Alain De Botton on Why We Travel

We live in an unprecedented era.  In the last century alone, we’ve witnessed the invention of alain de bottonspace exploration, cloning, the internet, TV, telephones.  Ours is a globalized, technologically advanced age.  The idea that one could wake up in Barcelona and later that evening fall asleep in San Francisco was unthinkable a mere hundred years ago.  Today, however, around-the-world travel in twenty four hours is a real possibility for an unparalleled number of people.  The ordinary 21st century person can voyage across distances once reserved for only the most daring explorers.  And like those adventurous souls, we find ourselves seduced by wanderlust’s seductive siren call: we study abroad, we devour Conde Nast Traveler, worshipping sparkling turquoise seas and striking cliffs like devout Catholics at the altar.  

But what, exactly, compels us to travel?  Some of us travel for mere aesthetic reasons- the quaint old-fashioned charm of a cobblestone street, the beauty of pastel-colored houses along the Italian Riviera; others for the sheer intoxication of being entirely free of our ordinary lives, our ordinary names.  Still others travel to reawaken our long dead and dormant senses, blunted as they are by the familiarity of routine.  Some travel to experience a sense of expansion and partake in the bountiful banquet of being (“We travel,” Anais Nin observed, “to seek other states, other lives, other souls.”) while some trek the globe to remind ourselves of our own smallness in the grand scheme of things (As Gustav Flaubert wrote, “Travel makes one modest.  You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”)

Why we travel is what Alain De Botton ponders in his delightful The Art of Travel, which begins with a dreary depiction of a charcoal gray London day.  As the days disguise themselves in more melancholic costumes and a mass of somber white clouds engulfs the winter sky, De Botton- that rare philosopher who possesses both shrewd intellect and exceptional writing ability- finds himself nostalgic for the blissful sultriness of summer.  Depressed by his doleful surroundings and overwhelmed by wanderlust, he begins daydreaming about sunnier climes:

“It was hard to say when exactly winter arrived.  The decline was gradual, like that of a person into old age, inconspicuous from day to day until the season became an established relentless reality.  First came a dip in evening temperatures, then days of continuous rain, confused gusts of Atlantic wind, dampness, the fall of leaves and the changing of clocks- though there were still occasional moments of reprieve, mornings when one could leave the house without a coat and the sky was cloudless and bright.  But they were like false signs of recovery in a patient upon whom death has passed its sentence.  By December, the new season was entrenched and the city was covered almost every day by an ominous steely-grey sky, like one in a painting by Mantegna or Veronese, the perfect backdrop to the crucifixion of Christ or to a day beneath the bedclothes.  The neighborhood park became a desolate spread of mud and water, lit up at night by rain-streaked lamps.  Passing it one evening in a downpour, I recalled how, in the intense heat of the previous summer, I had stretched out on the ground and let my bare feet slip from my shoes to caress the grass and how this direct contact with the earth had brought with it a sense of freedom and expansiveness, summer breaking down the usual boundaries between indoors and out, allowing me to feel as much at home in the world as in my own bedroom.” 

rainy-london - Version 2

Hoping to escape the despondency of London, De Botton decides to travel to Barbados, a gorgeous Caribbean island.  For months, his vision of the island revolves around images he collects from postcards and brochures: palm trees, French doors opening onto white sand beaches and clear skies.  But when he finally arrives at his-much romanticized destination, the reality doesn’t quite correspond to the picture he had constructed in his mind: 

“We are familiar with the notion that the reality of travel is not what we anticipate.  The pessimistic school…therefore argues that reality must always be disappointing.  It may be truer and more rewarding to suggest that it is primarily different.  

After two months of anticipation, on a cloudless February mid-afternoon, I touched down, along with my traveling companion, M, at Barbados’s Grantley Adams Airport.

[…]

Nothing was as I imagined- surprising only if one considers what I imagined.  In the preceding weeks, the thought of the island had circled exclusively around three immobile mental images, assembled during the reading of a brochure and an airline timetable.  The first was of a beach with a palm tree against the setting sun.  The second was of a hotel bungalow with a view through French doors into a room decorated with wooden floors and white bedlinen.  And the third was of an azure sky.”

vintage beach

When we fantasize about gallivanting to a faraway land- Timbuktu, Taiwan, Tibet– our imagination operates in much the same way as a story, magnifying certain plot lines while entirely excluding others.  As we anticipate our exotic getaway, we envision striking landscapes, colorful prayer flags and Buddhist monks, imagining such far-flung places and foreign customs will liberate us from the humdrum realities of the day-to-day.

I recently had this experience when I visited Italy.  Had you observed me in my office for the days and weeks leading up to the trip, you would have seen a girl lost in ecstatic reverie, daydreaming about pink-orange sunsets and Mediterranean skies.  How could strolling through Rome’s charming cobblestone streets, gazing upon the awe-inspiring beauty of the works of Michelangelo and Raphael- I wondered- be anything but bliss?  But like many an idealistic traveler who too zealously romanticizes their destination, with arrival came a disenchanting epiphany: Rome was just like anywhere else.  It may have ancient ruins and croissants and cappuccinos but it also has impossibly long lines, cancelled flights, lost luggage, and rude people.  Reading a travel guide will give you the impression that Rome is only magnificent sight-seeing but in actuality there’s always the tedium and at times unbearable misery of traveling itself.  In much the same way a novelist functions by means of omission, choosing only those incidents that are rich in drama and excitement while neglecting the uninteresting or irrelevant, our imagination tends to bring the most significant events into focus.  The result is the reality of our travels- filled as they are with trivial annoyances like jet lag and stuffy airplanes- very rarely live up to our fantasies of the trip:

