Tag Archives: Willa Cather

The Weakness Many Writers Don’t Know They Have: Ideas and Models for Describing Places in Your Writing

Many writers have a weakness, but are not aware of it. They fall short when they describe places. Their places don’t seem real and are not vivid Small wooden farm buildings behind a wooden fence on the side of a road with grass and autumn treesor accurate. They are not interesting. Because of an inadequate handling of places, a work that may be superb in every other respect is without convincingly-described locations, scenes, and settings. Descriptions of places are not window dressing that a writer need pay little attention to, but a feature of writing fiction, nonfiction, and drama that is indispensable. Poorly written descriptions of places detract from the quality of the written piece.

When you read a description of place by someone such as Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, or Ernest Hemingway, who has elevated that skill to the level of art, you are impressed. You read the description more than once. You think, “This person can really write.” You realize that giving attention to skillfully composing your book’s or story’s places will enhance the works that you are striving so hard to make readable, enjoyable, salable.

Rust-colored field in front of rust-colored barn and silo with blue sky and pinkish cloudsAward-winning short story specialist Eudora Welty did more than anyone else to point out how central to effective fiction place is. She said that the story’s place affects “all currents” of the work, all of its emotions, beliefs, and moral convictions that “charge out from the story” as the author unfolds it. She said the places should always be identified, and adds that they should be described in a particular way that requires significant writing skills.

They should be described concretely.

They should be described exactly.

To describe places concretely and exactly requires the writer to be patient and take time writing about the places and not dismiss them with a few vague words. It is worthwhile to pay attention to places in works you read so you might learn from them. Don’t hurry through them. Study them. See how they are so skillfully put together.

Look at the places in writing you are working on, especially the work you are submitting to publishers or intend to publish yourself, and make sure places are both concrete and exact.

Some Writers, Poets, and Artists Are Known for Their Places

View of Chicago skyscrapers behind a bridge over the Chicago RiverPlace has been particularly important to some noted authors. You cannot imagine the story’s characters without the place where the author has put them:  Dublin  to James Joyce, small town and rural Mississippi to Eudora Welty and William Faulkner, Paris,  Spain, and Africa to Ernest Hemingway, Camden, Ohio to Sherwood Anderson, southern United States to Truman Capote, James Agee, Reynolds Price, Pat Conroy, and many other “Southern writers,“ the plains of Nebraska to Willa Cather, Chicago to Saul Bellow, the Mississippi River to Mark Twain, the English moors to Charlotte Bronte and sister Emily,  eighteenth century London to Charles Dickens, Mexico and the state of Texas to Katherine Anne Porter,  Los Angeles to mystery writer Raymond Chandler, and so on.

Places are very important to poets too: America is Walt Whitman’s subject, and Patterson, New Jersey is special to William Carlos Williams. And a place may be a favorite subject of painters: his gardens to Claude Monet, the hill visible from his window to Paul Cezanne.

Models

Below are places from my life I have described in stories I’ve written:

A Chicago Alley Late On a Rainy Night When I Was Five

Bungalows on a neighbborhood street with lawns and a sidewalk(My father was an air raid warden during World War II, and once he took me with him during an air raid practice when the lights of the city were turned off and the skies were filled with search lights) “My father and I turned and came up behind the church where a delivery truck was parked. We walked down the alley, keeping our eyes trained on the apartment buildings’ windows, past the empty lot overgrown with weeds and covered with tin cans and newspapers, and past the bent-in-half, arthritic and reclusive witch’s bleak house. Her ferociously unfriendly German shepherds were oddly quiet. We passed the drowsy homes and apartment buildings of neighbors, only some of whose names we knew. Behind the walls of those buildings were people not unlike us, simple people, all with the stories of their lives never to be written.  All shades were drawn, and so the night was perfect, with no more reminders necessary.

My father stopped to look straight up through the drizzle again and then so did I. Between the sweeping beams of the search lights, white stars Wet road with starry-looking street lamps at nightand a full moon dangled in the sky. On the back porches in neat array, like miniature glass sentinels, stood the empty bottles left out for the milk man.  Branches of trees laden with rain bent low over back fences like old women on canes. When the wind blew, the leaves showered the two of us with water, and we laughed. On the ground lay deep puddles that we had no choice but to step through, which was fine with me because I was wearing boots. My father’s shoes made squishing sounds and he said,” Another pair down the drain” and we laughed at that, and I splashed through, heavy-footed.”

