What makes for good writing? There are a thousand ways to go about answering this question. One might offer examples—Shakespeare, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf. These are writers who have produced good writing. But listing them doesn’t get at why they are good. And it offers no help to the writer who is wondering how to produce something striking, original, and moving.
A better approach is to turn the question around: What are the things that if they are missing make a piece of writing not good? Three essential elements jump out right away: practice, trust, and judgment.
In a recent interview, the Australian writer, Helen Garner said:
“…you’ve got to practice every day. It’s like practicing an instrument if you’re a musician or keeping your tools sharpened. After many years of daily practice… you actually build up a competence.”
Cormac McCarthy said something similar but more laconically: “If you’re going to be a writer, then writing is what you have to do.”
These successful writers are on to something. Daily writing is the place to innovate, experiment, try on other voices. It’s daily exercise, like jogging, swimming laps or working out at a gym. It keeps you fit, trim, well-trained.
Be disciplined: set a goal—one hour, so many words—and do it everyday. A lack of daily practice will show in a piece of writing.
If practice is like daily exercise, trust works as the metabolic centre of the writing process. It’s what fuels good writing.
This element is about having a good relationship with your creative self. It works in several ways:
- Knowing when to listen – Certain ideas and themes resonate for a reason. It’s because you have something to say.
- Believing in the inner work – If the time is not right, forcing it won’t come to any good. There is a really important purpose to writer’s block, and this should be listened to.
- Drawing from the well – Having a notebook on hand to jot ideas down as they occur is one method. Some writers never do this, however. They test the value of an idea by letting it surface over and over.
- Communicating honestly – Find your voice; be authentic. Write what you know. Find a way to put yourself and your experiences into the story.
Attempting to control the process, writing prematurely or in the wrong genre, and being inauthentic in any way will show in the quality of the writing.
Everyone’s heard the saying: One part inspiration, ten parts perspiration. Inspiration comes from trusting in the writing process; judgment is the ‘ten parts perspiration’. It’s the conscious grind, bringing the intellect to bear on each and every aspect of the process.
If practice is what keeps one in shape as a writer, and trust is the inner work—the metabolic system—of writing, judgment is involved with the actual performance. It’s the ‘big game’, where a writer gets to apply training, draw from the well of creativity, and produce a fine piece of writing. It requires rigour, energy, stamina: How many drafts are needed to get it right? How much reshaping? How much editing?
Hemingway said: “The mark of a good book is how much good writing you cut out of it.” Stephen King said: “Be prepared to murder your darlings”.
It’s a good idea to read your work out loud. Wherever you stumble, make a change. I heard a story about a writer who holds herself to account in the following way: Before she submits any piece of writing, she performs a ritual. She goes into the bathroom, takes off her clothes, stands before the mirror and reads it out loud. Asked why she does this, she says: because if I’m there naked in front of the mirror, I can’t hide and I can’t lie.
The more one practices, the more one trusts in the process and the more one exercises experienced judgment, the better the writing will be. It’s a simple approach that will lead to honest, living prose.
Walter Benjamin, in his great essay “The Storyteller,” written in the nineteen-thirties, argues that classic storytelling is structured around death. It is the fire at which listeners warm their hands. But these days, he suggests, that hearth is cold and empty. Benjamin notes that death has disappeared from contemporary life, safely shuffled away to the hospital, the morgue, the undertaker. Instead of the news of death, there is just news—the “information” that we get so easily in newspapers. “If the art of storytelling has become rare, the dissemination of information has had a decisive share in this state of affairs,” Benjamin writes. I sometimes think that the old leather couch Tolstoy kept in his study would be a good symbol of the mortal pulse that Benjamin was talking about. Tolstoy’s mother had given birth to him on this couch. She died when he was nearly two years old. Most of his thirteen children—five of whom died in childhood—were born on it, too. Was it not possible that one day he might lie on that same piece of furniture, and die there? It would be hard to write in such a study while oblivious of death as a life rhythm, of life as a death cycle.
more from James Wood at The New Yorker here.
