Are we in the Tens? Or do the Tens start on January 1st, 2011? I hope this isn’t going to be like the “When does the new millennium start?” argument. In any case, I was thinking today that my blog is so Aughts. In the Tens, seems like email will be passe and twitter is where it’s at. Who is going to want to bother with blogs? By the end of the Tens, maybe Twitter will itself be passe. We’ll just have chips in our heads that instantly alert us to what our friends and favorite celebs are thinking.
But I’ll keep plugging along –blogging along — because it’s good writing practice. I’m spending most of my available writing energy on my book (now working on the second draft) but I try to pop on here occasionally. This is one reason I started my new feature: What are You Reading Now? To get me on here at least once a month.
Another reason: I love books. I think I could never buy another book and still already have all the books I need to keep me busy for the rest of my life. Message being: use the library more and Tattered Cover/Amazon less. And only get books I’m going to read. Easier than it sounds.
I just finished Time & Again by Jack Finney. Great little novel about time travel. I love the author’s time travel device, very clever, though I don’t really buy it. Because if it were true I think people would be time traveling every time they walk through the woods. (Slight exaggeration but his theory in a nutshell is that by simulating past conditions you can travel to that time.) The story is fun and I’m surprised nobody has made it into a movie. But the best part of the book is the main character’s experience of arriving in 1882 New York. The author is brilliant at portraying the perspective of a time traveler, the combination of shock and joy that a person would feel if they arrived in a different time.
Now I’m reading Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather. What makes for great writing? Don’t know but, like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart on obscenity, I know it when I see it. Or feel it. And Willa Cather is one of the masters.
Here, the bishop finds an oasis of human life in the desert outside Santa Fe:
About a mile above the village he came upon the waterhead, a spring overhung by the sharp-leafed variety of cottonwood called water willow. All about it crowded the oven-shaped hills,–nothing to hint of the parched and thirsty sea of sand. Some subterranean stream found an outlet here, was released from darkness. The result was grass and trees and flowers and human life; household order and hearths from which the smoke of burning pinon logs rose like incense to Heaven.
What grabbed me in this paragraph was the pinon. And I could feel the dryness of the surrounding desert. This paragraph made me think of the landscapes near the towns of Canon City and Florence in Colorado. As I read Cather’s words, I smelled the pinon. So it struck me personally. But generally, it is vivid description simply presented. Much of contemporary fiction throws out less than vivid description with complexity and I think that’s one reason it fails to live up to the masters.
Another sentence from a page later, where the bishop is describing his home in Santa Fe:
The thick clay walls had been finished on the inside by the deft palms of Indian women, and had that irregular and intimate quality of things made entirely by human hand.
Here’s another key to masterful writing: great insight into human nature or the human experience. Regardless of what a book is about, it’s ultimately about humanity. A great book gives frequent insight, most books zero insight.