The Essayist's Real Challenge

by ALLAN REEDER

In supporting college applicants' thinking, imagining, and writing, we at Hillside are often demonstrating why concern about what an essay is "about" must not precede close interest in and examination of the raw material — close looking at the specific details of experience. Don't rush to meaning! A fresher, truer "aboutness" almost invariably results from patient recollection (indeed, re-collection) and consideration. 

And so when To Write a Great Essay, Think and Care Deeply, from The Atlantic's By Heart series, came to our attention, we applauded. In appreciation for the lessons he finds in J.R. Ackerly's My Dog Tulip, nonfiction writer Lucas Mann describes Ackerly as "leaning closer, looking so carefully" and notes that "it’s the closeness in his gaze, his dedication to looking, that transforms the subject." Mann reflects how we tend to "prioritize a weighty topic over the force of an author’s gaze, the clarity of her prose, the sincerity of her emotion." He goes on: "[I]t’s important for me to remind myself sometimes that, at its heart, that’s all a great essay is: a virtuoso performance of care." 

Frequently we talk at Hillside about how the interesting writer is the interested writer — how just isolating and describing the specifics of experience with careful attention (attention that is full of care) is not only an essential step in realizing an authentic meaning but an engaging act in itself. As Mann writes, "[S]pending one’s time fretting about aboutness is a deflection from the essayist’s real challenge: to think and feel as deeply and specifically as possible about whatever it is you’re looking at." 

First, See

Don’t think about how your characters sound, but how they see. Watch the world through their eyes — study the extraordinary and the mundane through their particular perspective. Walk around the block with them, stroll the rooms they live in, figure out what objects on the cluttered dining room table they would inevitably stare at the longest, and then learn why.

—Dinaw Mengestu, from Tin House

On Going Deep

Recent research in cognitive science, psychology and neuroscience has demonstrated that deep reading—slow, immersive, rich in sensory detail and emotional and moral complexity—is a distinctive experience, different in kind from the mere decoding of words. Although deep reading does not, strictly speaking, require a conventional book, the built-in limits of the printed page are uniquely conducive to the deep reading experience. A book’s lack of hyperlinks, for example, frees the reader from making decisions—Should I click on this link or not?—allowing her to remain fully immersed in the narrative.

That immersion is supported by the way the brain handles language rich in detail, allusion and metaphor: by creating a mental representation that draws on the same brain regions that would be active if the scene were unfolding in real life. The emotional situations and moral dilemmas that are the stuff of literature are also vigorous exercise for the brain, propelling us inside the heads of fictional characters and even, studies suggest, increasing our real-life capacity for empathy.

from "The Case for Preserving the Pleasure of Deep Reading"
by Annie Murphy Paul

Beyond the Veil

Q: I wonder if the wish to see a book made into a movie speaks to an anxiety people feel about reading and internal perception.

A: Reading is a very particular case, if you think about the arts. With music you have a direct sensory input, the sound of the notes. And with the visual arts or dance or architecture you have a direct visual apprehension of the thing that you’re looking at. With books the sensory information you’re getting is very limited. You can become aware, while you’re reading, of the white page and the black marks on it, but that’s presumably a neutral experience. You’re supposed to see beyond that veil. And I think it’s that extra step that people find anxiety-provoking. But that extra step is what makes reading reading.

from Portrait of a Cover Artist: An Interview with Peter Mendelsund, by Peter Terzian

The Cinematographer and the College Applicant

He's talking about cinematography, but such guidance is often part of the conversations I have with college-bound students who are seeking a topic and a way forward for an application essay: 

People don’t understand the elegance of simplicity. If you take a sophisticated idea, reduce it to the simplest possible terms so that it’s accessible to everybody, and don’t get simple mixed up with simplistic, it’s how you mount and present something that makes it engaging.

— Gordon Willis, cinematographer (May 28, 1931 – May 18, 2014)

SxS: Thirteen Words from Jean Toomer

This sentence, from Jean Toomer's "Carma," stopped me, and had me rereading aloud:

No rain has come to take the rustle from the falling sweet-gum leaves.

Thirteen words. Say them aloud and you can’t help hearing the path inward that is opened by those three iambs, a trot of monosyllabic words (“No rain has come to take”) — and then the interruption of “rustle.” Here, in the center, we hear the sound that persists in the drought. Toomer's engagement of our mind's ear then leads to something for the eye — an image that fills the absence of “no rain" with a different kind of falling. The compound specificity of "sweet-gum leaves" is conspicuous, and their action is ongoing; these leaves don’t leave but continue downward, rustling, beyond the period. 

