What Makes Writing Good?

I just read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter for my book group (had never read it before!) and, days later, am still overwhelmed by the power of the prose.

In addition, of course, to being overwhelmed by the profundity and humanity Carson McCullers displays on every page.

But today we’re talking about prose.   Most writers are familiar with the “good writing” rules.  Use the active voice.  Show, don’t tell.  Omit unnecessary words.  Eschew adverbs. 

However, you can obey all the rules in the world and still not touch the quality of McCullers’s writing–fluid, sweeping, nuanced, never calling attention to itself yet capable of stopping a reader in his tracks with its sheer beauty.  McCullers doesn’t strain for any prosy fireworks.  Her sentences are short and declarative.  Her vocabulary is simple, everyday.  Yet I can’t stop flipping through the book and reading pages at random just for the pure pleasure of it. 

Take a look at these few evocative sentences:

The town had not known a winter as cold as this one for years.  Frost formed on the windowpanes and whitened the roofs of the houses.  The winter afternoons glowed with a hazy lemon light and shadows were a delicate blue.  A thin coat of ice crusted the puddles in the streets, and it was said on the day after Christmas that only ten miles to the north there was a light fall of snow.”

Seems so simple!  Indeed, the words themselves (winter, houses, ice, puddles, streets) are ordinary.  But their impact is not.  Each of the words has power, weight, importance.  Each of the words needs to be there.  Each of the words, like a ballet dancer’s toe, lands squarely, solidly, lightly, precisely, in the right place and at the right time.

So how did she do it?  For starters, she was a genius.

However, if you really look at her work you’ll see McCullers (1) chose solid strong words, and (2) trusted them to mean what they mean.  She set them out on the page and she allowed them to perform.  She knew the tools of her trade, intimately.  

She was also industrious, productive (in spite of horrific health problems), and brave.  In a 1959 Esquire essay, she wrote, “My books take a long time. . . .  As a writer, I’ve always worked very hard.”  In her unfinished memoir, she spoke of fears she would never write again and said “work has not always been easy.”  Like all writers, McCullers had to chase the “divine spark” that brings writers inspiration.  

I am no genius.  And, yes, I know there’s more to writing than word choice and hard work.  But, today, I am taking these truths to heart:  Know your tools (words).  Choose wisely.  Let them do their jobs.  And be willing to put in the time

As for “divine spark”?   Well, that’s what prayer’s for.

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