In The Joy of Music, Leonard Bernstein wrote about Beethoven: “Imagine a whole lifetime of this struggle, movement after movement, symphony after symphony, sonata after quartet after concerto. Always probing and rejecting in his dedication to perfection, to the principle of inevitability. This somehow is the key to the mystery of a great artist: that for reasons unknown to him or to anyone else, he will give away his energies and his life just to make sure that one note follows another inevitably. It seems rather an odd way to spend one’s life, but it isn’t so odd when we think that the composer, by doing this, leaves us at the finish with the feeling that something is right in the world, that something checks throughout, something that follows its own laws consistently, something we can trust, that will never let us down.”
It was years ago when I first read this, long before I could claim to be a published author rather than a writer striving to be just that. My first thought after reading it, though, was, yes, shouldn’t writers strive to emulate the kind of inevitability Bernstein saw in Beethoven’s work—a one word following another inevitably in their storytelling? Shouldn’t the reader expect an author to show them something right in the world? Shouldn’t a writer give the reader words they cannot help but remember, one word after another that remains with them for, well, forever? (James Dickey writes in Self-Interviews: “I think poets value remembered things beyond what most people do, and they cannot bear to believe these things will ever be totally expunged.”)
The conclusions I made about a writer’s responsibility to their readers was an embracement of writing where the writer’s voice is unique, strong, even poetic at times. I believe literary rather than genre fiction best reveals the quality of a writer’s voice. Connan the Grammerian, written by Susan Mackay Smith describes the essence of voice: “Voice: the most indefinable, elusive, subtle qualtiy of writing. …Conan can’t define voice but knows it when he reads it.”
I once presented a story at critique about a rumpled, sad, lonely office worker named Dimley (yes, very dark literary fiction) who spent his lunch hour feeding pigeons within a grotto-like recess made from the backs of buildings on three sides. It was raining, and a single streetlamp, “…fooled by the day’s dark, still beamed at the mouth of the grotto.” I ended the story with the pigeons taking flight, the moisture on their wings forming a mist that caught the streetlamp’s glare, thus creating rainbows. “Very near to smiling, Dimley grunted and said, ‘Ah, rainbows.’ He lowered his head, plodded back to the sidewalk, back to the swarm of the salient dread.”
I’ll never forget a comment from my one of my critique partners: “Wouldn’t it make more sense if he just looked toward the street and saw a woman wearing a rainbow-colored skirt?” I was speechless. My voice lost. How could someone not see the inevitable rightness of that rainbow?
Remembered words are the gems of the writer’s voice. The second paragraph of Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News comes to mind: “Hive-spangled, gut roaring with gas and cramp, he survived childhood; at the state university, hand clapped over his chin, he camouflaged torment with smiles and silence. Stumbled through his twenties and into his thirties learning to separate his feelings from his life, counting on nothing. He ate prodigiously, liked a ham knuckle, buttered spuds.”
Then there’s Mark Spragg’s Where Rivers Change Direction: “I was a boy, and I believed deeply in the sightedness of horses. I believed that there was nothing that they did not witness. I believed that to have a horse between my legs, to extend my pulse and blood and energy to theirs, enhanced my vision. Made of me a seer. I believed them to be the dappled, sorrel, roan, bay, black pupils in the eyes of God.”
There are wee gems too, like one sentence from Cormack McCarthy’s Suttree: “Under the fanned light of a streetlamp a white china cup handle curled like a sleeping slug.”
I suppose the key to good writing is, firstly, that the writer knows how to write well—there is a difference. Whether that is done through academics, critique sharing, or self-learning from reading the masters probably doesn’t matter that much. (I will admit I still don’t know for sure where the damned comma goes.) But, writing well becomes profoundly good writing only when the muse insists we give away our energies and even our lives (our memory and imagination) to make sure one word follows another inevitably. Genre writing should not preclude occasional literary excursions that cannot help but enrich the storytelling—that component of a good writer’s talent called voice, the elusive stuff of the craft readers cannot help but remember.