Yiyun Li on Seeing, Staring & the Necessity of Looking Closer

yiyun liThroughout human history, heedful observation has been the first step to deciphering the mysteries of the universe: Copernicus only realized the planets in our solar system revolved around the sun after countless hours staring through a telescope whereas Darwin only formulated his paradigm-shifting theory of evolution after rigorously studying the breathtaking diversity of the Galapagos.  Art, too, begins with observation.  The novelist, the photographer, the painter, the poet: before he can represent reality, he must see it, which requires he dispense with all preconception and prejudice.  To discover truth, whether as an artist or scientist, we must be willing to look closer— and be courageous enough to see things as they actually are.

The necessity of looking closer is what Yiyun Li, author of the heartbreaking autobiographical novel, Where Reasons End, ponders in her perceptive essay “Strangers on a Train,” one of forty six thought-provoking pieces that compose Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process.  Complied of the best essays from the Atlantic’s much-beloved “By Heart” column, Light the Dark asks literature’s leading lights one question: what inspires you?   They then choose a passage that was formative to their development as writers.  The result?  An engrossing compendium of wisdom from authors as diverse as Mary Gaitskill, Maggie Shipstead, Marilynne Robinson, Khaled Hosseini, Andre Dubus III, Hanya Yanagihara, and Elizabeth Gilbert.  

When asked what inspires her, Li chose an excerpt from Elizabeth Bowen’s novel The Death of Heart.  The passage describes Portia Quayne, a sixteen-year-old orphan who’s learned to evade people’s gaze:

Portia had learnt one dare never look for long.  She had those eyes that seem to be welcome nowhere, that learnt shyness from the alarm they precipitate.  Such eyes are always turning away or being humbly lowered…You most often meet or, rather, avoid meeting such eyes in a child’s face— what becomes of that child later you do not know.”

For Li, this passage captures an essential fact of human nature: most of us are embarrassed to be known.  Terrified of being seen for who we are, we avert our eyes from lingering glances and hide from intimacy behind self-imposed walls.  When others attempt to penetrate our defenses, we fortify our strongholds, remaining as remote as an island thousands of miles from the coast.  Not even our dearest friends are permitted unrestricted access to our hearts.  After all, if we lay bare our authentic selves, whether it be to casual acquaintances or to our closest confidantes, we risk being rejected and ridiculed: 

This passage describes an averted gaze— eyes we ‘avoid meeting’ because they are so revealing, so full of feeling, and the way these eyes themselves learn to turn away because they cause such alarm.  I think it’s a very cutting insight into human nature.  How often do we turn away from knowing another person fully as we could, avoiding even the eyes of the people we’re closest to?  And how often do we hide ourselves, afraid of being really looked into and seen?” 

 In a funny moment, Li confesses that— unlike Bowen’s timid Portia— she loves to stare, mostly because observing is how one begins to understand another’s soul:

I relate to this because I’m a starer; I’m interested in looking at people very closely.  I look at people I know, but I also look at people I don’t know.  It does make strangers uncomfortable— which, of course, I understand.  I’ve noticed that, in New York City, you’re not supposed to stare at people.  No one has enough space, and when people are in public, they’re trying to maintain anonymity.  But I stare at people all the time, because I like to imagine their lives by looking into their faces, looking at their eyes.  You can tell so much just from a person’s face.”

Other than our instinctual fear of ridicule, we avoid gazing too intensely in others’ eyes because we fear the secrets we’ll unearth.  Human beings are as unfathomable as the furthest reaches of the universe: we can launch satellites into space but it’s impossible to unravel all the enigmas of the cosmos.  

And therein lies the dilemma— we can never truly know people.  Our mother, our best friend, our lover: if we look at any of them too closely, we’ll realize they’re as unfamiliar as strangers in a subway car.  On the surface, our mother may seem unadventurous but, if we plumb the depths of her past, we might discover she once gallivanted around the globe, sunbathing in Santorini and dancing all night at the Brazilian carnival.  Our best friend may seem vivacious and charismatic, so convivial she can effortlessly strike up a conversation with most people but, beneath her facade of sociability, she might prefer to be left alone.  Even after years together, some terrain of our lover’s character might remain unexplored.  Our kind, gentle husband might shock us when he loses his temper and smashes a plate against the wall.  Or a casual conversation about abortion might reveal he holds an opinion in direct conflict with our own.  Nothing is more mysterious than the human heart.  Though we tend to classify people into neat and tidy categories of semantic description (“mother,” “father,” “enemy,” “friend”), human beings contain “multitudes” to borrow the enduring words of Walt Whitman— they cannot be collapsed into a box.  When we look steadily at our loved ones, Li writes, we realize what we see is but a small fraction of who they are:

When I was studying fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop years ago, Marilynne Robinson used an example to demonstrate the inexplicableness of human beings.  I forget the context, and I’m paraphrasing, but she would say something like this: 

Sometimes, when you get home and your mother looks up, her eyes are so unfamiliar, and for a moment it’s as though she’s looking at you as a stranger on a New York subway would do.

