Stories that Enlighten: Illusions, by Richard Bach

by Stephen Parrish

Illusions was Richard Bach’s encore to Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and in my opinion, his magnum opus as well. The novel is best summarized by a quote from its introduction: “…what if somebody came along who was really good at this, who could teach me how my world works and how to control it? What if I could meet a super-advanced … what if a Siddhartha or a Jesus came into our time, with power over the illusions of the world because he knew the reality behind them? And what if I could meet him in person, if he were flying a biplane and landed in the same meadow with me? What would he say, what would he be like?”

The following selection is from the prologue of the novel, and consists of a parable within a parable. In original form it appears in the author’s own handwriting, on journal pages smudged with greasy fingerprints:

Once there lived a village of creatures along the bottom of a great crystal river.

The current of the river swept silently over them all—young and old, rich and poor, good and evil, the current going its own way, knowing only its own crystal self.

Each creature in its own manner clung tightly to the twigs and rocks of the river bottom, for clinging was their way of life, and resisting the current what each had learned from birth.

But one creature said at last, “I am tired of clinging. Though I cannot see it with my eyes, I trust that the current knows where it is going. I shall let go, and let it take me where it will. Clinging, I shall die of boredom.”

The other creatures laughed and said, “Fool! Let go, and that current you worship will throw you tumbled and smashed across the rocks, and you will die quicker than boredom!”

But the one heeded them not, and taking a breath did let go, and at once was tumbled and smashed by the current across the rocks.

Yet in time, as the creature refused to cling again, the current lifted him free from the bottom, and he was bruised and hurt no more.

And the creatures downstream, to whom he was a stranger, cried, “See a miracle! A creature like ourselves, yet he flies! See the Messiah, come to save us all!”

And the one carried in the current said, “I am no more Messiah than you. The river delights to lift us free, if only we dare let go. Our true work is this voyage, this adventure.”

But they cried the more, “Savior!” all the while clinging to the rocks, and when they looked again he was gone, and they were left alone making legends of a Saviour.

I first read this book as a teenager. It changed my life. I’ve employed its message, and to this day I refer to “letting go of the river bottom.” Which may explain why I’ve lived in Europe for 25 years, and why, despite being afraid of change, I moved there in the first place. And why I majored in math, even though I suffered from math anxiety (I got nauseous before tests). In each case I knew I would land safely, and I did. Bach himself was afraid of heights, yet became a pilot.

Sometimes stories take the form of parables. Sometimes their primary purpose isn’t to entertain, or inform, or even to pacify us on beaches and airplanes. Sometimes they’re meant to enlighten us, to change our lives. They have the power to inspire revolutions; Uncle Tom’s Cabin is one example, The Grapes of Wrath is another, Atlas Shrugged yet another.

One day something will rattle us, go viral, and cause peace and prosperity to break out on Earth. It might just be a story.

What do you think?

Click here to visit the book’s Amazon page.


Bonus Stuff

The following wasn’t composed as a poem. I structured it as such. See if you like the result.

The Realm of Art and Science

Where the world ceases to be the stage
for personal hopes and desires,
where we, as free beings,
behold it in wonder, to question and to contemplate,
there we enter the realm
of art and of science.

If we trace out what we behold and experience
through the language of logic,
we are doing science.

If we show it in forms whose interrelationships
are not accessible to our conscious thought,
but are intuitively recognized as meaningful,
we are doing art.

Common to both is the devotion to something
beyond the personal, removed from the arbitrary.

—Albert Einstein

Confident Writing: Sophie’s Choice, by William Styron

by Stephen Parrish

Sophie’s Choice won the National Book Award in 1980. It contains some autobiographical elements, including the passage chosen for this post; Styron became an editor for McGraw-Hill after graduating from Duke in 1947.

At that time McGraw-Hill & Company (for such was my employer’s name) lacked any literary éclat, having for so long and successfully purveyed its hulking works of technology that the small trade-book house in which I labored, and which aspired to the excellence of Scribner or Knopf, was considered something of a joke in the business. It was a little as if a vast huckstering organization like Montgomery Ward or Masters had had the effrontery to set up an intimate salon dealing in mink and chinchilla that everyone in the trade knew were dyed beaver from Japan.

