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How good writing works

Saturday 9/10/22

We will continue on here with another entry in what I suppose can be a series about how good writing works. There are aims in every book, piece, sentence. Aims after aims after aims. Everything is an aim, and it is all intended to work together to bring off ends. Aims and ends. All aims, for purposeful ends.


Let’s look at the beginning of this story, “Word Skills,” which is excerpted here in an earlier entry. It’s a sectional story—that is, it's rendered in parts, and how those parts come together and play off of each other will build the narrative and foster meaning. The first section comprises sixteen words, in two paragraphs, two sentences, both of which are set apart from each other by space, and neither of which is indented. That’s structural. The story is sectional, and this first section is itself sectional. It both presages--with the structural component; it's actual architecture--and leads us in. This doesn’t mean the other sections will mirror that architecture, because they don’t. But the entire work will be a kind of architectonic work. All works are that are any good. They actually have a shape. The sectional shape of this one is somewhat more overt.


When you write, you’re producing meaning and clarity on various levels for the reader. Sometimes, that clarity is produced on a conscious level. Other times, you want them to note something subconsciously, or in that part of the brain where there’s more feeling than “Oh, this is what that means.” An impression, a sensation, a thought that passes so fast they don't know it happened but important information still lodged. The effect of a work of writing that is an effective work of writing—I’m talking about writing as art—is that the clarity and meaning on all of those various levels will add up for that reader to a unique experience. A life experience.


This is the whole of the first section:


"You can't say that to people," she said.

"You can say anything to people," he countered.


Out of these sixteen words, fifteen of them are words that people use all the time. Familiar words. Demotic words. There’s nothing to say, “Hey, dummy, you don’t get this, do you?” which is what a lot of writing now is, or tries to be. I say tries to be, because literary fiction people are too stupid to “wow” you with their vocabulary if they want to, and believe me, they want to.


The first sentence sets up a challenge. When we see a challenge—even if it’s not directed to us—we identity with that challenge in that we want in on it, whether that’s a theoretical in, or an empathetical in. A “What would you do?” in. That’s further underscored by the first word of the story—“You.” Pronouns are powerful. When we see a dangling “you” like this—and it dangles because we don’t know who the “you” is—we take it. If you’re walking down the street, and someone says, “Hey you!” you turn and look at them, right? There are a bunch of other people out, but you turn.


That’s what’s happening here. The challenge is then issued. You can’t say that to people. We are all in now. We’re fully participating. Right from the get-go. Cant't say what to people, we think. And why not? And “yeah I can.” We feel rebellious. We don’t want to be hemmed in. But we also want to defend what may be an honorable statement someone has made. Or maybe we want to get in on the rebuking of them, which is what seems to be happening. We want to take a side. We play devil's advocate a lot with no reason. It's human nature for most humans. We also want to know what was said. What produced this response? Was it a truly ugly remark? A cutting one? A wholly inappropriate one?


We’re starting in the middle, because this statement isn’t the first part of this conversation. But it also could be. Think about that. The speaker might have read something in a letter the other person had them read while they were in the same place. They may be on the phone. Or, they may both be observing someone else. In the first and third scenarios, we may not be in the middle of anything. In the second, we only see one person, but we probably assumed right from the first quotation mark, that two people are here. That's what our mind's eye is going to opt for. Again, that's human nature. But the construction--and what occurs in the second line--opens up other possibilities. Our assumptions may well be off. We are surprised right away with a story. That's what you want. That's what no one in publishing gives you.


We want to know what was said, but our desire to know that can be trumped and rendered obsolete by a larger concern. But you’re going to need to have a sentence that offers a grander flourish, surprises us, introduces something new. The paradigm has to shift. The perspective. We go from ground level to mountain level.


The other person responds by stating that you can say anything to people. The rhythm of these two sentences, the way the sounds function cadentially, creates somewhat of an emphasis on say, and a greater emphasis on “anything.” In one regard, the statement is true because it works a technicality. Yes, you can say any words to anyone. But that’s not what is meant here and we know that. There’s the much larger point, and in comes the wisdom. You can say anything to people in that there’s always a way to get someone else to see the truth. It’s a treatise, but not one rendered as a treatise, because it's a line, a perspective shift from ground level to mountain level, both an undercutting and a building up. It’s a kind of light switch line. We didn’t know we were in the dark, but we may have been. Either way, things have gotten brighter and in a bigger space. Because we thought we were in what we may think of as a room—metaphorically; this particular prescriptive space—but now we’re in all outdoors. We’re in the grander sense. We’re in life.


We were not expecting this. Something exciting that we were in on was set up with the first sentence, but then we got a bigger something. We’ve been surprised. We’ve learned. We’ve been shown. The last word is the one word that most people don’t use. It’s a little flash that you’re in good hands, that we’re doing something smart here. I don’t want to say “literary.” But a writer needs to be trusted by a reader. That “countered” shows control. A plan in place. This isn’t just the demotic. It’s not just a recording of a conversation. There’s a design. The reader doesn’t note that consciously, but on a subconscious level. We are being guided. These hands are capable. But there is no elitism here. No one is trying to leave anyone behind. We're in on this together.


That’s what’s happening. In part. So: one section, two lines, two paragraphs, two sentences, sixteen words, fifteen of which we regularly use.


You know how I say, “Tell me what makes it good?” when we look at these garbage stories that you see in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Sun? Because you can’t. No one can. Ever. It is all, without exception, terrible writing. Try it with “The Donkey at the Gates of the Kingdom of Heaven” that we looked at yesterday in The Sun. So why is that story there? Because it sucks? Cronyism? Nepotism? Why are any of them published at all, let alone in what are supposed to be the “best” places? Race? Gender? It’s always one or a combo of the above. It’s is never—never—because the writing is always awful.


You know how I say, “Tell me what makes it good?” when we look at these garbage stories that you see in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Sun? Because you can’t. No one can. Ever. Because it’s all terrible writing. Try it with “The Donkey at the Gates of the Kingdom of Heaven” that we looked at yesterday in The Sun. So why is that story there? Because it sucks? Cronyism? Nepotism? Why are any of them published at all, let alone in what are supposed to be the “best” places? Race? Gender? It’s always one or a combo of the above. It is never because the writing is good.


I just provided 1200 words about the efficacy of sixteen words in a story. It’s impossible to provide any such words with what one sees in any of the so-called literary fiction that the broken people of this broken system pretend is any good and put forward and award, etc.