Thursday, March 27, 2014

Generous Writing: What is it?

Occasionally you'll read a book review that says an author was 'generous'. What does that mean, exactly?
Authors can certainly be generous with their subjects. For instance, when you portray a brutish character as also having a sensitive side, that might be called generous. Writing fully fleshed-out characters is also, of course, the mark of a mature author.

But what critics really mean when they praise a work of fiction—or an author—with the term 'generous' is that the author gives us more than he or she has to.

An example makes this crystal clear. Here's a possible character description:

He was a pale guy, not just ordinarily pale, but really extremely pale.

Now read:

There Jerome hung, skinny, sunken-chested, as white as a saltine, his face scrunched up and one hand clutching his nuts. (Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex)


There warn't no color in his face, where his face showed; it was white; not like another man's white, but a white to make a body sick, a white to make a man's flesh crawl—a tree-toad white, a fish-belly white. (Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.)

You read it, you see it in your mind's eye, you enjoy it, you appreciate it. If you read with fine attention, you're grateful that the writer cared enough to give you something more.

Dull writers cannot be generous; the creativity just isn't there. But if you have any spark of talent at all, and the desire to get good, you can challenge yourself to come up with original ways to describe characters, places, even ideas. How? By taking the time to be there fully with your characters and your scenes. Open your heartbrain and let the world pour in. Take notice, and take risks.

If you do, you'll have a good chance of being the kind of writer readers love without knowing why, the kind of writer savvy reviewers call 'generous'.

[Photo of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's desk at Cross Creek, Florida by ES.]

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  1. Thanks for this generous definition; I won't ever read a book review again in the same way.
    And Rawlings' desk makes me want to slip on my "You've Got a Book In You" bracelet, get into my garret, and skip the weekend getaway we have planned. How can a setting so peaceful at the same time be so energizing?

    1. Rawlings's life was pretty interesting; I think her book 'Cross Creek' is worth reading, if you can forgive the soft-core racism in it.

  2. I think this is one of the best parts of writing - " can challenge yourself to come up with original ways to describe characters, places, even ideas." When you come up with that perfect turn of phrase or description etc, you feel that zing, that a-ha, that knowledge you're doing what you're meant to do.

    And I'm with Tricia - that photo is both relaxing and energizing!

    1. Yeah, coming up with just the right words is like hitting a golf ball dead center in the clubface. Same feeling. Rawlings has been gone for a long time, but her farm at Cross Creek is worth a visit. She was an independent woman in the day before many were.


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