What would you say constitutes great writing? For a practising writer like me, good writing isn’t just about what is enjoyable to read, but also about the choices a writer makes when they select words to convey their message.
I thought I’d try to articulate what great writing looks like to me, using an author that delivers effortlessly the kind of writing I love. I’ve just finished Kathleen Jamie’s Sightlines, a book very similar to The Old Ways, which I posted about here.
Like that book, the writing is remarkable, better in some ways, Jamie being an award-winning poet. Given poetry involves (for me anyway) a meticulous choosing of words to create imagery, meaning and emotion in a distilled form, her prose is some of the purest and cleanest I’ve read, but in particular, like Annie Proulx’s writing, it has lines that work on multiple levels; efficient prose that delivers depth with the minimum of effort.
In one of the essays in Sightlines, Jamie is in a lab where they test tissue for cancer:
“and as he worked, and I watched, we’d talked of people we knew who’d had cancer, even in our families. The sheer painful, ghastly slog of it; the changed landscapes of life, the unexpected declarations of love.”
Jamie’s mastery is evident in the final phrase, ‘unexpected declarations of love’, but in particular a single word, ‘unexpected’. The phrase brings you slap-bang into the moment where the victim and loved ones are experiencing the immediate fallout, but ‘unexpected’ effortlessly adds a dimension; the declarations of love are spontaneous, but have been forgotten prior to the news. Love has been taken for granted up until that point, and thus this word illuminates the whole nature of relationships. Furthermore, taken with the preceding phrase, it suggests that the change has instigated new behaviour between people, not merely renewed feeling within them. That single word floored me, but perhaps I’m a bit odd…
Consider what she could have ended the sentence with: ‘the changed landscapes of life, the despair and the bittersweet tears shared with friends.’
It fits, as far as it is suitable for the sentence, but it’s inferior. It references only a general sadness and utilises a cliche for the tears. It’s literal. But the original, that the declarations of love are ‘unexpected’, is more suggestive, it is pregnant with implication, depending on the reader, ambiguous yet particular.
There is a short piece later in the book, called ‘Light’, that offers an obscenely rich ratio of beautiful hard-working prose to wordcount.
“the wind lifts the leaves and the sun sweeps underneath.”
It’s lovely to read a phrase that gives a new metaphor to a simple moment, such as this observation of autumn in a garden. But beyond this pleasure of the new, this phrase mimics a lifting of a carpet or rug for cleaning. The use of ‘sweeps’ here gives the sun a physical contact with the earth, an affective relationship. Of course, ‘sweeps’ can also mean merely that it ‘sweeps in’ across the ground the leaves had just covered. Now, replace the word ‘sweeps’ with ‘shone’, perhaps ‘shone on the hard ground underneath’. Again, shone is literal and functional in this context. But ‘sweeps’ feels better because it has this particular character, it’s richer and fresher in the reader’s head. Sweeping is a very physical act, it has movement to it, effort, presence; shining is passive, ethereal.
Then, a paragraph later, Jamie talks of her soon to be teenage daughters:
“For a few years they’ll enter a dark mirror-tunnel whose sides reflect only themselves.”
Consider a functional alternative: “For a few years they’ll be entirely self-obsessed.”
Jamie’s phrase refers to a ‘dark’ tunnel, an allusion to the torment of emotions as self-awareness, puberty and a growing intellectual sovereignty, but ‘tunnel’ also implies a claustrophobic place, no way out but forward, no escape. That the tunnel is mirrored actually renders the final five words redundant, but I can only presume Jamie felt that the point needed stating more explicitly. This tunnel’s interior only ever points inwards, at them, and only reflects them, which speaks to their self-obsession overtly regarding appearance, but also suggests that whatever else they look at, such as another person, they would see only her or him in terms of how they themselves are affected.
I’ll leave you to reflect on her looking through trees and seeing the “Filaments and ribbons of metallic, wind-blown light”, because I could go on all day!
A writer that doesn’t or can’t make these more interesting choices with their prose loses the ability to seed a reader’s mind with richer possibilities and undercurrents. But all such things are about choices. In my earlier blog-post quoting Chuck Palahniuk, I said that these details were only as valid to the text as they were relevant and important to the needs of the writer and story. Fill every last inch of your book with this stuff and it becomes as heavy as bread pudding, despite its beauty being ‘Occam-like’ in its economy.
I wonder if this comes more naturally to better writers, that they don’t sweat over the framing of a moment like I have to. I wonder if any of this matters to readers, or is it just other writers (and agents) I’m trying to justify myself to.
I’d like to think not, it’s part of the pleasure I get from reading. It’s part of the contract I make with my writing though, a masochistic ordeal shot through with maddeningly rare glimpses of the sun beyond.
In my next post I’ll pick a few moments from Snakewood, explain the choices in my desire to give the reader something interesting to read, something a touch less functional. I’d love it if anyone dropping by this blog could share what they admire in their favourite writing.