Today’s post is from guest writer Dr. John Yeoman.
“Some of you write better than I do.”
Or so I tell my first-year students at the university where I teach creative writing. And I’m not lying. I’ve spent 42 years as a commercial author. I have a PhD in creative writing. How come 18-year olds, fresh out of school, have the edge on me?
“True, you still have a lot to learn about structure, syntax and language,” I tell them. “No, Jed, you can’t use a comma as an all-purpose punctuation mark.” Sharon giggles. “Or spread one paragraph across three pages, Sharon. “ Jed smirks.
Freshness. It’s the master ruse of art. Geniuses get better at it. The rest of us lose it, somewhere around our 20th year. Maybe even in kindergarten.
The Russian critic Schlovsky called it ostranenie – the gift of seeing life with perpetual freshness. Perception without interpretation. The thing itself. Gertrude Stein hinted at ostranenie: “A rose is a rose is a rose.” Her sparring partner Hemingway perfected it in his later stories. Language is pared to the bone. Incidents are selected and structured but the author is invisible. The story appears to speak for itself.
Great writers like Hemingway find the words to express something they have felt, as if it has never been felt before. Hacks struggle to fake an effect that they have never felt.
Here’s how to recover a freshness of perception – and convey it in your stories.
It’s the Epiphany exercise. I send my students out to the coffee shop for 20 minutes. (This exercise is very popular.) I ask them to stop at the first thing they see. Maybe it’s a chair, a blank wall, or a sandwich. “Take five minutes,” I say. “Just perceive it, with all your senses.” Within the limits of propriety, they should also touch, smell, hear and even taste it. (I warn them: “Watch out for the security guards.”)
They then return to class and write, in three lines or less, exactly what they observed or felt. The results are often luminous.
“I felt the sadness of a poster that nobody had ever read.” “Three red chairs were chatting up a round grey table. It didn’t know which way to turn.” “The coffee shop lady said: ‘You’ll have to pay on the other side. And she frowned at me like a hell fire preacher.’”
James Joyce did this when wandering the streets of Dublin. A snatch of dialogue here, an observation there. They litter Ulysses. Ripped out of context, they appear fresh, even shocking. Brad Meltzer does this in The Book of Lies. Glittering phrases and sly insights leap from every line. The crime thriller transcends its genre. Despite its pulpy plot, it verges on magical realism.
Of course, some of my students never ‘get’ it. They want to be journalists and write reportage. An event is an event is an event. Who needs poetry? Yet the finest poetry goes beyond a game of words. “Annihilating all that’s made/To a green thought in a green shade.” “A green thought.” The phrase couldn’t be simpler. Andrew Marvell understood ostranenie.
No doubt, some people can never learn the trick of freshness. They must discard their comfortable labels, those neat categories into which we bundle experience. That’s dangerous.
For Thackeray – a comfortable, literal-minded man – the streets of London were just streets. For Dickens, they were a Jurassic swamp, evocative of mud and dinosaurs. The trick demands the raw imagination of a child, a willful capacity to take risks. There was much of rawness, experiment and the child about Dickens.
But anyone creative enough to write fiction can acquire the art. Simply look at any mundane object, say a bookshelf. Suppose, although otherwise experienced, we had never seen a bookshelf before? It might be a mouth of giant teeth, a Bauhaus tapestry, a mausoleum of mummified ideas…
The labels become dislodged.
Suddenly, we find ourselves playing with new phrases. “Sniggering paperbacks,” “A room that reeked of paint and fresh books,” “Plaguey thoughts, mummified in old leather”, and so on.
Try that ‘epiphany’ exercise for yourself. Your stories will glow with freshness. If you can do it in a coffee shop, a Dublin street, or a library, you can do it anywhere!
Dr. John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, has 42 years experience as a commercial author, is a former newspaper editor, and one-time chairman of a major PR consultancy. He has published eight works of humor, some of them intended to be humorous.
John judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. His free 14-part course in writing fiction for the commercial market can be found at: http://www.writers-village.org/story-success