“If we are inclined to forget how much there is in the world besides that which we anticipate, then works of art are perhaps a little to blame, for in them we find at work the same process of simplification or selection as in the imagination.  Artistic accounts include severe abbreviations of what reality will force upon us.  A travel book may tell us, for example, that the narrator journeyed through the afternoon to reach the hill town of X and after a night in its medieval monastery awoke to a misty dawn.  But we never simply ‘journey through an afternoon’.  We sit in a train.  Lunch digests awkwardly within us.  The seat cloth is grey.  We look out the window at a field.  We look back inside.  A drum of anxieties resolves in our consciousness.  We notice a luggage label affixed to a suitcase in a rack above the seats opposite.  We tap a finger on the window ledge.  A broken nail on an index finger catches a thread.  It starts to rain.  A drop wends a muddy path down the dust-coated window.  We wonder where our ticket might be.  We look back at the field.  It continues to rain.  At last, the train starts to move.  It passes an iron bridge, after which it inexplicably stops.  A fly lands on the window.  And still we may have reached the end only of the first minute of a comprehensive account of the events lurking within the deceptive sentence ‘He journeyed through the afternoon’.  

A storyteller who provided us with such a profusion of details would rapidly grow maddening.  Unfortunately, life itself often subscribes to this mode of storytelling, wearing us out with repetition, misleading emphases and inconsequential plot lines.  It insists on showing us Bardak Electronics, the safety handle in the car, a stray dog, a Christmas card and a fly that lands first on the rim and then in the centre of the ashtray.

Which explains how the curious phenomenon whereby valuable elements may be easier to experience in art and in anticipation than in reality.  The anticipatory and artistic imaginations omit and compress; they cut away the periods of boredom and direct our attention to critical moments, and thus, without either lying or embellishing, they lend to life a vividness and a coherence that it may lack in the distracting wooliness of the present.  

As I lay awake in bed on my first Caribbean night looking back on my journey…already the confusion of the present moment began to recede and certain events to assume prominence, for memory was in this respect similar to anticipation: an instrument of simplification and selection.”  

When De Botton recalls that first day in Barbados, he is able to recreate the sensory experience in evocative detail: the tranquil quiet of the morning, the magnanimity of mother nature bountifully bestowing the gift of warm weather, the languid way the coconut trees lean towards the sun.  Though his recollection gives the impression of coherence, such orderliness- he confesses- is an illusion, the slight of hand of a sorcerer’s wand.  Just as storytellers make the disorder of experience comprehensible by imposing a narrative structure, De Botton renders that enchanted morning in paradise intelligible by highlighting certain things while downplaying others.  The soothing quiet, the turquoise seathe languid trees– these are only but a few of many features Mr. De Botton could have focused on.  So why bring these particular elements into the foreground?  Like any artist, he chooses to emphasize certain things for effect: the sea and trees paint a picture that coincides with his fantasy of the island, an island where he imagined “I” was a confine he could circumvent.  But, like many an escapist who learns a change in scenery can never magically solve his problems, De Botton realizes he can never break free from the penitentiary of who he is:

“Awakening early on that first morning, I slipped on a dressing gown provided by the hotel and went out on the veranda.  In the dawn light the sky was a pale grey-blue and, after the rustlings of the night before, all the creatures and even the wind seemed in a deep sleep.  It was as quiet as a library.  Beyond the hotel room stretched a wide beach which was covered at first with coconut trees and then sloped unhindered towards the sea.  I climbed over the veranda’s low railing and walked across the sand.  Nature was at her most benevolent.  It was as if, in creating this small horseshoe bay, she had chosen to atone for her ill-temper in other regions and decided for once to display only her munificence.  The trees provided shade and milk, the floor of the sea was lined with shells, the sand was powdery and the colour of sun-ripened wheat, and the air- even in the shade- had an enveloping, profound warmth to it so unlike the fragility of northern European heat, always prone to cede, even in midsummer, to a more assertive, proprietary chill.

I found a deck chair at the edge of the sea.  I could hear small lapping sounds besides me, as if a kindly monster was taking discreet sips of water from a very large goblet.  A few birds were waking up and beginning to career through the air in matinal excitement.  Behind me, the raffia roofs of the hotel bungalows were visible through the gaps in the trees.  Before me was a view that I recognized from the brochure: the beach stretched away in a gentle curve towards the tip of the bay, behind it were jungle-covered hills, and the first row of coconut trees inclined irregularly towards the turquoise sea, as though some of them were craning their necks to catch a better angle of the sun.  

Yet this description only imperfectly reflects what occurred within me that morning, for my attention was in truth far more fractured and confused than the foregoing paragraphs suggest.  I may have noticed a few birds careening through the air in matinal excitement, but my awareness  of them was weakened by a number of other, incongruous and unrelated elements, among these, a sore throat that I had developed during the flight, a worry at not having informed a colleague that I would be away, a pressure across both temples and a rising need to visit the bathroom.  A momentous but until then overlooked fact was making its first appearance: that I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island.”

In a disillusioning moment recalling the Eastern idea that “wherever you go there you are,” De Botton discovers that “I” is a constant that remains continuous regardless of place:

“I was to discover an unexpected continuity between the melancholic self I had been at home and the person I was to be on the island, a continuity quite at odds with the radical discontinuity in the landscape and climate, where the very air seemed to be made of a different and sweeter substance.”

At the heart of De Botton’s at once erudite and affable The Art of Travel persists the question of why we travel at all.  Most of us voyage to far-flung places because we believe breathtaking views and unforgettable food will remedy the dissatisfaction that ails us back home.  We imagine that our restless minds will miraculously find peace drifting asleep to the sea’s consoling lullaby, that our marriage’s ten years of embittered resentments and petty squabbles will magically resolve themselves because we’re no longer tormented by bad weather and desolate gray skies.  But this is a fallacy.  When we romanticize a raffia bungalow in Tahiti or an idyllic cottage in the French countryside, we forget one inescapable rule of the human condition: happiness cannot be assured by the external circumstances of our lives.  Anyone who’s had a romantic dinner ruined by a trivial disagreement knows the aesthetics of an evening-champagne, fancy silverware, fresh flowers- matter little when a conversation with your significant other devolves into infantile bickering and words hurled in spite.  In the end, De Button learns one thing- it’s possible to be amongst the most spectacular surroundings and still be miserable:

“When the cremes arrived, M received a large, but messy portion which looked as if it had fallen over in the kitchen and I a tiny, but perfectly formed one.  As soon as the waiter had stepped out of earshot, M reached over and swapped my plate for hers.  ‘Don’t steal my dessert,’ I said, incensed.  ‘I thought you wanted the bigger one,’ she replied, no less affronted.  ‘You’re just trying to get the better one.’  ‘I’m not, I’m trying to be nice to you.  Stop being suspicious.’  ‘I will if you give me back my portion.’  