So in my capacity as the lowest drudge in the office hierarchy I not only was denied the opportunity to read manuscripts even of passing merit, but was forced to plow my way daily through fiction and nonfiction of the humblest possible quality—coffee-stained and thumb-smeared stacks of Hammerhill Bond whose used, ravaged appearance proclaimed at once their author’s (or agent’s) terrible desperation and McGraw-Hill’s function as publisher of last resort. But at my age, with a snootful of English Lit. that made me as savagely demanding as Matthew Arnold in my insistence that the written word exemplify only the highest seriousness and truth, I treated these forlorn offspring of a thousand strangers’ lonely and fragile desire with the magisterial, abstract loathing of an ape plucking vermin from his pelt.

Since the above passage falls short of my 250 word limit, I’m going to cheat and post another one. Here the narrator believes he is about to get laid by the intoxicating (and incidentally wealthy) Leslie Lapidus, having just toured her opulent home. A large percentage of the novel to this point has been devoted to anticipating tonight’s debauchery:

I had of course been all day in a state of erotic semi-arousal. At the same time I was totally unprepared for such affluence, the likes of which my provincial eyes had glimpsed in the pages of The New Yorker and in movies but never actually beheld. This cultural shock—a sudden fusion of the libido with a heady apprehension of filthy but thoughtfully spent lucre—caused me a troubling mixture of sensations as I sat there: accelerated pulse, marked increase in my hectic flush, sudden salivation and, finally, a spontaneous and exorbitant stiffening against my Hanes Jockey shorts which was to last all evening in whatever position I found myself—seated, standing up, or even walking slightly hobbled among the crowded diners at Gage & Tollner’s, the restaurant where I took Leslie somewhat later for dinner. My stallionoid condition was of course a phenomenon related to my extreme youth, seldom to appear (and never at such length after aet. thirty). I had experienced this priapism several times before, but scarcely so intensely and certainly never in circumstances not exclusively sexual. (Most notably there had been the occasion when I was about sixteen, at a school dance, when one of those artful little coquettes I have mentioned—of which Leslie was such a cherished antithesis—took me over all possible fraudulent jumps: breathing on my neck, tickling my sweaty palm with her fingertip, and insinuating her satin groin against my own with such resolute albeit counterfeit wantonness that only an almost saintly will power, after hours of this, forced me to break apart from the loathsome little vampire and make my swollen way into the night.) But at the Lapidus house no such bodily aggravation was needed. There was simply combined with the thought of Leslie’s imminent appearance a stirring awareness—I confess without shame—of this plenitude of money. I would also be dishonest if I did not admit that to the sweet prospect of copulation there was added the fleeting image of matrimony, should it turn out that way.

Faulkner once said of Hemingway that he “had never been known to use a word that might send the reader to the dictionary.” Hemingway responded: “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”

Nevertheless. One thing I like about Styron’s writing is that it sometimes sends me to the dictionary. He almost naively incorporates seldom used words, like a child discovering baubles overlooked by other children. Yet childish it most certainly isn’t. It’s muscular, confident; Styron writes with the poise and pluck of a man who knows he can use any damn word he likes. His dry humor assures I’ll laugh with him rather than at him as he makes his “swollen way into the night.”

What do you think?

Click here to visit the book’s Amazon page.


Bonus video! In case you don’t already have an MFA in creative writing, and don’t want to spend more than four minutes and thirty-seven seconds earning one, here’s Kurt Vonnegut, who used to teach at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop:

Before he went to Iowa he worked for Sports Illustrated, until assigned to write a story about a racehorse that jumped a fence in an apparent escape attempt. Vonnegut wrote, “The horse jumped over the fucking fence,” and quit.

Poignant Little Stories: All Creatures Great and Small, by James Herriot

by Stephen Parrish

All Creatures Great and Small is the first volume of James Herriot’s memoirs of his career as a country veterinarian, beginning around 1940 in northern England. In this, the first scene of the book, Herriot (whose real name was Wight) is finishing up with what has been a very difficult calving. “Uncle” is the brother of the cow’s owner, Mr. Dinsdale. Mr. Broomfield is Uncle’s veterinarian, and is clearly superior, in Uncle’s opinion, to Mr. Herriot.

