And what you can learn from each of them, as different as they are.
There is a rhythm to good writing — a flow that draws you in as smoothly and deliciously as a glide down a meandering brook. It moves along, pulling you from place to place, enticing you to go further, to explore, to feel, to breathe.
Every writer’s goal is to write as well as the writers who inspired her to write. Their writing seems effortless, as if they’re dreaming as they write, completely unaware that someone else is in the room. They write to satisfy themselves, and because they’re easily satisfied and not the least bit self-conscious, everything that comes out of them is pure and fully formed.
Or so we like to think.
I know and you know it never happens that way.
Barbara Kingsolver’s opening paragraph in her essay, “The Memory Place” might appear to the casual reader as if it came out of her just like that, full blown, each beautiful word lined up just right, leading to that perfect sentence at the end, but a writer who has struggled enough times would know it takes real effort to create this kind of seeming ease:
This is the kind of April morning no other month can touch: a world tinted in watercolor pastels of redbud, dogtooth violet, and gentle rain. The trees are beginning to shrug off winter; the dark, leggy maple woods are shot through with gleaming constellations of white dogwood blossoms. The road winds through deep forest near Cumberland Falls, Kentucky, carrying us across the Cumberland Plateau toward Horse Lick Creek. Camille is quiet beside me in the front seat, until at last she sighs and says, with a child’s poetic logic, “This reminds me of the place I always like to think about”.
You don’t have to know, at this point, where they are or who they are or even any detail of the trip. Not how it started, not why they’re there. You only have to be drawn in. The story starts here. If you know Kingsolver’s work, you know she’s a poet, a novelist, an essayist, and a trained biologist. She makes her home in Tucson, Arizona, but moves back and forth between the desert and Appalachia, where she was born and where her heart is.
This particular essay, from “High Tide in Tucson”, her collection of lyrical essays on the ordinary and the sublime, describes a meet-up with a Nature Conservancy guide who is inspecting the property the group has acquired around and along Horse Lick Creek, a fragile, dying-off area the conservancy hopes to bring back to life. These are Kingsolver’s old stomping grounds and she makes the most of it as she introduces her daughter, Camille, to the magic she has known since her own childhood in these woods.
It’s the kind of essay you might think you wouldn’t want to read, until, before you know it, you’re midway into it. You can see that nothing big is likely to happen but the writer has taken you on her journey and you’re hooked now; no matter where it leads, you’re with her to the end.
It’s the writing that does it.
At the beginning of “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings”, Maya Angelou writes about an Easter Sunday at her church, when she was a child in a purple taffeta hand-me-down dress that was supposed to make her ‘look like a movie star’ but was too big, too awkwardly fitted, and ends up being yet another reason for shame.
As if the dress itself wasn’t enough, more shame follows in a passage that literally takes my breath away:
“What you looking…” The minister’s wife leaned toward me, her long, yellow face full of sorry. She whispered, “I just come to tell you it’s Easter Day”. I repeated, jamming the words together, “Ijustcometotellyouit’sEasterDay,” as low as possible. The giggles hung in the air like melting clouds that were waiting to rain on me. I held up two fingers, close to my chest, which meant that I had to go to the toilet, and tiptoed toward the rear of the church. Dimly, somewhere over my head, I heard ladies saying, “Lord bless the child,” and “Praise God.” My head was up and my eyes were open, but I didn’t see anything. Halfway down the aisle, the church exploded with “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” and I tripped over a foot stuck out from the children’s pew. I stumbled and started to say something, or maybe to scream, but a green persimmon, or it could have been a lemon, caught me between the legs and squeezed. I tasted the sour on my tongue and felt it in the back of my mouth. Then, before I reached the door, the sting was burning down my legs and into my Sunday socks. I tried to squeeze it back, to keep it from speeding, but when I reached the church porch I knew I’d have to let it go, or it would probably run right back up to my head and my head would burst like a dropped watermelon, and all the brains and spit and tongue and eyes would run all over the place. I ran down into the yard and let it go. I ran, peeing and crying, not toward the toilet out back but toward our house. I knew I would get a whipping for it, to be sure, and the nasty children would have something new to tease me about. I laughed, anyway, partially for the sweet release; still, the greater joy came not only from being liberated from that silly church, but from the knowledge that I wouldn’t die from a busted head.
Angelou, ever the poet, knows how to use rhythm and flow to its finest advantage, even when the story is harsh and sometimes comical. I read that passage holding my chest, immersed in that little girl’s shame and sorrow, pitying her attempt to make light of it, wanting to throw my arms around her and give her comfort. For that moment I was there.
When Abraham Lincoln came to consecrate the Gettysburg cemetery on November 19, 1863, the Civil War was still raging on. He knew as president he had to console a nation, but he also knew he couldn’t hold a candle to Edward Everett, the renowned American orator who was scheduled to give the first speech. Everett’s speech lasted for two hours; Lincoln’s 270 words came in at just under three minutes.
Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
The Gettysburg Address endures, not because it so clearly expresses Lincoln’s obligation and his sorrow — it does — but because it has a rhythm, a cadence, a pull. It reads like poetry. It still has the capacity to stir our hearts, starting with “Fourscore and seven years ago…”. Did Lincoln know the impact it would make? I doubt it. His heart was breaking and he let his anguish flow. Nobody remembers what Edward Everett had to say, but Lincoln’s big heart lets us in. His words (the number of them just right, it turns out), make us feel.
As writers, our goal is to make our readers want to keep on reading. Almost any subject can become that thing they can’t put down, but it takes real work to make it appear seamless. You have to feel it before you can write it. As you’re writing, you have to let go. At some point the mechanics have to take a back seat and the art has to happen.
In the three examples above, there isn’t a single passive sentence, not a single word that throws us off or stops us dead. No wandering off, no fuzzy equivocation, no stopping to explain. Nothing that would remove us from the onward, inevitable movement of the stories. The rhythm builds, the words flow, and we’re swept along, willing participants.
And that’s no accident.
(Cross-posted at Medium/Indelible Ink)