Over the summer, I read Stein on Writing, which was helpful from a professional development perspective since I write for my paying job, but, as with so many books, I found it spurred my thinking along several different lines, and caused me to ponder how I read, think, and communicate.
What counts is not what is said, but the effect of what is meant.
I’m often frustrated by how relentlessly visual our culture is. People are so used to consuming primarily visual media that even print materials often read like a description of a TV drama. In the quote above, Stein contends that good dialogue is not about the exact words used, but the effect the words have on the story. I think the same holds true for action. This is why bedroom scenes invariably fail in novels (although, unfortunately, authors more often take this fact as a thrown gauntlet rather than a cautionary tale)–the play-by-play is not important, rather it’s the effect on the story of what the action means.
In addition to informing our writing, the idea also carries weight with spoken communication. Rather than oversharing details, we might do better to focus on communicating the effect an action or instance had on us–making it more universal and easier to understand.
There is a time and place for details. But, in our current milieu–speaking for myself, at least–a dose of restraint might be a more necessary corrective.
A writer cannot be a Pollyanna. He is in the business of writing what other people think but don’t say…the single characteristic that most makes a difference in the success of an article or nonfiction book is the author’s courage in revealing normally unspoken things about himself or his society…tell the truth in an interesting way.
I often have moments, when I read really good books, of noting that an author has perfectly articulated something I’ve experienced but never mentioned. But telling the truth in an interesting way is more difficult that you’d think. Wendy pointed me to this fascinating article about how difficult it is for Christians to write redemption, because it seems to defy description. I wonder if the answer might be–as in the observation above–to leave off with attempts at play-by-play descriptions and focusing on “the effect of what is meant.”
In the end, you write what you read.
If this is not a clarion call to being judicious with my reading shelf (and my kids’), I’m not sure what is.
I read books about writing both as a writer and as a reader. I usually find tidbits to help me in my work, but invariably find food for thought that makes me more thoughtful and discerning in my literary life as well.
What do you think?
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