Chicago on a Summer Night

“It was a typical August night in the city, a moonlit night that if you lived in that part of the country you knew intuitively would witness a drop in temperature that would turn a blistering hot day cold almost precisely one minute after the stroke of twelve. In the air circulating on a breeze were fish smells from the beaches of Lake Michigan that were coming into view as we walked through a park that had a merry-go-round and Park bench between two trees and sunsetswings. The night had taken on an indefinable splendor and given me a feeling of exquisite peace that I hadn’t felt since childhood. I saw a white yacht that was illuminated by deck lights out on the lake.  Small waves rocked a rowboat that was not very far from me. With a whoosh, waves tumbled over themselves onto a beach.  A bell chimed somewhere on the water. There was a splash and then another. The vivacious woman I was with took off her shirt and bra and swung them over her head like a lasso. She said, “Guess what I do for a living.” I said, “I’ll bet you four million dollars that you are an actress.”

A Bar in a Town in Montana, United States

After we graduated from high school my good friend Nick and I–he eighteen, I seventeen–decided to ride freight trains for a while.  A train heading west came along and we hopped it.

“Down the wide main street and prominently visible from our freight train that had just pulled in, the alluring green neon sign of the Welcome Inn burned brightly. It was a small, squat, one-story square log building that night and day hummed and trembled with pulsing music and in which who knew what went on. But we were curious to find out. We entered that tumult of sweat and whiskey, amidst the glow of the red bar lights and clouds of floating cigarette smoke, and stood at the bar next to a tattooed woman snapping a bull whip and wearing a black satin cape with shining red lining, and saw a man with a chin scar and an eye-patch get angry and pull a pistol on another man. The second man took the gun away from the first and slugged him over the head. He turned to us disgusted with his friend, who lay dazed and prone on the floor, people stepping over him, and said, not in any way angry, “He’s always doing that,” and that was the end of that.

Pale blue and brown old cars lined up on grassOld cars with dented fenders and gaudy garters dangling on their rear-view mirrors and pick-up trucks with rifle racks cradling ominous shotguns and carbines were parked four deep in the lot. When the door of the Inn swung open, muscular men, their shirt sleeves rolled up above the bicep, sauntered out arrogantly, their arms tight around the waists of conspicuously made-up women, their heads thrown back in exaltation and abandon, and the chime of laughter spilled into the night like flowing wine.”

The College Town Where I Lived

“… a small drowsy college set in a little town of narrow, winding cobblestone streets crowded with lovely old gnarled oaks, maples, and sycamores and wild, untrimmed hedges. Pinnacles, domes, and spires of church towers, like the great cathedrals of Europe, rose gradually and wonderfully and were visible everywhere. In the yards, along crumbling stone fences sprouting moss, lichens, and ferns, were an abundance of rose gardens that were sadly withered at that time of year. The town was surrounded on all sides by tractors and threshers left overnight by farmers in wheat fields, and the campus was split in two by a river with an Indian name.”

 

A street with shopsExcellent writers should be able to describe places that they have experienced or have heard or read about and can clearly envision as they compose. They should be able to create vivid descriptions that enliven the text and appeal to the reader’s senses.

 

© 2022 David J. Rogers

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Filed under Descriptive Writing, Developing Talent, Human Potential and Achievement, Place, Writing, Writing improvement, Writing models

A Style Is About All There Is to Art

Style is everywhere in art and everywhere in everyday life. There would be no art without style. Picasso’s Guernica has a style, and Pride and Prejudice does too, and the building you are in has a style. Whenever you speak or send a text or dress or brush your hair, you have a style. You’re reading a style right now. It is mine, and just as, whether you know it or not, you have spent probably Interior livingroom with stylethousands of hours developing yours (so that I’d recognize anywhere that it is yours), I have consciously spent many hours developing mine.

A core reason you are attracted to one painter over others or one writer over others, or why you like Sinatra, or Chopin or Debussy or The Simpsons is their style.  Speaking of style, short story specialist Irishman Frank O’ Connor said, “One sees that the way a thing is made controls and is inseparable from the whole meaning of it.” In the same vein but more emphatically American Nobel Prize writer Toni Morrison said, “Getting a style is about all there is to writing.”

