On Good Writing

There is something truly transcendental about wonderful writing.

You know it if you continue to flip pages once a story’s over. You want more, so much, that you read everything that succeeds it. Other books published by the same author, by the same publisher, the list of variants, thank-yous, mini bios, literally… everything.

You feel it if you hold a book to your chest, once all pages have been turned, and catch your breath. Let out a sigh, and emphatically feel that you have been enriched.

You internalize good writing when you read something once, and it never leaves you.

“Who taught you to write in blood on my back? Who taught you to use your hands as branding irons? You have scored your name into my shoulders, referenced me with your mark. The pads of your fingers have become printing blocks, you tap a message on to my skin, tap meaning into my body. Your morse code interferes with my heart beat. I had a steady heart before I met you, I relied upon it, it had seen active service and grown strong. Now you alter its pace with your own rhythm, you play upon me, drumming me taut.”

When it speaks to you so clearly, so steadily, as if it has infiltrated your mind and stolen your thoughts, run them through a cycle of poignancy, and seeped them back out. Or, if you find yourself feeling something you’ve never felt in regards to a matter you’ve never experienced with such urgency, such gut wrenching immediacy, that you know you’re affected.

You understand good writing when the writer becomes you friend. Your escape. When they help you forget your troubles, and run away with you to another world. When your new co-worker is “such a Gloria Gilbert,” or you can’t help but think this exact situation happened once, in a novel by Hemmingway. When you weep for them, laugh for them, hold your heart for them. You know a good writer.

As a reader, it’s very easy to spot these writers. The moment you experience any of the above, you’re sold. But what makes these writers as iconic, relatable, evocative, genius, as they are? What must they experience? Extreme tragedy? Heartbreak? A life of solitude? Heightened emotion? Magic? How does a piece of writing become someone’s Written on the Body (quoted above), Eat Pray Love, Harry Potter?

I’ve been struggling to figure this out for years. Can someone enlighten me? Pretty please?

 AG

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8 thoughts on “On Good Writing

  1. As a fellow lover of writing and fan of the lady AG, I feel compelled to respond.
    I know exactly what you mean about being affected by great writing. I have been a bibliophile, on and off, beginning in the 5th grade, and have trouble understanding why people aren’t. I regularly pay off my younger brother to get him to read more (Currently, 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens), although I know that this sort of incentive mechanism is only going to hurt him in the long run. For 7 Habits, a full room cleaning and visit to Taco Bell. Talk about desperation.

    In answer to your question—
    I think writing well requires seeing. Really, truly seeing.

    I’m sure you’ve heard this one before from the original source, but I really think there are people who talk about other people, people who talk about events, and people who talk about ideas. At the core of good writing are ideas, the people and events are just the backdrop against which those ideas are placed. Anyone who is a good seer will find a good story to tell and rich characters to tell it with, but a great seer will find an idea, or several, to convey. (Find, because it is a constant search. Knowing is optional, but wondering is key.)

    The experiences you talked about above (Extreme tragedy, etc.) do help form great writers because these events force them to contemplate and express ideas. But these experiences aren’t essential to great writers– even dullness has an extreme worth expressing (for some reason, this brings to mind Emily Dickenson, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath). But I think a good writer can find as much inspiration in a blade of grass (think, Enlightenment authors) as in a heated battle.

    Personally, I tend to bore of little wisdoms that I’ve heard before or learned myself through experience, when there is no new angle to it, or when the new angle provided by the author has nothing to add but floweriness. Nothing is more moving than a personal experience, and so the author must either make the reader feel a new experience is personal, or evoke the feelings/ideas aroused by a previous experience. No matter what the genre, the writing must evoke.

    I tutored a brilliant 5th grader in Writing once, and I tried to convey the basics that I struggled to incorporate into my writing at her age (and thereafter):
    -unity
    -clarity
    -organization
    -simplicity (one of my favorite English teacher’s made us read Strunk & White’s Elements of Style… so glad about that)

    Knowing that she was brilliant enough to be aware, at least subconsciously, of the basics above, I told her about Aristotle’s three means of persuasion: Ethos, Pathos, and Logos. I think these are useful not only in persuasive writing. After all, even a novel aims to gain the reader’s trust and confidence. In other words, the author has the responsibility to persuade the reader of the value of the work, or she/he has failed in the utmost respect.

    Adapting one’s writing to the target market helps in forming that connection between author and reader/giver and recipient/recipient and giver (in the blogosphere), but of course, authors often have to choose between seeking quality > quantity or vice versa, in the connections they form. Sometimes, especially when trying to publish a book, it’s a marketing game, and you AG, are well aware of how this all works. Sometimes when I get hooked on series (like Game of Thrones), I feel a bit… manipulated, which definitely takes away from the experience.

    Most of all, it’s about the words. Finding the right ones is an underappreciated art. My word of the day: Robust.

    Thanks for the evocative article.

    • You are so right about the writer being a seer. John Ruskin said: ‘The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion all in one.’

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  5. Thanks so much for the feedback, everyone. Reshma, that’s a really interesting point. I totally agree that an artist (any artist, in fact, not just a writer) has to able to see. They need to be able to see a situation take place, see how it affects an individual, see how an emotion manifests itself in that individual, see the effect that one person has on those around them, and what this effect ultimately goes on to affect. Longwinded, but nonetheless. Dermot’s quote says it better!

    But I can’t shake the feeling that poignancy comes from a combination of experience and heightened emotion. The most clever writers are those who over-think situations, those who challenge the status quo, those who test boundaries (even if it is within the parameters of their own mind). Those who truly FEEL life, pain, loss, love. Yes, Wordsworth wrote about flowers, meadows, nature, but his personal life was wracked with faulty relationships. He contemplated suicide, saw four his children die. Lots of strife. And even though these aspects in his life weren’t directly attributed in his writing, you have to think they made him turn inward, and really reflect. And introspection & retrospection make for some damn good writing.

    I think… :)

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