Our Reading Lives

On Noticing Beautiful Writing

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Jessi Lewis

Staff Writer

Jessi Lewis has her MFA in fiction and an MA in Writing and Rhetoric. She was one of the founding editors of Cheat River Review and now works to bring her own fiction, poetry and essays to eyes each month.     Twitter: @jessiwrit

Next time, highlight or rewrite the best line of the book you’re reading. Then read it out loud. Twice. Roll around in the sound of it.

Most people, when they consider beautiful writing, immediately think about a few of the people they were always told wrote beautifully. Faulkner’s a big one, of course . You can’t go wrong with the traditional poetic lines of Oscar Wilde. But, at the same time, we have been told so long what beautiful writing is, we commonly don’t look for it on our own as a reader. We also don’t commonly value what it is that beautiful writing does—it’s not just reminiscent of poetry. It’s about the writer being effective in his or her talent and catching the reader off guard in a sublimely clear way.

As a writer and reader, I’ve had a hard time with this concept for a couple of years now. It’s so easy to slip through an amazing plot line and consume a book without ever considering how it’s written. It is also easy to value a book for its writing, but to never really dive into the story. The worst is when a story is hindered by the author’s excessive attention on the sentence. That’s when you see those cringe-worthy book reviews claiming, “Beautiful writing that’s missing a message.” It’s important to find a balance between these possibilities and to be able to recognize that important balance.

A professor in graduate school told me the following and, man, has it hung on in my brain: The English alphabet has 26 letters in it. Every piece of writing is a variation of those letters that presents plot line, emotion, and tone. Writers can use a massive amount of human emotions that are displayed entirely with 26 letters, and that is what’s magical about the written word.

The most beautiful writing is that which uses those 26 letters in the most creative way—in the way that shows the writer is aware of everything from meaning behind the words, to the sound of those words as they meet each other. When you consider writing as a compilation of 26 letters, suddenly a book becomes a puzzle rather than just a story.

Perhaps this kind of analysis of writing at the word level is nerdy of me. But I can embrace nerdy.

Response to a single line sometimes is effective for a wide crowd, like “…time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does it come to life.” in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. That’s such a memorable line.

At the same time, individualized reactions can be more important. You probably have an author close to your heart based not just on the story they have to tell but on how they tell it. And there’s a good chance that you haven’t really come across someone else with such an opinion.

Please note, it’s okay if you don’t pay much attention to the sentence structure of Faulkner and Wilde. It’s okay if you find a writing style entirely on your own to love that nobody else really pays that much attention to at the sentence level. Above all, it’s absolutely fine if that writing style is cut back, controlled, simplistic and clear—because there is strength in a writing style like that.

But, in this lovely and fantastic landscape of undiscovered writers and books, I’m going to try to not forget to note the most wonderfully subtle aspect of reading—the puzzle of the sentence—no matter what I’m reading. This is far easier written than done.

Here’s a few lines that I love to love that aren’t necessarily by the textbook. I’ve come across them in the last couple of weeks and written them down for my own memory. I’m just going to drop them here …

“The sun is getting warmer on my back, and I wish the air could stay the way it was moments before: the air of promise, the elements brewing but not quite cooked.” –The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings, a novel that follows tragedy for a royal family of Hawaii.

“They sang over and over a song of night. The song unwound from a spool. I remember its terrible darkness.”—Eavesdropping by Stephen Kuusisto, a memoir on blindness and listening.

I imagine that many readers out there have some favorites all their own. You can always check out Buzzfeed’s, as well. But the most gratifying challenge of this is finding those lines that you can’t seem to forget entirely on your own as you keep on reading on.

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