Jane Smiley and The Art of Writing Well

It strikes me that the writer who is Christian often has a lot to say but has not concentrated on saying it well. I pondered this after a recent conversation with Jane Smiley.

Jane Smiley stands tall as a literary luminary and physically; she is 6’2″. I discovered the latter when an earthquake shook Seattle while I was interviewing Jane for her book “Horse Heaven.” As we rushed to huddle under a doorframe in our swaying Fremont studio, I remember wondering if she would fit. (An odd question given that I’m 6’3″).

Her status in literary circles is unquestioned; winner of the Pulitzer Prize for “A Thousand Acres” and inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2001. While talking to her about her book Good Faith she illustrated how commitment to craft drives her creative process.

I often explore with authors how the themes they “tease out” in their writing, sometimes reveal the issues they are working through in their personal life. Obvious examples include Sue Miller’s “The Story of My Father” about her dad’s Alzheimer’s, Robert Stone’s pre-occupation with the spiritual seeker as seen in “Damascus Gate,” “Bay of Souls” and “Outerbridge Reach,” and Chuck Paluhniuk’s exposes of American consumerism in “Fight Club” and “Lullaby.”

But when I asked Jane what we learn about her in “Good Faith,” she looked like a deer caught in the headlights. She paused to gather her thoughts (she often does this¢â‚¬¦she’s very analytical) and told a story about Paul Simon, who once during an interview seemed mystified by the rapturous and very personal interpretation of one of his songs by an interviewer. Simon said, “actually when writing that song I was less focused on lyrics and was concentrating on a rhythmic problem I was working to solve.” In the same way, Smiley reported that in “Good Faith” she knew she had a good story and focused on the problems associated with telling it well. She was attracted to the project by a good story and sustained by the artistic challenges. The book makes a point, but that was not what drove the process.

This is a great cautionary word to the writer who operates from a Christian worldview. Good writing requires combining “having something to say” with the ability to say it well. As Walter Bagehot once said, “the reason so few good books are written is that so few people who can write know anything!”

It strikes me that the writer who is Christian usually has a lot to say but often has not concentrated on saying it well. A talented writer paying attention to craft writes noteworthy songs like Paul Simon and engaging novels like Jane Smiley.

Posted in Staublog, Thoughts in June 9, 2003 by | No Comments »

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