In only a few moments, we had plunged into a shameful interlude where beneath infantile rounds of bickering there stirred mutual terrors of incompatibility and infidelity.

M handed back my plate grimly, took a few spoons from hers and pushed the dessert to one side.  We said nothing.  We paid and drove back to the hotel, the sound of the engine disguising the intensity of our sulks.  The room had been cleaned in our absence.  The bed had fresh linen.  There were flowers on the chest of drawers and new beach towels in the bathroom.  I tore one from the pile and went to sit on the veranda, closing the French doors violently behind me.  The coconut trees were throwing a gentle shade, the criss-cross patterns of their palms occasionally rearranging themselves in the afternoon breeze.  But there was no pleasure for me in such beauty.  I had enjoyed nothing aesthetic or material since the struggle over the cremes caramel several hours before.  It had become irrelevant that there were soft towels, flowers, and attractive views.  My mood refused to be lifted by any external prop; it even felt insulted by the perfection of the weather and the prospect of the beach-side barbecue scheduled for that evening.  

Our misery that afternoon, in which the smell of tears mixed with the scents of suncream and air-conditioning, was a reminder of the rigid, unforgiving logic to which human moods appear subject, a logic that we ignore at our peril when we encounter a picture of a beautiful land and imagine that happiness must naturally accompany such magnificence.  Our capacity to draw happiness from aesthetic objects or material goods in fact seems critically dependent on our first satisfying a more important range of emotional or psychological needs, among them the need for understanding, for love, expression and respect.  We will not enjoy- we are not able to enjoy- sumptuous tropical gardens and attractive wooden beach huts when a relationship to which we are committed abruptly reveals itself to be suffused with incomprehension and resentment.

If we are surprised by the power of one sulk to destroy the beneficial effects of an entire hotel, it is because we misunderstand what holds up our moods.  We are sad at home and blame the weather and the ugliness of the buildings, but on the tropical island we learn (after an argument in a raffia bungalow under an azure sky) that the state of the skies and the appearance of our dwellings can never on their own underwrite our joy or condemn us to misery.”

Alain De Botton on Status as a Construction of Culture

status anxietyStatus-anxiety is a malady that has afflicted many over the millennia but is particularly rampant today.  More than in previous generations, in the 21st century, we’re beset with this debilitating disease: when we’re perpetually bombarded with photos from our friends’ exciting trips to faraway lands, when we’re ceaselessly assaulted by old college buddies’ more prestigious job titles on Linkedin, what can follow but stinging envy- and a disheartening sense that we’re somehow less than?  So we nod politely and give insincere congratulations when a friend shares she’s been admitted to grad school all the while struggling to conceal the fact that her success has us seriously doubting our worth as human beings.  The worry that we occupy too modest a rung in the social hierarchy defines much of our existence in our twenties.  “Every adult life could be said to be defined by two great love stories,” endlessly erudite British philosopher Alain De Botton proclaims, “The first- the story of our quest for sexual love- is well known and well charted…The second- the story of our quest for love from the world- is a more secret and shameful tale…And yet this second story is no less intense than the first, it is no less complicated, important or universal, and its setbacks are no less painful.”

How to defend against the pathological obsession with how we’re doing in relation to others is what De Botton— the same nimble mind who suggested the reality of an exotic locale almost never lives up to our expectations— explores in Status Anxiety, his thought-provoking examination of the causes and solutions to this distinctly modern disease.  In his chapter on politics, De Botton argues status is not apportioned identically across cultures but is relative to time and place:

“Every society holds certain groups of people in high esteem while condemning or ignoring others, whether on the basis of their skills, accent, temperament, gender, physical attributes, ancestry, religion, or skin color.  Yet such arbitrary and subjective criteria for success and failure are far from permanent or universal.  Qualities and abilities that equate with high status in one place or era have a marked tendency to grow irrelevant or even become undesirable in others.”

alain de botton status

Using fascinating examples from history to substantiate his claims, De Botton contends what a culture values is not eternal or immutable but rather in a constant state of change: in medieval times, for instance, no one was more revered than a knight who was valiant in battle and chivalrous with the ladies.  However, by the mid 19th century, the sophisticated gentleman had thrust the gallant knight from his dominant rank.  No more did men strive to dauntlessly defend castles or make aggressive demonstrations of their virile masculinity- instead, they sought to be polite, refined men of cultivation and taste.  Was one way of being inherently better than the other?  No, but had you been a sensitive soul who preferred poetry to battle in medieval England, most of your society would have regarded you as a disgrace.

That a doctor is regarded as a man of stature while a store clerk is shamed says little about the worth of the men themselves and everything about their state.  As De Botton so eloquently explains, societies value occupations essential to their survival: in medieval times, when kingdoms were under constant threat, a warrior like a knight would be held in high esteem because his skills would protect the people.  But as the world became more stable, fighters- much like today’s U.S. automobile workers- were no longer necessary or useful:

“Certain people may win status through their ability to defend others, whether by patronage or through control of food, water, or other staples.  Where safety is in short supply, as in ancient Sparta or twelfth-century Europe, courageous fighters and knights on horseback will be celebrated.  If a community craves nutrients that are available only in the form of elusive animal flesh, as in the Amazon, it is the killers of jaguars who will earn respect and its symbol, the armadillo girdle.  In areas where the livelihood of the majority depends on trade and high technology, as in modern Europe or North America, entrepreneurs and scientists will be objects of admiration.  The converse also holds true: a segment of the population that cannot provide a useful service to others will end up without status, in the manner of muscular men in countries with secure borders, or of jaguar hunters in settled agricultural societies.”  

