Issue 12 | The Multi-Directional Way of Good Writing
A conference talk, Zora Neale Hurston, Flannery O'Connor, and, oh yeah, subscribe to my podcast.
Hello, y’all. Well, it looks like we’ve been doing this for a year now. Wild. Thanks to those of you who have been with me since the beginning and those who are just joining.
Here are five things I’ve been doing lately:
Speaking about writing;
Releasing a podcast trailer;
Celebrating a great year for print;
Picturing, via Zora Neale Hurston, old Florida; and
Reading Leslie Jamison and Flannery O’Connor.
1. The multi-directional way of good writing.
Last month, I got the privilege of being at the HopeWords Writers’ Conference. It was fun, and if you get a chance, you should go. In my talk, I tried to make a case for good writing as multi-directional. Here’s an abridged version:
Let me tell you something about our family’s routine: Almost every night of the week, I cook dinner. It’s not a hard-and-fast rule but decidedly a regular thing. It allows me to contribute to the daily life of our home, and it’s something our older daughter enjoys doing along with me. But the main reason I cook a lot, I have to admit, is because I love it.
By way of hobbies, cooking is what I got. If you know me even a little, you know I enjoy not only living off of food, but I enjoy making it and consuming it, and I deliberate about each step along the way. Kitchen tools. Selecting ingredients. Prep. Techniques. Plating. Now, am I good at it? Eh. I’m an average home cook. But because it’s fun and it’s for my family, I spend a sizable amount of time trying to get better.
And if you’re worrying about the craft of writing enough to attend a conference about it [or, ehem, read this newsletter], I think I can assume you’re the kind of person who wants to get better too.
When it comes to writing tips, two with which you’re likely familiar are this:
“Write what you know,” and
“Know your audience.”
As far as these two go, absolutely. Writing what you know and identifying your audience make up essentials for any kind of coherent communication. But you’re not here for coherence, are you? We’re after not just coherent writing, but good writing. To get there, we need to add another directional component. Not just “From whom is this writing” and “To whom is this writing.” For your writing to move beyond these questions, we need to get to a question more closely related to why. You’ve heard people say something like, “Know your why.” That’s another good thing to do, but it’s not enough. Why isn’t enough. After all, plenty of writings can answer from, to, and why precisely.
Why solicits a reason. It talks to the intellect. What we’re after in good writing is another direction: toward. Because toward evokes a place. At its best, toward speaks to the affections. And when all three of these — from, to, and toward — our writing can begin to take on the characteristics of good.
This is what Flannery O’Connor gets at in a piece called “The Regional Writer,” in which she discusses what it means to be a so-called regional writer compared to more broad-audience writers. She gives a defense of regional writing and tries to show how it can achieve a kind of geographical transcendence. She says:
“The writer operates at a peculiar cross-roads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to ﬁnd that location.”
What she’s talking about with her directional language, particularly when she says eternity, is what I mean by from, to, and toward. And it’s also what Vivian Gornick talks about in her classic The Situation and the Story. Here’s the concept:
“Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.”
In her model, the situation has a lot to do with from and to — and not a small amount of what — and the story has to do with toward. You can see an easy example of this in the film Finding Nemo.
The situation in Nemo is what? A clownfish gets caught by a fisherman. The father clownfish swims after the fisherman. Other sea creatures become involved. The story, however, has little to do with sea creatures, clownfish, or otherwise. The story is about a father’s intense and inexhaustible love for his son, and how that love not only overcomes physical, geographic, and emotional obstacles, but how the act of loving can heal father and son and, in an effervescent way, those who only observe it. The story, not the situation, taps a universal, aspirational theme and it soaks the situation in truth.
This is the kind of transcendence you find in good writing, and it’s what we’re after when we write. It’s what I’m after when I cook for my family. Sure, to talk about transcendence in meals is a little ridiculous, I’ll grant. But here’s what I mean: When I cook for my family, which includes a three-year-old and a two-year-old, I’m effectively working the same multi-directional process that I’m suggesting is what makes for good writing.
Think about it. I can only cook at all if I attempt a dish that fits my skill level, budget, time, and season. From. If you know me, you know I’m all about experimenting with fine dining elements, with delicate foods, and with plating. But weeknight dinner for a family with toddlers rules that out. I’ve got to balance what my girls enjoy with what they need and what they can handle a meal — neither girl, yet, can navigate a steamed prawn, you see. And my wife wouldn’t want to. To. And part of the reason we invest in mealtime has less to do with food and more with culture. On a given Tuesday night around our little table, what we’re doing is practicing community and fellowship, we’re resting from a day’s hard work. We’re tasting pasta and curry and tacos, sure, and we’re also tasting a micro-portion of a marriage supper to come. Toward.
