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Dear Paris Review,
My writing mentor said that if I want to raise my writing to the next level, then I have to learn to write suggestively in addition to writing descriptively. Is this true and where can one learn to write suggestively?
Stuck in the Basement
Suggestive is good! Suggestive is a plus. Your mentor’s advice has the weight of the entire modernist movement behind it—all the way back to Paul Verlaine’s 1882 verse manifesto “Art poétique,” “Give us more nuance, / Not color, nothing but nuance!” It sounds better in French. And it’s easier said than done. Here is Ernest Hemingway’s advice on how to write a suggestive short story:
If you leave out important things or events that you know about, the story is strengthened. If you leave or skip something because you do not know it, the story will be worthless. The test of any story is how very good the stuff is that you, not your editors, omit. A story in this book called Big Two-Hearted River is about a boy coming home beat to the wide from a war … So the war, all mention of the war, anything about the war, is omitted. The river was the Fox River, by Seney, Michigan, not the Big Two-Hearted. The change of name was made purposely, not from ignorance nor carelessness but because Big Two-Hearted River is poetry, and because there were many Indians in the story, just as the war was in the story, and none of the Indians nor the war appeared. As you see, it is very simple and easy to explain.
See issue no. 70, Spring 1981 for the rest (including Hemingway’s definition of “beat to the wide,” which I omitted in the spirit of the thing).
D. H. Lawrence once advised a young writer, “If you cannot tell people of something they have not seen, or have not thought, it is hardly worthwhile to write at all.” I guess he’s right, but it’s still a pretty tall order. Surely there are books that have dealt with well-trodden subjects and ideas successfully?
Daunted in Denver
D. H. Lawrence was a master of the neg. In the letter you mean—written to his college classmate and sometime girlfriend Louie Burrows—Lawrence is warning her off hackneyed adjectives:
“Shapely heads—fallen heroes—white bear on aged breast” you know these are in everybody’s mouth. If you would write, try to be terse and in some measure original—the world abounds with new similes and metaphors.
I for one would like to see a white bear on an aged breast—at least once. But maybe that’s a typo. The point is, Lawrence doesn’t mean we shouldn’t write about ordinary stuff, only that we should try to look at the ordinary through fresh eyes. A few good examples of that? The Mezzanine, Nicholson Baker’s 1998 novel about a ride up an escalator; the poem “Soap” by Francis Ponge; or “Five Stories” by Lydia Davis.
A friend of mine with a good heart turns out to have a bad one. The young fellow needs a repair and it is going to be months of waiting and months of recovery. The Good Soldier seems a bit on the nose—or heavy on the heart—as the case may be. What might I send the man for pre-procedure limbo and/or for postsurgical convalesce? He’s a stout Scot, but he’ll be down for the count.
Your poor friend! The Good Soldier does seem a little bit on the nose, ditto The Magic Mountain. The hero of Ben Lerner’s second novel, 10:04, spends part of the book fretting over an enlarged aorta—but maybe your friend would rather not read about other people’s cardiac conditions.
Recently a friend of mine who’s been laid up complained that it was hard to keep track of plots (I’ve noticed the same thing, postsurgery). I sent him a copy of Music: I-LXXIV, August Kleinzahler’s collection of mini-essays on music—jazz and classical mostly, but with forays into blues and pop. My friend declared the book infuriating but perfect. For nonsequential comfort reading, maybe your friend would like Mrs. Miniver, a popular collection of newspaper columns by Jan Struther, published in 1939, about life in a suburban British household on the eve of World War II. When my grandfather was sick, he plowed through lots of Anthony Trollope. If I were about to be confined to a sickbed, I think I would buy the entire set of A Dance to the Music of Time, then start right at the beginning so I could remember who everyone was, or try.
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