Culled from fields as diverse as philosophy, politics, history and artStatus Anxiety is both provocative and paradigm-shifting.  In the same way he distilled the wisdom of great French novelist Marcel Proust into an accessible self-help guide for the contemporary reader, De Button dives into the dusty archives of human history to help us better understand the status-anxiety that ails us in the modern era.  What he finds is who reigns at the top of the social pyramid varies depending on culture: what qualifies someone as an object of admiration or an object of scorn is not the same in a 12th century English village as in an isolated tribe in the Amazon.  This fact should console those of us who’ve ever felt like “failures” as such derogatory terms don’t reveal objective truth- they’re merely constructions of our culture.  What makes you a “loser” in one age could very well make you a “winner” in another.

Writing Lessons from Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms”

In the lavish prose that is her signature, Francine Du Plessix Gray defines seduction as a kind of “challenge to create a tension between the promise of gratification and the refined delay of that gratification-to intimate how much information I shall offer and how much I shall withhold.”  No writer was a better master of seduction than Ernest Hemingway, whose economical writing style revolutionized English prose.  A revolt against the ornate artistic flourishes of the 19th century, Hemingway’s minimalist style pioneered a fiction “in which nothing crucial—or at least very little—was stated explicitly.”  His philosophy- known as the “iceberg theory”- rested on the belief that a story’s deeper meaning should be intimated- not expressed directly.  In much the same way the majority of an iceberg lies beneath the water where we can’t see, most of a story- he argued- operates underneath what a text says unambiguously.

One of my favorite professors described it this way: all novels have two levels, a narrative and a story.  The narrative is the surface: character, dialogue, setting.  Most readers can decipher at this level of what is literally being divulged on the page.  What isn’t being disclosed, however, is harder to grasp but infinitely more interesting: is what a character says what she actually means?  why does she pause dramatically before she speaks?  when her lover asks if she’s okay, why does she look away?  In Hemingway, these uncertainties are pregnant with possibility: you have to dig beneath the narrative to get to the real story.  Much like a painting’s white space heightens its colors or a symphony’s silences make its notes more resonant and full-bodied, what’s implied escalates tension and compels us to keep reading.  

It is well known among writers that drama dwells in the unuttered.  No where does the unsaid drive drama more than in the opening line of Hemingway’s masterpiece Farewell to Arms:

“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.  In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels.  Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees.  The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.” 

hemingway

As a lover of poetic prose who prefers the complex constructions of a Faulkner or the opulent language of a Fitzgerald to the unornamented word choice of a Hemingway, I initially dismissed this passage as further proof that Papa was overrated.  Where was the beautiful, baroque wording?  the cultivated vocabulary?  the sumptuous figures of speech?  Hemingway’s plain diction- his monosyllabic, elementary school words, his exasperating obsession with “and” and “the”- seemed the hallmark of a less skilled writer- that is, until I read Joan Didion’s exceptional New Yorker essay, “Last Words: Those Hemingway Wrote, and Those He Didn’t.”  Her penetrative close reading of A Farewell to Arm’s opening line finally made me appreciate the genius of Hemingway’s storytelling:

“That paragraph, which was published in 1929, bears examination: four deceptively simple sentences, one hundred and twenty-six words, the arrangement of which remains as mysterious and thrilling to me now as it did when I first read them, at twelve or thirteen, and imagined that if I studied them closely enough and practiced hard enough I might one day arrange one hundred and twenty-six such words myself.  Only one of the words has three syllables.  Twenty-two have two.  The other hundred and three have one.  Twenty-four of the words are “the,” fifteen are “and.”  There are four commas.  The liturgical cadence of the paragraph derives in part from the placement of the commas (their presence in the second and fourth sentences, their absence in the first and third), but also from that repetition of “the” and of “and,” creating a rhythm so pronounced that the omission of “the” before the word “leaves” in the fourth sentence (“and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling”) casts exactly what it was meant to cast, a chill, a premonition, a foreshadowing of the story to come, the awareness that the author has already shifted his attention from late summer to a darker season.  The power of the paragraph, offering as it does the illusion but not the fact of specificity, derives precisely from this kind of deliberate omission, from the tension of withheld information.  In the late summer of what year?  What river, what mountains, what troops?”  

joan didion

Never in that first line does Hemingway explicitly state the year, never does he make clear that the “troops” to which he refers are fighting in WWI, the war to end all wars.  Though we’re often taught that specificity is at the heart of good writing, a masterful storyteller knows sometimes its more compelling to leave things incomplete.  Certainly, there are times when precision in phrasing is absolutely necessary- in an instruction manual, say, or any legal document where you sign your name- but stories exist in the ambiguities.  In his brilliant book The Art of X-Ray Reading: How the Secrets of 25 Great Works of Literature Will Improve Your Writing- the same compendium of writing wisdom that gave us Hersey on the impact of understatement and Plath on the unifying power of motif– journalist and Poynter Institute senior scholar Roy Peter Clark maintains a story is an enigma: what compels an audience to turn the page (or binge-watch another episode) is a mystery.  As quintessential lady’s man Casanova once said, “love is three quarters curiosity.”  If we want to seduce our audience, then, we have to conceal more than we disclose:

Writing Lesson #1 

“As important as what you put in is what to leave out.  This is easy to say but hard to do.  After you’ve written a draft, read it aloud, but only to yourself.  If you read it to someone else, that person may ask questions, which will lead to a longer draft.  That can make things clearer.  But if your goal is spare prose, it helps to listen for the useless or distracting word or phrase.  It may look right on the page.  But when you hear it, it may sound like that extra note in a trumpet solo.”  

