French-Russian novelist Francine Du Plessix Gray always begins her writing classes by asking students to compare the following sentences, the first from Nabokov’s memoir of his youth in pre-Revolutionary Russia, Speak Memory, the second from Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
“She turned on the steps to look back at me before descending into a jasmine-scented, cricket-mad dusk of a small train station.”-Nabokov
“The young man’s eyes had the opal lightings of dark oil…and fed too strongly inward to draw to a focus: whereas those of the young woman had each the splendor of a monstrance, and were brass.”-Agee
“Axiom One: What do these two sentences have in common? I ask my class, hoping to elicit the following answers: They each have that central attribute of great prose— a tonality and rhythm so flawless that no one syllable can be altered without radically upsetting the dynamics of the phrase. They each communicate, with eerie immediacy, the pitch of the author’s central theme— Nabokov’s, the pain of severance from a society irretrievably doomed; Agee’s, the tragic isolation of the dispossessed. But above all they captivate us by their vigor and freshness, by their never-before-seenness (“cricket-mad dusk,” “opal lightings”). And compare their erotic impact, dear class, their sheer sexiness, to the cliches of pulp fiction (“trembling mouth,” “glittering eyes”)— banalities that act like saltpeter on the lust of any intelligent reader because of their tyrannical staleness, their violent predictability. So think of each word as a potential spouse or lover, I tell my recruits: We can only avoid bromides or platitudes by combating the embrace of all words that are too long married, by struggling against any form of verbal missionary positions.”
“Keep your sentences erotic!” Gray pleads in her characteristically voluptuous, lush prose. In her dazzling essay, The Seduction of a Text, Gray outlines the four foundational pillars of her writing philosophy, which centrally rests on the premise that good writing is like great sex: the writer— like the pickup artist— must cultivate the fine art of seduction.
And what is seduction?
According to Gray, seduction is the “challenge to create a tension between the promise of gratification and the refined delay of that gratification— to intimate how much information I shall offer and how much I shall withhold.” Like the entrapment of a lover, we are only as alluring as the information we retain: the more we reveal, the less desirable we become. Longing begins with mystery. If we can anticipate the outcome of a magician’s every trick, what can follow but boredom?
The same goes with writing. If we are to enchant our readers with the stunning magic of our linguistic trickery, we must avoid cliches and their staleness and predictability. There is no lethargy in seductiveness. First love is exciting because it is new. Procure your distant crush, marry him and see what happens to your desire. Novelty is the fuel of yearning. We fantasize about the shy boy in the break room because he is unknown to us, as mysterious and exotic as a faraway land. We feel so little of that filthy, primal longing for our husbands because we know them too intimately; after being together for years— even decades— our lust has usually mutated into a more platonic understanding of each other.
This is what routine does to us. Repetitiveness sucks passion dry. Writing is just the same. Only when we rely on the same hum-drum, hackneyed phrases, the same obvious, imprecise words over and over (as if demanding we be more conscientious and peruse the thesaurus for a sharper word required so much effort) does writing become a bore. And not just for our reader— who can at least shut the covers when he’s fatigued— for us as well. Committing thought to page should be a great adventure, not a tedious task to get over and done.
Imagine each sentence, each word as a potential lover. After all, what is creating if not the grandest love affair? Van Gogh didn’t paint Starry Night out of a mundane sense of duty; he worked diligently to shade the surreal contours of blue and yellow sky simply because he thought it was beautiful. A writer is nothing but someone who cherishes words. Once we are made weary by our own lack of imagination, the reader has no choice but to follow suit; thus, Robert Frost’s age-old adage remains true: we can only captivate the reader if we are captivated ourselves.
So I suppose the question is how do we remain fascinated by our craft when we engage in our craft everyday? This is a problem that troubles me every morning when I get up to the keyboard. Rarely do I wake up excited to frolic and play; instead, I dread having to give meaningful form to my ideas. Each new page brings with it the possibility of rejection or worse, the possibility of comparison to pages written prior. So concerned am I with saying something that I forget why I love writing in the first place: the tonality and rhythm so flawless, as Gray would say, that no one syllable can be altered without radically upsetting the dynamics of the phrase; the satisfaction at seeing a family of long estranged words finally reunited and brought back together; the rare delight of putting just the right word in just the right place.
There are extrinsic and intrinsic reasons why we practice our craft. Extrinsically, I write because I have something to say and because I want to share what I have to say with the world. And I write because, extrinsically, I hope that what I write will someday change it. But intrinsically, I write because I love language. Day to day, only our intrinsic drives can keep us motivated.