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How writing works

Monday 8/29/22

By which I mean, with the above, how good writing works. Often what writers do is they put something on the page without planning and design. It's hard for them to think of anything, so they'll take this, however it comes. If they feel "inspired" or get into what they determine is some kind of flow. Never underestimate what the blank page represents to almost everyone who writes. That's one reason why most so-called writers write so little. The role of the editor then becomes letting the writer know what the writer is unaware of, because the writer doesn't know. They're writing from neurotic impulse, not with impeccable precision of design. An editor becomes a news-bringer, whereas an editor is not going to have news for me or disabuse me of anything; I know exactly why I am doing everything I am doing in my fiction. I can give you the reason for anything you see there. But usually, the writer is caught up in that feeling of relief that they got anything done. That changes how they evaluate their work. They're not evaluating it ruthlessly or seeing it clearly. Here's what has to happen: good writing must feel organic, natural, as if it occurred in that precise moment and was not fashioned ahead of time, but it must also have rigorous design and intention. Purpose. It must work on multiple levels at once; the more the better. Every word has to "tell" and have a point, convey meaning because of how and why it was used; why it was chosen. The same goes for the order, and for the sonic sense produced by the syllables themselves, and also the built-in pauses. We can look at anything that functions highly as writing and discuss why it does so, while also having feelings as a reaction to that writing that most people can't put to words and which have powerful impact in parts of their thoughts beyond the conscious.

We're going to look at the first sentence of a new story I wrote, which I shared on here recently in a post that compared that first sentence to the first sentence of a story in American Short Fiction. The story is one of my new ones, of which there are now close to 400 going back to summer 2018. It's a story called "The Fallen Leaf." This is the opening sentence:

“Don’t pretend it’s not exciting,” one leaf communicated to another leaf in the manner leaves do, with a tearing of an outer edge, as they each fell from the same tree within a fraction of the same second.

An opening sentence has a job--it has to pull readers in. It's useful if this opening sentence makes them want or need to know more. It stokes curiosity, as it also feels whole. That's the precious dichotomy--and there can be more to it than that, but the dichotomy must exist--of a first sentence.

The opening quote stokes our curiosity. It's a directive, a command. Commands put us on alert, even when they're not directed at us. Note the verb "pretend," and the concomitant allegation that goes along with that. What do we know? We know that someone--what we think is someone--is striking a pose and that person is not the speaker, whose perspective--in the form of the judgment they have passed--we're getting. The non-speaker is not representing their feeling or a natural reaction. Or this is what the speaker believes or states--they don't have to be the same thing. We want to know what this exciting thing is, because if someone says not to pretend like something is exciting, it most likely means something exciting is transpiring or being observed. We already know a lot about these two characters, from six words in the form of a quote at the start of a sentence. We know something of their day, which has this exciting portion to it.

But then we learn that these are not people, but leaves. What do leaves do that is exciting? Why would one leaf pretend it's not? You can have a story where leaves are characters and automatically they're treated as human. They might be assigned pronouns. He, she. That's not what is happening here, though, because we have that verb, "communicated." One leaf communicated to another. We're going up another level now--we have this idea that leaves communicate, with the implication being that as humans, we're not privy to these communications. Or maybe we are, only we don't recognize them as such. We've missed the signs. Until now. Thus the story--and we're eleven words in, and still in the first sentence--creates this new level of wonder. A new level of wonder for how we might perceive the world. A note of magic has been sounded.

"In the manner leaves do" is a phrase that has in turn a note of familiarity. The voice is not that of the fable or fairy tale, but in fables and fairy tales, there's an aspect of the presumed familiar. We don't know the rules of those fables and fairy tales, but a narrator may talk as though we do, and we've all been in on that wonder for a long time. The effect in this sentence is of conviviality, of fusing reader to story, and reader to narrator, and reader to characters. There's no gesticulating, no "look at what I'm doing with my writing because leaves don't talk and isn't this so wild and super creative!" These leaves aren't automatically stand-ins for human truths and human stories, that's why we get "communicated" rather than "said." Think about that verb. "Communicated" covers a lot of ground, right? Crickets chirr, but they're communicating. The verb covers us here. As the story progresses, the verb usage opens up and becomes more human, but that's because we are knowing these characters--really one of them--in ways that as we read recognize as human for what they're embodying or perhaps how we embody these leaves. But not yet. That hasn't been earned enough yet.

Then we have "with a tearing of an outer edge," and the wonder goes up once more, because isn't that a fun thought, that when leaves tear they're communicating with each other, with the further implication that they're saying something of vital importance. They're selective with these talking tears, because a leaf can't be torn indefinitely. They fall apart. The adjective for edge needs to start with a vowel, because an "an" makes more sonic sense--and abets flow--than a second "a" would.

Next we know that something important happened to these leaves--who are having outwardly different reactions--at the same time, and that this was at least in part falling from the tree to which they were attached. They were close to each other. Neighbors. Or friends. But proximate. From the opening phrase of dialogue we know they've talked about this big moment beforehand. But now that it's here, they're going about it very differently. The experience of that moment. The word "same" repeats with a temporal-physical bridging of time and place. Do you see how the double "same" brings those two things together? It's also a kind of linguistic architectonic play on the duality at work here; two leaves, two of the same word. It's a sculptural parallelism. Further: the sing-song repetition of the word "same" within that same clause, between the comma and the period, creates a gentle rhythmic rocking. See how it lilts side to side? What else gently rocks side to side? A leaf when it falls. They don't come down straight. It's back and forth, but in a loopy way, a bunched in loopy way, like what we get here between the comma and the period. We are operating on a lot of levels at once.

All of that is happening in this sentence, because this is how good writing works. We're wholly satisfied. There's a lot going on here, but the way it's utilized, and the natural flow of the sentence itself--you don't have to work to read it; it takes you--means that we're not taxed. It's not a struggle to read. We are scarcely even aware that we're reading. Instead, something is happening, and we're being carried. A lot of what I'm saying is playing out in the reader's mind so that they get all of this, but they're not consciously articulating it. They're not bogged down, burdened, or distracted by that. They're having an immersive reading experience, and when we read this way, we have a life experience, depending on what else will occur in the work, and its consequence and power. At the same time, we want more. To know more. We must have our curiosity sated, and we have enthusiasm.

You can't do this with what these people write. But this is how good writing works. What seems fresher than this, more organic? Nothing. But what has better design? Nothing. So it's both. That's what is occurring with the best writing. As a story goes on, each sentence has its responsibilities, each word, each comma, each pause, each paragraph break, and we see more and more and more of the design, and the implications of design, how they will make us go back--or remember--and think about, feel, experience, this first sentence in a different than when it was but the first thing we read, being the first part of the story.


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