So much of a writer’s job is paying attention. A photograph on Melissa Noble’s Blog recently reminded me of this. She posted a photograph called Great Gandmother’s Hands. Those hands were absolutely beautiful hands. Hands that had worn life with grace.

The photograph called to my mind the dignity that we often miss in our fellow human beings. And the details of another’s life. Details that are important. Florida writer Robert Newton Peck, in his book Fiction Is Folks: How to Create Unforgettable Characters, says that you can tell a lot about a character from his hands.

It’s in the details that our characters come alive. You can tell whether a character is a worker bee or someone who does no physical work at all. A guitarist will have callouses on his fingers. What does the reader learn about a pianist with short stubby fingers or long graceful ones? Are the hands of a character manicured or are the fingernails chewed off crookedly? Chewed from worry? Is there dirt underneath the fingernails?

When I was reading Adam Begley’s biography of John Updike, he mentioned that John Updike never wore a wedding ring during his first marriage to Mary. During his second marriage to Martha, he wore a wedding ring. This told me so much, not about the writer, but about the man.

One of the things I love about the photographs of Ansel Adams and the paintings of Andrew Wyeth is how much dignity they bring to their subjects.

My Uncle Howard was a butcher. He was larger than life. He could fill a room just by walking into it. One time I asked him, “What happened to your pinkie?”

He threw his head back and laughed that big laugh of his. “I lost it years ago when I was slicing sausage. You can’t imagine the blood that poured out of that hand, enough to start a swimming pool. Anyway I got that hand all patched up. Decided I would honor that pinkie with a name. So I called it bologna.” At that, he winked at me.

“Where’s that pinkie now?” I asked.

“It’s in heaven, waiting for me. Guess I had better be good or I am going to have to spend eternity with one less pinkie, huh?”

A few words about Ernest Hemingway

The Old Man and the Sea, A Farewell to Arms and the short stories of Ernest Hemingway are old friends. So when I recently saw Ken Burns’ three-night documentary on Ernest Hemingway, I was reminded that maybe this would be a good time to visit with them again.

When it comes to Ernest Hemingway, I don’t love him because he loved bullfighting. I don’t love him because he loved fishing and hunting. I don’t love him because he wanted to out-macho every man, and many of the women, he met. And he was always drinking, drinking, drinking.

Many of us have seen or heard the quote mis-attributed to Hemingway, “Write drunk, edit sober.” Who could write drunk the way Hemingway wrote? Nobody, not even Papa Hemingway. Whoever came up with that that quote did not know Hemingway very well.

That was the lifestyle, the celebrity, the legend. That’s why so many readers and so many critics find fault with him. They’re criticizing his lifestyle and the subjects he chose to write about.

For me, it’s the writing. It is the writing that makes Hemingway Hemingway. From the first time I read The Old Man and the Sea, I loved how he could word a sentence.

When Gabriel Garcia Marquez saw Hemingway in Paris in the late 1950s, he could think of only one word to honor Hemingway with. “Maestro.” That was how much Hemingway and his sentences meant to Garcia Marquez. He was saying what the many writers would want to say to their Papa. Of Hemingway, Joan Didion once wrote in the New Yorker, “This was a man to whom words mattered.”

He preferred the basic Anglo-Saxon words of the English language over the Latinized words the English stole from the French. He wrote simple declarative sentences with strong nouns and even stronger verbs.

When he began writing with that style, it was a new way for writers to speak to American readers. Studying Cezanne and sitting at the feet of Gertrude Stein, the young Hemingway took on a literature that was loaded with fancy-dancy words and overly descriptive adjectives and gave writers a new way to speak to an audience.

Because words mattered to Hemingway, he was constantly in search of the “one true sentence.” Ask any writer who cares about their craft. They will tell you what a young writer told his agent, according to Francine Prose in her wonderful Reading Like a Writer. “What he really cared about, what he wanted most of all was to write…really great sentences.”

Later Prose writes, “I’ll hear writers say that there are other writers they would read if for no other reason than to marvel at the skill with which they can put together the sort of sentences that move us…”

Those are the kind of sentences Hemingway wrote. Again and again and again. And it’s why writers pay attention.

Just read the opening paragraph of A Farewell to Arms. “In the late summer of that year we lived in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. 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 rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.” Wonderful.

