Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Grass Harp: Writing That Takes Your Breath Away

Some writing just takes your breath away. My writing friend and critique partner recently recommended THE GRASS HARP, by Truman Capote. It is a novella, a form that seems these days to elicit both love and disgust. It is beautiful. Breathtaking. And I'm only on Chapter One. Here's an example:

We reached a field of Indian grass at the same moment as the sun. Dolly's veil flared in the morning breeze, and a pair of pheasants, nesting in our path, swept before us, their metal wings swiping the cockscomb-scarlet grass. The China tree was a September bowl of green and greenish gold: Gonna fall, gonna bust our heads, Catherine said, as all around us the leaves shook down their dew.
Such a short passage, with so much going on! You have to stop and take it in. You have to slow down, to notice. The words make the world magical, without ever introducing any magic. It takes your breath away.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Be Specific!

Be specific. Make the mundane memorable.
I've been on a binge of nonfiction reading this summer, which is odd since fiction is usually my go-to summer read. But the heart wants what the heart wants, and this summer, my heart wants nonfiction. I am reading it first for the content, but it's hard not to read with one eye on the writing style, which has ranged from the highly academic, loaded down with the kinds of words and sentences found in an Ivy League senior thesis, to warm, simple and intimate, elucidated through anecdote.

The latest nonfiction on my bed table is AN ALTAR IN THE WORLD, by Barbara Brown Taylor, whose personal and connected style really speaks to me. She does occasionally get lost in a wilderness of metaphor, but her ability to ground spiritual things in the real world is powerful and engaging. I realized today that part of her magic comes from being specific.  Here's the sentence that pointed me in that direction:
While I was a cocktail waitress I once spilled a whole Singapore Sling down the back of an Australian woman's red fox coat.
 I read this sentence several times. It seemed so exotic and interesting to me. Then I stepped back. This was no adventure on the high seas. What was she really saying? "One time when I was a waitress I spilled a drink on a customer." BORING!  But make it specific and it's almost like a travel brochure. We visit Singapore and Australia and go fox hunting in England all in one sentence, and suddenly this mundane bit of narrative is rich and textured.

For most of us, specificity belongs to the realm of revision, until we're practiced enough for it to become second-nature. On a first draft, you're capturing ideas and broad strokes. It's not the time to linger over every word and wonder "Is this specific enough?" But when you revise, look for those places where you have chosen the overly general word. Then take it further. Not just a waitress, a cocktail waitress. Not just a drink, a Singapore Sling. Not just a customer, a woman. What kind of woman? An Australian woman. Where was the drink spilled? Down her back. What was she wearing? A coat. What kind of coat? A red fox coat. Bam. Be specific and the mundane becomes the memorable. A rose by any another name may smell just as sweet, but it will affect your reader differently.

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