Writing as Listening

There is a Norwegian novelist who says “Writers must beware of their own good ideas.” You have this great idea, and then you start writing—and maybe something happens, and your voice starts taking you places. But if you start to think, I’m going away from my great idea, I have this wonderful idea! I need to get back to my idea—you stop following the consequences of the place and voice you’ve chosen. This is a mistake. You see a lot of decent books and plots that are fantastic—the writing might even be really good—but still somehow feel completely dead. I think that’s because there’s a great idea, a compelling premise, but a lack of honesty that can only come from listening closely to your writing. Those beautiful moments when you’ve just got to put the book away for a while because it’s so intense—we have a Norwegian word, smertepunkt, which literally means “point of pain”—can only come from this kind of honest listening. And Alice Munro is an absolute master of it. She dares to take the consequence of a voice, and a place, and follow them to where it takes her. 

— Linn Ulmann, "Before You Can Write a Good Plot, You Need to Write a Good Place," The Atlantic, 4.23.14

SxS: Raindrops and Hammers

I was reminded recently of the moment from my childhood when, alone at my parents' large bookcase in our living room, I pulled out a hardcover, opened it, and discovered how wrong I was in my understanding of what those shelves held. I don't know why I had assumed that all those thick adult books were full only of historical facts. Old books with old news. Pages and pages of lifeless, unillustrated information. Nothing relevant to my life, my interests. I wish I recall what book it was that I spread open on my lap. What I do remember is that, reading, I was suddenly seeing things, hearing things, just like in the books I knew — my books. Here, too, there were places, people, voices. Images and sounds. 

I think of this when I return to two sentences of image and sound from Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet (translation by Richard Zenith):

After the last drops of rain began to fall more slowly from the rooftops and the sky’s blue began to spread over the street’s paving-stones, then the vehicles sang a different song, louder and happier, and windows could be heard opening up to the no longer forgetful sun. From the narrow street at the end of the next block came the loud invitation of the first seller of lottery tickets, and nails being nailed into crates in the shop opposite reverberated in the limpid space.

I just love how these two sentences create the "limpid space" we inhabit by the end of them. Of particular interest are the directions in which Pessoa moves our attention to establish the concrete dimensions for our imaginations. 

Down fall those last drops, slowly, from the rooftops, all the way down to the street's wet paving stones that are now  — up we go —  reflecting the blue that has returned overhead. While we are both looking down and seeing up, the vehicles pass through with their songs, over the stones, in different directions, and up slide windows all around in accompaniment. In the second sentence Pessoa locates us more specifically by having us receive new sounds coming from "the end of the next block"; my imagination has me in the foreground of the picture, facing in, ears toward the sounds. From one side of the background I receive the call of that first lottery-ticket seller, and from the other the hammers striking nails.

All was quiet at the start: the last raindrops silently dripped. Now the city space is symphonically awake, and what drops are hammers. 


SxS: Get on Stage (Part One)


I want to put together two points that Verlyn Klinkenborg makes in his recent book Several Short Sentences About Writing

We forget something fundamental as we read: every sentence could have been otherwise but isn’t. We can’t see all the decisions that led to the final shape of the sentence. But we can see the residue of those decisions.


Why is the sentence this way and not another way? That sounds like a trivial or unanswerable question until you imagine revising the sentence, giving it a different rhythm, substituting a different word, a different structure.

The first point prompts me to ask how we can most clearly see — and possibly hear — that “residue” of decisions. The second point answers: with imagination and a license to fiddle. But I’d suggest, as I do to my students, a different application of the imagination. Instead of imagining revising a sentence you admire — that is, after its “final shape” has been achieved, thereby distancing yourself from the actual making — why not fantasize that you were there in the moments (or days, or weeks) of creation, of getting to that satisfying verbal arrangement?

Let’s imagine we were beside Richard Yates, perhaps peering over his shoulder, maybe whispering into his ear, as he composed the opening sentence of Revolutionary Road. Let’s say that he had already gathered the words he intended to use to create the image and narrative moment he carried in his imagination for the start of the novel, but that he hadn’t yet arrived at the most effective and artful syntax. Here are the building blocks:

1. the Laurel Players


2. an empty auditorium


3. the final, dying sounds of their dress rehearsal

With these three phrases, we have three crucial elements: the People(characters), the Place (setting), and the Predicament (the narrative moment — the very end of perhaps the last rehearsal).

But that’s not all — Yates has some specifics in mind about these People. They …

[a] stand still (on the stage)

[b] blink out over the footlights

[c] are silent

[d] feel helpless

[e] have nothing to do (now, in this moment).

The challenge: what’s the clearest, most artfully engaging single sentence you can compose with these elements? Where do you begin the sentence — with the People, the Place, or the Predicament? Where do you move next? How do the elements interact? And how do you end?

Let Virginia Tufte, author of Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, comment here:

[I]t is syntax that gives words the power to relate to each other in a sequence, to create rhythms, and emphasis, to carry meaning — of whatever kind — as well as glow individually in just the right place.

This, of course, is a closed-book endeavor. Enjoy! I’ll get Richard to deliver in my next post.

SxS: Open, closed, open


From Cynthia Ozick’s essay, “A Drugstore in Winter,” published in The New York Times Book Review in 1982:

Through the window, past the lit goldfish, the gray oval sky deepens over our neighborhood wood, where all the dirt paths lead down to seagull-specked water.

We travel a refreshing—or releasing—distance in this balanced sentence, which reflects the movement of a girl’s imagination, or the knowledge of place that resides in it. In the present tense, Ozick remembers being inside the Park View Pharmacy, which her parents ran in Pelham Bay, the Bronx. They are facing the anxiety caused by a rent increase in the middle of the Depression. Ozick the girl is not aware of the worries (“My mother and father are in trouble, and I don’t know it. I am too happy.”).

The more I consider this sentence, the more my admiration (and this post!) grows. From the interior of the drugstore we move so fluidly out over the prized goldfish, which are in a window display—there are bright pyramids of bowls of them—into the vastness of that deepening (darkening) sky that is made more visible by the limited “oval” shape of it; from the street there in the Bronx, that’s all we can get of it. So quickly then we are in that “neighborhood wood” (thickened, I think, by the doubled -ood), seeing the paths through it, and then arriving at another open space, a much more open space, the bay, which Ozick makes particularly visible on the screen in the mind with those many floating seagulls. It’s not a long sentence, but it does a remarkable amount of imaginative work efficiently and vividly, just as the mind does. We move from enclosed spaces (the drugstore, the fishbowls, the wood) to open spaces (the sky, the bay), and at the same time move repeatedly between light and dark. The anxiety of the time is an enclosed (or a closing-in) space, experienced by Ozick’s parents, with their suddenly higher rent to pay. The girl’s ignorance of the economic situation and her easy access (being a child) to the imagination make for the openness that the sentence’s movement demonstrates.

And, of course, we wonder: will they be able to keep the store open or will they have to close it?

Whew. Doesn’t it seem like a rather simple sentence at first? My appreciation deepens further when I consider that this is told in retrospect; Ozick is looking back on this time when her parents ran the drugstore. And so the there’s another distance traveled, between the adult writer remembering and the child she was accessing in her mind the spaces she knows so well, important outdoor spaces that feel at once not far away but not immediately available. That’s how vivid memory feels: simultaneously close and not within grasp.