Monday, June 20, 2011

Too Much Beauty

Do you always try to create beauty when you write?...Should you?

When I was in my earlier stages of writing a few years ago, the organizer of a writer's group I joined told me that my writing was too beautiful all the time, even the scenes that had to do with conflict. What he meant by that was that I was always choosing sounds that sounded good together and describing scenes that were full of nice things like gardens and clear skies. He argued that too much beauty made a reader numb to it, like how a marmot might take a rose for granted after living its entire life in a rose garden.

He told me to listen to Shostakovich.

If you've never listened to Shostakovich (aside from at least one arrangement of "Tea For Two" that he did very prettily as the result of a bet), I'll say that he can be a bit ugly at times. His violin concerto No. 1, for example, begins with dark cello sounds, interrupted by the tense violin that sounds as if it is in great pain. Swampy clarinets come in. Low strings pulse. The violin continues to suffer. It grows quiet. It grows delirious. Really, listening to it sometimes, I just want to pinch the last bit of its life away.

But, eventually, if you do stick with the music, following it through several minutes of sadness mixed with some more barbaric sections, there comes a moment when Shostakovich gives us a few seconds of a truly beautiful run. It surfaces unexpectedly, all the more special because of the dark journey we have taken to get to it.

In a way, the darkness becomes the set up for that fleeting moment of beauty, and, at least for me, hitting the rewind button to skip back a few seconds to the nice part doesn't ever create the emotion as well as coming to it after listening from the very beginning again.

I realize, after yesterday's discussion, that this lesson of including the ugly things between the beauty has always stuck with me, even though I don't consciously think about it anymore. I was caught off guard when I heard that my writing made people uncomfortable or upset (as someone else put it), but as I think back on it, I realize that I had chosen that path while I was creating these stories. I let myself put some ugliness in because I liked the way it contrasted against the beauty. And, I realize now that everything I've written recently follows the same approach. That's why I wrote about a cannibal, and a lot of sections of Cyberlama delve into the ugliness as well.

Not every book has to be like that, though. I'm currently reading Judy Croome's Dancing In The Shadows Of Love, that has consistent beauty, in my opinion. And, within that story, I can still see an emotional range. It's like the marmot can live in the rose garden but still notice that one rose is more beautiful than all the other ones. Instead of contrasting the rose to the mud, the contrast occurs between a pretty rose over a less pretty one. Or something. The experience of reading it is different in a sense that I'm not as afraid that my shoes will get dirty. It is a more comfortable journey.

I guess, then, that there's sort of a basal level of beauty that a writer builds into the foundation of a story, and then, based on that basal level, it is her or his job to create a dynamic range that can rise above and sink below that level. As long as the range is there, the writer can choose (or maybe the writer can't choose?) where the middle of that range lies. Without any range at all, the writing might feel monotonous.

As far as deciding just how much beauty to put into it, that's something that I'll often wonder about. Maybe it's an arbitrary decision. I don't really know.

Where are you on this? Do you think about beauty when you write? Do you try to contrast it with ugliness? More generally, is beauty important at all?


  1. This is an excellent point. Things have to be varied, in order to define each other. Like there would be no light if darkness didn't exist to make it what it was.

    And joy would be meaningless without sorrow.

    But it's easier said than done when it comes to writing. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. I've been thinking about your post and it seems that my favorite writers are beautiful but often not-so-beautiful at the same time. I don't know how to describe it.

    Take Cormac McCarthy, for example. Beautiful writing, powerful imagery but he's often describing something that is not at all beautiful. Eudora Welty could do that too. But when I think about a particular scene they've written or an image, even if it can hardly be called beautiful - I'll remember it as beautiful.

    I'm not making a whole lot of sense.

  3. The longer a work is, the more it needs multiple elements to provide some degree of balance. A poem can be all beauty, and even a short story, buy as you expand into the realms of novella and novel you need something as a contrast to illustrate WHY something is beautiful. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but as writers we have the ability to influence the field of vision so our readers see first what we want them to see, and then look further with their own insight.

  4. Beautiful post! I have never even though about it to be honest. Now that i do, I realize that i too enjoy writers who have miced up the ugly with the pretty. What is more, Stephen King evokes some pretty haunting ugly images and those are the ones that stay with me.

