I do not know how I learned to write. I can remember the thrill of learning cursive, writing over and over again the letters C, F, G and L, my favorites, in a lined third grade notebook. I think it was in third grade that I also wrote my first book, “Diary of a Blue Jay.” In it I tried to imagine what the world might look like from the point of view of the blue jay that lived in our backyard cherry tree and once picked a hole in the head of our cat. I suspect the cat had destroyed the jay’s nest and maybe eaten the eggs or the fledglings, but still I wondered if the punishment fit the crime. Still more I wondered why the cat did not find a way to hide from the dive-bombing bird. But that would be another story.
I have taught writing since my first semester in graduate school. My success as a teacher depended in great part on my ability to help others articulate their thoughts in writing. My success as a critic depended in great part on my ability to write. And yet I never took a class in writing and neither in college nor graduate school did I receive comments directed toward improving my writing.
My first writing instructor turned out to be Susan Fernandez, the editor at Indiana University Press who published The Resisting Reader. From Susan, I learned the importance of choosing the right title, and the necessity of condensing. I also learned the value of tone as she helped me convert some rants into effective prose. A forthcoming issue of the journal Reception is dedicated to the impact of The Resisting Reader. I have dedicated my own remarks on the subject to Susan.
A colleague once commented that The Resisting Reader was better written than it needed to be. I know what she meant. Like others at the time I saw the book as seed material, important in stimulating the work of others but not of lasting value itself. Ironically, I now believe the writing is part of what has saved the book from the oblivion that is the usual fate of much of literary criticism. It was, in fact, well-written.
These days I have a writing group, an outgrowth of a seminar in memoir writing sponsored by the U/Albany Writers Institute, for now I do take classes. And I read—books about how to write a memoir and memoirs, memoirs, memoirs. Occasionally I find one that is a teacher. Margaret Renkl’s Late Migrations is my latest teacher.
Sara led me to the book. She was listening to it on disc in the car, and she offered to share it with me while we travelled to Oscar’s Smokehouse in Warrensburg to get smoked porkchops and a special ham. The book consists of short pieces that, while connected, can be read, or heard, in any sequence. After two “chapters,” I cried, “Stop. I can learn something about writing from Renkl.” My mind was churning, and I knew it would take the rest of the trip just to absorb what had been stirred up by those two chapters. Sara graciously complied and for the rest of the trip I bored her with thoughts about writing.
Here are just a few of the things I have learned from reading and studying Renkl.
It is o.k. to use long sentences, indeed an entire paragraph can be made of one sentence.
It is o.k. to use sentence fragments, if you are a writer who can show that you have mastered the sentence.
Cut the fat.
It is o.k. to use words that you either make up or that are likely to be unfamiliar to your readers.
Adjectives are wonderful. Don’t strike them. “When we were halfway across the endless Midwest, moving fifty-five miles an hour through towering forest of corn and sunflowers, the car’s anemic air-conditioning went out entirely . . .” A feast of adjectives, but “anemic” is the touch of genius.
Exposition can be accomplished by juxtaposition. This is the high point of the art of economy. Place one story fragment next to another and let the reader do the work of connecting. “The English daisies, which normally bloom in spring, come back for a second more subdued round of greetings. My mother carried daisies in her bridal bouquet . . .”
If you know what you are doing, you can use the strategies of the sentimental without being sentimental. You must be really good to start a sentence with “And, oh,” but she can bring it off. “And, oh, the stars were like the stars in a fairy tale, a profligate pouring of stars . . .”
Good writing depends on specificity. “The story of one drowned Syrian boy washed up in the surf keeps us awake at night with grief. The story of four million refugees streaming out of Syria seems more like a math problem.”
Embed the epiphany. End with something more manageable for readers. In “Prairie Lights,” she does not end with “I understood that I understood nothing at all.” She ends with the little boy afraid to get out of the car because the sky is so big and he is so little.
“Terminal illness was perched on the house like a vulture. We walked beneath its hunched presence as though it weren’t there . . .” Be careful with similes, as they are an open invitation to the cliche. This one is saved by “hunched,” another triumph of the adjective.
Avail yourself of everything that has worked in the past. Go ahead and use the forms of rhetoric identified by the Greeks. For example, paralepsis, “She will not think of the unworried man, the rebuke of his tranquil sleeping . . .”
The short form is her metier, as it is mine, but it can get tedious. It needs to be larded with a few longer pieces.
Cut the fat.
Reading Late Migrations, I took a Master Class in writing. Much of what Renkl has to teach me I can incorporate into my own writing. I will cherish the adjective and allow myself the long sentence and watch where I place the epiphany and how I end a piece.
Still, I am not going to cut all the fat. I like some fat.
Finally, though, I am left with a question for which I have no answer and which is the key to her achievement. I did not have to stop hearing Sara’s disc simply because Renkl made my mind spin with ideas about writing. I had to stop because I could not take so much feeling in such rapid sequence. Reading, I could take breaks. For it is finally the depth and authenticity of her emotions that make Renkl’s Late Migrations, in the words of Ann Patchett, have “the makings of an American classic.”
But here’s my question: does Margaret Renkl feel things more deeply than I do or is it just (as if this ability were just a “just”) that she can convey these emotions more effectively? Does the strength and brilliance of her writing derive from her feeling or from her ability to share these feelings in words?
Perhaps the success of The Resisting Reader came also from the fact that I wrote it from rage. Renkl subtitles her book “a natural history of love and loss,” but we mostly know of the love through the loss. Perhaps it is harder to write well when one is happy.
This piece appeared previously at https://perennialwisdom.net It is republished here with the kind permission of Judith Fetterley.
22 October, 2022