Remembering Philip Roth last week, NPR’s Fresh Air broadcast archived interviews Terry Gross had done with the literary giant. I was especially gratified to hear the author of more than two dozen books including Portnoy’s Complaint, Goodbye Columbus, and Everyman, talking about his writing process as an act of discovery.
“I don’t know anything in the beginning, which makes it great fun to write . . . You begin every book as an amateur. . . . Gradually, by writing sentence after sentence, the book reveals itself to you. … Each and every sentence is a revelation.”
I couldn’t agree more. My experience is there’s nothing that compares to the joy of discovery. And I learn to write as I write. That meant it took 24 years to get Compromise With Sin into print, and I’m sure I tossed at least 100,000 words.
Roth’s comments reminded me of an aha moment that occurred to me as I was writing a scene. One objective was to show protagonist Louise Morrissey’s compassion, as she was not always an admirable character. The scene involved Louise’s caring response to the family of two brothers who accidentally drowned in Crescent Lake. In my first draft, the family was not known to the reader. Then I decided the tragedy struck Henryetta, Louise’s cook and housekeeper. For me, that hit home, as I already knew and loved Henryetta–and I hoped it would be meaningful for the reader. It’s moot, of course, because that scene didn’t survive a later revision. But it impressed upon me the importance of having readers invested in characters so that when something good or bad happens, the reader feels it emotionally.
Btw, this icky background color appeared and I can’t get rid of it.
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A dogfight on a Denver street is more important than a war in Europe.
–Frederick Gilmer Bonfils, Publisher, Denver Post
If today’s soldiers feel forgotten, it’s understandable. Most of us civilians have become conditioned to expect that if we’re really at war we’ll see it every night on TV in our home or favorite sports bar. I was reminded the other day that we are indeed at war when General Tony Thomas, head of the U.S. Special Operations Command, said, “Our government continues to be in unbelievable turmoil. I hope they sort it out soon because we are a nation at war.”
That led me to think about a great short story by Philip Roth. Set during WWII, the story is “Defender of the Faith,” which can be found in Major American Short Stories, edited by A. Walton Litz:
This excerpt appears at the end of the opening paragraph, and Grossbart, who has served in the military for two years, is leaving Germany with his Ninth Army company and expecting to be sent east to the front :
. . . eastward until we’d circled the globe, marching through villages along whose twisting, cobbled streets crowds of the enemy would watch us take possession of what, up till then, they’d considered their own. I had changed enough in two years not to mind the trembling of the old people, the crying of the very young, the uncertainty and fear in the eyes of the once arrogant. I had been fortunate enough to develop an infantryman’s heart, which, like his feet, first aches and swells, but finally grows horny enough for him to travel the weirdest paths without feeling a thing.
My Take-away: This description feels to me like the essence of what it is to become a soldier. I can’t know this, of course, and I recognize that Roth is describing one particular soldier.
Comparing Grossbart’s heart to his feet is such an apt metaphor. (I wish instead of “horny” he had said “calloused.”)
It’s a mark of some fine writing when you feel you’ve glimpsed how experience can alter someone’s view of the world. Makes me think about the influence of experience on my own view.
What’s your take-away? Please leave a comment.