Liars Club

Learning The Unknowable.

by Simmons on June 2, 2010

in Advice for Writers,The Writing Life

Of one thing you can be certain: in times of writing crisis, writers turn to books.  We expect books to help us study the novel as we might an engine; to help us navigate the topography of the world’s most infinite country –as if we could climb the mountain ranges of a character’s happiness and learn the circumference of a dark lake of despair.  So much of what we want to learn and absorb, we can’t.  But be inspired, we can.  And many many writing books have posed interesting questions and suggested possible routes for me to follow in that unknowable land, from the book I quoted from in an earlier post – Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down The Bones, to Stephen King’s On Writing, which lifted me during the darkest revision despair I have ever known (are you listening, Simon & Schuster editor/dominatrix #2?)

But for me, the best writing book I have ever owned isn’t a writing book at all, but a book that leads me by example.  Not because it is perfect by any means, but because it accomplishes the same things I want to accomplish when I am writing, and does it with such vibrancy and economy. When I am stuck, when I am lost, I re-read The Great Gatsby. I remind myself of how a writer can know one world deeply and well, and share it simply, and colorfully.  Fitzgerald owned his world by showing it to us when it was both glowing and ruined.  That is what I’m trying to do with my writing – to show the topography of the upscale suburban world I choose to lay bare, and to have people marvel at its darkness and heft.  And if, like Fitzgerald, there are a few cocktails involved along the way, well, he reminds me not to overlook the details:  the silver shaker, the crease of a pant, the curtains.

A passage from Gatsby:

They were both in white and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.

Kelly Simmons is the author of Standing Still (Simon & Schuster) and coming in February, The Bird House Learn more at Kelly’s post is part of an ongoing series in which Liars each chime in on a burning question about publishing.


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Gerri George June 2, 2010 at 11:23 am

Wonderful post, Kelly. I feel the same way about books written by Marguerite Duras, Ian McEwan, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. A writer can learn pacing, phrasing, characterization, and the quality of word choices written by the greats.

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