I grinned. This was the bit I liked. The little miracle. I felt it was something that would never grow stale no matter how often I saw it. I cleaned as much of the dried blood and filth from my body as I could, but most of it had caked on my skin and not even my finger nails would move it. It would have to wait for the hot bath at home. Pulling my shirt over my head, I felt as though I had been beaten for a long time with a thick stick. Every muscle ached. My mouth was dried out, my lips almost sticking together.

A long, sad figure hovered near. “How about a drink?” asked Mr. Dinsdale.

I could feel my grimy face cracking into an incredulous smile. A vision of hot tea well laced with whisky swam before me. “That’s very kind of you, Mr. Dinsdale, I’d love a drink. It’s been a hard two hours.”

“Nay,” said Mr. Dinsdale looking at me steadily, “I meant for the cow.”

I began to babble. “Oh yes, of course, certainly, by all means give her a drink. She must be very thirsty. It’ll do her good. Certainly, certainly, give her a drink.”

I gathered up my tackle and stumbled out of the barn. On the moor it was still dark and a bitter wind whipped over the snow, stinging my eyes. As I plodded down the slope, Uncle’s voice, strident and undefeated, reached me for the last time.

“Mr. Broomfield doesn’t believe in giving a drink after calving. Says it chills the stomach.”

The magic of James Herriot is his ability to find humor and poignancy in everyday situations. To another veterinarian this might have been just another calving. To Herriot it is a vignette worth sharing, a small parable about the human condition. His sense of timing—who knows when Uncle really made the drink-after-calving remark?—is pitch perfect.

I’m often told that a visual artist sees the world differently from the rest of us; she views objects in terms of hue and value, angles and proportions. A photographer is always looking for light and shadow. A choreographer watches how people move. I guess all of this is true. I believe a writer sees little stories in everyday situations.

My favorite places are train stations and airports, places where people meet each other, sometimes after a long absence, or bid farewell, sometimes forever. The details are usually subtle because the people involved know they’re on public display. Yet the more subtle the details are, the more interesting the story tends to be. Mere eye contact between two people as one of them peers out of a receding bus window can summarize a love story.

What do you think?

Click here to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Bonus poignant little story, an excerpt, by Linda Elegant, from I Thought My Father Was God, edited by Paul Auster. Here is the glorious entirety of Chapter One:

As I was walking down Stanton Street early one Sunday morning, I saw a chicken a few yards ahead of me. I was walking faster than the chicken, so I gradually caught up. By the time we approached Eighteenth Avenue, I was close behind. The chicken turned south on Eighteenth. At the fourth house along, it turned in at the walk, hopped up the front steps, and rapped sharply on the metal storm door with its beak. After a moment, the door opened and the chicken went in.

Completing the Circle: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith

by Stephen Parrish

The story opens in 1912 Brooklyn, where 11-year-old Francie Nolan grows up amid relentless poverty in a family that includes her younger brother, her scrubwoman mother, and her alcoholic father. Hope and love keep them going. Francie survives and eventually thrives in her environment, much as the hardscrabble Tree of Heaven does, from which the novel gets its title. The following scene takes place near the end of the story, as Francie bids farewell to old haunts before departing for college.

After lunch, she went around to the library to turn in her books for the last time. The librarian stamped her card and shoved it back to her without, as was usual, looking up.

“Could you recommend a good book for a girl?” asked Francie.

“How old?”

“She is eleven.”

The librarian brought up a book from under the desk. Francie saw the title: If I Were King.

“I don’t really want to take it out,” said Francie, “and I’m not eleven years old.”

The librarian looked up at Francie for the first time.

“I’ve been coming here since I was a little girl,” said Francie, “and you never looked at me till now.”

“There are so many children,” said the librarian fretfully. “I can’t be looking at each one of them. Anything else?”

“I just want to say about that brown bowl … what it has meant to me … the flower always in it.”

The librarian looked at the brown bowl. There was a spray of pink wild aster in it. Francie had an idea that the librarian was seeing the brown bowl for the first time, also.

