Monday, October 19, 2009

Je Ne Sais Quoi

In my first-ever writing workshop, the teacher had one rule for our discussions: you were not allowed to lift your eyes from the story's pages.  Any comment you made had to be a comment about something that was literally printed in the text.  A story is made up of words, and he felt that any criticism or praise of the story had to be criticism or praise of those actual words.  This seems obvious, but at least to me at the time, it was a revelation.

The craft of writing is not mysterious, or at least it is not inherently mysterious.  Words have definitions.  Sentences have grammar.  Paragraphs are long or short, have sentence variation or they don't.  And, at least in conventional fiction, story structures have a kind of grammar too (see my posts on the film A Serious Man).  Yet somehow, many readers feel that something in fiction is indefinable, that it can't be pinpointed, that it somehow exists beyond the words on the page, and that to look at it too closely can cause it to vanish. 

I am of two minds about all this.  A workshop professor who espouses such a view makes me about as nervous as a surgeon who's worried about cutting into a patient's soul.  But at the same time, I think we've all had moments when we scribbled something down, and though it wasn't yet ready for another reader's eyes, we knew we had found It, that spark that brings a piece of prose to life.  What's the deal with that?

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