    Right now I am reading a book about a leper. It's.. well, it makes me very uncomfortable. At the same time, I'm hooked because you can't actually see those things in life unless they happen to you. It's horrible yes, but it has some sort of wicked pool. being human, we just need both sides of the spectrum and that is why the beauty and the ugly should always dance together on the page. :)

    This is a truly lovely and insightful post. Thank you! :)

  5. Matthew, no one said anything about this being easy! :) I do think, though, that if one keeps the idea of contrast in mind, one can eventually get it into the writing.

    Cynthia, having read McCarthy, I do think I understand what you mean. And, it's sort of what I was getting at with Croome's book. There are hard scenes in it, some brutal and painful, but she maintains a more lovely prose throughout. I get the same thing from McCarthy.

    Rick, for me, what you describe here is something I think about when I imagine having a body of work completed, multiple books. I really like the idea that a writer can show off his or her range that way and have some really dark books along with some lighter ones. And, I think you're right that this becomes more important the longer a single work becomes.

  6. Lyn, I think this is very insightful: "being human, we just need both sides of the spectrum and that is why the beauty and the ugly should always dance together on the page." As a human myself, I do often crave a range, even though I find it hard to explain why. Life feels richer to me that way.

  7. Excellent post, Davin. I've been thinking a lot about this lately, as well. I've thought about it since picking up your cannibal book and how you made me care so much about a terrible criminal and seemingly awful person. I still care about him. The book was uncomfortable, but fascinating and beautiful at the same time. Your prose has always struck me as beautiful, even when you're focusing on something that is not. Your subjects are usually what make me uncomfortable, not the writing. That's something to think about, but I'm not sure it's what you're getting at. I'm not sure I've ever tried to accomplish a lower base, as you put it.

    Probably one of the most consistent things readers say about my writing is that it's beautiful. That probably means that I work on a much higher base, like Judy does. A garden full of roses. However, sometimes I just chop the roses down like in Cinders. That's upsetting for people, and it might be even more upsetting when I do it with beautiful language...

  8. I was going to say pretty much what Michelle just said, that I'm not sure if you're talking about subject matter or prose. I'll assume that you mean subject matter because you, Michelle and I are all pretty insistent upon beautiful prose so that's likely a given.

    It's interesting that you talk about a sort of base level of beauty. I think of it the other way around, usually, and consider how far into the dark I'm willing to go. My basic rule (and I wish I could remember what writer I stole this from) is "there's no such thing as too far, there's only too soon" by which I mean you can go as dark and ugly as you want, but you have to lead the reader there and it's a journey, not a style if you know what I mean. Louis de Bernieres' Birds Without Wings goes deep into the horrors of warfare (in the most beautiful, poetic language imaginable) but he does it a step at a time over a couple hundred pages.

    As others here have already pointed out, a story grows richer when you contrast light/dark, beauty/ugliness, tragedy/comedy, etc. I like to do that on large scales but also in small, in each scene. Little details that provoke, sort of.

    I don't really think about this stuff on a conscious level anymore, though. It's just sort of how I write these days.

  9. Great points, Davin. Like MacNish said, you have to have both to have balance. We wouldn't no ugliness without beauty. What a great post. I will buy Judy's book when it comes out in print. (I think she has plans for that.) Cause I don't want a Kindle. :-)

    I reviewed your book over at my place today. I truly enjoyed reading it, Davin. :-)

  10. Okay typo in my comment. GAH! We wouldn't KNOW... Sheesh.

  11. Michelle, I did understand that it wasn't necessarily prose style that was making you uncomfortable. I think the ugliness (not in a bad way) can come in prose or in character or in details. For me, and others might disagree, I don't always think my prose is "beautiful". At least I don't try to make it that way for the most part. There are times when I try to make something sound beautiful, but most of the time it's not on my mind. I would also say that you had that higher base level in your writing. I see it most in your short stories, which often strike me as poetic. I see it in your photography too.

    Scott, do you think writing about war or death or some other dark subject is strengthened or weakened or unaffected by beautiful prose? This is getting back to what I just said to Michelle, but I don't try to write beautifully. In my mind, my writing is straight forward and neutral. (This is my perception anyway.) To me, you, Michelle, and Judy have a more beautiful prose style--McCarthy too. I choose a more neutral style because I'm worried that beautiful prose takes away from the power of dark subject matter. I'd be curious to see what you and anyone else things about that.

    Robyn, I'm also waiting for a print version of Judy's book. I am making my way through the Kindle version because it's what's available, but I know that I would be flipping back and forth more if I had the print. You made me really happy by reading my book, Robyn. That means a lot to me that you would do that. Thank you! I read the review and it is so nice. I feel great! :)

  12. We may have to define "beautiful prose." I think yours is beautiful, and I'm sure Michelle agrees. Your prose is not as ornate, maybe, as mine and you don't use as many poetic devices as Michelle does, but your prose is beautiful.

