Sunday, 29 January 2012

What Not To Write

I recently finished a collection of marvellous short stories, Give Me Your Heart by Joyce Carol Oates, tales of obsession and twisted psychology written with such skill they leave you breathless with admiration.  At the same time there's a sinking feeling that whatever you try to write pales by comparison, but it's a sign of a great writer that you're immediately propelled to the writing desk yourself. There is nothing more inspiring than reading something that really speaks to you.  For that is where the artistry lies - knowing just how much to say and how much to leave out.

I think this is where writing becomes art above craft, knowing how much to leave to the reader’s imagination.  Because writing is a two way street; it's never all about the author, just as any communication relies on interaction of parties.   The skill lies in drawing the reader along with you.  It's hard, and all the harder for being invisible.  You don't see it on the page, because it isn't there.  You feel it in your gut.

Of course you can take inscrutability to extremes.  We've surely all read a book, most probably a set reader in full time education, which made us mad with frustration.  But what does he mean?   The critics may have orgasms over the brilliance of the metaphors but no one else can make sense of it.  At the other end of the spectrum you have dull pedantic prose lacking any mystery or nuance.  But somewhere in between is the sweetest communication, a real insight into the world of another human being, a true meeting of minds.  

"Too much information" was one of those buzz phrases a while back.  You know, the casual enquiry about someone's health met with a detailed description of the finer points of their rectal exam.  Well, it's the same sort of thing.  Some stories, particularly horror and crime thriller, ladle it on like treacle.  But for me a lighter touch is more engaging.  I always remember a line from Truman Capote's In Cold Blood;  "There was blood and hair on the walls."  Says it all.


bran said...

Aye. That's the trick of it - the hardest part, knowing what to give and what to leave out. I'm shit at it, but that Joyce Carol Oates is a marvel.

Sara said...

Good post! Not giving away too much. So true.

Nicole said...

Oh my gosh, yes! I have been really trying to develop this skill myself lately. It's such a challenge to know what to leave off the page, and trust your readers to fill it in...but it's so powerful when it's done right.