Sentence Attention

I'm delighted by such sentence attention: 

In this spirit, with admiration for how time can pass vividly in a short space, I share another that my eyes traveled again recently: 

Most of the dandelions had changed from suns to moons.

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

Know any other sentences that operate in similar fashion? If so, please share! 

Not Progress, but Circulation

A couple of years ago, I designed and taught a nonfiction-writing course I called Object Studies, compelled by poet Heather McHugh’s reflection that, depending on the viewer, “every object has a field of force.”

In the past week, I feel as if I’ve stumbled into a related field of force in my own reading. It all began with that suede glove on the front-hall table ... 

Read More

"It is not our ambition to fill museums; we are gathering experience.”

The everyday experience of working artists is that they routinely fail to hit their mark, to draw the best line, to choose the stronger word, to sound the right note, and these are the stakes that make success in art so satisfying. The admission of this fact can and should liberate the artist-in-training to play the harder and thus learn the more in an atmosphere of passionate experimentation.

Teachers of writing: Hit refresh now by clicking over to Daniel Bosch's "Cover Letter," at 3:AM Magazine

SxS: Lighting the Way

by ALLAN REEDER

Into the file marked “spatial extension" I delightedly slide the opening sentence of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses:

The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door.

Notice how this space takes shape in our imagination. McCarthy guides our attention from the flame to its reflection in the mirror (“pierglass," by the way, suggesting that we see windows on either side of the mirror), and then, when this doubled image (twice) wobbles and stills in response to the push of air from John Grady Cole’s entrance, to the hall and, finally, to the door into it. That the gentle wind must travel across the room, between the door and the flame, prompts our sense of spatial concreteness and dimension. The place is real.

As a side note, the doubling effect of the mirror reminds me of this patient passage through darkness from Paul Harding’s Tinkers:

George sat upright and swung his legs over the side of the bed. He stood up and slid a foot forward into the total darkness of the floor, testing for the edge of the cable rug or a stray shoe that might trip him. He shuffled toward where the door was. He held his bitten hand limply above his head, as if he were crossing a river, and patted at the dark with his good hand until he felt the corner of his mother’s bureau, which stood to the left of the door. He opened the door onto deeper darkness still. Rather than risking the hallway and the stairs, George tapped his fingers along the top of the bureau until he felt the lamp. He lifted the glass and set it down and felt for the box of matches. He held the matchbox against his stomach with the heel of his bitten hand and struck a match. The top of the bureau appeared and the image of him holding the match appeared in the lamp glass.

And the sustained darkness in which George searches, followed by the sudden light of the match and the reappearance of objects, reminds me of what Elaine Scarry calls “radiant ignition” … which an image from Dracula had me writing about here. Oh, the conversation that goes on and on among books!

SxS: In Other Words, What Do You See?

Eager for her rendezvous with lover Léon, Emma Bovary, under Flaubert’s direction, wakes early and looks out the window onto the square. What does she see?

Le petit jour circulait entre les piliers des halles, et la maison du pharmacien, dont les volets étaient fermés, laissait apercevoir dans la couleur pâle de l’aurore les majuscules de son enseigne.

In other words:

The early dawn was broadening between the pillars of the market, and the chemist’s shop, with the shutters still up, showed in the pale light of the dawn the large letters of his signboard.
(Translation by Eleanor Marx Aveling, 1888)

Or, in later words:

The first light of morning was stealing into the pillared market place; and on the pharmacist’s house, its shutters still drawn, the pale tints of dawn were picking out the capital letters of the shop sign. 
(Translation by Francis Steegmuller, 1957)

There’s a lot to talk about here, but what do I seeeven after Emma has slipped away for her trip to the city? I see, most lastingly, those capital letters that Steegmuller lights up with the colors of the early morning. And what do I stumble over and therefore not see, not as sharply? Aveling’s “chemist’s shop” (rather than the sunlight) “showing” the “large letters of his signboard.” I return to the original and, using what little French remains accessible from my high school classrooms, note that Aveling followed Flaubert’s syntax more closely than did Steegmuller. 

I must find the translation of this sentence offered by Lydia Davis, now of Man Booker Prize fame, in part because she also offered the following, in The Paris Review, when her rendering of Madame Bovary was published in 2010:

The quality and nature of a translation (let’s say from the French) depends on three things, the first fairly obvious and the second two not quite as obvious: 1) the translator’s knowledge of French language, history, and culture; 2) his or her conception of the task of the translator; and 3) his or her ability to write well in English. These three variables have infinite subsets that recombine infinitely to produce the many different kinds and qualities of translations that we have…. All three factors are vital, but in many instances, if one has to rank them, the third — how well the translator writes — may be the most important qualification, followed closely or equaled by the second — how he or she approaches the task of translating — and it is the first that comes in last place, since minor lapses in a knowledge of the language, history, and culture may result in mistakes that are, in a beautifully written, generally faithful version, fairly easily corrected, whereas a misconception of the task of the translator and, worse, an inability to write well will doom the entire book through its every sentence.  