In the opening of Hills Like White Elephants, ” It’s the same poetic rhythm: “The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads hung across the open door to keep out flies. The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building.” So specific, so descriptive.

He can summarize a story in the opening sentence such as the one that opens the short story, The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. “It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.” Again and again there is a magic to his writing that few others can give me.

Or the opening sentence of The Old Man and the Sea: “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”

God, I love those sentences.

The Maestro

”Once writing has become the principal vice and the greatest pleasure, only death can put an end to it.” Ernest Hemingway.

I decided early on that I could do a lot worse than to learn the story telling trade from Ernest Hemingway. Add a bit of Scott Fitzgerald, some Shakespeare and a few licks from Dickens, throw in a helping of the King James Bible, and I could be one heck of an writer.

But Ernest Hemingway, he was the one I really took to for my writing teacher. Who else would begin a chapter, much less a book, with these words: “Then there was the bad weather”? What other writer would take the chance of being a laughingstock? Yet there the sentence is, laying on the page, a perfect beginning to “A Moveable Feast” about his years in Paris. There are the words, clear and simple and saying all that is needed to be said in an opening sentence. They make me want to read more. They make me think I am not at the beginning of the story but in the middle of something. Which is always a good place to begin.

Now you may be thinking that I read Hemingway to imitate him. I do not. If I did, it would come off as very bad Hemingway. No, I read him to discover the excesses in my own prose, my authorial commentary, my character’s thinking when he should be doing, an excessive passive voice, and anything to avoid the action. It all has to go, including my favorite little ditties that bear witness to excess. What more could I want to say than “Then there was the bad weather”? I just wish I had said it. It is kind of like Dickens beginning “David Copperfield” with the first chapter titled “I Was Born”.

I’ve never considered “The Sun Also Rises” as his best work. Oh, it’s okay Hemingway but not really first class. He has too too many scores he wanted to settle. With Henry James, with James Joyce, with H. L. Mencken, maybe even Gertrude Stein. It is not nearly as good as his short stories. But he had been talked into believing that the only way he could be considered a “real” writer was to write a novel. It is “A Farewell to Arms” where Hemingway really shines.

The opening paragraph is one of the best in American literature, up there with “Moby Dick” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”. It opens this way: “In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plains to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. 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 rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.” Very little latinized English and a hell of a lot of Anglo Saxon.

Some darned fine writing. And there are so many other examples of this writing. Things like: “It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.” Or “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” He makes it look so simple, so easy to write prose that well that he has fooled many a writer into thinking the can do it, and never do. Some come close but most fail, and fail miserably.

And one of the things I love about Hemingway is the theme that seems to move through much of his fiction. That theme is loss. The loss of sexual potency in “The Sun Also Rises”, the loss of the love of your young life in “A Farewell to Arms”, the loss of your dignity in “The Short Happy LIfe of Francis Macomber”, the loss of not just a fish but of a living in “The Old Man and the Sea”. Loss is written all over Hemingway’s fiction. The question he keeps asking is: How do you face loss, the devastating kind which can suck a life dry? I don’t think he ever came up with an answer but he came close in “The Old Man and the Sea”. You accept it, and you accept it with dignity.

Oh sure, there is machismo, the macho world of the hunter and the bullfighter and the soldier. But none of those people are winners. Much of his fiction is about losers, about men who suffer great loss and soldier on. Underneath all that machismo is a sensitive soul for which Hemingway gets little credit. You see, he was constantly playing a bluffing game and he got away with it most of the time. I think the bluff is why feminist critics don’t like Hemingway. I also think that his sensitivity is what attracted quite a number of women to him, and women who were strong and independent like the war correspondent Martha Gelhorn who became his third wife. They saw beneath the machismo and the bluff. They saw a very sensitive soul.

At the beginning of this blog post, I referred to Hemingway as Maestro. I got that from the great Columbian writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In the late 1950s, Marquez was in Paris and walking down one of the boulevards. He looked across the street and there was Hemingway with his lady. Marquez struggled with the words of what he would say to the great writer. Finally he could only get one word out. ” ”Maaaeeestro!” Hemingway acknowledged the young writer by turning and calling out, ”Adiooos, amigo!’

For me, Hemingway is the master and I will always be his pupil. And that is why I continue to read him.