It Takes a Lot of Wax to Get That Article Polished

My ride in the mid-80s, a ’62 Caddy. Lots and LOTS of wax.

There’s a spate of great long-form journalism these days. When the time is good, I hunker down and read thoughtful, or provocative or hilarious or touching pieces from Medium, The Atlantic, GQ, Esquire—there’s a long list. And often, these pieces read so smoothly that I forget—even though I’m in the trade—just how many winding roads articles can travel before they reache home.

Case in point: I had an article about a legendary train published in Popular Mechanics the other day. I hope that readers took that in with the same sense I allude to above: fun piece, and it reads easily. But in order to even begin communicating with the right Union Pacific PR folks, I had to leave three voice messages and send seven emails. The UP employee I needed to interview (and it seems, many UP employees on the project, including the PR people) was exhausted from the train’s complex restoration. So I had to grab a garbled transcript of a YouTube video to get many of his quotes for the piece.

Then there was a fair amount of back and forth with UP PR folks, obtaining photographs, talking with some other people involved with the train, and plenty of back and forth with the PopMech editor on how the piece was shaping up, and whether I could make my deadline, which at one point looked unlikely. But it did all come together.

Same thing with this piece I wrote on pot politics in Santa Cruz County. I had to interview five separate people for the article. But ALL of the initial emails to various growers and dispensaries and cannabis advocacy groups went unanswered. I had to dig around for a while to get the goods. And locating an illegal grower (who spoke on the record, but anonymously) took some legwork too. I had my doubts about this one as well, but it did come together in the end.

Articles Are Built in Stages (and Some Collapse)

My point (and there is one, really) is not to whine about how little Tommy’s spirit is crushed because people don’t answer his emails. The point is that articles are built in stages, and that sometimes there are gaps in the walls that have to be filled in later. I often request some time padding when an editor gives me a deadline, because getting primary-source information is often trickier than it might seem.

And I’m not an investigative reporter. Those people (or writers that are given assignments that require long days/weeks/months of research) have a special stamina. Here’s a piece I read yesterday on a crazy con man that lets you in a little on how much time it took to piece it all together—but know that it was actually a good deal more. The writer assembled this from bits and chunks, and it took time, but the engaging read is worth it. Here’s another about the “new sobriety” that’s gaining currency (not in my house), a piece with a lot of moving parts.

These writers built these articles a brick at a time, and from my own work, I know that some days they ran out of bricks. Sometimes they improvised, sometimes they left and gardened instead. But it’s funny how when you see the end product, even if you wrote it, you are both amazed that it came together, and forgetful of the wrinkled forehead of endless details. Probably just as it should be.

Five Fiction Sites That Tell the Facts


Once in a while I do a round-up post that lists my go-to sites for fiction-writing advice. Maybe not so oddly, some of the same names come up over and over—not because I’m lazy (don’t roll your eyes), but because the people that populate these sites know their stuff.

And that stuff is all about how to write, how to think about writing, how to write about thinking. As well as all that gritty craft stuff: story arcs, theme, setting, character development, side plots, secondary characters, beginnings, endings, denouements and other fancy words that might be spelled “climax,” and maybe even how to use a semicolon once in a while. (Hint: use tongs.)

Most of the solid citizens below have newsletters that will remind you, with pleasure, why you subscribed.

Writer Unboxed

Consistently good pieces on craft and craftiness (and an occasional jeremiad on the trials of the writing life), written by established writers, up-and-coming writers, and writers who recently realized that every letter of the alphabet is theirs. This is a strong writing community: the comments section is often the heart of the writerly dissection, and that’s saying something, because the posts are gold.

Steven Pressfield

Frank discussions on writing foibles and follies, from a guy who made “The Resistance” mean more than just rolling your eyes at the White House. Pressfield is a novelist and nonfiction writer who writes with succinct zing on what keeps us from writing, and how to wipe the cobwebs off your keyboard and get going.

Jane Friedman

Friedman covers all things publishing, which is a lot of coverage. Tons of info on self-publishing and indies, with example best practices and how-tos. Her material ranges from good cover design to Amazon analytics (and speaking of Amazon, her information covers the industry practices as well). There are also guest posts on matters of craft for fiction and nonfiction writers alike.