“Oh, that! The janitor puts the flowers in. Or somebody. Anything else?” she asked impatiently.

“I’m turning in my card.” Francie pushed the wrinkled dog-eared card covered with stamped dates across the desk. The librarian picked it up and was about to tear it into two, when Francie took it back from her.

“I guess I’ll keep it after all,” she said.

Why do we love this book? There’s nothing special about the writing; it’s simple and direct, even awkward sometimes. Smith overworks the dialogue tags (“said fretfully,” “asked impatiently”). One reason we love the story is because we can identify with the protagonist. Even as a boy, when I read this novel I identified with Francie, especially because she was an avid reader. There’s at least a little bit of Francie in all of us.

Another reason is nostalgia. In the scene above, Francie returns to one of her childhood haunts and completes a circle. By repeating details from earlier in the story (the recommended title, the brown bowl) the author tugs at our heartstrings.

We encounter this device in many books and movies; the mere repetition of a simple event, even just a word or phrase, at a key moment near the end, can bring tears to the eyes of readers and movie-goers. My earliest experience with this was in Mila 18, as Andre’s sister Deborah died in his arms. Their mother had sung them a song when they were young: “What is the best Sehora? My baby will learn the Torah…” Now as she dies she asks Andre, “Sing Momma’s song.” Perhaps a better known example occurs in the movie “Fried Green Tomatoes,” when Idgie Threadgoode retells a fable, of a flock of ducks carrying away a frozen lake, at the request of her dying friend.

Writers take note: readers love to cry. One of the easiest ways to turn the spigot on is to repeat an early event or anecdote at an especially poignant moment. The first time it’s amusing. The second time it presses a completely different button.

What do you think?

Click here to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Bonus stuff, from Aaron Sorkin’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” (which deserved more than its one-season run):

Harriet: I got a laugh at the table-read when I asked for the butter in the dinner sketch. I didn’t get it at the dress. What did I do wrong?

Matt: You asked for the laugh.

Harriet: What did I do at the table-read?

Matt: You asked for the butter.

Deceptive Simplicity: I Heard the Owl Call My Name, by Margaret Craven

by Stephen Parrish

The set-up: Anglican vicar Mark Brian is assigned by his bishop to Kingcome, British Columbia to (unknowingly) live out his remaining days. The bishop hopes that working among the First Nations tribe in Kingcome will teach Mark what he needs to learn to face his impending death. In this scene Mark is finally confronted with the truth.

He went slowly up the river. In front of the vicarage he anchored the boat and waded ashore. He trudged up the black sands to the path and stopped. From the dark spruce he heard an owl call—once, and again—and the questions that had been rising all day long reached the door of his mind and opened it.

He went up the path and the steps, through the living room and into the kitchen. The lights were on. At the stove Marta was preparing his dinner.

“Marta, something strange happened tonight. On the bank of the river I heard the owl call my name,” and it was a question he asked, an answer he sought.

She did not say, “Nonsense, it was my name the owl called, and I am old and with me it does not matter.” She did not say, “It’s true you’re thin and white, but who is not? It has no importance.”

She turned, spoon still in her hand, lifting her sweet, kind face with its network of tiny wrinkles, and she answered his question as she would have answered any other.

She said, “Yes, my son.”

One of the characteristics I like about Craven’s writing is its deceptive simplicity: “He went slowly up the river.” “The lights were on.” To some (apparently including a few Amazon customers) this is boring. To me the absence of flowery metaphors allows the focus to be on the enormity of the moment rather than the author’s skillful choice of words. A man is just now finding out he’s going to die. Hush the decorative language—for just that moment, please.

You could argue that all writing ought to be this way. Maybe. But I love the sound of words too, not just the messages they’re trying to communicate. I love the music they make all by themselves, without even having the need to communicate anything.

So keep writin’ beautifully, y’all. Just don’t spend too much time in the thesaurus. Especially if what’s happening on the page is bigger than the language being used to describe it.

What do you think?

Click here to visit the book’s Amazon page.


Bonus exercise: see if you can recognize the following poem and its author before you get to the end:

A destiny that leads the English to the Dutch
is strange enough;
but one that leads from Epsom into Pennsylvania,
and thence into the hills that shut in Altamond

over the proud coral cry of the cock,
and the soft stone smile of an angel,
is touched by that dark miracle of chance
which makes new magic in a dusty world.

