Article Archive


The Strenuous Marriage
and the Necessary Toil:
The Art and Craft of Writing


The Wolf Ticket

By guest columnist, Caro Clarke, author of The Wolf Ticket.

Careful observation, careful imagination, and strict toiling with the language

"Being a writer is a strenuous marriage between careful observation and just carefully imagining truths you haven't had the opportunity to see. The rest is the necessary strict toiling with language." ~John Irving

In this and the two sections below, I will be discussing those components of the art of writing that John Irving calls careful observation, careful imagination, and the toiling with language, that is to say, what a writer brings to her work and how she does that work.

Careful Observation

Fiction writing is not merely observation. It is not reportage. But lasting fiction, even the meta-fiction that goes beyond realism, is powered by the author's accurate and original study of the world. This study, this perception, sees into the infinitely small as well as the infinitely great. This perception is the skill of observation. It is what the real writer must have and, having it, what he must cultivate.

Learning to observe means slowing down Time. Just as details reveal themselves in a slow-motion film, so too do the details of human behaviour and natural action when acutely observed and accurately remembered. You walk down a street, you see two people arguing through a restaurant window. You become a camera, recording each gesture: his hand clenched on his wineglass, her head tipped forward to make her hair fall into a shield, his direct stare over her head. You might not consciously be aware that you're taking in all these details--indeed, you can't be consciously aware of everything you see every minute of the day--but you find, later, that you can replay the scene in your head, can zoom in on her, zoom in on him, can replay the feelings you felt as you watched them in exact detail.

Try with anything that happened to you today. Choose an ordinary moment, perhaps waiting for the lights to change, perhaps watching someone buy a burger. How did the light fall across the hood of your car? Or that person buying the burger: what do you know about him? Young, cool, poor? Old, tired, disillusioned? What about the person serving him? Stressed? Impatient? What is the difference between a cocky jut of the chin and a frightened one?

Observation is expanding yourself into the world. You must live in the moment to see the light across your car and the way the wind moves the wires overhead, the way being in a car makes you feel like a cyborg. You make yourself remember these things about yourself, the sense of the plastic under your legs, the smell of the hot dashboard. If you can't play back all of your senses easily, take time deliberately to turn them on. Sight, say. What sort of light illuminates a burger place and where does it lead your eye? Look at objects as if you'd never see them before. How do they make you feel? How do you think they might feel, if they had feelings? Are birds cheerful or malevolent? Thoughts like these feed your stories.

Observation is expanding yourself into other people. You must know yourself, be honest about your every emotion and impulse, for it is the sympathetic understanding between you and others, what might almost be called the empathy, that lets you comprehend another human mind. Learn to recognise in others the outward symptoms of those inner feelings we all share. Maybe that person buying a burger reveals his stress the way you do: getting forceful, punching his finger in the air. Maybe he goes stiff and silent. You have to know the feeling, then learn the infinite ways people demonstrate that feeling. How does an elderly Chinese-American man react to stress? How does a Russian teenage girl?

Observation is looking. It is not judging, guessing, or assuming. A man goes stiff and silent. Careful observe him. Is he angry? Or embarrassed? Watch what he does and you will learn. Ah, he is apologising: he was embarrassed. So that's how that sort of man exhibits his embarrassment. When you next write about someone like him, your memory will deliver to you what you need. You might not know what the real man was thinking, but you can surmise:

"He stood staring at the young woman behind the counter. What has she said? These foreign accents, he couldn't understand them, not with his hearing getting worse all the time, and she was something, Albanian, Russian, one of them. He didn't want to upset her, she could have been his grandmother come over from Canton, it was important to remember that, everyone was once new--so he could help her by apologising, maybe?"
Watch actions, see the consequences. Was it a lover's tiff you saw through that restaurant window or the split second after she had blurted out that she loved him? Was it sunlight across the hood of your car or the reflection from a window? Once you have a data-bank of memories, you can use them. You can play with a memory: "What if I was a bodyguard and the light on the hood of my car suddenly moved? A gunman opening a window to take aim at my client, maybe? What would I do then?" Or you can take the tense couple in the restaurant and invent the next few sentences they might say to each other:
"I saw you with him last night."
"So what? Jack's a friend of mine."
"You were kissing him, Steve."
Careful observation gives you the building blocks you need to write convincing scenes in vivid prose. If you can conjure up the lighting of a burger joint, the light on a car, the facial expressions of a quarrelling couple, you can encourage that trust in a reader you need. The reader will trust you because you show them a recognisable world, will enjoy your startlingly "right" images: "The counter gleamed like a polished altar and behind it, like choir boys in their red and white uniforms stood, the humble servants of the roaring grills, the priests of the vast mysteries of the dispensers." The reader will be held by you because you give them insights that illuminate their lives, and so will keep reading you. And that's what you want.