The Creative Penn

An established thriller writer and writer of nonfiction books on writing subjects (many on self-publishing), Penn seems tireless, since she also puts out a great podcast on publishing matters. Good tools/resource lists on a spectrum of writing concerns. Do check out her free Author 2.0 Blueprint book. Penn, who probably couldn’t stand still as a child, now has a travel and writing blog and podcast too.

Funds for Writers

No, they aren’t just going to dole out dough to you, you underfunded writer you—I already asked. But the free newsletter lists lots of writing grants and retreats, writing contests, job markets and guest columns on writing, both fiction and non. Hope Clark, the author of many mystery novels (recommended!) who runs the joint, is tough and charming at the same time. Her column is personal, sometimes blunt, and always worth the read.

Bonus Lie
K. M. Weiland

Hah, I lied, so I could preserve the alliteration in the subject line. I must recommend six sites, because the sixth provides some sixth senses about writing fiction. Weiland, writer of speculative fiction and nonfiction writing guides, gives solid advice on pretty much every brick in the writing castle, from outlining, to writing scenes, to understanding the differences between plot and theme to every little way a character can wiggle. (And I have to say, “and much more,” because there really is a lot more on her site as well.)

Discount Shrubbery!

For the next 5 days, my novel set in Prohibition Boston, Swirled All the Way to the Shrub, is discounted to $2.99 for the ebook version. You can get a lot of background information on the characters and the time period Rick Wilson (my co-writer) and I put together at www.swirledshrub.com.

Buy the hundreds of copies you crave here on Amazon or here through other online retailers. And if you already bought a copy, please consider a review at the retailer of your choice—we do so crave attention (and it really can help sales).

Gratitude Comes from a Place of Hope

Even at my age, I think I’d do well on the local basketball team

I’m a grumbler. Why does my hip hurt so much today, why didn’t that editor respond to my query, why is our government run by madmen and thieves? I’m so used to my brain’s radio playing Classic Grouch in 24/7 rotation that I can barely hear it, even though my legs dance to it.

But once in a while, when fresh winds blow from a different direction, when my closed lids see that there’s actually a rainbow of colors, when I get out of my own #$%!@&^!! way, I realize that this life stuff might be OK. That there might be good reason to cheer, to celebrate, to acknowledge.

I was reminded of that in a church soup kitchen in the small town of Cotacachi, Ecuador a few days ago. My galpal Alice and I are house-sitting for a month in Cotacachi, at the home of some expats from Atlanta. Cotacachi has many charms, friendly folks, good food, famed leather-goods artisans, and some beautiful surroundings at 8,000 feet in the Andes.

A Little Means a Lot

But all places have their poor. Before our Atlanta homeowners left for a stateside visit, they took us to the Lugar de Esperanza (Place of Hope) soup kitchen where they volunteer to help with food preparation, serving and cleanup of a large breakfast meal to 50–60 indigenous seniors from the town and surrounds.

Most of these people have very little: tiny incomes, tough living conditions, scant belongings. A few even walk a couple of hours to get the meal, which might be their only meal of the day. Some of them are barefoot. The volunteers first hand out vitamins to the gathered souls in the church courtyard, and then they proceed into the soup kitchen building to sit in rows at long tables.

On their way to the building, nearly all of them greeted Alice and I, clasped our hands and smiled and laughed. My Spanish is bad enough, but my Quechua (and all the variants) is non-existent. However, the communication was clear—good cheer and gratitude in all the faces, the body language, the talk among themselves.

They sat at the tables and chatted, and waited patiently waiting for grace to be said by one of the breakfast recipients. At the end of the meal, they filtered out, some with leftover food, again clasping our hands and nodding and thanking us, in Quechua and Spanish. One old guy even kissed my cheek when I bent to shake his hand.

Gratitude Is Better Than Kale

I’m used to my regular meals, my shelter, my health. It’s easy to forget just how good I have it;
gringo privilege is as unconscious as that grumpiness I mentioned. But the thin air up here in Cotacachi let me see clearly that gratitude is an attitude, one that can be encouraged and summoned and cultivated. And my goodness, it can even be good for you.

Alice went back and helped serve one of the meals a few days later; I hope to do it as well. She reported that the group was much the same, in manner and attitude. They appreciated the breakfast, and felt appreciated by the volunteers who appreciated them, a two-way street. That’s a street I need to drive on more often.

