The Splendid Work of Writing

I’ve been reading the essays of author Andre Dubus, considered a master of the short form. In his book, Meditations from a Movable Chair (New York: Vintage, 1999), Dubus writes an essay called “First Books” and offers this encouragement to writers:

An older writer knows what a younger one has not yet learned. What is demanding and fulfilling is writing a single word, trying to write le mot juste, as Flaubert said; writing several of them, which become a sentence. When a writer does that, day after day, working alone with little encouragement, often with discouragement flowing in the writer’s blood, and with an occasional rush of excitement that empties oneself, so that the self is for minutes longer in harmony with eternal astonishments and visions of truth, right there on the page on the desk, and when a writer does this work steadily enough to complete a manuscript long enough to be a book, the treasure is on the desk. If the manuscript itself, mailed out to the world, where other truths prevail, is never published, the writer will suffer bitterness, sorrow, anger, and more dangerously despair, convinced that the work is not worthy, so not worth those days at the desk. But the writer who endures and keeps working will finally know that writing the book was something hard and glorious, for at the desk a writer must try to be free of prejudice, meanness of spirit, pettiness, and hatred; strive to be a better human being than the writer normally is, and to do this through concentration on a single word, and then another, and another, and another. This is splendid work, as worthy and demanding as any, and the will and resilience to do it are good for the writer’s soul. If the work is not published, or is published for little money and less public attention, it remains a spiritual, mental, and physical achievement; and if, in public, it is the widow’s mite, it is also, like the widow, more blessed. (162-63)

dubus

Writers, we must endure. We must keep working knowing that the words we write are worth it . . . it being the process, the “splendid” work, the worthy and demanding work.

No one said it would be easy. No one said it would be a sure path to fame and fortune. But as writers, we must be true to ourselves, to our giftedness and our calling. We must reach and try and write and rewrite and reach again because it matters.

If we’re true to our giftedness, then we will continue to write — no matter whether published or not, read or not. It is the “widow’s mite” that we offer up, and we are blessed.

 

Word Power

I tried an experiment in one of my writing classes this past week. We’re talking about the power of words and learning to, as Francine Prose writes in her book Reading Like a Writer, “put every word on trial for its life.”

We looked at the words used (and not used) in Cynthia Ozick’s ‘The Shawl.” (They were amazed to realize that the word “Nazi” is nowhere in the story, even though that’s what it’s about and they knew that’s what it’s about, even without that word and many others one might expect.) We studied the descriptions of place and people in Guy de Maupassant’s, “The Piece of String.” We watched how Flannery O’Connor chose words and led us along in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”

Then I read them some quotes from one of my recent favorite books, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. Here are some of the beautiful, lyrical lines:

When the train pulled into the Bahnhof in Munich, the passengers slid out as if torn from a package.

All was dark-skied and hazy, and small chips of rain were starting to fall.

In Liesel’s mind, the moon was sewn into the sky that night. Clouds were stitched around it.book thief

That was when a great shiver arrived. It waltzed through the window with the draft. Perhaps it was the breeze of the Third Reich, gathering even greater strength. Or maybe it was just Europe again, breathing. Either way, it fell across them as their metallic eyes clashed like tin cans in the kitchen.

<a scene of the Nazis burning books> The orange flames waved at the crowd as paper and print dissolved inside them. Burning words were torn from their sentences.

The cold was climbing out of the ground.

Snow was shivering outside.

The window opened wide, a square cool mouth, with occasional gusty surges.

Pimples were gathered in peer groups on his face.

I love how Zusak uses words, putting them together in surprising ways to make descriptions that are exact and yet so unusual and unexpected. It’s that very unexpectedness that delights me.

So we did an exercise in class. I gave students four small pieces of paper. On each paper they were to write a word — two papers would have adjectives, two papers would have nouns. Any adjective, any noun. I gathered the papers into two piles, shuffled them, and then each student chose one adjective and one noun and had to find a way to use them together in a sentence.

We got “chilling sun” and “soft children” and “shiny dream.” And the students wrote amazing new sentences, allowing these unusual pairs to work together.

In a weekly journal post, one of my students wrote, “I liked the adjective and noun game. Combinations like chilling sun made me think about the ways I described things throughout the week. Instead of relying on easy, conventional descriptions, I searched for different, more unusual word pairings that still made sense.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself!

What are some of the most lyrical, surprising, and unexpected sentences you’re read — and where did you read them?

“May” I Say Good-bye to Short Story Month?

May, Short Story Month, is almost over.

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned in my blog about my love for the short story and my personal aesthetic that constantly leads me that direction. I asked for some ideas from readers about favorite short story writers and got some great advice (thank you!). L. Marie (my great friend who writes YA Fantasy) mentioned Flannery O’Connor, Poe (I’m reading him right now in my Romantics class), and the Grimms (and not the guy on the TV show). Cathy Day directed me to a post on her blog titled “Toolbox Stories” where she rounds up a terrific list of the stories she has in her writing toolbox.

toolbox

We all should have such a toolbox–those go-to stories that just do it for us. Maybe they inspire. Maybe they give us a new way to handle our plot line. Or maybe, as Cathy uses them, a specific story will help a writing student understand how to make his or her own story work better.

I’m working on my toolbox.

Some of my favorites? Ernest Hemingway (“Hills Like White Elephants”), Guy de Maupassant (“The String” is included in the anthology noted here, but my favorite will always be “The Necklace”), James Joyce (“Eveline”), William Falkner (“A Rose for Emily”), John Updike (“A&P”), John Steinbeck (“The Chrysanthemums”), and indeed Tobias Wolff’s amazing “Bullet in the Brain” . . . all included in On Writing Short Stories (Tom Bailey, editor). short stories

So as a roundup this week, I want to also thank The Missouri Review lit magazine which, this past month, has celebrated Short Story Month by writing a daily blog post about their favorite short stories. (If you want to start at May 1 and work your way through the posts, start here.) I’m intrigued by Angela Carter (Day 5), T. Corahessen Boyle (Day 9), Alice Munro (Day 22), and, of course, James Baldwin (Day 23).

There is so much to read, so much to learn. Some of my other favorite literary magazines have great short stories and essays that deserve further attention.

I’ll do my best to bring my favorites to you, some interviews, and even some advice as I learn as well. I’m working on filling my toolbox.

Short story month may be over, but my work is just beginning. I have a lot of learning–and writing–to do.

What about you? How’s your writing coming this summer?