2. Here’s the trailer for ‘Writers and Writers.‘
After a lot of planning, work, and a global health crisis, we’ve released the trailer for my podcast.
In just a few weeks, God willing, I’m going to release all of season one. If you’re into the trailer, you can subscribe to my show at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. And you can follow along with the Writers and Writings newsletter.
3. Good news: ‘Print book sales had their best year in a decade.’
Y’all see this yet? The New York Times released this slideshow of data about how the pandemic is reshaping America’s reading habits. Stuff like “print book sales had their best year in a decade” and overall “unit sales rose 8.2 percent.” Really, that’s the striking part: For the most part, the reading world is actually trending positively.
4. Have you heard about what Zora Neale Hurston learned in northeast Florida?
The most recent issue of Humanities, you may have seen, features a long, focused piece about the anthropological work of Zora Neale Hurston and how a drive through the swamplands and of eastern Florida shaped her storytelling. Of course, 10 years later she goes on to publish one of the great American novels, Their Eyes Were Watching God. This passage describes part of her journey — the part that started in my own homeland:
By March 1927 she was tooling through the back roads, headed farther south into the wrinkled landscape, her Nash coupe—“Sassy Susie,” as she had named it—kicking up a gray cloud behind her. She hit Palatka, on the muddy St. Johns River upstream from Jacksonville; Sanford, where many of the Ocoee refugees had fled; Mulberry, on the edge of the central lake district; Loughman, with its labor camp workers sweating in the dense underbrush; as well as Eatonville—John Hurston’s daughter now back home and made good.
The landscape seemed designed, in one way or another, to sting, stick, bite, or scratch. Sunlight filtered through spiky palms. Great stands of cypress stood up on their octopus legs out of the swampy muck. Poinciana trees bloomed into burning bushes, while swarms of gnats and mosquitoes hung stationary in the breezeless air. Public bathrooms were restricted to whites, as were most motels and restaurants, which was why Hurston, like any African-American traveler of the period, headed straight to the Black side of town at the end of each day’s travels, the only place likely to offer her a bed and a meal. Just in case things went wrong, she had a chrome-plated pistol at hand.
Hurston was gradually giving a scientific gloss to a gut feeling, something that had always bothered her about the way the older generation of Black intellectuals regarded people like her. What if all the stories and the stomping, the porch banter and the ax-swinging work songs, were placed alongside Samoan tattooing or Kwakiutl wood carving as activities that constituted their own system of rules, rituals, and routines? A fully formed yet unappreciated recipe for living as a human being seemed to be lurking in the dense pinelands and lakeshores of northern and central Florida—something as yet uncataloged, as Boas or Benedict might have put it in their lectures. To Hurston, the ways of life that white people made into frolicking blackface, and that Black “race leaders,” as she called them, would rather not discuss, were coming to look more and more like the very thing she had heard Boas’s other students talk about: a culture, with an aesthetic sensibility and moral order all its own.
You can, and should, read the whole thing.
Photo credit. (Also, Hurston’s papers are held by the University of Florida. Go Gators.)
5. Here’s (some of) what I’ve been reading.
The Empathy Exams. A few months ago, a friend recommended the essays of Leslie Jamison, and I decided to start with this collection. I’m only a few works in, but it’s easy to tell why Jamison and “The Empathy Exams” get the praise they do. Just her use of form, including format and organization, make them so far worth reading.
The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor. For my birthday, Hannah signed me up for a course in O’Connor’s short stories. In truth, it’s more like an online reading group. We’re reading and discussing “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” “The Lame Shall Enter First,” “Revelation,” “The Artificial N*****,” and “Parker’s Back.” I’ve read a good amount of O’Connor, including most of these stories, before, and she’s so easy to underestimate.
Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots. I read this one, you could say, for work. And here’s part of the work I did on it:
Our relationship with work is the story Suzman sets out to tell. For a universal, un-Keynesed definition of work, one “hunter-gatherers, pinstriped derivatives traders, calloused substance farmers, and anyone else would agree on,” Suzman offers this: “It involves purposefully expending energy or effort on a task to achieve a goal or end.”
The nature of energy and of hunter-gatherer cultures are central for Suzman. He unfolds the contrasts between “developed” economies and ancient ones, remarkably including some hunter-gatherer societies that continued into the last century.
Suzman pictures the divorce of physical work from physical needs as tectonic. In the absence of the tactile fruits of labor, we moderns pivoted the goal of work from living to making a living, to provision against scarcity.
Bonus: Remember the part about my children loving food?
Here’s one of them: