The author Joan Didion died last week, and a number of appreciative essays remarked on the quality of her writing style. Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times said Didion’s work was “distinguished by its spareness, its surgical precision,” and Frank Bruni, also in the Times, called Didion “a sorceress of syntax.” Estimations like those can’t be ignored, because observing masterly work is essential to improving our own attempts. They can draw us on in the right direction if we too can see what they’re doing.
In an essay entitled “Georgia O’Keeffe” in her collection called The White Album, Didion recounts taking her young daughter to the Art Institute of Chicago to see an exhibit of O’Keeffe’s great work. Moved by a large canvass hanging in the lobby, the young girl asked her mother who drew it, and then exclaimed, “I need to talk to her.” Didion continues:
My daughter was making, that day in Chicago, an entirely unconscious but quite basic assumption about people and the work they do. She was assuming that the glory she saw in the work reflected a glory in its maker, that the painting was the painter as the poem is the poet, that every choice one made alone—every word chosen or rejected, every brush stroke laid or not laid down—betrayed one’s character. Style is character. It seemed to me that afternoon that I had rarely seen so instinctive an application of this familiar principle, and I recall being pleased not only that my daughter responded to style as character but that it was Georgia O’Keeffe’s particular style to which she responded…. (Open Road Media, p. 127)
Could it be that the difficulties all of us have in writing are due in part to this principle that style is character? Not all the difficulties, but the difficulties all of us have at some time in getting started, in finding our own real position before our subject, in letting that relationship, that poise, be seen? What strikes me in this passage of Didion’s is not so much a resounding flourish of words, but her intelligent recognition in a quick occurrence of so much more. She was able, because of who she was, to see principle manifested in an event. She heard her daughter’s unconscious remark as we all would certainly have heard it, but then she heard something more, something beneath or behind the young girl’s words that were, Didion believed, the actuating element in O’Keeffe’s painting. O’Keeffe had let herself be known, the daughter saw who the painter was in part, and Didion saw her daughter seeing the great artist. Fire swept through the three, and that is always the renewing possibility of art.
Didion’s own style here was not to recur to intellectual discourse. She did not turn this living moment at the Art Institute into a university lecture about the indissociability of form and content, nor in relating it did she ever get too far from the pulse of the event. Instead, she understood its elevated meaning and then plainly told that meaning to us. And right there is what is so difficult: to say and tell without, or perhaps despite, the crosswinds of self-consciousness that seem to be always about our center. We must try not to strike a pose, but strike at the flashing stone that opens up the meaning of a moment—not every moment, of course, but certain ones we suspect can point to the unsuspected. We can learn from Didion that our abstractions arise from the concrete, the individual, and that the way in which an individual embodies the higher things throws a light on who that person really is.
Frank Bruni goes on to say of Didion that her sentences “demonstrate the manner in which a writer can universalize the personal, wringing a collective moral from an individual experience.” It would be no small matter for any writer to learn that from Didion and walk toward the same natural light.
Next week on Tuesday evening, January 4, Writing Smartly will begin the first of three sections of its popular Reading Closely to Write course. We will be reading one or two short (some very short) stories each week from an anthology of great modern writers, including Katherine Anne Porter, Anton Chekhov, John Steinbeck, Virginia Woolf, and Joseph Conrad. As before, we will read these works not only to appreciate the story each is telling, but also to understand how the writer has composed certain passages and to what literary effect. And although sentence composition and style will be our first concern—the better to learn from the masters, we will also make time to comment on the plot and character those sentences together create.
Tuition for each seven-week term is $350. You may register now through these links for one, two, or all three terms (a 10% tuition discount applies if you register now for all three). Specific dates for each term are below. We will meet from 6:00 to 7:00 p.m. Central Time every Tuesday evening, taking a one-week break between each term. Our text for the entire course will be 50 Great Short Stories, edited by Milton Crane (Bantam Books, 2005), easily available through this link at Amazon, or elsewhere.
Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions. I look forward to seeing you in January.