Each of us is all the sums he has not counted:
subtract us into nakedness and night again,
and you shall see, begin in Crete four thousand years ago,
the love that ended yesterday in Texas.

The seed of our destruction will blossom in the desert,
the alexin of our cure grows by a mountain rock,
and our lives are haunted by a Georgia slattern,
because a London cutpurse went unhung.

Each moment is the fruit of forty thousand years.
The minute-winning days, like flies,
buzz home to death,
and every moment is a window on all time.

Recognize it? You’ve read it before, you’re just seeing it out of context: these are the opening lines of Look Homeward, Angel, by Thomas Wolfe—restructured as a poem. I just want to prove there’s a market for your work, no matter how lyrical your prose.

How Clear Should the Message Be? The Call of the Wild, by Jack London

by Stephen Parrish

We all read novels that leave us with a sense that something profound is being communicated, something we should take away when we close the back cover—and yet we struggle to articulate a theme. My question is, how clearly should the author of fiction communicate his or her theme? Let’s see what Jack London has to say about it.

A Saint Bernard-Scotch Collie named Buck is living a quiet domestic life with his owner in California when he is stolen by a gardener’s assistant and sold into the Klondike dog sled industry. He survives the ordeals of the transition and rises to team leader after defeating the resident alpha male. The selection below is from a period of relative independence for Buck, during which he roams the wilderness, sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of a wolf.

There is a patience of the wild—dogged, tireless, persistent as life itself—that holds motionless for endless hours the spider in its web, the snake in its coils, the panther in its ambuscade; this patience belongs peculiarly to life when it hunts its living food; and it belonged to Buck as he clung to the flank of the herd, retarding its march, irritating the young bulls, worrying the cows with their half-grown calves, and driving the wounded bull mad with helpless rage. For half a day this continued. Buck multiplied himself, attacking from all sides, enveloping the herd in a whirlwind of menace, cutting out his victim as fast as it could rejoin its mates, wearing out the patience of creatures preyed upon, which is a lesser patience than that of creatures preying.

As the day wore along and the sun dropped to its bed in the northwest (the darkness had come back and the fall nights were six hours long), the young bulls retraced their steps more and more reluctantly to the aid of their beset leader. The down-coming winter was harrying them on to the lower levels, and it seemed they could never shake off this tireless creature that held them back. Besides, it was not the life of the herd, or of the young bulls, that was threatened. The life of only one member was demanded, which was a remoter interest than their lives, and in the end they were content to pay the toll.

As twilight fell the old bull stood with lowered head, watching his mates—the cows he had known, the calves he had fathered, the bulls he had mastered—as they shambled on at a rapid pace through the fading light. He could not follow, for before his nose leaped the merciless fanged terror that would not let him go. Three hundredweight more than half a ton he weighed; he had lived a long, strong life, full of fight and struggle, and at the end he faced death at the teeth of a creature whose head did not reach beyond his great knuckled knees.

I love the authority with which London writes. There’s no uncertainty here, and you get the sense while reading this book that he spent time in the Klondike. And indeed he did. I love the details like “great knuckled knees” and the flavor elements like “down-coming winter” and “three hundredweight more than half a dozen”—reminiscent of “four score and seven years ago.”

Yet the strength of this piece is its message of Darwin in the Wild. We often hear that our stories shouldn’t boast of their messages. Nevertheless in good stories the messages are there. Maybe we shouldn’t mention them in blurbs or query letters—agents, editors, and readers are looking for good stories, not good messages. Yet the messages need to be there.

We love Jack London’s descriptions. Even more, we love reading of people and animals who pit themselves against harsh conditions and—if they’re fit enough—survive.

What do you think?

Click here to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Bonus goodie. You’ve all read The Elements of Style. I reread it about once a year and think everyone ought to. The following is my favorite paragraph from the book, under the heading Omit Needless Words:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

What I love about this, of course, is that it contains no needless words! The art analogy doesn’t hurt, either.