The total effect of what a writer says will depend to a considerable extent on how the writer says it. Style is the manner of saying what is said.  Some styles are appealing, but many are unappealing. The writer should always want to write with an appealing style. It needn’t be beautiful, but it should be appealing.

Painting of field by Claude Monet

Claude Monet

The writer’s style expresses his or her temperament and his or hers alone, and reveals verbal abilities, methods of writing, enthusiasms, and even self-doubts. By analyzing a writing style you can analyze the writer. Painters leave their print everywhere in their paintings. Style is the whole artist that is made recognizable in the work. You can see from a work that a Cezanne temperament is not a Monet temperament.

There are good styles and bad styles. .  People do not generally like weird, eccentric styles. When artists discover the style that best expresses them (which may take years to happen) they experience a breakthrough and feel a new sense of power and confidence over their work.

A sign for writers that they are on the right track is the emergence in the work at hand of their characteristic style.  When they see their style taking shape in the work, they feel secure. I’ve always felt that when I get the first paragraph under control (in my style), the piece is basically written.

Simplicity

Artists who are interested in styles today are almost automatically interested in SIMPLICITY, claiming that works of art should not be unnecessarily complicated. Speaking of simplicity, writer Willa Cather said that the higher processes of art are all processes of simplification.

portrait of Anton Checkhov

Anton Checkhov

Anton Chekhov is considered the master of the short story–the greatest, the best to learn from. He wrote to his brother, also a writer, “A strange thing has happened to me: I have developed a mania for brevity–everything strikes me as too long.” He practiced “maximal conciseness.” His phrases are simple, such as, “The sun set,” “It got dark,” and “It started to rain.”  Novelist Somerset Maugham thought that writing simply was more difficult than it might seem. He said: To write simply is as difficult as to be good.”

Chekhov believed that not only should a short story’s style be simple, but the plot should be simple too. He said, “The more elaborate the plot of a given story is, the less effective it tends to be as a work of art.” In many of his stories precious little happens.   He said, “You should take something ordinary, something from everyday life without a plot or ending.” He said a story should have a man and a woman, and a little action. Some of his most admired stories are mood-pieces in which plot is barely present.

Frank Lloyd Wright building

Frank Lloyd Wright

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright, designer of New York’s Guggenheim Museum, was interested in simplicity not only in architecture, but in all arts. He believed that there could be but one best way for the artist to express anything, and that the way could include only what was absolutely necessary to express the essential meaning of the thing. That requires stringent simplification. By eliminating the inessentials, the artist arrives at the nature of the object—its pure form. But the artist must know when to stop simplifying. Wright said, “Less would ruin the work as surely as would ‘more.’”  So, simplify but don’t go too far.

Accessibility and Artworks

Portrait of Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy

Artists who are interested in style and interested in simplicity are also interested in ACCESSIBILITY of their works. In any of the arts, the artist has to decide–as do you–if it is important to appeal to an audience, to be understood by an audience. Should the work be accessible? How accessible? Leo Tolstoy, whose novels are sometime considered the greatest ever written, said, “Great works of art are only great because they are accessible and comprehensible to everyone.” Sculptor Jacques Lipchitz thought what many people think: that so-called great works are too pompous, too stiff, and are not accessible. Ford Maddox Ford was all for accessibility and said, “You must have your eyes forever on your Reader. That alone constitutes Technique”

William Faulkner felt differently. He said, “I don’t care about John Doe’s opinion on mine or anyone else’s work. Mine is the standard which has to be met.” (And he won a Nobel Prize.) But his work is accessible only with difficulty–long, convoluted sentences and rhetorical style. But Francois Mauriac disagreed with Faulkner and said, “An author who assures you that he writes for himself alone and that he does not care whether he is heard or not is a boaster and is deceiving himself or you.”  (And he won a Nobel Prize too.) Delacroix wanted accessibility. He said. “A picture is but the bridge between the soul of the artist and that of the spectator.”  How accessible will your work be?

The Author’s Intensity and the Production of Literature

The artist’s INTENSITY is reflected in style.  Some artists’ style is laid back, but others’ style is red hot. Raymond Chandler turned hard-boiled detective writing into critically-accepted literature and had a lot to say about the writer’s craft.  He wrote: “When a book, any sort of book, reaches a certain intensity of artistic performance it becomes literature. That intensity may be a matter of style, situation, character, emotional tone, or idea, or half a dozen other things. It may also be perfection over the movement of a story similar to the control a great pitcher has over a ball.” Painter George Innes said, “The greatness of art is not in the display of knowledge…but in the distinctness with which it conveys the impression of a personal vital force that acts spontaneously, without fear or hesitation.”

