The Debate: What makes good writing good?

E. L. Doctorow explained as well as anyone the art of good writing.
E. L. Doctorow explained as well as anyone the art of good writing.

I think I’m in trouble, I told the Muse even before he had a chance to sit down in the early morning darkness and prop his feet up on the coffee table.

“What have you done now?” he asked.

“It’s a blog I wrote,” I said.

“Who’d you make mad?” he asked.

“Just about everybody.”

The Muse grinned.

“Tell me about it,” he said.

“I said that good story telling was more important than good writing,” I said.

“I can’t argue that point.”

“Writers can.” I shrugged. “They think readers deserve good writing.”

“They do.”

“But what makes writing good writing?” I wanted to know.

“Do you know what the great writers say?”

“No.”

“Let me tell you.” The Muse was now in his comfort zone as a mentor and spiritual advisor, one who knew all things about the wonderful world of word crafting. “Truman Capote put it this way,” he said, ‘Writing stopped being fun when I discovered the difference between good writing and bad and, even more terrifying, the difference between it and true art. And after that, the whip came down.”

He paused.

I stared at him blankly.

The silence lingered a moment.

And I asked, “What the hell was he talking about?”

“Don’t have a clue,” the Muse said.

He stared out into the darkness, searched his mind and told me, “George Orwell said good writing is like a windowpane.”

“Got any idea what he meant?”

“Not since 1984,” he said.

“Me neither.”

The Muse rubbed the sleep from his eyes and asked, “You ever read F. Scott Fitzgerald?”

“I have,” I said, “but not in a while.”

“Well, old F. Scott said that all good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.”

“Was he serious?”

“He was.”

“You want to explain it?”

“Can’t.”

He laughed.

“Gatsby couldn’t either.”

I nodded.

“You know Mark Haddon?”

“No.”

“He has a pretty good following in England,” the Muse said. “Won a lot of awards, He once wrote: ‘Most of my work consists of crossing out. Crossing out is the secret of all good writing.’ “

“Make sense to you?” I asked.

“I guess it made sense to Mark,” he said.

I shrugged.

He shrugged.

“I still don’t know what good writing is,” I said.

“It’s really simple if you think about it.”

“Enlighten me.”

“Good writers write good,” the Muse said, “and bad writers write bad. Writing is either a gift or a curse.”

“But what if a bad writer tells a really great story?” I wanted to know.

“He or she sells a lot of books.”

“And what if a good writer has no story to tell.”

“Bookshelves are full of unsold books.”

We both stared into the darkness.

Daylight was coming late.

In the distance, thunder tap danced across the western sky .

“How would you describe good writing?” I asked.

“It’s compelling,” he said.

I nodded.

“It takes you to places you don’t expect to go,” he said.

I nodded.

“The words make you laugh,” he said. “Or they make you cry. Or they scare the hell out of you. It’s not the arrangement of the words, it’s the passion they bring to a page.” He paused a moment, grinned, then said, “I think E. L. Doctorow came as close to anybody when describing the essence of good writing.”

“What’d he say?”

“Good writing, Doctorow said, is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader – not in the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.”

It all suddenly snapped into focus for me.

The reader doesn’t watch the character move from scene to scene.

The reader becomes the character.

The reader feels the same joy, rage, disappointment, fright, love, rejection, and sadness as the character.

They are one.

They are the same.

Good writing brings them together and keeps them together.

Good writing turns a reader from a voyeur into a participant.

The thunder was closer now, an angry growl in the sky.

I glanced outside to see if it was raining.

It wasn’t.

But I felt the rain anyway

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