I loved that idea— your eyes surprise your mother’s eyes, and for that split second everything is there: a whole emotional world that you don’t know well, so foreign and hidden that she briefly becomes a stranger.  Then she transforms, she becomes the mother you know again, and life goes on.  But, in that brief instant of eye contact, something is caught.  This is what we learn by looking at another person’s face— and also what makes us want to turn away.”

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No matter how terrified we are of seeing and being seen, the only way to unveil the truth of people— and the world— is to look closer.  This is especially true in writing.  In the words of Susan Sontag, “a writer is someone who pays attention to the world— a writer is a professional observer.”  For Lin, to write is to stare: to truly see characters in all their contradictions and complexities, we can’t flinch from what’s there.  As in real life, characters lie to us: they wear a public face, they weave stories about who they are.  And just as in real life, we must unravel our characters from the myths they tell.  Life is a masquerade ball where we disguise ourselves in more acceptable costumes.  If we are to find the man behind the mask, the person behind the persona, we have to strip away the endless shrouds of affectation and facade until we can see others uncut and uncensored:

“Writing fiction is kind of like staring, too.  You have to stare at your characters, like you would a stranger on a train, but for much longer than is comfortable for both of you.  This way, you get to know characters layer by layer, until any dishonesty is stripped away.  I believe all characters try to trick us.  They lie to us.  It’s just like when you meet someone in the real world— no one’s going to be 100 percent honest.  They’re not going to tell you the whole story about themselves; in fact, the stories they do tell will say more about how they want to be perceived than how they actually are.  There’s always a certain resistance with being known, and that’s true of characters and real people.  People don’t want to tell you their secrets.  Or they lie to themselves, or they lie to you.

[…]

That’s why I stare at my characters.  Not physically— I can’t really see them physically— but in an act of imagination that’s similar to the way I stare at people in real life.  It can be harsh, but I think I like the harsh, true things you see when you don’t turn away.  The writer must never look away.  You can feel it in a book when a writer flinches away from seeing too deeply into his characters.  You really have to strip your characters naked, every single layer, to finally understand them.”

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Kathryn Harrison on Why She Writes

kathryn harrisonFor colossus of modernism James Joyce, writing in English was the “most ingenious torture
ever devised.”  For Kurt Vonnegut, it was a heartbreaking reminder of the difficulty of articulating himself: “When I write,” he confessed, “I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.”  Hunter S. Thompson also humorously  described the torment of putting pen to page: “Writing is the flip side of sex— it’s good only when it’s over.”  Those of us who’ve stared down the blank page know to write is to battle your inner saboteur:  

Who do you think you are?  What makes you think you have something worthwhile to say?”  

“Really…that’s your topic?  All your ideas are hackneyed and tired.  Millions of people have already written the same thing and have written it better.”

“Nothing you do will ever be intelligent/funny/original enough.”  

If you write, you invite your most merciless demons to your desk day after day.  Sometimes writing even a single sentence is beset with debilitating self-doubt.  Yes, there are days of creative rapture, blissful moments when writing is a mystical convening with the muse but they are few.  Most days writing is work: rather than scribble in a fit of ecstatic revelation, we combat one line after another.  No matter how hard we try to quell their rebellion, our sentences continue to mutiny.  More often than not, the act of expressing ourselves requires excruciating effort: instead of feel seized by a divine power, ideas pouring forth from some otherworldly plane, we experience each sentence, each word as a struggle.  At times, writing a meager one hundred words is a trudge up a steep hill. 

So why, when writing is such a demoralizing profession, do novelists and essayists, poets and playwrights, willingly put pen to page?  In her timeless essay “Why I Write,” originally published in the December 1976 New York Times Book Review, Joan Didion, patron saint of mythic 1960s LA, observed, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.  What I want and what I fear.”  When distinguished author and National Book Critics Circle member Meredith Maran posed this perennial question to twenty of our era’s most acclaimed authors in her indispensable collection Why I Write, the answers were as assorted as the authors.  Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jennifer Egan remarked she writes “because when I’m writing…I feel as if I’ve been transported outside myself.”  New Yorker contributor Susan Orlean responded in characteristically beautiful, understated prose, “I write because I love learning about the world.”  Fearless poet and memoirist Mary Karr replied she wrote “to connect with other human beings; to record; to clarify; to visit the dead” while controversial bad boy James Frey wisecracked he wrote because he “wasn’t really qualified to do much else.”  

