This is my last of four posts, but I’ll be in Alaska for most of the summer, mostly on the Kenai Peninsula, so I hope I’ll get the chance to meet a couple of you. My email is email@example.com. I’d also like to thank Deb and Andromeda for inviting me to blog here.
Reading Deb’s post on Friday about what’s depressing and cheering about publishing got me thinking about the business. The London Book Fair has been going on this week, and it’s one of those events that controls my future. I know nothing about it, though, except that my agents are there and several of my editors are there, and I do trust that they’re doing the most they possibly can for me. This hasn’t always been the case. I’ve been to only one book fair, in New England in 2005, and I saw then that my publisher’s distributor (Publisher’s Group West) had picked (actually, the publishers had picked, I think) about five books to sell. These books were in large piles of ARCs with full-color covers. Every bookstore owner or rep who came up to say hi was given a copy of each of these books, and they usually ordered at least five copies of each right there, on the spot, without having read the book. My book and about a hundred other books were sitting on tables farther back, one copy of each. The bookstore owner would have had to push past the rep, go around the front table, and then find my book among these others. When I mentioned this to my publisher, he had the nerve to insist that bookselling is a “pull” process, not a “push” process. A book sells only because people want to buy it, in other words, not because publishers tell distributors to push it to booksellers, who then push it to customers. Hm.
I’m extremely happy with my editors and publishers now, but I had a lot of frustrations with that first book, so I thought I’d share that tidbit with y’all, and I thought I’d paste here today a reprint of what I find more interesting than the business. It’s what I think about style and syntax and the beautiful in writing, something I wrote originally for Writer’s Digest. I was thinking of it because I’m back to translating a few lines of Beowulf each day, and in the article I wrote about Proulx’s use of accentual meter. Someday I’d like to write about syntax in Beowulf. The arrangement of meaning is so different than what we’re used to today, it makes the concept of a story a different thing.
Whatever genre you’re writing, the loveliest, most ambitious moments of your work will most likely involve landscape description. This is true across a staggering number of genres, including poetry, fiction, and most genres within creative nonfiction, including travel and adventure writing, nature writing, and memoir. So how does landscape description work, how do great writers use it, and how can you improve?
How to describe a place. Elizabeth Bishop is a very accessible poet for writers in all genres. In her poem “At The Fishhouses,” she often chooses one fine detail to evoke a larger space. “The sparse bright sprinkle of grass,” for instance, creates a hillside. She was a painter as well as a poet, and she uses silver moonlight in this same economical way:
All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea,
swelling slowly as if considering spilling over,
is opaque, but the silver of the benches,
the lobster pots, and masts, scattered
among the wild jagged rocks,
is of an apparent translucence
like the small old buildings with an emerald moss
growing on their shoreward walls.
The point is not economy, of course, but focus. Readers become lost if a scene is described with too many details, especially if the emphasis is unclear and we don’t know which details to focus on. But here the scene is unified by silver, then emerald. We watch brush strokes and don’t become distracted. Our attention is held, also, by the shift in the quality of light, from opacity to translucence. This is theme developing, leading toward the moment we’ll reach into “absolutely clear” water and taste it on our tongues, encountering a kind of knowledge.
The poem is available online at poets.org. Look carefully at Bishop’s use of color, quality of light, fine detail, and three-dimensional space. Try memorizing the poem, also. You’ll see the landscape in a new way, reciting with your eyes closed.
Use landscape to build theme. Cormac McCarthy, in his magnificent novel Blood Meridian, describes “the mountains on the sudden skyline stark and black and livid like a land of some other order out there whose true geology was not stone but fear” (p.47). He moves from a concrete landscape to an abstract one which speaks to what the novel is about. He draws this primarily, I think, from William Faulkner. In the famous opening paragraph of Faulkner’s short story “Barn Burning,” the boy smells cheese, believes he smells canned meat because of his hunger, and is overwhelmed by the constant “smell and sense just a little of fear because mostly of despair and grief, the old fierce pull of blood.” Blood here is an abstract noun, and even in the landscape of a store turned courtroom, Faulkner roots his abstract descriptions of theme in the physical, beginning first with the real smell of cheese.
Faulkner is also good at stream of consciousness, at letting us see the thoughts and feelings of his characters, and Blood Meridian is so interesting because McCarthy refuses to give us any access to thoughts or feelings. It’s only through description, mostly of landscape and also of violence described as landscape, that we learn about the characters and themes. In McCarthy’s most recent novel, No Country For Old Men, he relies instead on characters’ thoughts, offering almost no landscape description, and the novel as a result is thin and disappointing.
The Objective Correlative. When T.S. Eliot used this term, he meant something larger (such as a sequence of dramatic events that, taken together, evoke an emotion in a reader), but in creative writing workshops it has come to mean this: by describing an exterior landscape from the point of view of a character, we are indirectly describing the interior landscape (the thoughts, feelings, and sensibility) of that character. This is the same, really, as what we mean most of the time by “vision” (how a character views himself or herself, the other characters, and the world), and since these are inevitably the most important moments in our stories, telling our readers what our stories are about, it’s also the same as “theme,” and because we’re saying something important indirectly, it’s also the same as “subtext.” It’s impossible to write a successful work in any genre without at least one of these moments. I mean that. If you don’t have a moment like this, of vision and theme and subtext, your work is not worth reading, and landscape description is the easiest way to create these moments.
