Okay, so it’s not often that I stumble on such a treasure as I have this morning: an essay by the poet and writer Francesca Kay in More Intelligent Life.
Here’s the essay: a meditation on da Vinci’s painting Lady with an Ermine. It’s beautifully written, a little work of art in itself — so beautiful that I feel a little pang as I consider it; I’ve always had such a soft spot in my heart for writing like this, and much as I love blogging I’m afraid it tempts us to write less thoughtfully than we need to, if we want to produce true essays — essays that like this one wander through a series of interconnected observations and then suddenly present us with an inevitable conclusion — or rather a conclusion we recognize as inevitable, thanks to the essayist’s art, often with a quiet little gasp of surprise.
I’m reminded, not in writing style necessarily, but in terms of my subjective experience as a reader, of the Annie Dillard’s essays in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which I first read in the 1970s. I found them transporting (although also heart-wrenching to me as a teen writer wannabe; the book I wanted most to write myself was, I realized, already written, and by someone else!)
I found Kay’s essay transporting as well.
So please go read it, but one other observation of my own, first: Kay quotes da Vinci in the piece as having written of figure painting “The good painter has to paint two principal things, that is to say, man and the intention of his mind.”
He’s done that in his portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, which is what gives it its richness. As Kay writes next:
Yes, but the intentions of a man’s mind—or a woman’s—are not singular. One reason for the great allure of this painting is the hint of troubling duality. Stoat and ermine, lover and beloved, girl and animal—beautiful Cecilia, with her immaculate white skin, is a mistress, not a lawful wife. She could equally be predatory as pure and honourable; she could indeed be prey herself.
Writers — good writers — do the same thing. They present a beautiful surface (beautiful in the sense of artful, well-realized aesthetically) which you can enjoy, if you wish, for its own sake. But if you’re inclined to look more closely, you’ll find clues that suggest more than “the man” — that suggest the intentions of the characters’ minds.
In fiction, this is done sometimes by omitting things, or by suggesting rather than becoming too explicit.
The first novelist I fell for, hard, was Hemingway. Full disclosure: I have not read him in over 20 years now, and I’ve seen some hints dropped here and there that perhaps he hasn’t “held up;” I should probably re-read him to see if his writing affects me now as it did when I was in my teens and twenties. But I do remember, quite vividly, how his writing struck me at the time, and that it was more than just his voice. It was because he let me discover things — secrets even — about his characters.
He was doing this on purpose. Couple Hemingway quotes* on the craft of writing:
You have to take what is not palpable and make it completely palpable and also have it seem normal and so that it can become a part of experience of the person who reads it.
If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water.
“He may omit things that he knows.” You can leave things out — important things — and trust that your writing will let people guess what they are anyway.
Do that, and the experience of reading is a lot like the experience of life. We don’t know people when we first meet them. We learn who they are gradually, by observing their surfaces and then gradually interpreting the clues we pick up and assembling them into an understanding. And very often, we understand things about people that they’d maybe rather we didn’t; sometimes we understand things that they don’t even understand themselves.
The trick, of course, is to give readers this experience, but without becoming too cryptic, or even worse affected. In a way, I see this as being the toughest challenge for a writer, and accomplishing it the highest form of the art — something you get to after you’ve done all the other stuff, the stuff about craft, and structure, and how-to-turn-a-pretty-sentence.
So needless to say I aspire to it, with my fiction. Whether I achieve it, of course, is another matter altogether, and one to be settled by my readers — scary thought, that!
*There’s another quote, too, that I can’t find now (wish I could) — I think it’s a Hemingway quote — about the need to not tell too much, to let the reader discover things. If you know it, please drop a link in the comments, thanks so much!