April was a good month for me for reading. I devoured two publications that experiment with form and structure: the novel Ducks, Newburyport and the online magazine Pipewrench. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, Ducks, Newburyport is a 1,000-page sentence. Pipewrench magazine is structured like a dinner party: the main essay is the guest of honor, and the companion pieces, named for the guests at the dinner party who wrote them (the Musician, the Poet, the Educator) are like conversations at the table that explore the main essay’s themes from different perspectives.
Both publications are unlike anything I’ve ever read. They take risks that in the wrong hands could crash and burn. Their creators jumped off the cliff and soared.
I recently learned that appreciation of beauty and excellence is a strength (YES! I wish I’d known 30 years ago), and when I took the VIA strengths test yesterday, I found it is my top strength. This makes me feel better about not being able to create such writerly wonders myself but instead sit back and enjoy when others do.
I also recently learned that awe and wonder boost happiness. I can confirm that this is true because after I experience the excellence of literary risk-takers like these, I am filled with joy and appreciation. I am delighted by their perfect execution even now, a month after reading them.
The reverberations I still feel after reading Ducks, Newburyport and Pipewrench make me think a lot about what makes a work, or even a simple conversation, rich and deep and fulfilling. Some writing is enjoyable and fun and makes me turn pages quickly, but I don’t feel fulfilled afterwards. The story does not stick. Some paintings are pretty to look at, but they don’t inspire me to engage with them, to think, to feel, while others captivate me and inspire me to come back to them again and again.
We use the word “deep” a lot — a deep conversation, a piece of writing that goes deep. I think a common element of things that resonate and stick are that they go deep. But what does that mean? What distinguishes shallow from deep? The answer to this question is elusive to me.
I think one way an author creates depth is by layering. You hear about cooking, “You must season at every step!”, and this is something I think exists in art as well. A piece of writing that resonates goes deeper than just the surface layer of the story itself, and every layer is thoughtful and well-executed: characters, subject matter, word choice, themes, exploration of humanity, leaving enough out so that the reader engages to fill in the blanks. In works that reverberate, all of these layers are perfectly executed and interact with each other to provide richness and complexity. In the examples of Ducks, Newburyport and Pipewrench magazine, I mentioned structure. Until I read these I would have never said I cared about how a piece of writing is structure. And then these both did something with structure that surprised me, that I wasn’t sure how they would work, and as I read, I realized their structure played as essential a role as the plot, word choice, and characters to pull off what the creators were hoping to achieve. I’m still delighted by this.
For me, perspective also contributes to depth. Art that resonates often gives me a new perspective, a deeper look into how someone else sees and and experiences the world. Getting at the motivators of human behavior is endlessly fascinating to me, and different perspectives, when done well, show us those drivers. Seeing those drivers for behavior help us expand beyond the story and the specific characters on the page to broader humanity, giving us empathy not just for the characters on the page, but for our fellow humans.
I think a contributor to my experience of works that reverberate is that they challenge me. I don’t want to read or look at a piece of art so difficult that it blocks me from consuming it, but I do like to be challenged. With Ducks, Newburyport, the lack of terminal punctuation challenged me as a person who likes tidiness and order and a clear stopping point. With Pipewrench, reading the experiences of the grief of being Black in America challenged me as a white woman who contributes to the systems that cause that grief. Challenge breaks down barriers. It makes me see things in new ways. One of my favorite things about abstract art is that it challenges us as the viewers to interpret it our own way, to see what we will see in it. I find this exciting. It’s a way to fire new synapses, to think in new ways. Challenge allows us to constantly recreate our world-view.
I guess that’s another contributor to depth: universality. This feels cliché to even bring up because it’s in every writing book ever. But it’s true, writing that reverberates can be expanded beyond the story or the characters on the page. Well-crafted works of art make us think big thoughts about humanity and the world and the universe, about forces bigger than ourselves, about Nature, about cruelty and hope and what we can do to be better in the world.