Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Power of Beauty Compels You

Is writing an art or a craft? In day to day practice I usually approach it as a craft. I have a certain amount of work to accomplish, and I must accomplish that work even if I’m not particularly inspired, even if I’m feeling under the weather, even if the work is more reportage than imaginative. But I understand that what attracted me to writing in the first place is the artistic heart of it. This is one reason why I look forward to the times when I can write fiction. This is not to say that nonfiction can’t be art, but most of the nonfiction I do is focused on the reporting of facts. The key requirement is clarity, not artistic flourish. The old adage of “kill your darlings” is more important in nonfiction than fiction, I think, because metaphors and other beautiful turns of phrase may serve to obfuscate facts.

For me, however, fiction is about more than just a good story. I can read a book or story that is plainly written but in which the prose doesn’t sing, as long as the plotline keeps me wondering what happens next. But, the works that I remember are those in which the words and sentences are infused with beauty as well as functionality. Consider:

“The evening sky was streaked with purple, the color of torn plums, and a light rain had started to fall…” James Lee Burke, The Neon Rain.

“Johnny James was sitting on the front porch, sipping from a glass of gasoline in the December heat, when the doomscreamer came.” Robert R. McCammon, “Something Passed By.”

“That country where the hills are fog, and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay.” Ray Bradbury, “The October Country.”

“To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.” John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath.

“Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves.” Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian.

“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.” Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms.

The beauty of these lines compel me. There is meaning “in” the words, and also “behind” the words. I “feel” things in these pieces that go beyond the vocabulary and grammar. Therein lies the art. To do more than just tell a story. To do more than just move the reader from one scene to the next. That’s what I hope to do every time I sit to write a story, what I hope to do and too often fail. Art is a goal that is always difficult to achieve. But it is a goal that is worth the effort.


Miladysa said...

Oh how true!

There are certain 'buzz' words for me that when put together with other such words create an almost magical symphony.

"“The evening sky was streaked with purple, the color of torn plums, and a light rain had started to fall…” " Yummy ;]

Bernita said...

That's all I can say.

writtenwyrdd said...

Very much so, Charles. Craft is in knowing which paintbrush to use; art is in knowing how to place it. But, unless you do it, there is no real sense of the difference, in my experience anyhow.

writtenwyrdd said...

Very much so, Charles. Craft is in knowing which paintbrush to use; art is in knowing how to place it. But, unless you do it, there is no real sense of the difference, in my experience anyhow.

Sarai said...

Art is something I think every writer strives for and the ones that succeed have a great life. I try everyday to write what I am feeling in hopes of hitting that one great line that envokes the sense of awe and wonder.
Great post!

ivan said...

My next tome will be about a perv.
Across the River and Into the Bushes?


Charles Gramlich said...

Miladysa, yes, exactly. Certain phrasings are just pure poetry.

Bernita, agreed.

Writtenwyrd, the two are certainly closely related.

Sarai, and what a pleasure it is when you find one of those precious lines.

Ivan, LOL. I could think of a few continuations on this but perhaps I'd better not.

Lisa said...

I can't enjoy a book for story only. The words have to have power and beauty.

Travis Cody said...

I've always read the words in my mind. A story is as much about the way the words flow together as it is about character or least it is for me.

I guess I agree that writing is both craft and art.

SzélsőFa said...

Perhaps that touch of art is the difference between fiction and nonfiction, as far as I see.
Those lines are really great.

Chris Eldin said...

I thought that was Cormac even before I came to the end. He has such a unique voice.
I agree with you.
And those are beautiful examples!

Erik Donald France said...

Beautiful. I always wonder how well translators manage -- clear images from Vietnam make it into English, for instance, some of it feeling like art and some like craft.

WH said...

Yes, that's it exactly. When a passage "sings," then it becomes transcendant, from craft to art. Perfect examples you've given. I really need to start on James Lee Burke. He's from these parts, isn't he?

Charles Gramlich said...

Lisa, I believe I can read for just story, like I can watch movies in which there is just a lot of action, but I certainly prefer when the words have beauty too.

Travis, yes, sometimes I say it's about the "music" of the words.

Szelsofa, I imagine that non-fiction could be done artistically. It's just that that is not it's usual purpose.

ChristineEldin, yes each of his sentences are jewels.

Erik, doing a really fine translation job must be very hard, and an artform in itself.

Billy, Yes, Burke if originally from around these parts, although he lives elsewhere now. He does a great job of catching the local environments.

Travis Erwin said...

Great post. I have nothing of value to add other than I agree with you.

Steve Malley said...

I'll do a blog on this tomorrow. Right now I have to find out where I packed the towels.

Lana Gramlich said...

None of these are as lovely as you, my sweet.

virtual nexus said...

...the quotes you chose evoke US scenery; art resonates most deeply with the familiar?

Inside our hands, outside our hearts said...

Ahh yes Charles you have once again hit the nail on the head, at least for me. It is the emotion, the powerful presentation that leaves to searching for a word and absolutely horrified that you cannot locate one given your profession. This is the reason I love to write, the ability to make others feel!

Soft love,

Brenda said...

Very, very well said.

Charles Gramlich said...

Travis Erwin, my genius confirmed. ;)

Steve Malley, they're in the last box you will look in.

Lana, no you.

Julie, something old, something new.

Tara, the groping for words is part of the art.

Brenda, thanks, and thanks for dropping by.

RRN said...

Great post. Thank you for sharing your very knowledge filled thoughts. I loved the quotes.

My favorite things of my own I have ever written in this life just kind of happened... I never really thought it out all too much ....It just sort of flowed out and there have been times I wasn't ever sure where it coming from.

writing can be a pretty soulful thing.

Jo said...

I think you have answered your own question. Writing is an art. And you have posted quotes from three of my favorite authoris, Steinbeck, Bradbury and Hemingway. Those men are artists, and they paint a picture with their words, as surely as Van Gogh or Gauguin.

Did you ever read a story by Bradbury called "The Picasso Summer"?

Stacia said...

Oooh, I agree. I rarely think my writing is beautiful, but every once in a while I manage to catch something.

Charles Gramlich said...

RRN, it's nice when something flows. I've had that happen, although sometimes, like with the piece I'm working on now, I have to drag it kicking and screaming into the light.

Josie, I have read that Bradbury story, and most everything by Bradbury except some of his later mystery tales. They are also three of my favorite writers, although I prefer Hemingway to Steinbeck.

Stacia, a beautiful turn of phrase is sheer pleasure.

Tyhitia Green said...

Words to live by! I loved your examples. The art is what makes it worthwhile. I love it! :*)

Michelle's Spell said...

Beautiful openings, for certain! I love writing because there's always the possiblity for transendence, as douchebaggy as that may sound. I can remember reading books that seemed (and probably did) designed to save my life. Or at least pass an afternoon or make me feel less lonely. Anything that has the power to do any of the above is always worth the time. But mostly I slog around in the craft end, without inspiration, waiting for it the best I can.