The Mystery of Great Writing

I had a heated discussion with Sassy Man last night about this sentiment of Hemingway’s. Hyper-logical creature that he is, Sassy Man thinks great writing is like a computer – you can break it all down into its parts to see how it really works.

I emphatically disagree. With any of the creative arts – whether it be painting, dancing, or writing – I think those works that soar above while at the same time reaching something deep within are un-dissectable. It’s a case of the whole being so much more than the sum of its parts, what they call “dancing between the steps” on SYTYCD. You can take a passage from a book, or even the whole work itself, and analyze everything about it down to word choice and sentence construction, and still not come up with why it moves you so. I’m torn on whether or not you should even try, although the best stuff does seem to be impervious to our chipping away at it. And isn’t that what Hemingway was saying to begin with?

Given the ridiculous number of writing books I have (future blog topic!), it might seem I’m being hypocritical here. I’m not. In always striving to improve technique, you are merely adding tools to your kit, so that when you do have that magic moment – that in-the-zone, this-is-it, I’ve-reached-new-heights breakthrough – you’re not waylaid by a missing screwdriver, as it were. But that magic moment is about so much more than the nuts and bolts and screwdrivers. After all, you can give the same exact toolbox and wood and pattern to ten different carpenters, but only one might make a chair worthy of Chippendale.
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4 thoughts on “The Mystery of Great Writing

  1. I have to agree . . . on both parts. I think great works can be dissected. But that doesn't mean a concrete formula or scientific grounds for success can be formulated. However, I do think it's beneficial to break down works of literature and ask yourself “what works and what doesn't?”

    I find it's an exercise in exploring how we view literature vs. how we flesh it out. The way we see literature is a reflection of how we write it. What do we like? What do we stray from? The more we reflect on the works of others, the more we understand of whey we write what we do. At least that's the way it is for me. Perhaps not for others.

    Christy (by way of Verla Kay)

  2. My own writing is anything but great though I would hope I am within reach of a solid “good.” I feel that I am becoming a better craftsman with each writing project. But the mystery eludes me.

    When I read Nabokov, or T.C. Boyle or Chandler or McEwan, to name just a few of the writers who inspire me, whose writing I believe is great, I recognize their skill as craftsmen, their attention to detail, word choice, command of structure, etc. But there is something more that elevates say Lolita, making it a whole lot more than a wittily told pedophile road trip.

    This all begs the question of genius, doesn't it? The old Salieri and Mozart dichotomy. Geniuses have that certain, well, genius that the rest of us, no matter how hard we work at it, will never achieve. But why even try?

    Thanks for this post, Jen — thought provoking as always!

  3. Thank you both for the thoughtful responses. Christy, I agree with you that it's beneficial to analyze works of literature to see what works and what doesn't work. I do it all the time. But then I read something like Lolita, and like Robb says, there's a certain something I can't define that elevates it.

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