For Writers Wanting To Improve Their Craft
Writers can learn many important, specific, things from other writers who are more experienced, skilled, talented, and knowledgeable. The three writers described here, a taste of whose beautiful work is included below, were masterfully gifted, serious craftsmen. The drive to write superbly dominated their lives. They breathed writing. The writing they labored over provides examples of exceptional achievements that writers wishing to cast a similar mesmerizing effect in their prose may benefit from. I hope you do.
Mesmerizing prose makes us feel emotions when we read by activating and feeding our senses of sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste because the reader experiences vicariously what he or she is reading. In mesmerizing prose, quickly, without delay, the writer sets the tone and mood; sad in the case of the first James Agee piece that’s coming up, wistful and nostalgic in the second, reflective in brilliant John Ruskin’s analysis of the unique abilities of the creative artist.
Charles Dicken’s excerpt has a different mood–satirical and bitter. The writing in all the pieces here is specific and as clear as fine glass. What other quality is as vital to good writing as clarity? No one wants to wade through prose that’s muddled. It shows a writer with a disorganized mind. Or one who has stopped at least one draft too soon.
A skilled mixture of nouns and verbs and a balance of showing and telling strengthens the text. Adjectives and adverbs are used sparingly. The passages are brief. They could have been much longer if the author desired. There is no mistaking the author’s voice. Other than Ruskin’s philosophical piece, the pieces mix description with action. They are not static; they have zip and they move. They point out the effectiveness of an author’s ability to create word pictures, all good writers being creators of images that come out of their mind in dribs and drabs, or torrents, to lodge in the reader’s mind, ideally memorably.
Every kind of writing improves with practice, but none benefits more than descriptive writing–a skill that can be learned. Rembrandt said, “The more pictures you paint, the better you get,” and the same goes for mesmerizing prose. The main ingredient of these three writers is fluency–the generation of numerous ideas (an ability of smart people with fertile, excitable, complex minds); the ability to “see a lot” in things,” more than lesser writers see. In the same way, a skilled painter, looking at a field of wheat or a human face perceives much more than most people with untrained eyes perceive.
Where does that ability come from? An active mind that is able to explore objects and ideas in impressive detail while always maintaining a consistent tone to express the details, pulling image after image recalled from the writer’s life from the conscious and subconscious mind where they are securely stored and always ready to be put to work in text.
Here’s a piece that creates a mood through simple diction and cadences reflecting the mind of the character being described. The excerpt is by James Agee (1909- 1955) from the nonfiction documentary Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It is set among Southern tenant farmers during the American Depression. Agee–novelist, poet, movie critic, essayist, and screen writer–posthumously was called “the most prodigiously talented American writer of his generation.” About combining the skills of an artist to write a nonfiction documentary, he said, “Isn’t every human being both a scientist and an artist; and in writing of human experience, isn’t there a good deal to be said for recognizing that fact and for using both methods?”
“I am fond of Emma, and very sorry for her, and I shall probably never see her again after a few hours from now. I want to tell you what I can about her…(W)hen Emma was sixteen she married a man her father’s age, a carpenter… She has been married to him two years; they have no children. Emma loves good times, and towns, and people her own age, and he is jealous and mean to her and suspicious of her. He has given her no pretty dresses nor the money to buy cloth to make them. Every minute he is in the house he keeps his eye right on her as if she was up to something, and when he goes out, which is as seldom as he can, he locks her up: so that twice already she has left him and come home to stay, and then after a while he has come down begging, and crying, and swearing he will treat her good and give her anything she asks for… and she has gone back…Her husband can no longer get a living in Cherokee City. (H)e has heard of a farm on a plantation over in the red hills of Mississippi and has already gone, and taken it, and he has sent word to Emma that she is to come in a truck… and this truck is leaving tomorrow. She doesn’t want to go at all, and during the past two days she has been withdrawing into rooms with her sister and is crying a good deal, almost tearlessly and almost without voice, as if she knew no more how to cry than to take care of her life….but she is going all the same, without at all understanding why.”
You’ll find it worthwhile to read the section of In Let Us Now Praise Famous Men this excerpt is taken from to see how the writing you just read came out of the feelings of affection that developed between Agee and Emma.
Now here is a descriptive excerpt from Agee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel A Death in the Family. The novel shows the effects of his father’s sudden death on a young boy. This famous passage, set to music by Samuel Barber, is a prelude to the novel.
“We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee… On the rough wet grass of the back yard my father and mother have spread quilts. We all lie there, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt and I too am lying there. First we were sitting up, then one of us lay down, and then we all lay down, on our stomachs, on our sides, on our backs and they have kept on talking. They are not talking much and the talk is quiet, of nothing in particular, of nothing at all. The stars are wide and alive, they seem each like a smile of great sweetness, and they seem very near. All my people are larger bodies than mine, quiet, with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me. By some chance, here they are, all on this earth, and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of the night.”
Nothing dramatic happens on that lawn, but Agee communicates the preciousness of everyday life, and the boy’s feeling of calmness and security. But it is yet mixed with a feeling of the fragile nature of this family and the life he cherishes. The language, almost hypnotic, conveys how every child feels, and how most every adult feels remembering pleasant days of youth.
Here is an ideal example of analytical nonfiction. It is John Ruskin’s (1819-1900) writing on the nature of the imaginative mind from his book Modern Painters. Ruskin was the leading art/architecture critic of the English Victorian era and the best writer among all the critics. He explored the creative process. His writing style, based so heavily on a Biblical style, and his ideas, and original insights were widely admired by artists, critics, and the general public. They influenced Marcel Proust who spent six years studying them, translating them into French, and being influenced by them before setting out to write the monumental In Search of Lost Time. Ruskin claims, as I’ve believed as long as I’ve been writing, that once having experienced something, writers don’t forget it, but rather, having memorized their life, remembers its every detail. Writers and artists can remember every blade of grass on the street where they lived when they were ten. What one writes about, the other paints.
Here’s Ruskin writing about the painters he so admired:
“Imagine that all that any of these men had seen or heard in the whole course of their lives, laid up accurately in their memories as in a vast storehouse, extending, with the poets, even to the slightest intonations of syllables heard in the beginning of their lives, and with the painters, down to minute folds of drapery, and shapes of leaves or stones; and over all this unindexed and immeasurable mass of treasure, the imagination brooding and wandering, but dream-gifted, so as to summon at any moment exactly such groups of ideas as justly fit each other; this I conceive to be the real nature of the imaginative mind, and this, I believe, it would often be explained to us as being, by the men themselves who possess it, but that they have no idea what the state of other peoples’ minds is in comparison; they suppose everyone remembers all that he has seen in the same way, and do not understand how it happens that they alone can produce good drawings or great thoughts.”
Here is an extended metaphor drawing a parallel between fog and human behavior from Charles Dickens’ (1812-1879) Bleak House. Immensely gifted and inventive, Charles Dickens is generally considered the greatest Victorian novelist. In this satirical excerpt from Bleak House, fog reminds the narrator of the murky ethics and hypocrisy of the High Court of Chancery, metaphorically the Bleak House of the title.
“Fog everywhere. Fog up the river where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marsh, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs, fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships, fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of the fog, with fog all around them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds…Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which the High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds this day, in the sight of heaven and earth.”
James Agee, John Ruskin, and Charles Dickens. If they were a baseball team, or a soccer team, what a powerful team they would be. All writing should be interesting, but why not go further and write mesmerizing prose using them as examples to learn from?
© 2018 David J. Rogers
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