I’m now two days behind the pack. When I returned home yesterday after church, Mom, and errands, I settled in on the porch with wine, crackers, and the world’s best seafood and shrimp dip from a local market. I don’t recall what I was reading, but it had to have been something because after all, this is me. A client called about his newest project, and we chatted. All seemed fine and peaceful.
When I rose slightly after five o’clock to take my tray to the kitchen, it hit me that I was exhausted and in desperate need of a nap. I went to bed and awoke more than two hours later, still groggy. I got up long enough to feed the cats, and I went back to bed. Half an hour later, I awoke again with no energy whatsoever. “This is it,” I said aloud. I wasn’t going to write today. That ship had sailed.
Although it wasn’t even nine o’clock, I did all the get-ready-for-bed tasks. I knew I wasn’t quite sleepy enough to go back to sleep for the night, so I plucked from the shelf a book that felt marginally relevant: Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object, by the late great Laurie Colwin.
Mind you, I barely need to read the book. I can practically recite some sections. I first acquired it when I was twenty-six and dating a guy who lived in New York City; I know this, because I recall vividly reading it while standing under the light on the train platform at Westport, waiting for the train that would take me to the city to spend the weekend with my boyfriend. Over the years, I read and reread this paperback to the point where it had to be held together with a rubber band. Finally, during a Laurie Colwin resurgence when some of her books were reissued, I bought a new copy.
One of the best things about Laurie Colwin’s writing is the way she uses unexpected words to create images that you could never truly explain but that you know in your gut are precisely correct. At the end of the first chapter, as Elizabeth is describing her marriage to her late husband (this is not a spoiler: the first three words of the book are, “My husband died. . . .”), she talks about their complete cluelessness, ending the chapter with this sentence: “But sometimes it was hard for me not to picture me and Sam as two damp children bending over a toy car, absorbed and brainless, in the middle of a leafy road.”
The image is immediate—you can see the children, the car, the road—but it’s the adjectives that bring it to life: damp, absorbed, brainless, leafy. The children’s obliviousness to whatever might be around them (or even driving toward them). The trees arching over the road (which, in my mind, is a dirt road I once lived on). The use of “me and Sam,” which is how a child would say it, rather than the correct “Sam and me.” Bending over the car, not just playing with it, suggesting the concentration echoed by “absorbed” and countered by “brainless.”
But somehow “damp” is the one that captures me. I don’t know why they’re damp. Are they sweaty? Have they been splashing in a puddle? Is this just how the narrator thinks children are? It almost doesn’t matter. I don’t have to deconstruct it to know that it’s exactly right.
When she describes the day of the funeral, she begins by stating, “It had rained briefly in the morning, and the sky was the weatherbeaten color of old barns.” She could have stopped there and moved on to the action, but she continues, “It was the sort of day on which you can read the inscriptions on the insides of antique wedding rings.” Immediately, the picture comes together: the gray sky, damp grass, and that peculiar clear light you feel almost more than see. She continues by describing the graves they passed, reciting the names and “graves so old that the headstones were wafer thin but you could see the eroded outlines of those gawking angels the Colonists were fond of.” With that, she places the reader firmly in a graveyard that could only be found in Boston—not the modern-day Boston of technology and the Red Sox, but the Boston of wealthy established families who had resided for generations on Beacon Hill.
Imagery isn’t the only thing Laurie Colwin’s work has going for it, but it’s one of the things that will make a line stick in your head long after you’ve finished the book or the essay. (In one of her food essays, she describes a side dish which is “fit for a visiting dignitary from a country whose politics you admire.”) She had an amazing gift for the unexpected word or phrase to make the moment resonate. When Elizabeth goes to New York to see an apartment, she describes Susie, the current inhabitant, as a tall, suntanned blonde with “cottony hair curled at the ends, and . . . kept off her face by two rhinestone barrettes in the shape of stars. . . . She smiled a large, goofy, disorganized smile. . . .” This character will never show up again, and many authors wouldn’t have bothered telling us anything about her, but Laurie Colwin lets us see this nice young woman who’s giving up her apartment because she’s getting married, the opposite of Elizabeth, who’s taking it because she’s been widowed. I couldn’t articulate for you what cottony hair or a disorganized smile look like, but Laurie Colwin gives me enough information that I understand Susie and can see how her light, carefree brightness contrasts with small, dark Elizabeth.
Especially in Shine On, but to a certain extent in all her works, Laurie Colwin broke what now seems to be a cardinal rule taught to young writers, namely, focus on the action and move the story forward without large chunks of back story or contemplation. In Shine On, Elizabeth ruminates about Sam, his brother, his family, and her own past with and without Sam, frequently interrupting a bit of forward motion as if the moment reminded her of another story, and then returning to the interrupted action. Granted, Shine On was published in 1975, and stylistic trends change, but this seeming meandering weaves together dozens of discrete threads into a coherent and incandescent whole.
When I first began writing fan fiction, my prose was heavily influenced by the rhythms of Laurie Colwin. One line I consider Colwinesque come to mind now: “Joe had a tendency to believe that the world was always going to work out in his favor. Robin found this touching, but nothing in her life had given her any reason to believe that it was true.” It could be viewed as a violation of the cardinal show, don’t tell, but in this case, it sums up the scene. All these years later, I still think it works.
As I’ve continued to write, I’ve slid away from Laurie Colwin’s voice into my own, somewhat to my regret. I understand the need to write in my own voice—and it’s a voice not nearly as poetic as hers—but sometimes I wonder what would happen if I were to make a concerted effort to create images and moments to illuminate the plot. Certainly it’s harder work than merely rattling off a tale, but is it something to consider? Would doing so enrich the story, or would it seem like a self-conscious attempt to be “literary”? Would the story sound more resonant, or would the voice come off as stilted and fake?
I’ll continue to grapple with this, but at the same time, I’ll continue reading Shine On. Because when you’re too tired or perplexed to write, the next best choice is to read excellent writing.
Can you try to give us 1000 words of “your” Laurie Colman. Long ago, a foodie friend loaned me a copy of one of her food books. Stunning. I did not know about black beans before that, but I’ve been grateful ever since. What a writer! I agree about your image of Joe believing things will work out and she sees no evidence. You know the sentence—it works!
Still praying for you, Jo. Love, Kay
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks so much, Kay.
If I could write a thousand Colwinesque words, I’d be thrilled beyond all measure. The most I’ve ever managed is a couple lines, or maybe a paragraph. I encourage you to go for the real deal rather than a pale imitation such as yours truly. (I have long reserved the right not to forgive her for having died before writing much, much more.)
Two of her novels, Happy All the Time and Family Happiness) were based on short stories she had published. Looking at the short stories and then the full-length works is a fascinating glimpse into how she developed as a writer, whether it’s revising a sentence so it lands better or unfolding the short story into something much, much richer. Highly recommended!