If you can't see what's around you every day, how are you going to create a real imagined world? If you can't get inside the head of someone you're looking at, how are you going to get inside the head of someone you've made up? How are you going to write a real story unless you know the real world?

Careful Imagination

Writers make things up. They are inventors of people who never lived, actions that never occurred. They want to slip the leash on their imagination and set it bounding across unknown territories. Some writers do, and write what we call fantasy or magic realism, making reality a metaphor for the eternal. We, the writers of basic, ordinary stories, admire these masters for their strange fecundity, but we recognise their quest is something we don't crave. What we want is to create convincing truths, to imagine realities that could be.

In my previous article I spoke of the need to render details of personal behaviour and the physical world accurately. Well observed details are the building material for stories. You write of a man falling to pieces after the woman he loves leaves him. How does he act? If you've had a family member or friend who's suffered this fate, you can recreate this reality, create an accurate portrait of the cracking of a person's world into shards. You can tell this story convincingly and movingly, sweeping your willing readers with you. That is careful observation.

Now let's suppose you've never seen someone fall apart like that. Now you're writing a story that needs it. How can you imagine what it's like?

You start by plumbing the depths of your own psyche for a similar event, but maybe you're lucky enough never to have felt such grief or despair. You read how other writers have portrayed it, but that's only a guide. All you can turn to is your imagination.

Or you have a character, a cowgirl in the Old West, say, fallen from her horse, her leg broken, who must get back to the ranch to warn her father that renegades are on their way to run off the herd. You live in a city: you've never been on a horse, you've never been called upon to display stark physical courage. How are you going to create that harrowing trek, how are you going to glue your readers to their seats, keeping them with your protagonist across every agonised inch of prairie? You can't call upon a shared experience, but you can call upon imagination.

Imagination is the ability to conjure truths from thin air. Truths, because they are within the bounds of reality we all accept every day. Truths, because they are logically consistent with the circumstances you have established within your story. A man breaking apart after a rejection can do many things: he can harden, he can drink, can shrink inside his life, can swear revenge, can become obsessed with his pain. A man falling apart shows something. What does your character show? How do you show him showing it?

You do it by sliding yourself into his skin. You get to know what he knows, see what he sees, then you stretch yourself, using every particle of your understanding of human nature, into anticipating what he will do next. Let's say you've invented a passionate man, touchy, proud, a man who's never before lost anything important. The woman he loves has left him, has thought him unworthy. What does this man do? Think. Feel. What is the obvious next step? He doesn't resign himself, no, that's not his style. He's the type that vows revenge, vows to hurt the way he's been hurt. You've carefully imagined his response: now all you have to do is show that response in action, and suddenly you're telling your story.

And that cowgirl, down in the grass with her horse run off. Yes, you must do the same thing: get into her skin. And more than that, you have to get into the landscape. You think of the sky darkening to the west. Just the sort of weather a renegade could hide his actions in. She hasn't much time. Think. Feel. There's a creek nearby: all ranches are built near water. She drags herself there, where there'll be cottonwood trees. What keeps her going, as she binds her leg to a stick to keep it stiff, as she uses her pistol to shoot off a high branch to be used as a crutch? Think, feel. She's fuelled by pride, fear, by a sense of honour that demands courage, that won't let her give up. In other circumstances it might have been too stiff a sense of honour, perhaps could even have been called arrogance, but here it feeds her strength. She's on the move, and you are with her, feeling pain, narrowing your world to the next ridge, the next step. You keep it feeling so real that you'll look up from your desk, exhausted, when you finish writing it.

Imagined truths have to convince you, the writer, first. If you cry, if you glow with satisfaction, if you shudder with pain, so will your readers.

Careful imagination keeps each action real, keeps it authentic, keeps it in check by comparing it to what you know is true. You've never hobbled across the prairie on a crutch, a thunderstorm blackening the sky above you, but you know that you wouldn't start to sing and dance, you wouldn't start to fly, you wouldn't pretend to be a rabbit. Your actions would be sane, logical, in keeping with the sort of person you are and the motivation goading you. So your cowgirl keeps moving, maybe crying a little when she stumbles, but refusing to give in even when (and here you have to imagine a storm that's as real to your readers as anything they've been in) the wind sharpens and cools, when the air fills with that ozone stink that warns of lightning coming.

Imagination: the careful construction what you haven't had the chance to see, know, or do, based on what you have. The imagination to think: what if I was an angry man, hurt, obsessed with revenge, what would I do? Strike at my once-beloved, yes, aim to ruin all she holds dear. If I had doubts, I'd stifle them, ride myself harder, hold my weakness in contempt. Does this mental action ring true to you, the writer? Does it seem realistic that this man would do this? Careful imagining means knowing a person has many choices, but that he will choose one that is entirely in keeping with the person he is. It might be exciting to have your character murder the woman who rejected him, but that's not what he'd do. His pride is a twisted honour, just as revenge is a twisted love. He wants to see her suffer -- but mostly he wants to see her.

