Writing Lessons

Writing Lessons from Audre Lorde’s “The Fourth of July”


Master of the macabre Stephen King once said, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”  Many aspiring writers think writing requires a magic formula: a certain number of pages or words a day, a particular brand of pencil, a superstitious adherence to a specific ritual.  To be “real” writers—they believe— they must follow a strict schedule like Henry Miller or walk avidly like William Wordsworth.

But the secret to writing is really no secret at all.  To write, you must simply read…a lot.  If you want to be a writer, you should read for delight and pleasure, of course, but you should also read critically to refine your craft.

When you read with an analytical eye, your library becomes a university hall of the wisest writing teachers.  Seductress of sentences Anais Nin can teach you to evade the pesky perfectionism of your inner censor, while Sylvia Plath can be your professor in Intro to Narrative Structure.  John Hersey can demonstrate the power of “writing small,” while Ernest Hemingway can teach you how to captivate your reader by concealing more than you disclose.  Ultimately, dissecting (and emulating) great work is how to produce your own.

Whenever I’m stuck on a piece of writing, I look to my favorite writers for inspiration.  How did they create a sense of time passing?  How did they convey essential but potentially dull facts in a way that was interesting?  How did they use figurative language to convey their meaning?  

Like many writers, I specifically struggle with endings.  On one hand, I agree with school teachers when they say a conclusion should restate your main points.  Imagine reading as a safari.  You, the writer, are the tour guide who leads the reader through the states of your argument or the events of your story.  By reiterating your central themes at the end, you remind the reader of all the ground you’ve crossed throughout their journey (this sort of restatement is especially crucial in a long piece of writing).  

However, too much repetition can make your ending unimaginative and uninspiring.  Your ending should retrace your steps— but more than that— it should bring the narrative to a satisfying resolution and direct your reader to greater meaning.  Like an unforgettable beginning, a good ending lingers in your memory.

One of my favorite endings comes from the narrative essay “The Fourth of July” by writer, womanist and activist Audre Lorde.  After her and her sister graduate, Lorde’s parents take them to Washington D.C. to celebrate.  Throughout the story, Lorde and her family are discriminated against because of their race: they can’t sit in the train’s dining car and they’re barred from eating their vanilla ice cream at Breyer’s ice cream parlor.

When I first read Lorde’s ending, I was struck by its narrative cohesion and literary mastery:

“The waitress was white, and the counter was white, and the ice cream I never ate in Washington D.C. that summer I left childhood was white, and the white heat and the white pavement and the white stone monuments of my first Washington summer made me sick to my stomach the whole rest of that trip and it wasn’t much of a graduation present after all.”

So what makes Lorde’s final lines the paragon of a perfect ending? 

form mirrors conten

As is often the case in adept pieces of writing, in Lorde’s “The Fourth of July,” form mirrors content brilliantly.  Here, Lorde’s striking sentences assault us with their unrelenting repetition.  The “white” waitress, “white” counter and “white” ice cream serve as heartbreaking reminders of all the things Lorde can’t experience that summer in Washington D.C.  Furthermore, the images of “white heat,” “white pavement,” and “white stone” suggest racism is not an isolated occurrence but a deeply entrenched part of American society.  Indeed, even our nation’s monuments are “white,” indicating our supposedly equal democracy is built on foundations of exclusion and white supremacy.  By describing everything as white from the ice cream parlor to the larger city of Washington D.C., Lorde underscores her alienation as a black woman in a white-majority country.  The word “white” is as inescapable as Lorde’s blackness: no matter where she goes, she will always be banned from certain spaces because of her African American identity. 

the ending echoes the beginning 

Like all expertly-crafted endings, Lorde’s conclusion poignantly returns to the essay’s central themes.

In the first paragraph, Lorde describes Washington D.C. as the “fabled and famous capital of our country.”  As a poet with a sensitive ear for double meanings, Lorde cleverly chooses the word “fabled” to describe our nation’s capital, a word that connotes both something renowned and something mythical or imaginary.  From the first few sentences, we get the unsettling sense that Washington D.C. and all it symbolizes— equality, freedom, democracy, the American Dream— is illusory, as make-believe as a child’s bedtime story.

Ultimately, “The Fourth of July” is the coming-of-age story of a young black girl who realizes she doesn’t belong in her own country.  A savant of story-telling, Lorde establishes this theme from the very first line: “The first time I went to Washington D.C. was on the edge of the summer when I was supposed to stop being a child.”  She returns to this same theme in the last line when she recalls this period as “the summer I left childhood,” a phrase that literally refers to the fact that Lorde has left early adolescence and is entering high school, but figuratively suggests she’s lost her innocence as well.  Sadly, Lorde’s trip to our nation’s “fabled and famous” capital disabuses her of any illusions she had about her country.  Ironically, she learns there is no such thing as “liberty and justice for all” in Washington D.C., the epicenter of American democracy, especially if you’re black in the 1940s.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s