Even When the Whiskey Runs Dry, There’s a Story in Every Bottle

Were Pappy here today, he’d be smoking a much more expensive cigar

In the summer of 2011, I made a video homage to Gary Vaynerchuk’s Wine Library TV, only instead of sipping and then tripping on the layered characteristics of wine, I swilled three whiskeys instead. One of those fine vintages was Pappy Van Winkle’s 20-year-old bourbon, at the time considered one of the best bourbons in the world.

I’d been given a bottle that past Christmas, and as I explained in the video, at $110.00, it was a galaxy beyond my normal price range. Though I’d been given the whiskey months before, I’d been doling out its precious drams—it was a Christmas miracle that I had any left by summer to make the video.

But alas, even bountiful loaves and fishes must go the way of all things. Yet, after I did suck out the last drop of the distillate with a glass pipette in a thermally regulated room and wearing a blackout mask to concentrate on the taste, I kept the bottle on a shelf in my office. Sort of an aspirational inspiration.

Aspirational indeed.

Let’s See: How ‘Bout Two Ounces of Gold for 750ml of Bourbon?

If you Google Pappy Van Winkle’s 20-year-old, and you read current prices for the hootch, you will lose your eyebrows. You probably won’t find it for under $1,200 a bottle (if that cheapo bottle is actually available), and in some rarefied zones, you will see prices climbing over the $3,000 dazzlement barrier. Zounds!

Sure, Pappy is fine whiskey, and perhaps it was and is the best bourbon in the world. That’s arguable. But $3,000 a bottle is more of a theoretical thing, a result of smashing atoms together and coming up with a particle that can’t be explained. Along the lines of the tulip mania craze in the 1600s in Holland, where the price of tulip bulbs unpredictably lifted to the heavens, and then resoundingly crashed in 1637, a hellish year for bulb brokers.

Now Pappy hasn’t crashed yet, but one suspects as all markets climb and all markets plummet, it will. The whiskey will still be good, but the folks who have hoarded it for its investment value might start mixing it with Coke.

I’ll Take the Porsche Carrera GT and Two Empty Pappy Bottles

But artificially inflated whiskey prices aren’t what I actually wanted to discuss. I want to discuss artificially inflated bottle prices. Empty bottles. I’d heard a bit back that empty Pappy 20-year-old bottles were selling for $75 on eBay. What? Empties? I checked it out, and sure enough, many people had sold their Pappys for $60 and up. Mine had sat on the shelf for 8 years, and I’d never bought another. (And if prices hold, never will.)

So, I put that pup on eBay, and in a week’s time, sure enough it had sold to some lucky fellow in Ohio for $115, including shipping. It wasn’t lost on me that the bottle sold for more than the sizzlingly high price it held when it was full of its soothing elixir. I was pleased that someone had paid me a tidy sum for a bottle that only held vapors (it did still have a nice bouquet), but being a writerly sort, I had to wonder: what was he (and all those other bottle buyers) going to do with the bottle?

Fill the Bottle with Stories

Was he going to fill it with Early Times bourbon and casually whip it out at a poker party to lavishly indulge his friends? “Yeah, I bought it a while back at only $900. I figured you guys were worth it.”

Was he going to fill it with some nice but not nearly as pricy wheated bourbon (maybe even Maker’s Mark), get the cork professionally resealed, and try to get three grand for it on some Dark Web site where he’d be forever anonymous?

Or perhaps he is going to put it on a shelf with some other distinguished empties he bought online, some outrageous 200-year-old single-malt, maybe a Screaming Eagle or two, a Chateau d’Yquem, and invite his new girlfriend over to his mancave to have her gasp at his impeccable palate and his bulging bank account?

Who knows? But it’s amusing to work up a story or two on the disposition of the bottle, and how even empty, it might provide intoxication to come for new owners. In the meantime, I’m scouring the house for eBay potentials. There’s a Sock Monkey that’s been sloppily grinning at me for years now. Surely after I shake off his dust he’s worth a grand or two.