Too Much Detail, or Not Enough? Elegies for the Brokenhearted, by Christine Hodgen

by Stephen Parrish

The advice to eschew extraneous language and keep details to a minimum is ubiquitous, and dates back at least to Hemingway. Although Joyce, Faulkner, and other influential contemporaries embraced stream of consciousness writing, it’s Hemingway we heed today:

When in Doubt, Cut it Out.

But is that right? Novels such as Elegies for the Brokenhearted, by Christine Hodgen, who writes as though she never heard of Hemingway, suggest the answer is “It depends.”

Book description: “Who are the people you’ll never forget? For Mary Murphy, there are five, eulogized here in an utterly unforgettable voice. Mary tells the story of her own life—her childhood spent trading one home and father figure for another, her efforts to track down her rebellious sister, and her winding search for purpose—through her experiences and encounters with the people who shaped her path.”

Here’s a sample:

Every family had one and you were ours: the chump, the slouch, the drunk, the bum, the forever-newly-employed (garbageman, fry cook, orderly, delivery truck driver) and the forever-newly-unemployed (I didn’t need that shit, you’d say), the chain-smoking fuckup with the muscle car, an acorn-brown 442 Cutlass Supreme named Michelle, the love of your life (Let’s see what this baby can do, you’d say, all six of us cousins piled in the back, and how we screamed when you rolled down the windows and put Michelle’s pedal to the metal on Route 20, how we flew past those strip joints, those 24-hour diners, those squalid motels and scrap metal yards, behind which, in a sunken valley, our neighborhood of two-bedroom cinderblock houses sulked and cowered), the bachelor uncle with the bloodshot eyes and five-day beard come late to holiday dinners, rumpled shirt and jeans, breath like gasoline—Michael Timothy Beaudry, for a time you were ours.

The seventies: Nixon and Carter, culture and counterculture, two roads diverged in a wood. You were twenty, then twenty-five, then thirty, and all that time it always seemed you were fresh out of boyhood, it seemed your proper life—as a schoolteacher or a fireman, as a husband and father, as an upstanding, tax-paying citizen—would begin directly. Although, what was the point? You had a bad heart, a weak valve that threatened to kill you at any moment, as it had your mother when you were only three.

I’ve cut this off in mid-paragraph to stay under 250 words. Since these are the opening paragraphs of the novel, you can continue reading by using the Look Inside function at Amazon.

I’m not normally a fan of stream-of-consciousness writing or run-on sentences. It usually feels like mannered writing to me. Okay, it always feels like mannered writing, but usually in the worst way: like the author is trying to impress me. “To hell with story, marvel at my werd skillz.”

However, Christine Hodgen isn’t channeling Joyce, she’s depicting a character, and the presentation isn’t so much run-on as breathless. Given the nature of the character, breathless seems appropriate.

The way to make long sentences work is to vary the rhythm. Notice how four one-syllable nouns contrast with a compound noun:
the chump
the slouch
the drunk
the bum
the forever-newly-employed

And of course precise details always make me swoon: “an acorn-brown 442 Cutlass Supreme named Michelle.”

But the entire point, of course, is the character Michael Timothy Beaudry. We’re taught as writers, some of us, to minimize descriptions, to select as few elements as necessary to let the reader take over and create an image in her own mind. That’s why reading provides more mental exercise than watching TV. Reading isn’t passive; we have to work, we have to form images in our mind, given scant detail. Too much detail is boring because we’re fed, we’re not engaged. In this case, knowing Michael Timothy Beaudry is “the chain-smoking fuckup with the muscle car” might be enough for us to fill out the rest.

However. In this case the author chose to create a detailed portrait, to use the little brushes and paint the small details. It works if the details are interesting, if the presentation is well written.

What do you think?

Click here to visit the book’s Amazon page.


Bonus exercise: see if you can identify the author of the following piece before I name him at the end:

There are some simple maxims . . . which I think might be commended to writers of expository prose. First: never use a long word if a short word will do. Second: if you want to make a statement with a great many qualifications, put some of the qualifications in separate sentences. Third: do not let the beginning of your sentence lead the reader to an expectation which is contradicted by the end. Take, say, such a sentence as the following, which might occur in a work on sociology:

“Human beings are completely exempt from undesirable behavior-patterns only when certain prerequisites, not satisfied except in a small percentage of actual cases, have, through some fortuitous concourse of favourable circumstances, whether congenital or environmental, chanced to combine in producing an individual in whom many factors deviate from the norm in a socially advantageous manner.”