Curious about how the trip to the city went for Emma? Find out here.

SxS: Flaubert on How to Look and Feel like Death

Emma Bovary, returning again from passionate hours with Léon in the city, sits among others in the stagecoach. Flaubert — and, dutifully following, translator Francis Steegmuller — gives us the others first:

One by one the Hirondelle’s passengers would fall asleep, some with their mouths open, others with their chins on their chests, leaning on their neighbor’s shoulder or with an arm in the strap, all the while rocking steadily with the motion of the coach; and the gleam of the lamp, swaying outside above the rumps of the shaft-horses and shining in through the chocolate-colored calico curtains, cast blood-red shadows on all those motionless travelers.

See how Flaubert directs us to see. First, the portraits of sleep — the open mouths here, the bowed heads there, the sideways slumps, the limp arms. Sleep has stilled the passengers. But then each member of this tableau is “rocking steadily” (“tout en oscillant régulièrement”) as the coach travels on, and we see these bodies — these heads, shoulders, arms — more clearly owing to the motion.

At the semicolon we reach the hinge of the sentence. We leave these bodies for a moment and move outside the coach to the source of the action — to where the horses pull; we need only see their “rumps” to know of their exertion. The “swaying” lamp above the rumps will take us right back inside, with both moving and colored light that will re-present the travelers. When we see the sleepers again, “blood-red shadows” pass over them; the overlay has the effect not only of re-stilling them but deadening them. And yet we know that they are being jostled by the movement of the coach. I love that Flaubert insists on referring to the travelers as “motionless” (“ces individus immobiles”). I think this tension vivifies them, ironically, in the mind’s eye, and that last untrue adjective underlines their unconsciousness; they feel nothing. They areemotionless.

The perfect set-up for introduction into the paragraph of our suffering heroine, in a sentence whose relative brevity contributes to her insularity. As Steegmuller translates:

Emma, numb with sadness, would shiver under her coat; her feet would grow colder and colder, and she felt like death.

The nothing she feels is from feeling too much. Her involuntary motion is from a different source — not from without but within, “under her coat.” The body part Flaubert shares is her feet, also from within (“colder and colder”). She does not look like death but explicitly feels it.

(For more related to stagecoach horses and the swaying lamps above them, see “From out of the darkness.”)

SxS: From Beginnings to Ends to In-Betweens

We open Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin and read:

The elderly passenger sitting on the north-window side of that inexorably moving railway coach, next to an empty seat and facing two empty ones, was none other than Professor Timofey Pnin. Ideally bald, sun-tanned, and clean-shaven, he began rather impressively with that great brown dome of his, tortoise-shell glasses (masking an infantile absence of eyebrows), apish upper lip, thick neck, and strong-man torso in a tightish tweed coat, but ended, somewhat disappointingly, in a pair of spindly legs (now flanneled and crossed) and frail-looking, almost feminine feet.

So much to enjoy about these two sentences, which constitute the first paragraph of the novel and, in opening our introduction to Professor Pnin, provide a head-to-toe portrait of the man. One of the immediate effects for me is delight in Nabokov’s patient precision, which has me not so much reading the sentences as experiencing them. Pnin is traveling on that train, and I am traveling as well, with expectation, from beginnings through middles to ends.

The playfulness with beginnings and ends is of course explicit in the verbs of the second sentence: Pnin “began rather impressively with that great brown dome of his … but ended, somewhat disappointingly, in a pair of spindly legs (now flanneled and crossed) and frail-looking, almost feminine feet.” We leave the station at the dome (“impressively”) and arrive at the feet (“disappointingly”).

Now take a look back at the opening sentence and see that it, too, is built for arrival, but of a different kind. We begin with “the elderly passenger,” isolated for consideration by our narrator, and isolated as well by those empty seats around him, but not until we’ve reached the end — and have experienced the emphatic drum roll of “none other than,” a moment of withholding — do we have a name for the man, professional title included.

In each case we are in a different place come the period; we have traveled and arrived. The sentence itself is an act of discovery (for us), movement toward revelation.

