The Well-Tempered Writer

In his introduction to The Writer’s Digest Handbook of Short Story Writing, Volume II, John Updike says this: “In fiction everything that searchers for the important tend to leave out is left in, and what they would have in is left out.” It is a substantial statement, and one difficult to parse without context. Continuing to read, we find Updike is talking about the importance of the little things to the success of fiction. Not the minutiae of detail that turns a rollicking tale into a turgid, tedious slog, but priority placed on the base elements, the humble meanness of character and that character’s perception of the grander things.

Many writers gravitate toward the grander things. It is a natural tendency. Nobody goes to law school with the goal of being forever an intern. Nobody enters a competition intending to come in last. And nobody launches their writing career with the hope of writing about the mundane. The broad, sweeping novel is the dream of many young—and not-so-young—writers, but to make that the focus would be to sacrifice the depth of the novel. Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Citiesis set during the French Revolution, a romanticized time if ever there was one, and yet the book is not about the French Revolution. The book is, ultimately, about love, sacrifice, and the inevitability of fate. It is not the background or setting, but the handling of the aforementioned major themes that has made the book an enduring classic. It is not the grand, but the simple; not the lofty, but the base; and not the ostentatious, but the modest that makes fiction ring.

Even novels such as The Great Gatsby, with its Jazz Age excesses, succeeds and survives because of the simpler things. Fitzgerald used grandeur as a backdrop, while the life of the novel comes from its true themes of emptiness and despair in spite of the lifestyle, the lifestyle itself being suggested as symptomatic.

The treatment and focus on the basic tenets of life are what make books remain relevant for so long and for so many different people. We can read and be affected by Gatsby, if even we do not live the lifestyle. We can feel the plight of Turgenev’s peasants, even though we do not live in such a tyrannical social structure. We can search the Pacific with Captain Ahab, even if the only Moby Dick we will hunt is a metaphorical one. It works, because good literature—art—no matter its setting, performs a key function of fiction: it makes it personal. Updike refers to this as “refract[ing] down into little lives that are precious only because they resemble our own.” He goes on to say,

“The fiction writer is the ombudsman who argues our humble, dubious case in the halls of eternal record…no soul or locale is too humble to be the site of entertaining and instructive fiction. Indeed, all other things being equal, the rich and glamorous are less fertile ground than the poor and plain, and the dusty corners of the world more interesting than its glittering, already sufficiently publicized centers.”

This is not to say all settings must be humble or all characters must be poor and simple. Only that settings, unless they act as a character themselves such as in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea or London’s To Build a Fire, are only backdrops; it is how the character interacts with the setting, not how grand or romantic the setting may be. And that the station and bank account of a human character are mere details; it is how human the character is that creates fiction magic.

Edith Wharton, in her slim but powerful guide The Writing of Fiction, addresses it another way by describing the “mysterious discrepancy” between the writer’s view of reality and the nature of their talent. She says,

“Not infrequently an innate tendency to see things in large masses is combined with the technical inability to render them otherwise than separately, meticulously, on a small scale. Perhaps more failures than one is aware of are due to this particular lack of proportion between the powers of vision and expression.”

It is not a natural thing for humans, even artists, to think in detail. We see a forest of evergreens, but the forest is not really made of pine trees; it is made of individual needles. We see a crowded street during Mardi Gras, but that scene is actually made of individual people with individual hopes, dreams, fears, and secrets. It is much easier to see the finished product than it is to see the path to it. For example, we can all picture in our minds a towering office building, because we have seen so many, but it requires talent and a good deal of education to successfully design one. In a similar way, many of us can envision a completed novel, with basic idea and setting, or even shiny jacket and sales numbers. Yet this is far different from devising a successful novel structure and bringing it to life. That takes talent and a good deal of hard work.

Hemingway spent years working to pare his sentences down to the most basic, stripping them of any extraneous elements. In his memoir A Moveable Feast, he recalls his time in Paris as he struggled to become the writer the world knows. “I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence.’” This is more difficult than it sounds. As writers, we have the almost irresistible urge to add unnecessary text to our work. It is as if we are afraid to leave anything out. We press to make a point, fall prey to florid description, and become lost in our own rhetoric. All this causes us to lose sight of our story’s truth, those simple elements that endure time and critical review because, as Updike said, “they resemble our own.”

While difficult to alter our natural way of viewing the world, a task that essentially requires restructuring the way we think, it is possible. All of the best writers have done so, to one degree or another. It is why they endure and continue to stand out, even though the noise of today’s literary production is utterly deafening. With the rise of self-publishing and the independent writer, more books are being published than ever before. But certain writers continue to find an audience. It is because their work connects with readers. It lives and breathes. Others have learned the technique and more continue to learn it. It is a difficult endeavor, but not an impossible one, and the sad result of avoiding the effort is that writing will otherwise never achieve its full potential. Wharton said it this way,

“Perhaps more failures than one is aware of are due to this particular lack of proportion between the powers of vision and expression. At any rate, it is the cause of some painful struggles and arid dissatisfactions; and the only remedy is resolutely to abandon the larger for the smaller field, to narrow one’s vision to one’s pencil, and do the small thing closely and deeply rather than the big thing loosely and superficially.”