As a non-conformist who always had the obnoxious need to rebel against prevailing taste, it was natural for me to despise Hemingway: he was the leader of the Lost Generation, the man who single-handedly invented the style of the modern age– in other words, yet another over-hyped dead white man, a representation of the establishment I hate.  This was a controversial opinion in most university classrooms, filled as they were with devoted Papa admirers.  But no matter how unpopular, I’d defend my case against the man of machismo: his lean, muscular writing- I insisted- wasn’t innovative nor was his simple style the conscious choice of an artist so much as the heedlessness of an amateur lacking skill.  He couldn’t choose words with the careful ear for their connotative meanings like Plath; he couldn’t string together evocative sentences like his friend/rival Fitzgerald.  

Not only did I despise the sparseness of his prose- I hated his incessant repetition of the same words.  Jesus H. Christ, Hemingway!  Is it really necessary to repeat the word “leaves” four times in a short passage of one hundred and twenty six words?  Did you never learn how to vary your word choice?  But just as I came to appreciate Hemingway’s austere story-telling, I eventually recognized the artistry of his repetition.  His continual repeating of “leaves” wasn’t a sloppy oversight- it was an intentional choice.  But why return to the word four times?  In literature, “leaves” are archetypal symbols for maturity that signify approaching death and decay.  According to Clark, Hemingway repeats this word to underscore how war annihilates all, one of A Farewell to Arms’s paramount themes:

“When something is over designed, we often criticize it as being too busy or cluttered.  The same is true of the arts.  First it was Miles Davis and then Tony Bennet who preached the virtues of knowing which musical notes to leave out.  Didion is so tuned into Hemingway that she can see the small deletions, which can create a big effect.  It is not obvious why the deletion of the before leaves makes such a big difference, but it does.  Perhaps the effect upon the reader comes from the establishment of a pattern followed by a variation of the norm.  Notice that the word leaves appears four times in the passage, in three cases preceded by the article the.  In the third example, the disappears, only to be restored in the last two words.  The author sends out lots of signals that leaves is important, including repeating it four times, then letting it stick out at the end of the paragraph, abutted to the white space.  

So what is the difference between “the leaves” and “leaves”?  Perhaps it is the difference between specificity and generality.  Between things that are contained within a space or moment and those that suddenly appear.  The defines certain leaves that are covered with dust and fallen.  Without it, I get a greater sense of chaos- once living things scattered to decay.  

Sometimes in stories, leaves are not just leaves.  Falling leaves are a convenient and ancient emblem for the loss of life and the change of seasons.  They may be dropping from the trees between summer and winter.  But remember that the dust of the roads coats the leaves, acting, perhaps, as a kind of environmental defoliant.  And where does that dust come from?  From troop movements.  Why are the troops there?  To wage war.  And what does the war do?  It tramples everything, kills everything.  So maybe the dust is not just dust at all.  Maybe it’s an iconic symbol of mortality.  Dust to dust.”  

“Vary your words” is a dictum proclaimed in classrooms everywhere.  Since we first put pen to page, we- being dedicated students- obeyed this decree, conscientiously perusing the thesaurus and straining to find a synonym so we wouldn’t repeat the same thing.  “No, we couldn’t possibly use a word twice!” we thought, dreading the stern, too-serious ink of our English teachers.  So instead of repeat the word “argue,” we used the sophisticated “assert” or the official-sounding “declare.”  Though we’ve been taught that repetition is a sign of an inferior writer, Clark suggests it’s an indispensable addition to any wordsmith’s toolbox.  As writers, we can repeat to emphasize, to highlight, to underline, to underscore.  Just as Hemingway restates the word “leaves” to call attention to the devastating effects of war, we can reiterate a symbol or image to reinforce the underlying message of our work:

Writing Lesson #2 

“Repetition is different from redundancy.  Don’t strain yourself looking for synonyms.  I’ll point this lesson out several times in the book.  Think of repetition as a drum beat.  Somehow, a marching drummer can repeat a rhythm countless times without making it sound tedious.  After a while, the rhythm becomes unnoticeable, almost like a heartbeat.  But it must be done with a purpose.  Beware of those times when you unintentionally repeat a word or image.  Readers will judge you as inattentive.”

Writing Lessons From John Hersey’s “Hiroshima”

hiroshima

“The battle line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man,” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once wrote.  Nowhere do we witness this eternal struggle more movingly than in Hiroshima, John Hersey’s unforgettable account of that fateful day on August 6th, 1945 when the atomic bomb was dropped.  Hailed as the “most celebrated piece of journalism to come out of WWII,” Hiroshima follows six survivors as they navigate the devastating aftermath of nuclear war.  Obliterating 100,000 lives in an infernal blast that will reverberate through the centuries as human history’s “most unspeakable crime,” the atom bomb is an unsettling reminder that the human heart is neither wholly good nor evil.

Hiroshima stands as a masterpiece of reporting for its ability to humanize the Japanese people at a time when words were weaponized as instruments of war.  Rather than reduce them to a one-dimensional demonized “enemy,” Hersey revealed Dr. Masakazu Fujii, Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, Father Wilhem Kliensorge, Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto, Toshiko Sasaki, and Hatsuyo Nakamura as ordinary people: people who were staring out windows and sitting at their desks just as they had hundreds of times when their lives were forever shattered by an unprecedented act of war.  While some reporters marveled at man’s ability to harness the cataclysmic power of atomic energy (New York Times staff member William Laurence, the only journalist to witness the terrible technology first hand, wrote with wonder, “It was no longer smoke, or dust, or even a cloud of fire.  It was a living thing, a new species of being, born right before our incredulous eyes.”), others focused on calculating the staggering number of lives lost or capturing the wasteland left behind (New York Herald Tribune’s Homer Bigart observed when he visited Hiroshima in September 1945 that “across the river there was only flat, appalling desolation, the starkness accentuated by bare, blackened tree trunks and the occasional shell of a reinforced concrete building.”)  Hersey took a different approach.  Hiroshima, originally published as a 30,000 word feature in the August 1946 issue of the New Yorker, is now considered a landmark of new journalism, a style of reporting that blended the impartial facts of traditional journalism with the pacing and storytelling of a novel.  By funneling the harrowing events of that historic day through the soul-expanding subjectivity of stories instead of the heartless objectivity of mere numbers, Hersey was able to demolish the barricade between ally and enemy so often erected by war.  The result is a compassionate document that- as one critic put it- “stirs the conscience” of the soul.

Hiroshima’s first line is perhaps one of journalism’s best-known:

“At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.”

In his instructive new book The Art of X-Ray Reading: How the Secrets of 25 Great Works of Literature Will Improve Your Writing, journalist and Poynter Institute senior scholar Roy Peter Clark seeks to break down this stellar first sentence so we can better understand how it works.  A curator of spellbinding sentences and lover of lively prose, Clark contends the secret to writing well is hidden in literature’s masterworks or- as Matthew Arnold might say- in “the best that’s been thought and said” in the world.  If we want to be compelling writers, we just have to crack the code.  “Cracking the code” means paying attention to how an author mesmerizes us with his words.  Like Hemingway, does he seduce us to turn the page by revealing less information than he withholds?  Or like Plath, does he create a sense of unity by repeating an overarching motif or symbol?  In much the same way authors of that endlessly edifying guide to close-reading How to Read a Book revere books as absent teachers, Clark believes literature has a wealth of writing wisdom to offer.

So how, Clark wonders, does Hersey manage to captivate us from Hiroshima’s very first line?  The sentence itself is rather simple: 63 words, 32 of which are only 1-syllable.  There is no flamboyant expression, no elaborate sentence structure, no theatrical melodrama.  Even the subject matter is mundane: other than the offhand reference to the bomb “flashing above Hiroshima,” the sentence focuses on the ordinary and everyday, particularly one Miss Toshiko Sasaki, who’s doing the most uninteresting thing you could possibly conceive: turning her head to chat with a co-worker.  So why is this one of the most riveting first lines in all of literature?  For Clark, the secret is pacing:

“This feels like a most unconventional way to begin a story.  In spite of the importance of time to the telling of all narratives, we rarely see this degree of temporal specificity in a first line.  The word exactly is not a modifier but an intensifier.  We then learn the minutes, the hour ante meridiem, the month, day, year, and time zone.  That’s seven discrete time metrics before a verb.  The rhetorical effect of such specificity is that of a historical marker.  Something world-changing is about to happen (a meteor struck the earth; a volcano exploded; a jet plane flew into the Pentagon).  Chaucer’s springtime at the beginning of The Canterbury Tales is generic and cyclical.  In Hiroshima we are about to meet a group of pilgrims who share an experience that is triggered at a specific moment in time.  

In a way, time is also about to stand still.  Clocks and watches, damaged by the atomic blast, stopped at the moment of destruction.  This symbol of the stopped watch in relation to Hiroshima is repeated as late as 2014 in the updated version of the movie Godzilla.  The original was made in Japan in 1954 and is widely recognized as a science-fiction, monster-movie allegory of the consequences of nuclear destruction.  In the updated version, Japanese actor Ken Watanabe carries around the talisman of a pocket watch owned by his grandfather, killed at Hiroshima.  The time is frozen at eight fifteen.”  

As writers, what can we take away from this unforgettable first sentence?  Just as Hersey uses temporal specificity to stop time and signal that something history-making is about to happen, we can decelerate- or “freeze frame”- our narrative to amplify drama and build suspense:

Writing Lesson #1 

“Stories are about time in motion.  But there are moments when time seems to stop, at least in narrative terms: when the atom bomb drops, when Kennedy is shot, when the Challenger explodes.  As a writer, you can mark that moment when time stands still.  Freeze a movie into a still frame.”

stopped watch

Hiroshima is not only a paragon of pacing- it’s a matchless example of understatement.  “If ever there was a subject calculated to make a writer overwrought and a piece overwritten, it was the bombing of Hiroshima,” observed New Yorker journalist and political commentator Hendrik Hertzberg.  When a story is as momentous as Pearl Harbor or September 11th, it seems made for the newspapers.  There’s conflict, there’s catastrophe, there’s lives lost.  But though it’s tempting to hyperbolize, a good writer will restrain himself.  What makes Hiroshima so powerful is the way Hersey lets the material speak for itself.  Instead of indulging in melodrama- say, by sensationalizing the carnage or heavy-handedly accentuating the scene’s pathos- Hersey writes in a matter-of-fact style, employing only plain words all the while maintaining a dispassionate, journalistic tone.  As Clark explains, when a story is “big,” the key is to write “small”:

“In bringing us finally to the main part of the sentence, the author puts into practice two reliable rhetorical strategies, one from ancient Greece, the other from the American newsroom.  The name for the first is litotes, or understatement- the opposite of hyperbole.  While an unwise writer might overwhelm us with the visceral imagery of destruction, Hersey chooses to introduce a most common scene of daily life: one office worker turning to another, allowing the drama to unfold.  In the face of astonishing content, step back a bit.  Don’t call undue attention to the tricks of the writer.  

A related strategy comes from an old bit of newsroom wisdom: “The bigger the smaller.”  Nowhere was this strategy used more than in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York City on September 11th.  Faced with almost apocalyptic physical destruction and the loss of nearly three thousand lives, writers such as Jim Dwyer of the New York Times looked for ways to tell a story that seemed from its inception “too big.”  Dwyer chose to highlight physical objects with stories hiding inside of them: a window washer’s squeegee used to help a group break out of a stalled elevator in one of the Twin Towers; a family photo discovered in the rubble; a paper cup used by an escaping stranger to give water to another.  

The author of Hiroshima offers readers something akin to writing teacher Robert McKee’s “inciting incident.”  This is the moment that kicks off the energy of the story, the instant when normal life is transformed into story life.  All the characters described in the first paragraph are experiencing a version of normal, everyday life- given the context of an ongoing world war- but whatever their expectations, they were changed forever at the exact moment the atomic bomb flashed over Hiroshima.”  

Writing Lesson #2 

“Given the exact nature of the news and the death toll, the author’s narrative feels somehow underwritten, in a good way.  There are no elaborate metaphors.  The author keeps the focus on the cast of characters and not on his own feelings or emotions.  In general, this is a good rhetorical strategy.  The more powerful or consequential the content, the more the author should “get out of the way.”  This does not mean that craft must be set aside.  Instead, it means craft must be used to create a feeling of understatement.”

Writing Lessons From Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar”

The benefits of reading are manifold.  For Ralph Waldo Emerson, what’s wonderful about booksthe bell jar is that a company of the wisest and the most deserving people from all the civilized countries of the world, for thousands of years can make the results of their studies and their wisdom available to us” whereas for Honore de Balzac, reading acquaints us with “unknown friends.”  Research suggests reading not only magnifies our capacity for empathy and strengthens our ability to be open-minded, it promotes the kind of free-thinking on which democracy depends.  As writers, reading has the added benefit of helping us improve our craft.  Much like a blacksmith learns to mold metals by studying under an apprentice, a writer learns the elements of composition by dissecting (and imitating) her favorite penmen.  Writing is a kind of magic: it takes instruction under the tutelage of a master to become an enchantress of the craft.

The belief that we can become better writers by becoming better readers is at the heart of journalist and Poynter Institute senior scholar Roy Peter Clark’s new book The Art of X-Ray Reading: How the Secrets of 25 Great Works of Literature Will Improve Your Writing.  A wonderful companion to his altogether indispensable Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every WriterThe Art of X-Ray Reading surveys some of the most celebrated works in all of English letters, distilling their insights into practical lessons writers- both novice and expert- can apply to their craft.  If we want to write with the lyrical beauty of a Fitzgerald or with an appreciation of the short sentence like Melville, Clark argues we must read actively with “x-ray glasses” close at hand.  Written with a profound reverence for story-telling and an obvious love of literature, The Art of X-Ray Reading will teach you to dissemble a text so you can better understand how it works.  Though as a bookish English major I’ve read most of the texts Clark examines, I closed The Art of X-Ray Reading with a newfound appreciation for many of those tattered treasures we call the “canon.”  From analyzing how Hemingway intentionally omits information to build suspense to anatomizing how Hersey harnesses the power of understatement to emphasize the drama of that fateful morning on August 6th, Clark helps us peek behind the curtain on literature’s finest sentences, revealing good writing is the product of deliberate workmanship- not of chance:

“Where do writers learn their best moves?  They learn from a technique I call X-ray reading.  They read for information or vicarious experience or pleasure, as we all do.  But in their reading, they see something more.  It’s as if they had a third eye or a pair of X-ray glasses like the ones advertised years ago in comic books.  

This special vision allows them to see beneath the surface of the text.  There they observe the machinery of making meaning, invisible to the rest of us.  Through a form of reverse engineering…they see the moving parts, the strategies that create the effects we experience from the page- effects such as clarity, suspense, humor, epiphany, and pain.  These working parts are then stored in the writer’s toolshed in boxes with names such as grammar, syntax, punctuation, spelling, semantics, etymology, poetics, and that big box- rhetoric.”  

In Chapter 5 “Jolt of Insight,” Clark close reads Sylvia Plath’s first and only novel, The Bell Jar.  The story follows Esther Greenwood, an ambitious young writer who earns a coveted internship at a prestigious New York magazine as a guest editor.  Though she knows her dazzling life of big city glamor and patent leather would be the envy of most girls, Esther becomes more and more disenchanted as the novel goes on.  When she returns home to Massachusetts to find she hasn’t been accepted to a distinguished summer writing program, she sinks into a debilitating depression.  An incisive and deeply disturbing account of mental illness, The Bell Jar is one of my favorite novels not only for its historical-cultural significance (never before had a book so frankly discussed such topics as the tension between career and child-bearing or the taboo subject of a woman’s desire for sex), but for the unrivaled genius of its prose.  The Bell Jar’s first line makes evident Plath’s literary virtuoso:

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.

With a linguist’s ear for the subtle effects of sound and a critic’s eye for socio-cultural references, Clark deconstructs this masterpiece of a first sentence:

“Before I read another word, I felt the need to X-ray that sentence.  At twenty-three words, it is a short and memorable first sentence for a novel, beginning with a subject and verb of the main clause, always an encouraging sign.  

“It was a queer, sultry summer…”

I feel a tension between the adjectives queer and sultry.  The first carries a judgement of distortion, something not quite right in the air.  The second, sultry, has the sense of something physical, hot and humid, but not necessarily unpleasant, perhaps carrying a sexual connotation, like the sound of a tenor sax.  (I’ve always felt that individual letters can carry hidden meanings. It may seem strange to say, but the letter makes me uneasy, especially that triple dose of it in the phrase “queer, sultry summer.”)  

What comes next is a shocking intrusion: “the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs…”  

A lot of things happened during the summer of 1953, when the story takes place: the Korea War ended, JFK and Jackie were married in Newport, Rhode Island; television was coming into its own.  An obsession with a New York Jewish couple executed for espionage aligns with queer and connects the collective paranoia of the McCarthy era with our protagonist’s distorted view of reality.  

[…] 

The whole sentence moves with remarkable efficiency from a season to an era to the confusion of a single young woman.”