One of the most insightful responses came from Kathryn Harrison, writer of haunting, hypnotic beauty whose memoir The Kiss shocked audiences around the world.  When first published in 1998, the deeply disturbing account of her incestous affair with her father was both lauded and scorned: while novelist Tobias Wolff argued Harrison redeemed her dark subject matter with the “steadiness of her gaze” and the “uncanny, heartbreaking exactitude of her language,” Wall Street Journal critic Cynthia Crossen admonished her to “hush up.”  Thankfully, Harrison ignored her detractors.  A woman of remarkable candor, today she continues to turn an unflinching eye toward the taboo.  But what, exactly, motivates her to write— especially when speaking the unspeakable has historically made her the target of vehement vitriol?  Like many overachievers whose obsession with success conceals deep-seated feelings of inferiority, Harrison hoped writing would finally be an accomplishment impressive enough to win her mother’s approval:

“I write because it’s the only thing I know that offers the hope of proving myself worthy of love.  It has everything to do with my relationship with my mother.  I spent my childhood in an attempt to remake myself into a girl she would love, and I’ve translated that into the process of writing— not intentionally, but just as I was always looking beyond my present incarnation toward the one that would woo my mother’s attention, I’m always looking toward to book that hasn’t come out yet: the one that will reveal me worthy of love.  

[…]

When it’s great, writing can be ecstatic.  Even when it’s just hard, it’s always involving.  The moments that are sublime— I get just enough of them that I don’t lose hope of being given another— are only so because for that moment, when even as little as a sentence seems exactly right, before the feeling fades, it offers what I think it must feel like to be worthy of love.  I want praise of course; it’s a cousin of love.  But equally important to me is a bit of evidence, here and there, that a reader got it, saw what I’d hoped to reveal.”

When pondering why she writes, Harrison notes writing is a meaning-making machine, a consoling way for her to comprehend what at first seems unfathomable:

“I write, also, because it’s the apparatus I have for explaining the world around me, seemingly the only method that works.  By the time I was in high school I’d discovered that the process of hammering text on the page— being able to articulate things, to get them right— offered not only consolation but a place I could live inside.”

The taoists called it “wu wei,” or doing without doing.  Today, we know it more informally as being “in the zone.”  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, father of the optimal psychology movement, officially named this transcendent state of complete absorption “flow.”  To experience such an elevated state of consciousness, explains poet of resplendent prose Diane Ackerman, is to be transfixed in a “waking trance.”  When artists throughout the ages have compared creating to being a vessel, they were describing this psychological process.  For Harrison, writing is a portal to this euphoric, almost otherworldly state of being, a magical place where she can both erase and affirm her identity:

One thing I love about writing is that in that moment, I am most completely myself, and yet totally relieved of my self.  I don’t really like spending that much time with myself when I’m not writing, but when I’m in that strange paradox of being most and least myself, I can be transcendently happy, rapturous.  Those moments are rare— I’m doing well if it’s two percent of the time— but memorable, like a drug you have to get back to.”

In a moment equal parts tough love and practical no-nonsense, Harrison concludes by dispelling the long enduring myth of the suffering artist.  Though we sentimentalize the image of the artist as a tormented drunk, Ms. Harrison, a graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop, maintains the most productive writers are actually sane, happy and healthy— not irreparably fucked up.  A real writer doesn’t harbor romantic notions about his profession (“Writing is hard…coal mining is harder.  Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine coal?  They do not.  They simply dig,” Cheryl Strayed counseled with hard-earned wisdom in her advice column Dear Sugar) nor does he wait around for the mercurial muse to whisper a masterpiece into his ear—he treats writing just like any other job.  In other words, he shows up:

“Writing is a job.  If you’re going to do a job, you’re going to do it everyday.  You’re going to get enough sleep, and not fall into dissolute habits.  I never had a romantic idea about writing.  In grad school other people would spend the evening drinking, then tear home to write something at three in the morning, thinking the work would be exceptional because of the exceptional circumstances under which it had been produced.  You don’t write by sitting in a garret thinking the muse might arise under some particular circumstances.”