Persistence Pays the Persevering Writer

My own shiny beauty. I lost my first one on the road (it might be in space now)

I keep a running list of article queries that haven’t landed a published home. Some of them are many years old, but I still like many of the ideas, and know that even an old query can still shake the right editor hand if the pitch is well-timed and properly directed. I didn’t quite realize just how wobbly-kneed the oldest of those queries is until I got an editorial yes on one that was several years old.

Today I breezed through the entire list, and saw that the geezer at file bottom was a pitch for a review on the best Palm OS-based exercise software. For those of you that exist in this world, Palm hasn’t produced one of its PDAs (a term as hoary as my pitch) since 2010, but people stopped buying them well before that, and my pitch predated 2010 by some years. By the way, if you’re wondering, PDAs have essentially been replaced by a device dubbed a “smartphone.” Who knows—they might catch on.

I’m amused by the fact that the file name of my query list is called “New Queries.” On reflection, “New and Essentially Deceased Queries” has more ring, but I’ll leave that for now. What I did want to emphasize is that if an article idea grabbed you once, grab it back, and send it out on its rounds now and then. The piece that was just accepted, by Wired UK, is about the history of the Fisher Space Pen, which wrote its way into history by its gravity-defying ink, first used in space in 1968, on the Apollo 7 mission.

The Space Pen just had its 50th anniversary (and continues to make its presence on all manned U.S. space flights), so perhaps it was newsworthy again. I’ve sent that query out to between 10–15 publications over the last three or four years, and finally got a hit.

Persistence pays, grasshopper. (Don’t think the Palm pitch will be exercising any editors now though.)

Free Circles

I’ve made the Kindle version of my first novel, All Roads Are Circles, free on Amazon and at other online booksellers. Circles is a lively story about a couple of high-school doofuses who hitchhike across Canada, getting their eyes widened due to their naiveté about the ways of the road. Wise guys they are, but wisdom is in short supply. Check it out—won’t cost you a thin dime.

Trimming the Shrub

And a request for anyone who has bought my newest novel, Swirled All the Way to the Shrub. If you didn’t bite, it’s a Prohibition-era piece about a sozzled society reporter and would-be author who blunders in and out of love, lunacy and sorrow in post-Crash Boston. If you have read it, please consider an online review at Amazon, or Goodreads or any other online book vendor. Reviews help a great deal with a book’s success. Thanks!

Getting Your 200,000-mile Writer’s Tuneup

I wonder if the engine would like a CBD treatment rather than oil

My car just turned over its 200,000th mile. I do like milestones, so I should have prepared by putting a wet bar in the trunk a couple of months ago so I could have whipped up a roadside cocktail at the divine moment, but instead I just noted the passage with some bemusement, rather than amusement. 

Probably because it’s an old Toyota Corolla, and an insipid silver-grey at that. This most unprepossessing vehicle—which probably would be great for bank robberies, because of its blandness—is the most common car I’ve ever owned. Among the beauties I’ve piloted are a ’62 Caddy, ’63 Mercury Monterey, ’64 Dodge Dart, ’62 Pontiac Tempest, ’65 Ford Galaxie, ’64 Studebaker, ’71 Volvo p1800, ’81 Mercedes 380SL, ’81 Jag XJ6, and a bunch of old BMWs and old Volkswagens. I love old, interesting cars.

So, turning over 200,000 in a listless Corolla was kind of a letdown.

Writerly Roses Among Some Thorns

I bought the Toyota a bit back because the cash register hasn’t been ringing as often the past couple of years, despite my usual efforts in pitching both business writing and freelance pieces, as well as book editing and fiction writing. Those usually add up to something, but this year, nothing added up. Hello Corolla.

So, I’ve felt like it was me with the 200,000 miles under the hood, and needful of an oil change. Or more to the point, a writer’s tuneup.

But I did publish a novel in the spring that I feel came out well, and now I’ve just published another, so there’s some satisfaction in that. The latest is Swirled All the Way to the Shrub,  my first collaborative novel, written with my pal Rick Wilson. Here’s the logline for the book: 

Sozzled reporter and would-be author blunders in and out of love, lunacy and sorrow in post-Great Depression Boston.

Uplifting, eh?

You can download a PDF of the book’s first three chapters at the bottom of the Shrub site’s home page.

if you’re not the Amazonian type, the Where to Buy page on the site has a number of other online vendors for the ebook. There are also some elaborations of historical references from the book on the site and some other amusements about our collaboration. And for you worldly types, drink recipes from the 1930s.

