I watched a carpenter once as he walked through another man’s framing job. Through it all you could see that he was curious, looking at someone else’s work. He was conscious that there were ways of doing things that he hadn’t considered, ways of framing up some tricky corner, say, or of reconciling the odd slant of a roof line to the flat planes of an interior room, you could see the wheels turning in his head, yeah, smart, but that wouldn’t work for me, or, yeah, wow, I need to remember this. This is the way writers teach each other. What you need to do, though, is step out of your normal reader’s head, resist the urge to get lost in the story, and pay closer attention to how it’s all put together. How did she make you feel what her character was feeling, just there, without saying anything about it, really? How did he get you to understand so viscerally the promise, the desperation and the brutality of colonial culture without boring you with a lot of dry statistics? This is how you learn.
In my own case:
I’m reading A Sport and a Pastime, by James Salter. I saw a column in the Daily News lauding the writer and the book so I picked it up. Published in 1967, it was shocking in its time for its frank discussion of sex, (up until then you weren’t allowed, the guardians of public morality would shut you down, lest you corrupt the youth and endanger the Republic) which from our current perspective seems a little pedestrian and maybe beside the point. To me the real value of the book is not the story of young people adrift in a foreign place, nor the details of how they did what and to whom. The real value to me is that Salter had ways of getting things done that I hadn’t considered, that there are two plots here, swirled together in a way that seems almost careless but that is anything but, that the important thing about a foreign city is not its architecture or its bridges and rivers, really, but the soul of the place, and how it makes you feel. I don’t need to describe the buildings to give you that. Or that in the relationship between two people you needn’t point at the mistakes they’re making nor say that they don’t necessarily have to be fatal unless you let them set, like concrete, which will crack and break before it bends. Salter’s work here is almost, but not quite, abstract, it reminds me that I am, I think, too often too bloody literal-minded, and that the point of the exercise is not always about getting to the end of the story. Maybe what I need to concentrate on here is that Salter is giving me a breath of something he remembers from somewhere long ago and half a world away, and that his memories are really, after all, only recreations, things that he only wishes existed, once.
It’s that breath that matters, I don’t need to see the buildings, we have cameras for that.