Jennifer Egan on Writing as a Magical Mode of Time Travel & the Dark Side of Success

jennifer eganGeorge Orwell once said writing a book was a “horrible exhausting struggle.”  Oscar Wilde, who had more of a dandy’s flair for the dramatic, compared the artist’s life to a “long, lovely suicide.”  Artists throughout the ages have romanticized their demons, believing torment a requisite component of the creative process.  “If my devils were to leave me,” luminous German poet Rainer Maria Rilke worried, “I’m afraid my angels would take flight as well.”  To create- we’ve been told- is to suffer.  Artists are dark and brooding, too temperamental to forge intimate human bonds, too promiscuous to be faithful lovers.  They’re deplorable drunks who most often meet their demise drowning in their own vomit or passing out in gutters.  They put their heads in ovens and chop off their own ears.  We glamorize these notions of the tormented artist as if it were somehow noble to be so desperately dysfunctional.  But being an artist doesn’t mean being miserable.  Despite our cultural fascination with the figure of the suffering artist, when asked why she writes in the altogether lovely collection Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jennifer Egan- like many of her fellow scribes- speaks with an ecstatic, almost rapturous love for her craft.  In response to the titular question, she replies she writes for the bliss of being transported to another world.  For her, writing is an act of enchantment, a magical mode of time travel in which she can live countless other lives without leaving her home:

When I’m writing, especially if it’s going well, I’m living in two different dimensions: this life I’m living now, which I enjoy very much, and this completely other world I’m inhabiting that no one else knows about.  I don’t think my husband can tell.  It’s a double life I get to live without destroying my marriage.  And it’s heaven.”

After winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for her tour de force A Visit From the Goon Squad, Egan ascended to the utmost heights of literary superstardom.  While securing such a prestigious prize might have assured others of their own genius, Ms. Egan didn’t let the applause go to her head.  Because she had served on judges panels herself, she had the insight to understand that luck had played a vital role in her success.  A Pulitzer didn’t designate her the voice of a generation or prove her superior literary talents.  If anything, all it proved was that A Visit From the Goon Squad had tapped into the zeitgeist— it had simply been the right book at the right time.  Though in the modern meritocracy we tend to conflate winning with being the best, Egan knows “making it” has less to do with a work’s objective quality than with subjective taste.  Whether you earn a critic’s commendation or a critic’s scorn, whether you garner illustrious prizes and rise to literary acclaim or toil away in bitterness and anonymity is largely a matter of chance:

In one hundred years, if humans still exist, and if anyone remembers the name Jennifer Egan, they’ll decide whether I deserve the Pulitzer or not. The question doesn’t preoccupy me. I’ve judged a major prize and I know how it works. It all comes down to taste and, therefore, luck. If you happen to be in the final few, it’s because you’re lucky enough to have written something that appeals to those particular judges’ tastes.

I think my book is strong, and I know I did a good job. I also know it could have been better. There are plenty of books out there that are also good, and those writers could also have had the luck I had. Deserving only gets you so far. Winning a prize like that has a lot to do with cultural forces; with appetites at work in the culture.”

Though most aspiring young writers look longingly to the day they’ll arrive at the dazzling peaks of literary fame (not to mention probably sell their grandmother’s kidney to receive an honor as impressive as a Pulitzer), Egan speaks ambivalently about her newfound success: while on one hand, she’s grateful to have written a book so universally beloved, she— like novelists throughout time misfortunate enough to compose a massive bestseller— is tormented by the more than likely possibility she’ll never write such a popular book again.  Whatever she writes next will be compared to Goon Squad and inevitably be found less than.  When a “writer” is transfigured into an “author” and a “person” transmutes into a “persona,” writing is no longer a private act of creation undertaken for the sheer transcendent joy of putting one word against another— it’s a public act debased with worries of how we’ll be perceived by others.  Will the next book sell as many copies?  win as much praise?  Hurled into the limelight by the Goon Squad’s blockbuster success, Egan finds herself battling these voices more than ever.  Like many featured in Why We Write, she seems to yearn for the days before she was published, a time when she was not yet beholden to publishing houses or the public, a time when she wrote for no one but herself.  In order to maintain our integrity as artists and safeguard the playful exuberance of writing from the commodifying forces of the market, Egan suggests, we must not write for approval but for the joy of writing itself:

The attention and approval I’ve been getting for Goon Squad– the very public moments of winning the Pulitzer and the other prizes- is exactly the opposite of the very private pleasure of writing.  And it’s dangerous.  Thinking that I’ll get this kind of love again, that getting it should be the goal, would lead me to creative decisions that would undermine me and my work.  I’ve never sought that approval, which is all the more reason that I don’t want to start now.

I’m curious to find out what influence this will have on my writing.  I won’t know until I start another book.  A scenario I could easily envision is the following: I start the book, feel it’s not going well, and start to freak.  My rational side says, “Let’s get one thing straight.  You’re going to hate the next one.  The whole world’s going to hate the next one.”  I have no idea why this one got so much love.

