Great Writing Isn’t Alchemy, It’s Hard Work: Alfred Kazin’s Trip to the Beach

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It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true. If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but “didn’t have time to read,” I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner.

Steven King (On Writing 147)

As Stephen King notes, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot” (145).

But many people don’t realize that writing is a craft to be mastered. They think it’s some sort of alchemy that mysteriously springs out of one’s experiences. That’s why some people who know very little about writing think they could produce a great memoir or an enticing novel. They love their fabulous lives so much. They are so glamorous, so amusing, and they know so many unique people—the book would practically write itself.

With the application of talent and much work, a great writer can reveal the beauty and complexity of a common experience. In his memoir A Walker in the City, Alfred Kazin relives the train ride to and from Coney Island on a hot summer day:

       It was from the El on its way to Coney Island that I caught my first full breath of the city in the open air. Groaning its way past a thousand old Brooklyn red fronts and tranquil awnings, that old train could never go slowly enough for me as I stood on the open platform between the cars, holding on to the gate. In the dead calm of noon, heat mists drifted around the rusty green spires of unknown churches; below, people seemed to kick their heels in the air just a moment before being swept from my sight. With each homey crásh-crásh crásh-crásh of the wheels against the rails, there would steal up at me along the bounding slopes of the awnings the nearness of all those streets in middle Brooklyn named after generals of the Revolutionary War. I tasted the sweetness of summer on every opening in my face. As we came back at night along the El again, the great reward of the long parched day, far better than any massed and arid beach, was the chance to stand up there between the cars, looking down on the quiet streets unrolling below me as we passed. The rusty iron cars ground against each other, protesting they might fall apart at each sharp turn. But in the steady crásh-crásh crásh-crásh there was a comforting homeward sound as the black cars rocked on the rails and more and more men and boys in open shirts came out on the top platform fiercely breathing the wind-changed damp air. In the summer night the city had an easy unstitched look—people sat on the corner watching the flies buzz around the street lamps, or at bedroom windows openly yawning as they stared past us (137-138).

First, notice the extreme paucity of adverbs.

I tell my students that nouns and verbs should do the heavy lifting. When you choose the right nouns and verbs, fewer adjective and adverbs are required.

For example, I could say “My landlord is a mean, ugly, tyrannical, bossy, gruesome, overbearing man.” Or I could simply say “My landlord is an ogre.” The appropriate noun eliminates the need for several adjectives.

And speaking of adjectives, notice how Kazin utilizes several noncordinate adjectives. Coordinate adjectives are parallel, modifying their nouns independently. That’s why we separate them with commas (big, bad John; new, green car). The effect of coordinate adjectives is cumulative; however, noncoordinate adjectives, when properly employed, multiply meaning into something new and beautiful: “first full breath” “rusty green spires” “long parched day” “rusty iron cars” “comforting homeward sound“ “wind-changed damp air” “easy unstitched look.” (Alfred Kazin’s beloved mother was a seamstress.)

I’ve affirmed the elegance simple sentences. I will repeat myself: I wouldn’t want to live in a world without them. And simple sentences are even more beautiful when they are rare. Like a great jeweler, Kazin positions a great gem in the middle of his creation: I tasted the sweetness of summer on every opening in my face.

Notice the strongest character in this paragraph, the anthropomorphized train: “protesting they might fall apart at each sharp turn” “Groaning its way past a thousand old Brooklyn red fronts and tranquil awnings”

Finally, notice how Kazin plays upon the illusion that world itself is in motion: “people seemed to kick their heels in the air just a moment before being swept from my sight” “streets unrolling below me as we passed”

by Richard W. Bray

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