The deal on this shrubbery (“It’s got to be a nice one,” as Monty Python would say) will only be until year’s end. We’ll be tuning the ebook and print prices up from there.

An odd year, in so many ways, for me and of course, for our country. I think we’re all in need of a writer’s tune-up. But I welcome a new year—and I have many new thoughts on changes to my work, forging new habits, perspectives and challenges. Maybe I’ll even paint flames on the side of the Corolla. 

Happy Holidays to all!

Writing Rejections Give You a Glimmer of Hope



Having been a freelancer writing both nonfiction and fiction for many years, you get used to writing rejections. They used to chafe more years ago, but my skin has thickened, so that I normally can simply say “Next!” and mean it without too much teeth-gritting. Not too much.

But once in a while, rejections are motivational. And not just in the sense of “That blasted editor doesn’t know a good story from a cucumber! I’ll show him/her/it!” (“It” because I’m sure AI will soon be used to make editorial decisions in some offices.) Vengeance can certainly be motivational, but here I speak more of a connective motivation, an empathetic one.

Case in point: Glimmer Train, the fine literary journal and press, has been publishing writers for nearly 30 years. They often champion unknown writers, and are willing to dig around the edges in fiction and nonfiction to bring interesting and exciting voices to the page. I haven’t subscribed to their journal (shame!), but I’ve picked it up in bookstores here and there over the years, and have always been delighted in the reading.

And the yearning.

Getting to the Counter Before the Shop Closes

The yearning is this: I’ve known for a while that Glimmer Train is one of the premiere literary journals, and that to be published there is a new feather in any writer’s quill pen. But I haven’t had confidence in many of my short stories, so I’ve sent only a few pieces over the years. Looking at my submissions spreadsheet (I started tracking electronically in 2003), I sent GT stories in 2007, 2013, and 2014.

Here’s where the motivational parts come in. Early this year, I heard that Glimmer Train was going to shut down in 2019. Not from lack of success, far from it. The reason is easy to understand: the two sisters (one of the appealing things about the magazine—it’s been run by two sisters, all this time) have been the conductors of the train for 30 years, and they are ready to close the station. They read every story that’s submitted: I read somewhere that they read thousands of stories a year. Crickey, I’d be tired too.

In early May, I didn’t send them a story, but a note:

Glimmer Sisters, my stomach dropped when I read that you guys were going to pull the shades on the train and picnic in green pastures. You have done such great work for writers for so long, it seemed like you were a perennial season—Spring comes to mind.

Thank you for your deep and generous work, Tom Bentley

And got this back the same day:

What a kind message, Tom. Thank you. Susan
P.S. Our stomachs dropped, too!

Sending the Story Before It Turns into a Pumpkin

At that point, I hadn’t been writing fiction for a while, spending all my time getting a novel published and marketed. But knowing that the train was pulling into the station, I was motivated. I’d had a story idea for a while and went for it; I sent it off to one of GT’s summer contests, hoping not to get a lump of coal. The “Sorry, no dice” form letter came through yesterday.

That didn’t cut too deep, despite my disappointment, so I sent them this message:

Susan and Linda, thanks for taking a look. Hope things are going well as you prepare your final salutes to a fine publication.

thanks, Tom

And again, a same-day response:

What a kind – and welcome! – message. Thank you, Tom. Susan

Motivation again: they are still accepting submissions through May of 2019. I have another idea for a short story. They are going to get it first.

You have to take your writing motivations where you can get them. If they come from the (rejection) kindness of strangers, all the better.

Antiheroes and Villains (Chinatown vs Our New Book)


Of course, a detective HAS to be nosy

I watched Chinatown a couple of nights ago, for the fourth or fifth time. It’s an atmospheric film with sharp acting, particularly the lead, Jack Nicholson. Though Jack seems to be playing a variant of many Jack Nicholson characters—snide, cynical, violent—he does it with such panache that it’s a thing of glory.

As the work develops, the story arc gets darker and darker and the villain who emerges turns out to be volcanically more villainous (and amoral) than first imagined. The script has several moving parts, but they are well greased, so that when the gears whir, they move you forward, into a fine mix of alarm and dread.

