Blogger’s note: What follows is some 1,200 words on writing and reading. It’s part of a temporary redirection of my efforts more generally. I’ve got a month to get out the door a book proposal that’s been languishing for laughably too long. So I’m going to be doing my damndest to avoid all provocation from the usual suspects — I’m looking at you, Ms. MM, Mr. Brooks, Douthat, et too many al. Instead I’ll be spending the next several weeks reading and writing in and around the eighteenth century, and as I find choice tidbits there, (and, as there is nothing new under the sun, I will) I shall be sure to share them with you.
Too many years ago to count, when I was just starting to think like a writer (instead of thinking of myself as a “writer”), I started to keep a notebook of other people’s sentences.
I remember the first one I listed, because it still seems to me to be as great an opening line as any in the English language. That would be the one Edward Gibbon used to launch The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:*
In the second century of the Christian Aera, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind.
O! That Augustan grandeur. The balance of its clauses. Gibbon’s music, too. Speak the line as you read it: it rings.
And, of course, the sense of it, all the enormous structural potential energy bound up in the first words of a story of decline. Gibbon leads us into his story at the point of the action, Rome in unquestioned glory. Bam! Like that, one sentence in, you know where we go from here.
I lost that notebook, decades, homes, loved ones ago. I’ve written a fair amount since, and I think I’ve gotten better at it over the years — or rather, that I learned to read myself more carefully, and bury more of the dross before it makes me wince in public. (Blogging works against that training, as it happens; speed is not my friend.) And most of all, the crab pincers of everyday existence have hacked my reading time — and much of my writing life — to shreds.
But in the last month or so, from somewhere (I think I know where, actually, and I’ll write about that in one of these posts soon enough) I’ve regained something of the habit of reading like a writer. That is, once again, every day I carve out time to read something really good — and not necessarily words associated with anything I’m working on or teaching. And I’m watching as I go, picking up what the author is doing, what makes the engine go of whatever it is I’ve got in front of me.
When I do I look at lots of things. Structure most of all, for reasons that I think are obvious. (Basically: the task of the writer is to make his or her readers feel compelled to go on as they come to he end of each paragraph/section/chapter — up until they reach an ending arrives that is both satisfying and persuasively entailed by what has passed before. You get there through well-worked out structure.)
Then there’s language, down to the level of word choice, and things like qualities of description, use of metaphor and on and on — all the stuff that, properly stolen from others, can make me a better writer.
But while I’m doing all of that — think of it as the scales and chords I need to practice to maintain my chops as a writer — it’s always the exemplary sentences that leap out at me, that stop those worthy runs through all the sharps and flats. Sentences are what writers make. We use them to do all kinds of other things, but at bottom, our job is to assemble words into those essential, elemental units of meaning. And when they’re beautiful, when they signify, the really good ones teach me so much.
As, for example, this one, the first I pulled out of the mix in this recent return to good writerly habits:
She was bending and speaking English to a middle-aged lady seated at play beside her: but the next instant she returned to her play and showed the full height of a graceful figure, with a face which might possibly be looked at without admiration, but could hardly be passed with indifference.”
That’s from the first page or two of George Eliot’s “Jewish novel” — Daniel Deronda.**
So what first caught my eye/ear there? That would be the way Eliot managed to construct a physical space out of words — and then impose both design and motion upon it. Gwendolen Harleth (to whom we’ve not yet been properly introduced), is “bending”…and then, in an instant returns both to her roulette game and to erect posture, “the full height of a graceful figure.” That’s a delineation of three-dimensional space written by someone who’s looked at a lot of painting. It presents a tableau (Gwendolen bending and speaking to a sitting player beside her…
…and then it animates that set piece in a way that completes the visual description through motion: Gwendolen returns to the game, and through that gesture reveals her carriage, her figure and her complicated beauty. In writing classes we talk all the time about that old (true) cliché, the need to show rather than tell. This is what it looks like, accomplished by one of the greats.
Next, I noticed all the character-work this little string of words manages to do. We know on meeting Gwendolen that she’s a gamester (as Jane Austen might have put it) — not just a watcher of the game, but someone enmeshed in the social web of the play, talking to her anonymous tribal kin within the temporary and artificial village about the tables. Then we get that last piece of not-quite description: a face that we are compelled to imagine, knowing only that it could be lovely — and that it is marked by some quality that arrests attention, and perhaps desire.
That is: Eliot here invites the reader to enter into the space of her novel. We must, constrained by only the merest touch of the author’s authority, construct Gwendolyn’s image. Eliot does not restrict what we may imagine. All she tells us is that as we read, the woman in our head must hold both our attention and an ambivalence of judgment. We know from the start that she is flawed, and likely a danger — to herself, probably, as well as others. She may earn sympathy as well as curiosity; but we will have to read on to find out.
One damn sentence!
Maybe I’m overdoing it here. Certainly, I’ve read the novel before (though, as noted, very long ago), and I know something of what to expect from and for Miss Harleth. But as I opened up the book again just a few days ago, I tell you, this line stopped me in my tracks. The use of just the suggestion of visual representation to orient us to scene, character and plot is the work of a virtuosos. Add to that the marvelously tricky way Eliot co-opts the reader into participating in the moment, and you have a writer’s master class in just fifty-two words.
It’s at moments like these that I truly love my craft, not to mention the company it lets me keep — even if all I can do, as here, is hold that master’s coat.
(Oh, and I suppose if you’ve labored this far, you’ve earned an open thread. Have at it.)
*Properly, “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” But I’ve always known it in the other way, so there it is.
**I picked up Daniel Deronda, after a lapse of decades since last I read it stimulated by Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blogging on perhaps my favorite novel of all time, Eliot’s Middlemarch. TNC is doing much the same thing I am here, only in greater depth, and engaged with more of the book and Eliot’s technique.
Images: Annibale Caracci, Two Children Teasing a Cat, c. 1590
Caravaggio, The Card Sharps, 1594