Try this exercise. For two pages, describe a place that you haven’t seen in at least ten years, a place that remains vivid in your memory. Use this place to indirectly describe one of the primary sorrows, regrets, or fears of your life. Don’t name any of these emotions or tell of the events, just describe the place.
How to see. Annie Dillard, in her classic Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, attends to landscape and vision with an intensity that produces startling results. She even discusses the “newly sighted,” the blind who underwent surgery and could see for the first time, and had to learn to see shadow and distance. Dillard is fierce, and her writing is sometimes over the top, but she’ll probably change how you understand seeing, and she’s also important for understanding American Nature Writing.
Landscape description is a vital part of most writing, integral to character and theme, and not an extra or confined primarily to genres such as Nature Writing. Nature Writing is actually extremely limited. It almost always features, within the first few pages, a nod to a mind of innocence, a child-self. I believe this comes to us from the British Romantic Poets (such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, and, earlier, Blake), through American Transcendentalists (such as Thoreau and Emerson). Dillard gives her own nod to the child on page 13. The general and somewhat naïve idea in all Nature Writing is that through immersion in nature, we can come to, or return to, a more innocent (and also good) self.
How to write a beautiful sentence. There’s no one standard for beauty in writing, of course, but I believe our sense of the beautiful is embedded mostly in syntax (the arrangement of words in a sentence). In this sentence from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping, for instance, one of the two principal sources of beauty is an interruption—“slight as an image in an eye”—because it makes us pause and modifies everything that follows, making us hold all parts of the image together at once:
A narrow pond would form in the orchard, water clear as air covering grass and black leaves and fallen branches, all around it black leaves and drenched grass and fallen branches, and on it, slight as an image in an eye, sky, clouds, trees, our hovering faces and our cold hands.
There’s beauty, also, in “water clear as air,” because the adjective is following the noun, because “pond” hasn’t been repeated but has become more elemental in the word “water,” and because the sentence could have ended with “orchard.” Everything that comes after “orchard” is an amplification, an extension. The beautiful exists mostly in the ways we extend sentences, whether by colon, appositive, simile, relative clause, or even placement of adjectives after their noun. Look back at the sentence from McCarthy, for instance, which extends first with the adjectives “stark,” “black,” and “livid” coming after “mountains,” then with a simile (“like a land”), then with a relative clause (“whose true geology”). All of these constructions are the same as an equal sign: they all amplify, tell us more about something, make sure we don’t miss it.
Writers use other tricks of syntax, also, to create the beautiful. Robinson’s repetition of “grass,” “leaves,” and “branches” in slightly different form is reminiscent of Coleridge’s “And overspread with phantom light,/(With swimming phantom light o’erspread….” The lines themselves swim, and we become a bit mesmerized and recognize instinctively, from the high level of cohesion, that this is poetry, but Robinson snaps us out of it with “and on it” and then that wonderful focusing phrase, “slight as an image in an eye,” that prepares us for the final image and brings us almost to a dead stop. Then the mad rush of the comma series “sky, clouds, trees,” brought to the satisfying metrical conclusion of “our hovering faces and our cold hands.” This is accentual meter from Old English, Anglo-Saxon poetry, with two heavy stresses on each side of a pause (called a caesura). Even if there weren’t a white space before the next section, we would feel the conclusion and the emphasis.
I think the usual conception is that beauty is in the content, in the nouns and adjectives. Let’s look then at Annie Proulx, a master stylist more famous, among writers at least, for her content-rich prose in The Shipping News than for her cowboys. Proulx uses Anglo-Saxon diction and meter, also, in a line such as “liked a ham knuckle, buttered spuds,” and she heaps nouns and adjectives into sentences without verbs, as in these sentences describing her main character, Quoyle:
Head shaped like a crenshaw, no neck, reddish hair ruched back. Features as bunched as kissed fingertips. Eyes the color of plastic. The monstrous chin, a freakish shelf jutting from the lower face.
This is beautiful prose, in which the verbs “shaped,” “ruched,” “bunched,” “kissed,” and “jutting”) have been turned into adjectives, becoming content, but it’s not what we think of as the beautiful, and Proulx ends this opening section with a sentence much closer to Robinson’s:
His thoughts churned like the amorphous thing that ancient sailors, drifting into arctic half-light, called the Sea Lung; a heaving sludge of ice under fog where air blurred into water, where liquid was solid, where solids dissolved, where the sky froze and light and dark muddled.
“Drifting into arctic half-light” is a lovely interruption and the primary signal to the reader that we are now entering the beautiful. “Sea Lung” demands with its semi-colon (which should have been a colon) that we focus on what’s to follow, all taken together in one image, and there’s a wonderful swimming in the image, as distinctions dissolve between the states of solid, liquid and gas, earth and sky, light and dark, and, finally, Quoyle’s past and future. Landscape description is the most powerful way to build theme, and here we see “lonesome Quoyle” unloved and unaccepted, longing for these things. The heaving sludge of ice could be his own heart, not only his thoughts, and in this novel that finally is a love story, the question is what’s going to happen to him. Will he find love? This is what makes us read on, and landscape is where we look for clues.
by David Vann