Write What’s Really There

by Erin Brenner on March 24, 2011

Recently I attended Writers’ Day, organized by the New Hampshire Writers’ Project. It was a great day of meeting other writers and studying the craft. Today I’ll delve into the lessons from the keynote, given by Paul Harding. In future posts, I’ll discuss being a column writer and publishing your own book.

If you’re a regular reader, you know that I’m enamored with Paul Harding’s Tinkers. The language and imagery are rich:

And as you split frost-laced wood with numb hands, rejoice that your uncertainty is God’s will and His grace toward you and that that is beautiful, and part of a greater certainty, as your own father always said in his sermons and to you at home. And as the ax bites into the wood, be comforted in the fact that the ache in your heart and the confusion in your soul means that you are still alive, still human, and still open to the beauty of the world, even though you have done nothing to deserve it.

Harding read the opening passage of his book and then talked about his writing process, style, word choice, and influences.

On his writing style and process

If he could, Harding confessed, he’d sit on the couch all day, reading and waiting for inspiration. It’s often how he prepares for the work of writing. “Writing and living are inseparable,” he said, it’s an “organic process.”

What you need is to get out of the way of what you think you see. As a writer you can’t take anything for granted. You can think you already know. But if you can, disarm your habits and write what’s really there … Your job as a writer is just to see it all again. You have to trust your subject to be its own best witness … It becomes transcendant in a way you could never have induced beforehand.

In this way, form becomes “an emergent property” that reveals itself as you write. “Writ[e] for recognition,” he said. Describe things richly, and meaning will emerge.

In the opening scene, George Washington Crosby lies dying in a hospital bed in his living room. He begins to hallucinate that the house around him, the house he built, is crumbling down on top of him. As we read George’s hallucination and the breaks of reality that filter in, we connect the house’s collapse with George’s dying. But Harding doesn’t connect it for us; he describes the scene richly and meaning emerges:

George imagined what he would see, as if the collapse had, in fact, already happened: the living room ceiling, now two stories high, a ragged funnel of splintered floorboards, bent copper pipes, and electrical wires that looked like severed veins bordering the walls and pointing towards him in the center of all of that sudden ruin. Voices murmured out in the kitchen.

On word choice and influences

Harding chose his words with precision. If you look up a word from the text, the meaning you find in the dictionary will be the exact one desired (a copyeditor’s dream!). That exactness enhances the imagery:

Maybe you would not even feel that, as you struggled in clothes that felt like cooling tar, and as you slowed, calmed, even, and opened your eyes and looked for a pulse of silver, an imbrication of scales, and as you closed your eyes again and felt their lids turn to slippery, ichthyic skin, the blood behind them suddenly cold, and as you found yourself not caring, wanting, finally, to rest, finally wanting nothing more than the sudden, new, simple hum threading between your eyes.

Harding noted that some of his influences include the New England Transcendentalists (e.g., Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Amos Bronson Alcott); Victorian fiction; theology; and physics.

Yes, physics. To Harding, character and the mind are quantum physics, while plot is Newtonian physics.

He noted, “Your writing can only be as good as the best writing you’ve read.” Advice for every writer to follow.

On the Pulitzer

Harding didn’t talk about how he won the Pulitzer, as most in attendance knew the story. But it’s too good not to share here. Harding, a New Englander, and his book had come to the attention of a local bookstore’s event planner, Michele Filgate. Filgate will admit to owning some 2,000 books, and she is very much a book enthusiast. If she finds a book she loves, she promotes in her store, online, and to anyone she meets.

That’s what she did at the 2009 Writers’ Day. She told Rebecca Pepper Sinkler all about this wonderful book she read and suggested that Sinkler read it too. Little did she know that Sinkler was chairwoman of 2009’s Pulitzer fiction jury. Sinkler did read the book, submitted it for the Pulitzer, and, well, you can guess the rest. It’s a Cinderella story that doesn’t happen often. But it could happen to you, too. Your first job is to write. Then help get the word about your book. You never know who’s listening.

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