I’m talking about this because as I watched the movie, I was considering it against the collaborative novel of mine and a fellow writer’s that will be published soon. Jack’s character, detective Jake Gittes, is a kind of antihero, though in his two-steps-up-from lowlife role, he has no small charm. Gittes is like that line from a Dylan song, “To live outside the law you must be honest.” He adheres to a creed, even if it’s a bit crusty.

External and Internal Evils

Antihero or not, the villain in the work, the Noah Cross character, is actually evil. There’s a strong contrast between Detective Gittes’ ethical ambiguity and Cross’s crossed-every-line corruption. My Prohibition-era novel, Swirled All the Way to the Shrub, doesn’t have a clearcut villain, excepting for the lead character’s (Pinky DeVroom) poor judgment and impulsiveness. His villain seems to be his own consciousness, which despite his best efforts, keeps throwing him into absurd and emotionally dangerous situations. The Great Crash and subsequent Depression is also villain of sorts, exerting strong pressure on the story.

Pinky mistakenly thinks one of the secondary characters in the book is a villain, and that mistake turns into an emotional and practical disaster for him. But later in the work, an evildoer does come into view: corporate criminals wreaking societal havoc. Pinky finally has actual scoundrels to combat, drawing on resources that he might or might not have. Books and film scripts can work with both sharply drawn external villains and more ambiguous internal ones.

Interestingly (and I’m guessing you’ve seen the film, but if not, spoiler alert!), Chinatown has far from a Hollywood ending. The suggestion is that the villain will get away with it, and many people will pay harsh consequences.

I won’t tell you how Shrub will end, but I will say that it’s good writerly practice to see how film scripts work, to try and discern what forces try to tear the protagonists down, whether external or internal, and what’s left of the characters in the end. You will want your readers to be able to dramatically visualize your characters on the page in the great movie screens of their minds.

And of course, if we sell the movie rights to Shrub, Jack is a natural to play Pinky.

This Is Your Brain on Writing


Photo by Johannes Plenio from Pexels

I wrote a newsletter post last month about the weird compost-heap-of-the-mind phenomenon that happens with writers: you witness some event—and it might seem trivial at the time—in your past, put it on ice in the frosted back fridge of your brain for years, and one day you’re eating your pickled rutabagas for lunch and it happens: the event resurfaces, and you think: Why, that’s a story, that is!

And sometimes the prompt might even be something you’d read long ago, and even if you don’t dredge up the adjectives and adverbs, the tingling verb of the original story touches you: Why, I could make a story out of that story! Heck, it might even happen to you when you’re listening to a Paul Simon song and you think, Man, that guy’s short. No, I mean, you think: That song puts me in mind of a story.

You don’t even have to eat rutabagas for that to happen.

The Benefits of the Fermenting Brain

OK, that wonderful thing that is the fermenting brain does do some remarkable work, particularly when you just let it simmer for a bit. Case in point: in the article I referenced above, the idea for the story air-mailed itself into my mind like the cat grabbing for that live tuna you mistakenly left in your lap.

So I did write the story, with my usual hemming and hawing, delay and diversion. But I didn’t have an ending. Endings are a fine way to end a story, and I didn’t have one. But my sweetheart Alice gave me an ending opening: not the ending, just a suggestion for the vocations of some ancillary characters who come to visit my main character. Yeah, yeah, that’s good, that will add something.

It did: it added the ending. Just in the way that stories drop from the sky onto a writer’s addled pate, such did an ending for the story screech up in a taxi. And when I say that, I mean truly: this was a case of the entire ending, involving a full scene with all the story’s characters, coming into the brain like an injection. There’s something wonderful, scary and bizarre about how that happens.

Ponder and Incubate

I have read of many breakthroughs, often in science, where the scientist puzzles furiously over some insoluble problem for a week, then shuts the door on the problem while she relaxedly takes a bath—and zounds! The solution appears, a rabbit out of the hat. (Like all of you, I too wear a hat when I bathe.)

Here’s a short article, with a short video on this process, called The Four Stages of Creativity. It’s clear that you do have to engage the problem, in this case the ending of a story, before your story yeast is going to rise. There must be incubation. (Sorry I’m mixing cooking and gestation metaphors here, but the burners are on.) But the miracle of this is always so unexpected when an idea becomes bread, in an instant.