Advice Regarding Emotions, Plot, and Understatement

Van Gogh self portrait

Van Gogh

A style conveys EMOTIONS. Chekhov wrote, “The more emotionally charged a situation, the more emotional restraint one must show in writing, and then the result will be emotionally powerful. There is no need to lay it on thick.” Other Chekhov quotes: “Avoid describing the mental state of your protagonist.” “Avoid describing emotional states…one should make these apparent from action.“ “To get strong emotions from the reader, try to be somewhat colder.” Thinking the same thing as Russian Chekhov, Frenchman Gustave Flaubert said, “The less one (the writer) feels a thing, the more likely one is to express it as it really is.”

The two other greatest writers of short stories–Guy de Maupassant and Ernest Hemingway–also advocated emotional understatement. Hemingway wrote “Dispassionate prose,” prose always less emotional than the events seem to demand. Understatement elicits strong emotional responses from the reader.

Emotional states in writing are amplified by brevity.  American writer Flannery O’ Connor said that the fiction writer has to realize that compassion or emotions cannot be created with emotion. The style itself must be emotion-free.

Artists Can’t Help It: They Repeat Themselves

F. Scott Fitzgerald was a highly successful writer by the age of twenty-four. He said, “Mostly, we authors repeat ourselves—that’s the truth. We have two or three great moving experiences in our lives—experiences so great and moving that it doesn’t seem at the time that anyone else has been caught up and pounded and dazzled and astonished and beaten and broken and rescued and illuminated and rewarded and humbled in just that way ever before”

Claude Monet painted the same subject over and over. As an Impressionist he was interested in conveying the effect of light on objects, and would often  set his clock to be at  the place where the subject was at intervals so he could catch the light at noon, say, and ten minutes later and ten minutes after that. He might paint seven or ten paintings of the very same thing in different light.

All Artists Need Taste

Picasso painting

Picasso

Obvious in a work of art is the artist’s aesthetic judgment, which  he/she develops over time and experience.  “At the higher levels of creativity it is probable that few besides the creators themselves are able to assess a new creation, and it is necessary that they should learn to adopt an objective critical attitude toward their own work…(the creators’ self-criticism) must be based on  sound insight and aesthetic appreciation–what one would call ‘taste” (R. Ochse).

Some Writers Are in the Wrong Art

“Often while reading a book one feels that the author would have preferred to paint rather than write; one can sense the pleasure he derives from describing a landscape or person, as if he were painting what he is saying because deep in his heart he would have preferred to use brushes and colors” (Pablo Picasso). A good example is Joseph Conrad in his masterpiece Heart of Darkness.

Miscellaneous Insights About Writing

 “Good writing is the hardest form of thinking. It involves the agony of turning profoundly difficult thoughts into lucid form, then forcing them into the tight-fitting uniform of language, making them visible and clear. If the writing is good, then the result seems effortless and inevitable. But when you want to say something life-changing or ineffable in a single sentence, you face both the limitations of the sentence itself and the extent of your own talent” (Pat Conroy).

Flannery O’Connor said, “A good short story should not have less meaning than a novel, nor should the action be less complete. Nothing essential to the main experience can be left out of a short story.”

“Since Stephen Crane’s time [late nineteenth century] all serious writers have concentrated on the effort of rendering individual scenes more vividly” (Caroline Gordon).

“A novelist’s characters must be with him as he lies down to sleep, and as he wakes from his dreams. He must learn to hate them and to love them” (Anthony Trollope.)

“It has been through Flaubert that the novel has at last caught up with poetry” (Allen Tate).

“Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first” (William Faulkner).

“Only when the moral beliefs of the reader tally exactly with those on which a story is based will the reader have the whole of the emotion which it is potentially able to produce in him” (Montgomery Belgion).

A personal style that makes you comfortable and confident helps you accomplish whatever you wish to accomplish in your art. An artist’s style evolves over a lifetime of work. What it was when you were twenty-five is not the same as it is now when you are fifty. This post and the ideas and experiences here of many important artists may help you strengthen and perfect your own style.

 

© 2020 David J. Rogers

For my interview from the international teleconference with Ben Dean about Fighting to Win, click the following link:

Interview with David J. Rogers

 

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