What has been revealed, interestingly, is quite a lot of in-between about Pnin: He’s elderly, but if you get close enough — step inside that first set of parentheses — you’ll see the “infantile absence of eyebrows.” He is “ideally bald,” with additional features that our narrator modifies as “apish,” “thick,” “strong-man,” and yet look at those “spindly legs” and “frail-looking, feminine feet.” (At the close of the next paragraph of the novel we will learn that “except for a soldier asleep at one end and two women absorbed in a baby at the other, Pnin had the coach to himself.” He’s not only physically composed of both the masculine and the feminine; he’s physically positioned between the masculine and the feminine.) 

And naturally, as a traveler on that moving train, Pnin is in an in-between place. I want to say that Nabokov promptly places us in a kind of in-between place as well with the repetition of the demonstrative “that”: “that inexorably moving railway coach,” “that great brown dome of his.” We’ve only just begun this novel; we don’t know anything, really, about this train or this particular man on it; but in these instances we’re spoken to as if we do know. We’re at once distant, observing, and close, knowing. 

That’s where Nabokov wants us: we’re about to know something more that will make us understand what’s especially inexorable about that train, and that will worry “that great brown dome.” We’ll arrive at the knowledge before Pnin does:

"Now a secret must be imparted," Nabokov writes at the start of paragraph three. "Professor Pnin was on the wrong train." 

That’s a whole new kind of in-between. We read on, inexorably.

(For more from the Characters-on-Trains file, click here.)

SxS: Coming in for Landing

I was stopped by delight only two sentences into “Black Man and White Woman in Dark Green Rowboat,” a 1981 story by Russell Banks:

It was the third day of an August heat wave. Within an hour of the sun’s rising above the spruce and pine trees that grew along the eastern hills, a blue-gray haze had settled over the lake and trailer park, so that from the short, sandy spit that served as a swimming place for the residents of the trailer park, you couldn’t see the far shore of the lake.

I find these two sentences, side by side, wonderfully instructive about artful handling of specificity. Consider the simplicity and directness of the opener; a time is specifically set, efficiently and plainly. We are not asked to see anything in particular. I mention this because what we are asked to see in the next sentence, whose expansiveness is felt owing to juxtaposition with the opener, is plentiful and — more important — effectively ordered. Watch how, by getting more and more specific visually, Banks brings us into the setting.

He begins by qualifying the time-placement: to talk about the “third day of an August heat wave” is rather general in comparison to “Within an hour of the sun’s rising.” And then we’re seeing. At first we’re up high, noting the spruce and pine on hillsides. (That they are “eastern” hills creates a greater sense of distance and dimension, I think.) We then drop down with the “blue-gray haze” over the lake and the trailer park. (That the trailer park is presented after the lake focuses our visual attention. Try transposing the two.) The filmic zooming-in continues: once we see the trailer park, we’re asked to see the “short, sandy spit” of a beach — that is, a particular part of the park. And once we see this, we’re placed on the beach (“you”) looking out toward the far shore, which, in the haze, is not visible, an imaginative fact that further focuses our attention; distance is closed. (If “you” could see the far shore, we would rise again; the visual scope would expand. The point is to be grounded now. Landing completed.) The sentence is well-balanced — that highly functional haze settles right in the middle of it — and we’re prepared for its ambition, to travel its length and experience its reach, by the quick, simple opener.

Two cooperative sentences for the “Mimic & Learn” file, I say.

SxS: Get on Stage (Part Two)

In Part One of this post, urging an imaginative approach to taking “appreciative measure” of admired sentences, I presented the material with which Richard Yates composed the very opening of his novel Revolutionary Road. Here is how he arranged that material — and steered the imagination of his readers — in the first sentence: 

The final dying sounds of their dress rehearsal left the Laurel Players with nothing to do but stand there, silent and helpless, blinking out over the footlights of an empty auditorium.

Like so much of fiction, it’s an audio-visual experience. In this case, we start with the ear and end with the eye. Yates begins with the sound of the rehearsal receding, the last traces of voices nearly gone from the air, abandoning the Laurel Players. What are “dying sounds” at the start are nonexistent by the time we reach that past-tense “left,” and these players” play no longer; they are not actors but acted upon, stranded, without lines.

They are also stranded in the middle of the sentence, “with nothing to do.” At the center is an absence of purpose, and we’ve entered a soundless stretch in which we’re moved toward image (and an attempt to see ahead): that “blinking” in the glare of the footlights that shine on this script-less troupe. We follow their gaze; the camera pans back; we see and sense the vacancy of the auditorium.

Interesting that we begin with remnants of sound and end here, in silence, with a word (auditorium) that means a place where something is heard. We’re in a place made for sound that is soundless. Lights shine brightly on the end of something that hasn’t really even begun. The momentum here is from expectation — not of anything specifically promised or hinted at, but resulting from the desertion of what was, and the concomitant, wishful mystery of whether anything positive is ahead. A hopeful look into emptiness. If you know the novel, the sentence now likely strikes you (again) as brilliantly composed. 

