What I Learned From Susan Howatch

No one can teach you to read like a writer. It can happen, of course. Once you’ve slaved over thousands and thousands of sentences, trying to get words to click, you develop an eye for quality, the same way a cinematographer recognizes good filmmaking and a contractor good craftsmanship. Ask a writer how to write a good sentence and the odds are he’ll rattle off a half-dozen that amaze him. (Francine Prose turned this into an entire book called Reading Like a Writer. You’ll notice it’s not called “How To Read Like a Writer.”)

I’m starting a new non-sequential series of newsletter issues called “What I Learned From…” I’m cross-posting them here so I can file them more easily. These will not be book reviews. I rarely put down a book these days ready to pass judgment on it (unless I’ve been asked to, of course). I usually jot a few notes to myself, mark the book as read, and move on. But every so often, I notice something a writer did well, something I want to remember. That’s what these issues are for.

Susan Howatch wrote a series of novels about the Church of England in the 20th century. My wife put the first one (Glittering Images) in my hands and promised me that the last one (Book 6) was more than worth reading all four thousand pages of the series. My wife’s taste in books is excellent, as you may know, so I read them all. She was right. The tangled threads of six books ultimately weave together into a satisfying final picture. (That was a very Howatchian sentence, by the way.)

Before you treat this as a recommendation, please note the following. These books are cheesy. If they had a soundtrack, it would be a cross between a 1940s Hollywood romance and the radio drama Suspense! They are scandalous. Sex is a major theme, especially the recurring question of how on earth an unmarried clergyman is supposed to remain celibate. They are also, at times, surprisingly insightful. I saw reflections of myself in more than one character, and I don’t just mean a passing characteristic. I mean the kind of characteristic that you’d need a bone-saw to remove. Oh, did I mention the books are theologically literate, at least in the Anglican tradition? Every chapter opens with a quote from a C of E luminary like Rowan Williams or Austin Farrer.

Alright, on to the writing. Howatch isn’t a great writer, but that doesn’t mean I can’t learn from her. From Howatch, I learned that sometimes it’s more accurate to tell rather than show, especially when writing in the first person. This sounds bizarre to those of us who are used to hearing the opposite. I’ve always thought “show, don’t tell” meant that you should describe physical sensations and movements instead of thoughts and emotions. A scene written like that might go something like this:

“Where you were last night?” my mother asked without looking up from her knitting.
My fingers tightened around my car keys. “Out with some friends,” I said.
“I hope you had fun.” The knitting needles clicked and clicked.
“Yep, we did.” The keys dug into my palm. “Good night, Mom.”


If Susan Howatch were to tackle this scene, it would look something like this:

“Where were you last night?” my mother asked innocently, never looking up from her knitting. I recognized the half-finished project in her lap. It was the same pattern as the blanket she had knitted for me when I was a child. This blanket was for my new niece, of course, but the significance of her choosing to work on this particular project at this particular time was not lost on me.
My fingers tightened around my car keys as I said carefully, “Out with some friends.” With any luck, she would believe the lie and ask no further questions. My heart sank as I saw that my words had merely confirmed her suspicions.
“I hope you had fun.” The knitting needles clicked reproachfully. They continued to click, like a miniature clock urging me to confess, confess! before it was too late. I longed to tell her everything, to absolve myself of the awful guilt which followed me everywhere and even now hung like a black cloud over the house. But something held me back. Grasping in my mind, I discovered it was the constant and unceasing danger that the truth presented to Cecilia. I could never tell. Never.
It was in that moment I knew I loved her.
I realized I hadn’t replied to my mother’s comment. I adopted my most casual tone and consciously relaxed my grip around the keys. “Yep, we did. Good night, Mom.”


Does the second attempt add anything to the scene that’s missing from the first attempt? Of course. We know that the mother has chosen her knitting carefully. We know that the narrator believes telling the truth would be dangerous. We meet someone named Cecilia. And we are much, much closer to the protagonist’s point of view. Attempt #2 may be overwritten (so many adverbs!), but it’s not unrealistic. We actually do observe, evaluate, and make choices when we’re in the middle of having a conversation with someone. We just do it instantaneously. Teasing out all of those thoughts and judgments can take pages and pages, but it can be very effective if done well. Attempt #1, on the other hand, tries to mimic real time, but that doesn’t make Attempt #2 less real.

So, the lesson: it’s sometimes good to tell, not show, especially if you’re writing in the first person, and commentary can slow scenes down to help you focus on the protagonist’s interior life.