So what can writers learn from this remarkable first line?  If you want to entice your readers to keep reading, Clark recommends adding an element of shock or surprise:

Writing Lesson #1 

“Many examples of good writing have a one-two-three quality to them: subject, verb, object.  In most cases, you don’t want the reader to stop or even pause.  My mentor Don Fry calls this effect the “steady advance.”  But there will be exceptions, moments when the writer will intrude on the reader’s expectations, even in the middle of a sentence.  Call it a bump in the road.  Plath achieves this effect with the insertion of the Rosenberg execution inside her first sentence.  What if the sentence had been: “It was a queer, sultry summer, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”  Clear and compelling enough, but not brilliant and explosive.  Most sentences you write will be A-B-C.  If you want to catch the reader off guard, consider A-X-B.”

sylvia plath torment

As readers, it’s often easier to understand “what” an author is saying than to decipher “how” it is she produces certain effects.  “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”  What is being said is clear enough but how it manages to linger in our memory- that’s more of a mystery.  Clark further demystifies the spell of this stellar sentence by unveiling the “how” behind its effectiveness.  Plath’s opening line is brilliant largely in part because it establishes the novel’s central motif of electrocution from the very first sentence:

“If something is important enough to place in the first sentence of a novel, even as a seeming aside, is it important enough to revisit?  We saw in Gatsby how the author introduced the green light on Daisy’s dock in the first chapter, how he reintroduced that light in the middle of the novel, and how he brought it back, with dozens of suggestive thematic implications, at the end.  We come to expect that type of exquisite story architecture from our favorite literary artists.  

So beyond my personal curiosity about the Rosenbergs, should I expect them to return to the stage later in Plath’s novel?  Here is what follows that first sentence:  

I’m stupid about executions.  The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers- google-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway.  It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.  

I thought it must be the worst thing in the world.

rosenburgs die

“It has nothing to do with me.”  Yeah, right.  It has everything to do with our protagonist, Esther Greenwood, a fill-in for Plath in this highly autobiographical novel, who, during an internship at a fashion magazine in New York City, is traumatized time and again.  

Sure enough, the Rosenbergs reappear on page 100 of my edition, the beginning of chapter 9.  Esther is speaking with another young woman at the fashion magazine about the imminent execution of Esther and Julius:  

So I said, “Isn’t it awful about the Rosenbergs?”  

The Rosenbergs were to be electrocuted late that night.  

“Yes!” Hilda said, and at last I felt I had touched a human string in the cat’s cradle of her heart.  It was only as the two of us waited for the others in the tomblike morning gloom of the conference room that Hilda amplified that Yes of hers.

“It’s awful that such people should be alive…I’m so glad that they’re going to die.”  

This dispiriting moment comes just before the crisis that will crush our protagonist at the end of the first half of the book, when a blind date turns into a muddy rape attempt that leaves her physically injured and emotionally devastated, so much so that she returns to her hotel and throws all her glamorous clothes she has accumulated off the top of the skyscraper.  

Piece by piece, I fed my wardrobe to the night wind, and flutteringly, like a loved one’s ashes, the gray scraps were ferried off, to settle here, there, exactly where I would never know, in the dark heart of New York.  

In that dark moment, Plath offers a kind of silent convergence of the public and private.  Almost at the exact time the Rosenbergs would be electrocuted, the main character undergoes a kind of symbolic death, her clothes being scatted to the winds, “like a loved one’s ashes.”

dark black heart of New York

The sign of a true artist is her every choice is intentional.  Though the reference to the Rosenbergs in the first line seems like a passing comment, Clark realizes it has a much greater significance to The Bell Jar as a whole.  Like the Jewish spies executed during that “queer, sultry” summer, Esther will be electrocuted in a botched electro-shock treatment after suffering a mental breakdown.  Foreshadowed in that first trifling twenty-three word sentence is the most tragic, climatic moment of the novel:

“It was only after I had closed the book that I was stunned by the beauty of what Plath had created.  It was like looking at daybreak pouring through the rose window of a cathedral.  All that business about the Rosenbergs- the constant references not to their execution but to their electrocution– turned out to be a prologue to the traumatic events in Esther’s life, including a medical procedure in a facility that looks and works like a prison in which she is pinned down and wired up (like the Rosenbergs, no doubt) and shot up with electricity.  It is, at least at first, her version of the death penalty.”   

REZNICK

What makes The Bell Jar such a masterful work is how it’s so architecturally sound.  One of the greatest literary geniuses of our time, Plath establishes the novel’s principal motif in the very first line, the Rosenbergs’ brutal execution by electric chair a harbinger of Esther’s barbaric treatment by electroshock.  If stories are man’s way of making sense of the world, a good story imposes order onto the messy material of real life’s chaos.  Unlike in life, in a story, each event has meaning; every interaction, every exchange, a role: to reveal character, to establish theme or tone.  Every single line operates to form a coherent narrative arc.  But in the hands of a less adept storyteller, a novel will seem the product neither of logic nor thought: incidents, both pressing and trivial, will be included at random with no regard as to whether they have a purpose like advance the plot, an object will seem symbolically significant but only be mentioned once.  An expert storyteller, on the other hand, hypnotizes us by giving the impression that every element of the narrative performs an essential part: a dramatic change in weather reflects a shift in mood, the repetition of an object will be shown to have meaning later on. 

The Bell Jar stands as a harrowing beauty of an American classic largely because Plath’s storytelling is all method and no madness.  Though she traces one woman’s terrifying descent into insanity, she writes with a control that is rational and painstaking.  It is proof of her artistry that she is able to hint at the plot’s highest point from the first few words.  Clark suggests incorporating a unifying theme, image, or motif into our work to make it similarly cohere:

Writing Lesson #2  

“Not all allusions are created equal.  When an author quotes another author or mentions historical figures (such as the Rosenbergs), he or she embeds one narrative within another.  As we’ve seen with the opening of The Bell Jar, an apparent offhand comment becomes a much grander metaphor, taking on new contexts and connotations as the narrative builds up steam.  Most coherent texts contain a dominant image- sometimes more than one-that links the parts and accelerates the action.”