Although I’ve read Plath’s poems many times, there is something powerful about hearing them read in the author’s own voice. There are many recordings up on YouTube–some, unfortunately, that take more than a few liberties with her words and style. When the recording of Plath reading her poems is set to images, I think Mishima does it best. The first two recordings I include are theirs; the final one is from Drew Arriola, who has simply and elegantly juxtaposed Plath’s voice with a couple of well-chosen portraits.
‘Daddy’ was written on 12 October 1962, only months before her death the following February. It was published posthumously in Ariel in 1965. ‘Daddy’ can be read autobiographically in that it captures the complexity of her relationship with her father, who died when she was eight and who shadowed her life and romantic relationships. But it can also be read more widely as a rejection of the kind of authority that gives the world a Hitler.
‘Lady Lazarus’, also published in Ariel in 1965, is similar in tone and content to ‘Daddy’. There are allusions to World War II, both the struggle against Nazi Germany and the war against Japan. But I always read this poem as a personal one. It catalogues her previous suicide attempts and anticipates the one in February 1963 that would claim her life. It is chilling to listen to her refer to the phoenix, a mythological bird that rises from the ashes, particularly since her friend, the critic A. Alvarez, believed that she never intended to kill herself that cold February morning. She had set up a situation in which she would be discovered just at the final moment. Unfortunately, the gas leaked into the apartment below, making the tenant sleep heavily. He did not hear the bell when the nanny arrived for her scheduled ‘interview’ with Plath. The nanny waited patiently outside, thinking Plath must be out on an errand; in the meantime, Plath lay dying. When the alarm was finally raised, it was too late.
‘The Stones’, written in 1959 was part of a long meditative work, ‘Poem for a Birthday’, which celebrated Roethke as it was deeply influenced by him. In fact, when the poem was submitted to Poetry, it was rejected for being derivative. When it was submitted as part of The Colossus to Knopf, it was a condition of it’s acceptance that ‘Poem for a Birthday’ be cut. Plath agreed, but transformed two of its sections for inclusion as individual poems: ‘Flute Notes from a Reedy Pond’ and ‘The Stones’.
‘The Stones’ is one of Plath’s many poems that relies on the idea of the double, the false self and the true self gripped in battle. Plath lived this at every stage: the agreeable daughter, the good girl, the brilliant student battling the dark and damaged rebel; the sunny, pony-tailed American in postwar England at odds with the sexually independent woman coming of age; the cheerfully energetic housewife alternating with the fiercely feeling depressive, full of angst and violence. ‘The Stones’ was written before the Ariel poems, but it encapsulates their themes and rhythms.
Calling it “unlike anything that had gone before in her work”, her husband Ted Hughes said:
In its double focus, ‘The Stones’, is both a ‘birth’ and a ‘rebirth’. It is the birth of her real poetic voice, but it is the rebirth of herself. That poem encapsulates, with literal details, her ‘death’, her treatment, and her slow, buried recovery. And this is where we can see the pecularity of her imagination at work, where we can see how the substance of her poetry and the very substance of her survival are the same.
Every now and then, a novel arrives that conveys not only wisdom and understanding but also offers a dose of magic. Part fable, part dreamscape, part family drama, What the Family Needed can be read in different ways. Some of the delight is that nothing is lost in choosing one way over another; in fact, each reading contains all other possible readings. I’m being mysterious, I know; but I’m afraid to reveal too much and steal even an ounce of joy this strange and charming book provides.
On the most superficial level, What the Family Needed is the story of a family over a lifetime. At the centre is the oddball Alek, who exerts an influence over the others even when he isn’t present. Adorable as a child, Alek is transformed into the complicated teenage rebel and, later, the adult misfit, while the family watches with concern and growing ambivalence. All is not what it seems, however. Amsterdam offers a unique explanation for how the whole of a family resides within each of its members. And while it’s true that difference contains misunderstanding, as well as good will, and all sorts of consequences, each of us possesses special powers that arrive when we need them.
What the Family Needed is the second novel for Amsterdam, a worthy follow up to his debut Things We Didn’t See Coming, which won The Age Book of the Year for 2009. It’s a remarkable story, full of imagination and fun. Amsterdam reaches for the delicate web that connects us to each other and suggests a subtle new way of reading our lives.
What the Family Needed