Imagination is combining your wealth of observation, your lifetime of watching people and things, with your innate sense of how people work, what seems logical, combining them towards the direction of narrative. After all, you aren't trying to imagine people and weather for mental exercise, you're trying to tell a story. You want to tell a story that convinces the reader that this could happen, could even have happened to them, had they been there. You want to conjure up a world that they don't want to leave. Every step towards the climax of your story has to have them agreeing, accepting, wanting more, so each step has to be imagined with immaculate care, no out-of-character mis-steps, no bloopers, nothing that makes your readers pause, make them frown in disbelief or puzzlement. You must imagine truths in your invented world that could just as easily be truths in the real world.

All this is real: a young woman, struggling to get home; a prairie storm, frightening in its power; a man bent on revenge, using the storm as cover for his strike against all his beloved cherishes. lightning stabbing down as the man and his gang gallop towards the ranch, and in its light he sees her, his beloved, hobbling on a crutch to try to save her ranch from him, and she sees him, the man her pride sent away.

Use your imagination. What happens next?

Strict Toiling with Language

You've just seen a spectacular thunderstorm and have carefully observed it, you suddenly have a mental image of your hero caught in such a storm at the crisis point of your story, and mentally build thescene in your mind's eye. Yes, the storm would be a dramatic metaphor for his inner turmoil. You write:

The old man was soaked to the skin. The thunder was deafening. His eyes were dazzled by the lightning. He thought he might be killed any minute. Yet defiantly he shouted that this storm was nothing compared to the inhumanity of man.
Gosh, that certainly summons up the sublime terror of the storm and that man's inner despair, doesn't it? All that careful observation and imagination let down by third-rate language.

Language is the only thing you have. It is your single instrument, your tool kit. If a carpenter turned up to do building work with a wonky hammer, a rusty chisel and a single screwdriver, you'd rightly dismiss him as a joke, yet novice writers set to work with a poor vocabulary, a shaky grasp on grammar and spelling, a slender acquaintance with punctuation, and are confident that they are adequately equipped to write a novel.

I don't think so.

Good writing is more than such knowing a semi-colon from a period, a subjunctive from a future tense. It is knowing all these so well that they are like a dancer's muscles: so exercised, so trained, that the dancer need only concentrate on what he has to express, not what he has to do to express them.

The strict toiling with language begins with learning your tools. I have yet to meet the real writer who did not love words for themselves alone and who had decided views as to the best use to be made of the ellipsis, the colon, the past imperfect, or indirect speech. Real writers keep teaching themselves the rules of good writing and keep practising what they have learned. This is part of the strict toil. You can never become complacent; you must always be learning.

But good writing is more than good grammar and a wide vocabulary. It means cultivating an ear for the right sounds and training your eye for the look of the words on the page. You need to develop the sense of the rhythm of the paragraphs and chapters, an understanding of the pace and swing of the narrative. When the flow turns a little sour or strikes a dead note, you have trained yourself to spot it, to know what went wrong, and deal with it.

Language takes hard work at both the macro and micro level. You have to learn to 'feel' your story as a whole and to be able to sustain a voice throughout. You also have to be able to zoom into a single sentence, a single comma, and make a considered decision. Cut or not to cut? Reverse verb and noun? Alter the subordinate clause? You'll find yourself debating over one adverb: "she said sarcastically? sardonically? caustically?" as much as you do over the over-all structure of the narrative. A real writer doesn't pretend to be a genius. He collects his tool kit: an etymological dictionary, a thesaurus, grammars, slang dictionaries, literary references such as Brewers, books of quotations, books of aphorisms, a spelling dictionary -and he uses them.

He also reads the best writing he can find from his past and present colleagues to know both what he is aiming for and how those others have achieved what he is seeking to achieve. He is never to proud to sit at the feet of the masters.

Strict toil, because you have to work at it. You have to rewrite and rewrite until you can't face going through that manuscript one more time-and then you go through it one more time. You might revise a sentence ten times, the opening five pages twenty times, testing it against the carefully imagined scene in your mind's eye, comparing what you've written to that mental image until you have made as perfect a match with it as you can. Strict, because you don't let yourself off the hook until you get it right. Only you can keep yourself to a standard, only you can set that standard. Strict toiling, yes, and the real writer would not trade one agonised hour of it for all the easy rest in the world.

What could that man in that storm say? Here's what one strict toiler wrote:
"Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow you cataracts and hurricanes, spout till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks! You sulphurous and thought-executing fires, vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts, singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder, strike flat the thick rotundity o' the world! Crack nature's moulds, all germens spill at once that make ingrateful man!"
Yes, it's Shakespeare. I guess you'd call him a real writer.
Caro Clarke, author of The Wolf Ticket and various other short stories, from her excellent website advice of Novel Advice located here:

Back to Article Archive.