Potato 5

Day after day, hour after hour, on this unyielding horizontal surface, marked by the gashes of hard labor and punctuated by such objects as books, paperclips, and a lamp, I, a red potato of humble origin, desirous of nothing more than a comfortable place to sleep and perhaps room to stretch out a tentative shoot or two, which may, Deo volente, someday grow to become fat and healthy tubers in their own right, after accruing much water and the nutrients necessary to prosperity, lie on my back and wait.

Potato 1

Potato 2

Potato 3

Potato 4

Potato 4

A vast country spreads out in front of me, brown and barren. Ahead, in the distance, a fat, dark line rests against the horizon. I walk for what feels like an entire day, though the sun never moves across the sky. It’s odd. Here, the sun operates as though on a switch, blinking on suddenly and darkening in the same way. My boots scuff the dirty ground, kicking up large flakes that float on the air before settling down behind me that marks my path. Eventually, I come to a collection of towers, hard as mountains and rising up out of the ground far beyond my head. The towers are the deep pink color of Himalayan salt. Several miles beyond them, a cliff rises out of the ground, a cliff of such immense proportions it’s hard to believe that this world has not been split in two.

Potato 2

If I didn’t already know what a potato was, I could easily mistake this object for a rock. On closer inspection, however, it becomes easier to tell that what I’m looking at is, or was, alive. One clue is that it has clearly grown: there are wrinkles in its surface, which you would not normally find on a rock this size. Next to those wrinkles are small divots, and, inside each divot, the light red color that covers the object in patches grows darker, suggesting that pigmentation is gathered in those spots. Again, this is not something you would see on a rock, rigidly structured. Even the brown color is not uniform. Small spots of green and yellow are scattered throughout. And, as I said yesterday, it has some give to it. When I squeeze, the skin bends, ever so slightly. I push my thumbnail through the surface. The skin splits with the sound of a boot stepping into wet grass.

Potato 1

Potato 1

Every day this week, my students will spend a few minutes in class describing the same… potato.

I decided it was only fair that I do the exercise along with them. So, Monday:

It sits in my palm like a baseball, but weighs slightly more. I can feel it tugging groundwards. Large for a red potato, it is covered with eyes, mostly on one half. On the very end, six eyes are arranged in a triangle pattern, like the tip of an arrow. I said it’s a red potato, but it’s more brown than red, whether with dirt or natural coloring, it’s hard to tell. The skin feels like the bottom of a foot, not rough so much as calloused. A tap on the skin tells me the interior is tight and full, not hollow nor squishy. Holding it to my nose, I smell old water, like what you might find in a tire swing. If I found this buried in the dirt somewhere, I wouldn’t immediately think, “Delicious!”

When Must We Write?

In danger of life, our own or others, in self defense, if it the only way of saving our identity in a crisis. We must speak and write and think and teach and testify when we and our mind would disintegrate without it. We speak lest we go mad.

Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Fruit of Lips, p. 30

Speaking for myself, I can say that this is fairly accurate.

The Charge of the Leithart Brigade

A couple of weeks ago I happened upon a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson called “The Death of the Old Year.” It had the cadences of a ballad, and I wasn’t doing anything at the time (or I was avoiding doing something), so I picked up my guitar and plucked out a tune to go along with the words. I had so much fun, I decided to try it with a few more poems. My wife suggested I write nine more and compile them in an album called TENnyson. Much to her disappointment, I more or less ran out of inspiration after seven. For now, the album has been demoted to an EP. You can listen to demos of all the tracks here.

Track list:
1. The Lady of Shalott
2. Ulysses
3. The Charge of the Light Brigade
4. The Splendor Falls
5. The Death of the Old Year
6. In Memoriam
7. Crossing the Bar

What’s At a Man’s Fingertips

In this blog post, Alan Jacobs casually quotes Isaiah Berlin, Michael Oakeshott, Robert Conquest, W. B. Yeats, and Christopher Hitchens, and makes several references to George Orwell. I have benefited from Dr. Jacobs’s writing over the years primarily, I think, because of his incredible range of reading and the ease with which he can tie together disparate threads of thought. It’s a skill to aspire to.

A Man Claimed Credit for It

Jack London claimed to write twenty hours a day. Before he undertook to write, he obtained the University of California course list and all the syllabi; he spent a year reading the textbooks in philosophy and literature. In subsequent years, once he had a book of his own under way, he set his alarm to wake him after four hours’ sleep. Often he slept through the alarm, so, by his own account, he rigged it to drop a weight on his head. I cannot say I believe this, though a novel like The Sea-Wolf is strong evidence that some sort of weight fell on his head with some sort of frequency — but you wouldn’t think a man would claim credit for it. London maintained that every writer needed a technique, experience, and a philosophical position.

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life (via)