“I’ll never be as good as some of the authors I’m reading” is a common lament I hear when I attend writing workshops. Reading the best of the best can be intimidating. But also inspiring. And challenging.
I have always had a problem with fresh, new sounding descriptions of everyday things. Like describing the sky; even when we lived on the 17th floor in Chicago with an unobstructed view of the sky over Lake Michigan, I could not come up with more descriptive words than variations of variegated shades of blue with white fluffy clouds. I even had to look up the word for the line that separates the sky from the water. Horizon. Duh.
So, my fresh description problem intensified recently while reading two books in which the authors seemed to outdo themselves. I’m trying not to feel overwhelmed and hoping that their beautiful writing mysteriously imprints itself on to my brain and lands on the page the next time I’m on a writing kick.
A few examples from Nina George’s The Little Paris Bookshelf.
“While the cats roamed the boat, Perdu flicked through a supplier’s catalog that advertised place mats featuring the most famous six-word stories from Hemingway to Murakami—alongside salt, pepper and spice shakers shaped like the heads of Schiller, Goethe, Colette, Balzac, and Virginia Woolf, which dispensed salt, pepper, or sugar from the partings in their hair.” (p. 88)
Really now, literary-headed shakers and partings! I was happy I do not wear a part, or I might be looking for condiments shaking forth when I bend over.
“A bird awoke inside his chest, and it cautiously spread its wings, amazed to find that it was still alive. It wanted out. It wanted to burst from his chest, taking his heart with it, and soar up into the sky.” (p. 96)
I would have said, “He suddenly became aware that he must find his lover.”
“There were marks of sadness around her laughing mouth.” (p. 217)
I admit this sounds a lot better than my “She looked sad.”
The thing about these little gems is you are reading right along and they pop up like jack-in-the-boxes (that’s about as clever as I can get), sort of smarting you behind your eyes, instantly suggesting that, no, those gems would never occur to you and, therefore, you will never become a great writer.
Moving on, a few examples from Elizabeth Strout’s new book, Abide with Me.
“A small stinging pain below his collarbone arrived, and, placing his hand over it, the man had the odd momentary sense of someone about to say the Pledge of Allegiance.” (p. 7)
Why, of course, I always think of saying the Pledge when my hand is in the vicinity of my collarbone.
“Connie’s dark eyebrows, with the few gray eyebrows, rose in a kind of tired sympathy.” (p.12)
Now, have you ever thought of eyebrows looking like tired sympathy? Me either.
“The skies this morning were pale, and the leaves that remained seemed richer, serious, not so screechingly proud of their beauty as on those sunny, blue-skied days.” (p. 75)
Wow. As fall approaches, I’m going to observe the leaves in my yard. I’m going to assess their mental state. Will they look serious? Will they look proud? Will they look screechingly proud?
I’ve taken classes on Reading Like a Writer, so I mark up my books with a big C in the margins when there’s a stunning example of the CRAFT of writing. My goal, someday, is to copy those phrases or sentences in a notebook because I’ve read that in addition to reading good literature, the act of writing (psychomotor action) also helps imprint good writing on your brain.
Meanwhile, I can never donate my books because I’ve not found one place that takes marked up books. But that’s okay because they say what you have around your house says tons about your personality. I’m fine with looking bookish. And I’m fine, pragmatically, with continuing to work on becoming, at minimum, one of the best of the worst writers. And I’m thankful for all those beautifully skilled writers that will continue to model for me their exquisite minds on the printed page.