Let us see if we can translate this sentence into English. I suggest the following: “All men are scoundrels, or at any rate almost all. The men who are not must have had unusual luck, both in their birth and in their upbringing.” This is shorter and more intelligible, and says just the same thing. But I am afraid any professor who used the second sentence instead of the first would get the sack.

—Bertrand Russell, “How I Write,” reprinted in The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell.

Sometimes You Don’t Hear the Music: War and Remembrance, by Herman Wouk

by Stephen Parrish

I’ve elected to inaugurate this blog with a novel I recently finished, one that’s been on my reading list since the 1970s. War and Remembrance is a sequel to The Winds of War, which I read back when it was on the NYT bestseller list. Both are tomes, the kind of multiple-perspective panoramic novels that authors like Wouk and Leon Uris could get away with in the 1970s. Those were the days.

Funny thing is, I think readers still like long, expansive novels. I think they like micro-novels too, like Jonathan Livingston Seagull, by Richard Bach, and The Shepherd, by Frederick Forsyth. I think readers still like everything they’ve ever liked. Unfortunately industry pundits know better.

The set-up: WWII is coming to a close. Navy captain “Pug” Henry’s marriage to Rhoda is at an end following infidelities and the turmoils of war. Yet one tiny window of opportunity remains open.

“. . . I declare, I am STONE drunk. You may have to help me up the stairs.”

“Okay, let’s go.”

“Just fooling.” She patted his arm. “Finish your brandy, dear, and enjoy the gorgeous moon. I can navigate.”

“You’re sure?”

“Sure. Night, love.”

A cool gentle kiss on the mouth, and Rhoda walked unsteadily inside.

When Pug came upstairs almost an hour later, Rhoda’s door was wide open. The bedroom was dark. The door had not been open since his return from Tehran.

“Pug, is that you?”


“Well, good-night again, darling.”

It was all in the tone. Rhoda was a signaller, not a talker, and Pug read the signal, loud and clear. Clearly she had weighted her chances again, in the light of Peters’s suspicions, Pam’s refusal, and the family glow of Madeline’s happiness. Here was his old marriage, asking him back in. It was Rhoda’s last try. “They play a desperate game,” Peters had said. True enough. It was a powerful game, too. He had only to step through the doorway, into the remembered sweet odors of that dark room.

He walked by the door, his eyes moistening. “Good-night, Rhoda.”

I chose this passage not because it’s a sample of great writing in and of itself, rather because it does exactly what it’s supposed to do at this point in the novel. Pug turning Rhoda down is momentous in the story line. It’s matter-of-fact treatment here, where a lesser writer might have blown trumpets, allows understatement to herald the event more effectively than trumpets could.

That’s because the music is created in the reader’s mind, not on the writer’s page.

You’ll see this a lot in my analyses of good writing: let the reader figure it out. Let the reader decide what to feel.

Although you won’t know what “Peters’s suspicions, Pam’s refusal, and the family glow of Madeline’s happiness” mean out of context, these are themes that took much of the book to develop, and their roundup here is a crescendo.

When Wouk describes Pug’s eyes moistening he’s showing us Pug’s grief, not telling us about it. After two long novels—some 2000 pages—spent with this cool-headed naval officer, seeing his eyes water up informs us better than could any expository description that his (underspoken) decision is one of the most difficult he’s ever made.

Read the last paragraph one more time. Notice how the sentence lengths vary, how a sequence of short, punchy sentences appear in the heart of the paragraph. We’ll return to this theme again and again. Good writing tends to be characterized by quiet yet conscientious rhythm. Notice also how Wouk employs the age-old rule-of-three: Peters’s suspicions, Pam’s refusal, Madeline’s happiness. It’s a good rule.

Sometimes great writing is so stirring, you almost hear accompanying music. Sometimes, as in this case, it unobtrusively yet effectively gets the job done.

What do you think?

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