Reading a book earlier this month, I failed to get past the third chapter. To me, the writing…well, sucked.
The book, a national bestseller, nominated to a national “must read” list, was published by one of “the big three” publishers. A work of creative nonfiction, a memoir, I wanted to like the book, I wanted to learn from it. I was fascinated by the book’s subject. I wanted to follow the narrator’s journey, proclaimed and promised on the cover. I wanted to experience the narrator’s challenges surmounted, the accomplishments reached, but every time I tried to read the sentences, my mind lifted from the page. I couldn’t connect.
Recognising I was going to give up on the book (always a sad moment of relinquishment, disappointment, even a sense of failure on my part, I know, dramatic, but true), instead of tossing it aside, I thought, why can’t I connect? What is it about the writing—specifically—that prevents me, the reader, from following the narrator on their journey?
Reading with these questions in mind I discovered a few issues:
- The scenes were rendered swiftly – yes, with sensory details (check), but significant events were introduced but never elaborated, never opened or expanded. As a reader, I craved knowing more. How could I relate without being given the opportunity to experience those events?
- The story felt one-dimensional. The scenes, the events, the descriptions, the temporal and geographic aspects of the writing, were all there. The grammar was sound. The language was logical. Missing were the narrator’s thoughts and reflections. I couldn’t feel or know the narrator on the page because they weren’t there. It was as if the narrator stood off to the side and, like a zombie, or a robot, recounted the events without feelings or emotion.
- The worst and best ah ha moment: I make these mistakes in my own writing.
Reading bad (okay bad isn’t the right word – shallow? simple?) writing I recognized:
- I summarise instead of expand action. This deprives a reader from moving through the experience with the writer. I realise too, that this type of writing is exactly the opposite of what I’m required to do in my day job. I’ve been trained to remove myself from reports, research papers, briefing notes, etc. to focus the scientific evidence and let “it” speak from a perspective of unquestioned authority. Note the disembodied sense of that approach to writing (objective, not subjective).
- When I write “myself” onto the page, I’m like a paper cut-out of myself – my thoughts, reflections, ideas, interpretations are often omitted – there is a lot of action and description and even dialogue of others, but I am missing myself – why can’t I drag myself into my creative writing? Aside: – interestingly, I presented my thoughts and scathing reflections when I used to write an earlier blog complaining about marriage. So….I can do it, but, why don’t I?
- Answer: I’m trapped in the “seriousness” [mis] conception of art making. I’m working to develop confidence to express myself freely in “real” creative writing.
Serendipitously, I read a craft essay written by Karen Babine in Craft Literary Magazine this week that elegantly explains why some nonfiction writing fails to connect and how a writer might work to engage their reader better. I find books or essays or podcasts land in my lap exactly when I need them, or, as with Karen Babine’s essay, I can absorb them for the wisdom they convey. I recommend reading her whole essay (it is excellent!!), with fantastic links for further reading. Karen Babine also edits Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, another excellent learning resource.
Here is a sketch I made for myself, words copied from Karen Babine’s essay, to help me “see” and guide my own writing.