On Writing, Great

How to Write Great
for Visual Thesaurus 7.12.12.

Oh, what the hell. Let’s go for it. Let us speak about great writing — not brilliant writing or clever writing or, most tempting of all, exquisite writing. Let us speak of Quixote writing, Lear and Deronda writing. Honor, heroism, decency, justice and “Ah, love, let us be true to one another” writing. Gaah! The very words are marzipan to the tongue.

Why, for example, do the great writers use anticipation instead of surprise? Because surprise is merely an instrument of the unusual, whereas anticipation of a consequence enlarges our understanding of what is happening. Look at a point of land over which the sun is certain to rise, Coleridge said. If the moon rises there, so what? The senses are startled, that’s all. But if we know the point where the sun will rise as it has always risen and as it will rise tomorrow and the next day too, well, well!

At the beginning of “Hamlet” there can be no doubt that by the play’s end, the prince will buy the ghosts tale. Between start and finish, then, we may concentrate on what he says and who he is, matters are made more intense by our knowing he is doomed. In every piece of work, at one juncture or another, a writer has the choice of doing something weird or something true. The lesser writer will haul up the moon and go into science fiction or some other genre but the greater writer will transcend all and write true..

There have been times in literary history when writers steered clear of the great moral issues, but not completely, and never for long. The 18th century (Johnson, Gray, Cowper) had no problem telling people how to think and behave. The Romantics made the egotistical sublime, though Wordsworth’s self was large enough for everyone. The Victorians opened things up again, as did T. S. Eliot a little later, with big pronouncements about the state of the world. Literature took to the confessional in the 1960s, when personal demons took over for universal evils.

A curious line in Auden’s elegy to Yeats applies to writing great: “Teach the free man how to praise.” Auden seems to be saying that freedom, used most typically for carping and revolt, might also acknowledge that the world is worth thinking well of.

The writers we admire most are propelled by a mixture of innocence and bravado — the nerve to write big coupled with a childlike need to cultivate virtues they have always believed in. They may surprise themselves by the insistence of their own higher motives and values. They may also believe that as readers, we will surprise ourselves for the same reasons.

Roger Rosenblatt is the author, most recently, of “Kayak Morning: Reflections on Love, Grief, and Small Boats.”

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