“The first step is to become a slow reader.” Great advice. Slow down and savor, not just to learn to write elegant prose, but to present vivid settings, realistic characters, gripping emotion.
After a while, once you’ve read the how-to books about writing and the variety of blog posts and the ezines and the magazines, they all begin to sound alike. But when you read the masters in your genre with an eye toward how they do things, you’re enhancing your knowledge. When you read the masters in other genres, including literary fiction and poetry, you’re broadening your scope.
The best lesson I learned recently–one of many–came from Tosca Lee’s fiction masterpiece, Demon: A Memoir.
In this novel, when asked whether he thinks he’ll go to heaven, Clay, the main character, says yes, because he’s a “good person.” This announcement comes after the halfway point of the novel. All along, before and after this proclamation, Tosca shows him engaged in scenes that seem to be superfluous–a break from his intense interview with the demon, a peek into his daily life. It’s not that the scenes weren’t good, of course they were. But that’s all I assigned to them: a break, a peek. It didn’t even register with me what Tosca had done when Clay called himself a good person.
Much later, after I finished the novel and during one of the many times I mulled over the story, it dawned on me. Throughout the book, while she was showing us snippets of this man’s life and personal interactions, Tosca was presenting Clay as an ordinary man. Good by human definition; certainly he wasn’t evil. All his actions and emotions were understandable on a human plane. Tosca never judged; there were no signs of remorse from Clay of how he should’ve done this or that instead of what he’d done. She presented what seemed to be logical, sympathetic reactions to the stimulus presented. Then called him a “good” person.
But what she’d actually done is amazing. The message presented, without presenting a message at all, is a dagger to the heart of everyone who thinks they’ll go to heaven because they’re good.
The snippets of his life revealed him to be unforgiving, high-tempered, self-absorbed. All understandable, given the fact he was under stress from the demon, who showed up at different times in the guise of different people. But if the idea he wasn’t a good person wasn’t presented well enough through the fact he was conversing with a demon, it was also presented through his life.
Tosca’s point was that man’s definition of “good” is considerably different from God’s definition. She never said that, never hinted it. She showed it. She illustrated everything, leaving the interpretation to the reader.
Such a masterful example of RUE: Resist the Urge to Explain. It’s also a great example of Brandilyn Collins’ charge to “write to your smartest reader.” Present the tools necessary for the job, then challenge your readers to figure it out and trust that they will.
This is everything we’ve learned through courses and books put to use. Exceptional use. And it’s only one lesson I learned from the novel.
Read widely. Read slowly. Savor and learn.