How the second sentence works in conjunction with this opener to form the first paragraph of the novel deserves attention as well. But that’s a post for another day!

SxS: Up in Smoke

by ALLAN REEDER


In Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler (translated by William Weaver), “they” are collecting signatures on a petition to City Hall:

"What about you, Armida? Have you signed yet?" they ask a woman I can see only from behind, a belt hanging from a long overcoat trimmed with fur, the collar turned up, a thread of smoke rising from the fingers gripping the stem of a glass."

Lovely how the line of that trailing belt, which we’re asked to see first, continues upward into that “thread of smoke rising from the fingers.” With such brushstrokes, Calvino accentuates the beautiful, momentary mystery of the woman.

There’s something about those trailing lines …

SxS: A Fragmentary Longing

by ALLAN REEDER


An image caught by the eye of an observing wanderer in “Case Study Number Three” of the “Urban Planning” series in Tim Horvath’s collection Understories:

The scarf of gauzy translucent red, trailing a woman who rolls forward with the certainty of a shore-bound wave.

What a full fragment! We are, like Horvath’s displaced and longing protagonist, trying to catch up with this vision, this woman who moves inexorably by and away. I take pleasure in the travel from that vivid and delicate tail-like scarf to (only for the briefest moment) the woman herself to the ocean wave of unalterable course. We begin the fragment not too far away from her — the bright scarf is right there! — but by the time we’ve arrived at the period, and the sense of incompleteness that the fragment delivers, the woman is gone, replaced by the wave, which I see from behind. On it goes, ahead of me, “shore-bound” (I hear “sure” meeting “certain” here!), and the distance grows between us. I, too, feel the longing.

SxS: From Out of the Darkness

In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Jonathan Harker looks out from the coach that is taking him toward his first meeting with the Count:

Each moment I expected to see the glare of lamps through the blackness, but all was dark. The only light was the flickering rays of our own lamps, in which the steam from our hard-driven horses rose in a white cloud.

A few years ago, preparing to teach a new fiction course and compelled to begin with image-making (and to impress upon my students at the start that writers must consider themselves visual artists), I began to ask the question why certain images made from words on the page are particularly vivid. What makes them so? The question returned me to Elaine Scarry’s brilliant Dreaming by the Book, in which she offers several answers. Among them is what she refers to as “radiant ignition,” when (to simplify) we are asked, first, to “[i]magine nothing, just an empty expanse of black — the dusky emptiness in the midst of which images form but which are being kept away at the moment.” Then light shines and produces movement against the black. There’s the darkness, the anticipation, and the ignition of motion. Of course.

This example from Stoker is particularly instructive, I think, and it extends a bit my simplified description of what’s behind this kind of successful image-making. There’s Harker’s expectation in the dark (“[e]ach moment”), which is our expectation for something visual. That we’re asked to imagine the anticipated “glare of lamps” and then this is erased — this is not seen — makes the resultant darkness all the more dark. And then “flickering rays” ignite movement. Yes, we can see the light of the lamps themselves against the dark, but that’s not what makes the image-work here especially effective (and it’s not very interesting). What we are asked to see are how the rays play on the steam rising from the (unseen) nostrils of straining horses. The interplay of different speeds — the “flickering rays” are many, fast, and sharply shifting, while the “white cloud” is singular and slower — and the white-on-black contrast are what lends this small moment of seeing particularly vivid power. The exertion of those horses is palpable even as they remain off-screen.

From the Oops! File: Didn't Bother

Try this yourself:

Putting in my contacts, I studied my reflection, layering on foundation and then eyeshadow, mascara, lipstick; ordinarily, I didn’t bother with any of this.

               —from “Experience,” by Tessa Hadley (The New Yorker, Jan. 21, 2013)

How’d it go?

Walter Mosley on two sentences by Raymond Chandler

"Forty-four years ago, I came across a passage that changed my life. I was teenager then, reading just about anything that struck my fancy. In those days I was pretty much an unconscious reader taking in one book after another looking for good stories. When I was finished with one novel it receded into the background and made way for the next. I had no notion of becoming a writer. Writers were, for me, long dead practitioners of a lost art.

"And so it went. I read, let's say, Treasure Island by Stevenson, then Damien by Hesse, and on to The Long Goodbye. One page after the other went by and I was as happy (and as unaware) as a clam. And then two sentences, toward the end of the novel, shook me from my waking slumber. It was like a one-two combination punch....

"Those 24 words alerted me to the potential power of writing."

Read about those 24 words at The Atlantic.