What is your neighborhood like on a dark and stormy night? If you were asked to describe it, what would you write?
Here’s how a writer’s description might begin:
On a rainy winter evening, under the streetlights, young men in raincoats and hats hurry home through the howling wind, grumbling, while old folks cower under umbrellas on their way home to their cozy homes where their families and dogs and flat-screen TVs are waiting for them.
As the beginning of a story, that would be acceptable, I suppose.
But one writer wasn’t content with that. Read the beginning of his story. Read it out loud.
It was six o’clock on a winter’s evening. Thin, dingy rain spat and drizzled past the lighted street lamps. The pavements shone long and yellow. In squeaking galoshes, with mackintosh collars up and bowlers and trilbies weeping, youngish men from the offices bundled home against the thistly wind—
‘Night, Mr Macey.’
‘Going my way, Charlie?’
‘Ooh, there’s a pig of a night!’
‘Good night, Mr Swan.’—
and older men, clinging on to the big, black circular birds of their umbrellas, were wafted back, up the gaslit hills, to safe, hot, slippered, weatherproof hearths, and wives called Mother, and old, fold fleabag dogs, and the wireless babbling.
Now we’re talking.
A few weeks ago, I shared the opening pages of this story with fifteen young, aspiring writers in a college writing course. The only thing I love as much as writing is teaching. My wife Anne co-taught this course with me. We had the honor of serving as Writers in Residence at Covenant College in Georgia during Autumn Quarter. It was a fiction writing course, but the class that we had imagined was about how to improve and enrich fiction writing by practicing the disciplines of poetry. So we needed the expertise of a poet, and Anne brought her insights to meet that need.
I asked the students to pick out their favorite words and phrases from the first few pages of this story, and to highlight the lines that sounded most musical, the most biscuits-and-gravy delicious. What is a “thistly wind” and how is it different from a “whistling wind”? What do we learn by reading that they had “mackintosh collars up and bowlers and trilbies weeping…”? What is a trilby, anyway, and what does it mean that it’s weeping?
Then we turned our attention to the opening paragraphs of the students’ own stories. How much else might they reveal by rewriting them? How might they draw us in for a fuller, more sensual, more suggestive experience? We encouraged them to focus fiercely upon particularity — particularity of details in that specific time and place, and particularity of dialect and dialogue. We urged them toward particularly unexpected vocabulary that might make the ordinary seem strange and somehow new.
You can tell, reading about that “pig of a night,” that the author has experienced nights just like it.
And that’s why Dylan Thomas composed such a smashingly specific and savory paragraph to start off one of my favorite short stories, “The Followers.”
We also talked about the sounds in Thomas’s story, about the momentum of that paragraph that builds like a clunky old car trundling down a bumpy, rainslick road. Most of us associate musical prose with children’s stories — with Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein and writers of whimsy and wit. But why should we ever stop enjoying language that snaps, crackles, and pops?
Just listen to this reading of “Jabberwocky” by Benedict Cumberbatch.
It’s the music of language that makes words, lines, and whole paragraphs and poems stick in our heads. It’s the music that makes us stop and read something out loud to ourselves. That’s when writing ceases to be just consonants and vowels printed on a page, and becomes the chewy goodness of a meal.
And when we’re enjoying what we read for its form as well as its content, we are more likely to absorb its implications, its questions, its revelations, in stronger, more lasting, more personal ways.
We didn’t stop there. We read the opening pages of Billy Bathgate, by E.L. Doctorow; Out of Africa, by Isak Dinesin; The Road, by Cormac McCarthy; and poems by Robert Frost, Adam Zagajewski, Luci Shaw, and a few by one of my favorite poets — Anne M. Doe Overstreet, herself.
How does writing like this come about?
It’s easy to explain, difficult to do: Writers write paragraphs over and over and over and over again. They engage in all kinds of playful experiments. They try rhymes. They try rhythms. They do archaeological digs in search of just the right words. And then they try to achieve something that keeps us immersed, enthralled, without ever drawing attention to themselves instead of the subject.
Try it out. Take ten minutes and scribble down a description — no more than 125 words long, like the example above. Introduce us to a dark and stormy night in your neighborhood. Show us your neighborhood as vividly and specifically as possible. Prove to us you’ve experienced it. Make us see it, hear it, feel it when we close our eyes.
Feel free to email it to me, or to post it in a Comment below. I’ll post what you send, along with your first name (or, if you prefer, your full name). Let us all experience what it’s like in your neighborhood on a dark and stormy night.