A friend who is currently writing a book sent me an email about its progress. She told me she’d started to read H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald’s award-winning memoir of how she dealt with her grief over her father’s death through falconry. My friend had had to stop reading the book, she related, because she’d been intimidated by MacDonald’s lush vocabulary and poetic style and it made her feel inadequate as a writer. Her own language was much more down to earth, she wrote, and she was trying to tell a story very plainly.
I have not read MacDonald’s book, but my friend’s comments did strike home. I, too, tend toward lushness in my prose. I often ask my sentences to carry a lot of weight—not least by freighting them with dependent clauses, balancing them between several semi-colons, and never allowing a noun or verb to complete their tasks without colorful adjectives or adverbs as chaperones. Once I’ve reached a first draft, I polish my prose to a dazzling sheen, which is not to say that it’s clear, well-written, insightful, or compelling. It may sound resonant; it may be lyrical; it may offer to the reader a veneer that suggests a rich grain of considered thought. But, in the end, the polish can lacquer the prose to the point of lifelessness.
I’m currently reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, the first volume of her much-lauded re-imagination of the life and times of Henry VIII’s fixer, Thomas Cromwell. I’ve no doubt that Mantel labored as mightily over her prose as MacDonald did hers, and I do mine. What’s remarkable, however, about Mantel’s writing is that it feels as unvarnished and sometimes as muddled (who is the “he” in this sentence?) as the times she is describing. Sentences tumble into each other; we move back and forth in time and in and out of Cromwell’s head frequently within paragraphs; names are dropped, kicked around, and picked up again with abandon (and who is this “Thomas”?). Yet it all works. The prose more than breathes; it runs, pants, shouts, laughs, whispers, and has all the energetic vital signs you want in a book. It’s Dickensian in all the right ways: expansive, unafraid, pell-mell, and rich with characters and incidents. And in its own way as plain as day.
My worry as a writer is that my effort to make each word matter and to render each sentence beautiful is my way of avoiding producing sentences over which I don’t have complete control, which is itself a symptom of fearing not that I lack the tools to write a book but that I don’t actually have enough raw materials to make anything worthwhile. My facility, after all, hints at facileness. Yet a little less polish might open up cracks in the story to reveal emotional, intellectual, and narrative depths that had heretofore been plastered over by “fine” writing. The task is not to write plainly or beautifully; the task is to write truthfully. And sometimes that is a harder and scarier prospect than any prose style can fix.