I don’t quite understand how it works, but I’m grateful. Now, whether the story is any good or not, that’s a different issue. I’m sending it out to see if anyone agrees. Have you had these hit-by-lightning story moments?

For Writers (and Readers), Sometimes Simple Is Best


I jump around a lot in my reading, from fiction to nonfiction, genre to genre, era to era. My current novel is O Pioneers!, written by Willa Cather in 1913. At that point, she was living in New York, having left the hardscrabble life of the Great Plains far behind. But that hard land, with its hard light, was in her blood, the source of her Prairie Trilogy of novels, of which Pioneers is the first.

Below is a passage from late in the book, where an omniscient narrator is describing Alexandra, the contained, self-sufficient protagonist of the work. I read this passage several times, noting that its cadence, simple word choice and weight are carriers of what I so often admire in fiction—and perhaps, because my own writing is so different, a literary vein whose mind feels closed to me.

There are a number of authors whose work is painted with spare and simple language that in the reading delivers a kind of haunting gravity. I’m thinking of Marilynne Robinson’s many novels, Kent Haruf’s work, some of Cormac McCarthy’s, a story like Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It. There’s a flinty character to how words are strung together that entrances me.

If you haven’t read the work, you won’t have the context of who Alexandra is (nor of Emil, her younger brother), so the impact will be softer. But still, read and listen to the work of the words:

Her personal life, her own realization of herself, was almost a subconscious existence; like an underground river that came to the surface only here and there, at intervals months apart, and then sank again to flow on under her own fields. Nevertheless, the underground stream was there, and it was because she had so much personality to put into her enterprises and succeeded in putting it into them so completely, that her affairs prospered better than those of her neighbors.

 

There were certain days in her life, outwardly uneventful, which Alexandra remembered as peculiarly happy; days when she was close to the flat, fallow world about her, and felt, as it were, in her own body the joyous germination in the soil. There were days, too, which she and Emil had spent together, upon which she loved to look back. There had been such a day when they were down on the river in the dry year, looking over the land. They had made an early start one morning and had driven a long way before noon. When Emil said he was hungry, they drew back from the road, gave Brigham his oats among the bushes, and climbed up to the top of a grassy bluff to eat their lunch under the shade of some little elm trees. The river was clear there, and shallow, since there had been no rain, and it ran in ripples over the sparkling sand. Under the overhanging willows of the opposite bank there was an inlet where the water was deeper and flowed so slowly that it seemed to sleep in the sun. In this little bay a single wild duck was swimming and diving and preening her feathers, disporting herself very happily in the flickering light and shade.

 

They sat for a long time, watching the solitary bird take its pleasure. No living thing had ever seemed to Alexandra as beautiful as that wild duck. Emil must have felt about it as she did, for afterward, when they were at home, he used sometimes to say, “Sister, you know our duck down there—” Alexandra remembered that day as one of the happiest in her life. Years afterward she thought of the duck as still there, swimming and diving all by herself in the sunlight, a kind of enchanted bird that did not know age or change.

 

Most of Alexandra’s happy memories were as impersonal as this one; yet to her they were very personal. Her mind was a white book, with clear writing about weather and beasts and growing things. Not many people would have cared to read it; only a happy few. She had never been in love, she had never indulged in sentimental reveries. Even as a girl she had looked upon men as work-fellows. She had grown up in serious times.

 

Simple Is Seductive

And if you lived through one of those late 19th-century Nebraska winters as Cather did, you’d have known serious times too. But what gets me about this little stretch of writing is its clarity and modesty. Its basis is that simple—perhaps entirely forgettable—memory between the siblings, and speaks of their deep bond, which is explored throughout the book, as well as Alexandra’s controlled yet-never-stiff reserve. Beautiful stuff.

Oh, another writer comes to mind too: Paul Bowles. The Sheltering Sky is an almost hallucinatory novel that uses razored, acute (and often very plain) language to describe shattering happenings in both the minds and lives of its characters and in the descriptive passages about North Africa. Whew! I have to read that again.

This care with language and the ability to weave existential weight into spare descriptions fascinates me. Something to aspire to in my own writing, but always to enjoy, regardless.