Writing that Sticks

Posted: August 2, 2013 in Writing
Tags: , , , , , ,


by Kathleen De Grave, author of The Hour of Lead: A Novel of Kansas and Other Alternate Realities

The other day I spent twenty minutes in a small town library in Illinois, the kind that gives half the space to the children’s department and squeezes everything else—from newspapers and magazines to computers and reference books—into the rest, leaving a couple of rows of shelves for books.  I wandered down one of the four fiction rows, remembering how it used to feel in my hometown library with shelves of books all there for me—all that possibility behind shiny, crinkly, flamboyant covers.  And as I wandered, a question came to me—one I continually ask but never get a complete answer to: why is this book not a classic but that one is.  Is there really something about certain novels that blows us away?

So I chose a novel on my left (the J’s), the first that came handy, with an author and a title I didn’t know, and opened it at random.  I instantly found myself in a lively scene, reading along easily, the story-line being familiar and fun.  Then I turned to the shelves on the right, the letter U’s, and saw John Updike, a classic writer if anyone is.  Again I opened the novel at random—and found myself in a sentence.  The words were simple enough, but I was drawn into their sound and their mystery.  Here was not so much a scene as a plunge, deep into a character’s psyche.  This story wasn’t familiar.  It wasn’t safe.  But I felt pure delight as I moved from surprise to surprise.

No wonder I keep asking the question—what makes good writing?  I can appreciate this or that quality; I can look from far out and see the whole design or zoom in and see an image, a word, a syllable.  But always I come back to the basic point: I know it when I see it.

Lately I’ve been thinking about one quality I see a lot in the kind of writing I’m talking about.  I’ll call it “metonymy,” indirection, not talking about a thing straight on, but just off to the side.  It’s like peripheral vision.  Somehow those vague forms on the edge of our sight take on a meaning and a depth that the objects straight before us can’t.  It’s like catching a shadow from the corner of the eye that disappears when you try to look directly at it.  In fiction, the effect comes through metonymy—focusing on something associated with the object instead of the object itself.  The crown, not the king.  This isn’t a metaphor.  The king is not like the crown.  They are one and the same.

Think of a boy on a bike on his way to school, backpack with all his books and secrets securely strapped on.  Think of that boy hit by a car: his legs twisted in the wheels of the bike, his backpack flung to the curb.  We could peer at the blood, take a CSI journey into the boy’s brain, listen to the hysteria of the woman who had hit the kid.  That would shock and numb us, maybe give some titillation.  But metonymy takes us to the backpack instead.  The torn straps, the ripped notebooks, papers skittering down the gutter.  The backpack makes us feel.

No wonder horses wear blinders.  If they look straight ahead, they don’t get scared.  Unnerving suspicions and shadowy forms can’t surprise them there.  But for a novel to stick in the mind, the blinders have to come off.  Joseph Conrad knew this.  He couldn’t give us Kurtz straight on in all his gore.  He had to use indirection, come at him sidewise,  in the “glow that brings out a haze.”  While Kurtz is crawling on all fours toward the “unspeakable rites,” Marlow looks at Kurtz’s empty bed.  Conrad gives us that indirect shock and all it implies.

The most direct writing is the worst—all abstraction: “Kurtz is an evil man,” “the boy suffered horribly”—because it makes us feel the least.  Good writing is concrete—all details and lively scenes.  But the writing we remember, the writing that haunts us, that makes us read the novel again and again gives us details that are just off center, where they can shimmer and let our own decentered vision call up the shadows that scare us the most.

  1. elkamartin says:

    If readers look at horror full on, it’s all they’ll be able to see. But if readers are led to focus on what’s metonymical instead, that representative thing isn’t as limiting; it implies, so the reader’s imagination is engaged and the imagination leads to discovery. Wonderful essay.


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