    Anyway, taking that quibble off the table, I don't know if the poetry or prosiness of the prose changes the impact of the ugliness/whatever of the content. I'm going to invoke the Daley Defense and say "it depends on the execution." By which I think I mean that you can't point to this stuff without seeing the entire piece, because as you say about the Shostakovich, it's about contrast. Would that final image of The Road, the fish in the river, have any meaning at all if it didn't follow the whole narrative that came first? I doubt it. It works the same way for darker hues of fiction as it does for the shiny.

    You should give Bartok's "Concerto for Orchestra" a try. The big climax in the first act sends shivers down my spine every time I hear it. But it only works if you hear the 10 minutes or so of music that comes beforehand.

  13. "there's no such thing as too far, there's only too soon"

    Scott, that's a lovely quote, and I agree with it wholeheartedly. I think you've done that well in your writing so far, and so has Davin. Books have to be taken as a whole, and it's a shame when a reviewer points out only specific things without taking other context into consideration. I see that happen a lot.

    On the other side, writing is the same way. I often have no idea how dark my stories will go, even from the outline. I just let them wind their way where they'll go, just as long as I can hit the main points. I have a feeling Scales is going to get pretty dark, though. I'm kind of excited. :)

  14. Domey- I don't think beautiful prose detracts from dark themes. To use the Daley Defense, it does depend on the execution. I can picture examples where prose that is too beautiful (overtly purple) could spoil a macabre scene, but then again prose that is too beautiful could spoil any scene.

    I like that matter-of-fact narrative in your short stories. When you do dig into your toolbox for similes and metaphors they stand out more. If you wrap something pretty in something beautiful and then set it next to something gorgeous, you risk rendering it all mundane.

  15. Ugliness and beauty are just other tools writers use. When you quickly change your style, even for a paragraph, the small shock a reader receives can lend itself to a powerful moment. It's a tricky business.

  16. Scott, Ornate is a good word to describe what I was talking about. I will listen to some Bartok tonight!

    Michelle, I feel like I go into stories with the idea that it will be dark or not dark. The actual product I end up with in the end doesn't always match up, though.

    Rick, I've been drawn to that matter-of-fact style for a long time now. I'm not really sure why, do be honest. I think maybe it just feels the most natural to me.

    McKenzie, Do you see ugliness and beauty as equal things? Would you be okay reading a book that has more ugliness than beauty?

  17. I'll just add that I don't worry about the ugly:beautiful ratio in my writing or in the books I read. My criteria are that whatever is in the story must be true to that story, must have the ring of truth in general, must not seem gratuituous. Whether that's something bad or something good happening. I find unearned happy endings to be just as objectionable as gratuitious violence, for example. When I write, I just try to follow the truth of the story as I see it, wherever that truth leads. Some of the tenderness in Cocke & Bull surprised me just as much as some of the ultraviolence. But it all felt true so it all got into the book. In the most beautiful language I could manage, yes. And beauty is not a synonym for fancy, right?

  18. Stick with it, it suits you. It may be like Scott's comment regarding his style...he doesn't think about it any more, it's just how he writes. You could probably consider it a signature of your voice.

    Sometimes I like a good ugly read, and other times I like something more heartwarming. Then again, sometimes I crave steak and potatoes and other times a big fresh salad hits the spot.

  19. I think the beauty in writing (for me anyway) is in the flow of the words. You can describe the ugliest of the darkest nightmare, and if it flows well, then (again, only to me) it's beautiful writing.

    A friend of mine is one of the most brilliant writers I know. His prose is spectacular, verbiage uncommon, I love his writing, however, he writes in short, staccato sentences. It doesn't flow for me. I can't say it's beautiful.

    Beautiful writing, (as with music) leaves me breathless, keeps me turning the pages, allows me to ignore my surroundings. If it doesn't do that, if I put the book down, then it's not beautiful.

  20. Anne, thanks for your thoughts. It's harder for me to define what I mean by beautiful prose, but flow definitely has something to do with it. The combination of sounds is also important to me.

  21. need look no further than the latest Koontz novel when comparing the combination of beauty with horrific imagery.
    I believe that's where the trick in this craft lies...forming a scene of utter chaos, while using the prose of a finely tuned violinist.

    Great post, Davin:)



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