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The Power of One Word

The Power of One Word


Teacher learns patience while students learn to write fiction.



Here are two sentences:

  1. Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy flowers herself.
  2. Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

The  first sentence contains four facts, namely that Mrs. D. wasn’t poor, was or had been married, was talking to someone, and that she, not the other person, was the decider. And all this in a familiar but somewhat imperious tone. By the addition of one word “the”—the meaning of the second sentence is changed. It now strongly implies that the flowers are destined to enhance a special occasion. The entire novel, “Mrs. Dalloway,” takes place on one day and culminates in this special occasion.  (Similarly President Trump may have sealed his fate by the addition of one critical word at the end of a sentence: “We’d like you to do us a favor though”)  Woolf was adept at her craft; she also had the artistry to use it courageously. You think hers is a simple sentence? Rip it apart and you’ll find that it’s not only the result of a lot of hard work and thinking but the result of many years of practice. A useful exercise for those who want to write:  compose a nine-word sentence containing five discrete bits of information—what writing teachers call exposition. For those interested in masterful exposition, read Graham Greene’s short stories.

There is no distinct vocabulary for writing fiction; my favorite stories sound like someone talking, simply reporting what happened. There are a lot writers who prefer more elaborate and colored language to tell their stories. For better or worse, I’m not one o f them.

Everyone can sing “Happy Birthday,” but only a trained soprano can pull off the Queen of the Night’s aria. Everyone can compose a thank-you note but it takes an accomplished writer to turn out a story like, for instance, Flannery O’Conner’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” You need to work at it. I ask students to examine each word they’re considering and to correct the smallest misstep.  The other day a new student wrote “when I went into his room, I saw Gil sitting on his bed smoking cigarettes.” If you don’t get what’s wrong with this sentence you need a lot more practice.

Think of the craft of writing this way: you have 26 letters along with several punctuation marks to do the work for you. It’s how you manipulate and arrange these 26 symbols that’s going to tell the difference between watery and solid prose.  Between surprise and a big yawn.

One of the hardest things for a writing teacher to get across to eager students is that strong prose comes only after hours and hours of practice.  To make things worse, beginning writers tend to think that if they don’t get it right the first time they’ll never get it right so what’s the use?

Teaching involves the laborious work of reprogramming the student into accepting the fact that revision is not  “nit-picking”—as one of my more impatient students put it—but pruning, polishing, manipulating, adding, subtracting, substituting, throwing away and starting all over. Back to the drawing board.

Students, especially those who are no longer young, tend to resist the labor writing well entails. Not because they’re stupid or stubborn, but because it’s so hard to understand why powerful writing is so difficult to produce.

Fiction is not about big ideas; it’s about what people do to each other and how this is experienced and dealt with by imaginary characters.  In addition, in most fiction the writer is wrestling with sex, money, power — one, two or all three of them.   Try to think of any major work of fiction in which one of these elements is missing.

Writing fiction — of any length — means understanding and accepting your own biases, fears, and all kind of desire, as well as learning to peel away the top layers of human behavior. You have to stand on your head, turn yourself inside out and be able to kill your neighbor’s dog. How to do this? The same way Anthony Hopkins becomes a cannibal and Meryl Streep wears Prada.  Lawrence Olivier maintained that the way he became a fictional character was to put on the appropriate clothes. At the other extreme is the so-called Stanislavsky method where acting students are taught to bond so completely with the characters they’re playing that it’s hard for them to disengage when the curtain comes down.  I suspect the truth is somewhere in the middle.  I sold a novel with an ambiguous author name; the publisher thought I was a man. Appropriation is what writing fiction is all about. Flaubert said “Madame Bovary c’est moi.”—“I am Madame Bovary.” Can you write from the point of view of a child’s stuffed animal? A.A. Milnes managed it successfully.

So there are basically two distinct elements to writing fiction. One is craft, the other, creative imagination that once in a while develops into genuine artistry. Imagination is something we’re all born with. It can be developed in the same way you can strengthen muscles by exercising. Children have it in abundance; they think in imagery. One child was heard to say that her infant brother’s face was leaking. Then they go to school where teachers make them stay inside the lines. Some well-meaning parents tell their children to “Stop making things up.”  “Don’t tell stories.”  Little liars?

The most basic stories embrace the deepest truths. This why the strongest fiction — from plays to operas to movies to television to the internet — moves steadily forward ( what writing teachers call narrative) — towards an end that satisfies the reader or viewer in some deeply essential way, even if that means confronting a death.

Learning to write well is as hard as learning to figure skate or play the French horn. Once you have mastered the skill you should be able to do pretty much what you want with it. Making the leap from craft to art is another matter.  This is where the teacher pushes the student from the nest.

One more thought: Elmore Leonard’s “Ten Rules for Writing” is chock full of good advice. My favorite: “If it sounds like writing, revise it.”