But part of me thinks, they liked my last book.  Hurray.  Now we move on.  The moving on will undoubtedly involve massive disappointment on the part of others.  It never happens this way twice.  In a way, I find that sort of freeing.  My whole creative endeavor is the repudiation of my last work with the new one.  If I start craving approval, trying to replicate what I did with Goon Squad, it’s never going to lead to anything good.  I know that.  Stop getting better?  There’s no excuse for that.”

Mary Gaitskill on How Books Help Us Penetrate Outward Personas & See the Person Beneath the Exterior

“Some books are toolkits you take up to fix things,” remarked Rebecca Solnit, “from the most mary gaitskill - Version 2practical to the most mysterious, from your house to your heart, or to make things, from cakes to ships.  Some books are wings.  Some are horses that run away with you.  Some are parties to which you are invited, full of friends who are there even when you have no friends…Some books are medicine, bitter but clarifying.  Some books are puzzles, mazes, tangles, jungles.  Some long books are journeys, and at the end you are not the same person you were at the beginning.”  For Eudora Welty, the miracle of books was their ability to liberate us from the limitations of our own personality: “a reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,” she said, but “the man who never reads lives only one.”  Whereas for Joyce Carol Oates, reading was the sole means by which we could slip into “another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.”

The humanizing power of books to infiltrate the ordinarily impenetrable barrier between “us” and “them” is what Mary Gaitskill ponders in her lovely essay “I Don’t Know Anymore,” one of forty six stunning pieces that compose Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process.  Complied of the best essays from the Atlantic’s much-beloved “By Heart” column, Light the Dark asks literature’s leading lights one question: what inspires you?   They then choose a passage that was formative to their development as writers.  The result?  A delightful trove of wisdom from authors as diverse as Aimee Bender, Sherman Alexie, Stephen King, Khaled Hosseini, Andre Dubus III, Hanya Yanagihara, and Elizabeth Gilbert.  As reassuring as good conversation and a cup of coffee, Light the Dark offers insight and inspiration not only to aspiring writers but to anyone who’s been enthralled by the imaginary world of books.  

When asked what inspires her, Gaitskill chose a passage from Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece Anna Karenina.  Anna, a passionate, sophisticated woman, has just left her husband Karenin for another man.  After getting deathly ill, she writes to Karenin begging for his forgiveness.  At the height of her fever, she confesses to him, “There is another woman in me, I’m afraid of her— she fell in love with that man, and I wanted to hate you and couldn’t forget the other one who was there before.  The one who is not me.  Now I’m real, I’m whole.”  For Gaitskill, what’s remarkable about this exchange is how both Anna and Karenin behave in way that’s totally out of character:

“Anna’s speaking about the decisions she’s made in the third person— as if the person who betrayed Karenin was a stranger.  And she does seem to be transformed here, as though she’s become a different person.  I was so surprised by that.  I think of it as a very modern insight, Tolstoy’s idea that there may be two, or more, different people inside of us.  

And it’s not just Anna.  As his wife tells him she loves him, begging his forgiveness, Karenin transforms, too.  The man we’d thought could never be anything but stiff and dull turns out to have this entirely different side to him.”  

Though this moment gives us hope for the estranged couple, their reconciliation doesn’t endure: Anna never talks about the “other woman” inside her again.  So which, Gaitskill wonders, is “the real Anna, and which is the real Karenin: the people they are at the tender bedside moment, or the people they become afterward?”  Tolstoy never offers a definitive answer.  Perhaps the regretful Anna who displays remorse for her wrongdoings, Gaitskill speculates, is the “truer part of herself.”  Perhaps death has a way of dispelling the falsehoods we tell.  Who knows?  

What’s genius about Anna Karenina is the way it probes the complexities of the self.  Like all great characters, Anna and Karenin reveal man is as multi-dimensional as a Russian nesting doll: he projects an outward public persona that conceals countless other selves.  Rather than confine his characters to shallow and superficial categories, Tolstoy agrees with champion of the human spirit and paradox-embracing poet Walt Whitman’s belief that man is “large and contains multitudes.”  Anna is both the unfaithful wife and the repentant cheater just as Karenin is both a spiteful husband betrayed and a man willing to forgive her.  By granting us access to a character’s inner self, a self often at odds with the facade he presents to the world, books remind us every person has an interior life we’re not privy to.  Like us, others suffer from fear and insecurity.  And like us, others possess yearnings so intense they don’t dare be uttered.  Literature’s humanizing power lies in its ability to bridge this seemingly unbridgeable abyss between self and other.  As Gaitskill concludes, “the truest parts of people can be buried”— we must be more empathetic and largehearted toward each other.

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.”