Interior Landscapes: a GPS for Writers
Marilyn L. Taylor
Marilyn L. Taylor
Landscapes. Painters paint them, photographers take pictures of them, your dreams are probably loaded with them. But for writers, landscapes very often have nothing to do with sunsets or amber waves of grain. Instead, they’re created entirely from a kind of subtle verbal dance—the interplay of tone, mood, and something called stance, or point-of-view. For this reason, I suggest that many of the poems we write can be called “landscapes” as well—not necessarily literal descriptions, but landscapes of the emotions. Psychological environments, in other words, that readers are invited to walk right into—not only to explore the physical setting, but to take in the emotional surroundings, too.
For example, perhaps not everybody recalls that Shakespeare’s King Richard III dies in battle at a place called Bosworth. On the other hand, virtually everyone remembers the emotional environment closing in on Richard as he cries out: A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse! Something similar might be said for the emotional landscape that Edna St. Vincent Millay conjures when she begins a poem (ostensibly directed to one of her lovers) with Oh, oh, you will be sorry for that word! Is the voice a flirtatious one? Exasperated? Annoyed? All three? We understand that we’ve entered a subtle psychological environment, created single-handedly by Millay. Still another setting (with vastly different special effects) is presented to the reader when Dylan Thomas, in his memorable villanelle titled “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” begs his terminally ill father to Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Shakespeare, of course, could easily have had his King Richard mumble, “I’d really like to have a horse right now.” Millay might have addressed her lover with “Wow, I sure wish you hadn’t said that.” And Thomas could have simply asked his dad to get well soon. But instead of succumbing to banalities, these writers selected words that infused their lines with bold strokes of emotional color.
Which brings us to our own work, both poetry and prose—and its potential to take a reader by the hand. Or the arm. Or in some cases, by the throat. If the writing is pretty good in the first place, all we really need to do to make it extraordinary is to think about individual words. Often the difference between a piece of writing that does its job in a practical sort of way and another that achieves resonance beyond the sum of its parts is simply a matter of very careful word-choices. Just as a visual artist will select her pigments and brushes with great deliberation, the best writers know they must do the same with their own tools, i.e. the English lexicon.
As writers, incidentally, we’re extremely lucky to be speakers of English, and for a very practical reason: we have more words. More words to choose from. More synonyms, more possibilities at our disposal than we would in any other language. Our thesauruses are much fatter than the French ones and the Italian ones and the Chinese ones. To be more specific, an expert who was recently interviewed on NPR estimated the number of words in the modern English language—excluding the highly technical ones—at 615,000. German scores a weak second with about 185,00, and French comes in third with a paltry 150,000.
So with all that equipment out there waiting for us, we ought to be choosing our words with great seriousness and artistry, as our finest writers have done since the dawn of the written language. A well-known example:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. -Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, 1813
How much more effective is that than “Everybody knows that a wealthy single man really ought to have a wife.”? Something crucial simply isn’t there anymore, because of lackluster word choices. Note the difference between “Everybody knows” and “It is a truth universally acknowledged.” Without that longer, more elaborate phrase, the sentence loses its over-the-topness, its wonderful authority-over-absolutely-nothing-- everything that gives it its richness and its subversive humor.
Another recognizable example:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like—and how my parents were “occupied” (and all) before they had me—and all that David Copperfield kind of crap—but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
-J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, 1951
It’s almost the lack of a rich vocabulary here that gives this sentence its effectiveness. If Salinger had written something like: “You probably want information about where I was born, and a summary of my childhood experiences, and some insights about my parents and their activities, but I’m not going to tell you.” Maybe some of the straightforwardness remains, but none of the charm and authenticity of Holden Caulfield’s voice. Salinger clearly selected his words and phrasing for Holden with great care. It undoubtedly came easily to him, but there was artistry going on here.
What about this one?
The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. -L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between, 1953
My personal view is that this is one of the finest opening sentences ever written in English. Why? Because of the care the author took in creating that astonishing metaphor. Rather than claiming that “in the past, people behaved differently from the way they do now”, Hartley presents the past as an actual physical place, which, at least in our imaginations, it is. It’s a place we can visit, explore, and depart from (although some might have a little more trouble departing from it than others). In any case, suffice to say that from Hartley’s narrator’s point of view, “the past” includes scenery, events, conventions of behavior, and ways of speaking, in much the same way that a foreign country does. Hartley also suggests, almost undetectably, that one may not like it very much. Thinking about the past might make some feel uncomfortable—a bit like outlanders, illegal aliens, even fugitives— “guilty parties” who were never caught.
Would any of these psychological subtleties be suggested if the book began with: “In the past, people behaved differently from the way they do now.”? Not a chance.
I’d like to conclude these ruminations with a mention of that famous compilation of excruciatingly bad writing known as the Bulwer-Lytton Competition, or the “Dark and Stormy Night" contest—run by the English Department at San Jose State University in California. Entrants are asked to concoct and submit the worst opening line possible for an unwritten novel. Here are a few of the recent winners:
1. She walked into my office on legs as long as one of those long-legged birds that you see in Florida-- the pink ones, not the white ones—except that she was standing on both of them, not just one of them like those birds, the pink ones—and she wasn't wearing pink, but I knew right away that she was trouble which those birds usually aren't.
2. Just beyond the narrows, the river widens.
3. With a curvaceous figure that Venus would have envied, a tanned unblemished oval face framed with lustrous thick brown hair, deep azure-blue eyes fringed with long black lashes, perfect teeth that vied for competition, and a small straight nose—Marilee had a beauty that defied description.
These are intended to be parodies, of course. We already know that using such awkward, hackneyed language is something we would never do, and we’re aware that the result would fall somewhere between mildly clumsy and hilariously funny. I will therefore close with the following simple recommendation: try to be as certain as you can that every word you write is chosen with extreme care, down to the last conjunction and pronoun. The goal is to go beyond the physical and to create, instead, a convincing psychological/emotional landscape that conveys an identifiable mood, a definitive stance, a clear point of view.
Do this, and the river will widen. Guaranteed.
Editor's Note: If you would like to write to Marilyn about this article, her email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org
©2017 Marilyn L. Taylor