Slattery’s Tao of Writing, Part 3: Talking About Dogs

Painting of a Dog by Kim Duryang Sapsalgae, 1743
Painting of a Dog
by Kim Duryang Sapsalgae, 1743

Some time back I was writing a story, thinking about how to be more mysterious in my writing, how to be less direct, yet provide more details in my narrative, when it occurred to me that (probably because I am a “dog person”) writing is often like talking about a dog without saying that you are talking about a dog.

Often, I have an idea or a feeling that I want to express, but if I try to express it directly and concisely, the reader will probably not apprehend the nuances I see in the idea.  At the same time, much of the enjoyment in reading is trying to perceive the meaning behind the author’s words while experiencing the world of the work’s narrator vicariously.   Therefore, as a writer, I want to get my ideas across without being so direct that the reader loses much of the fun of reading.   For example, look at the first chapter of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.  Hemingway was known for his lean, muscular style, so you know he isn’t going to use any more words than necessary to express his ideas. 

In the first chapter, he describes soldiers marching off to the front over the course of several months as he views them from a nearby house.   As he watches the soldiers, the leaves fall from the trees, the vineyards dry up, the mountains turn brown and bare, and the dust the soldiers kick up turn everything bare and white–the color of bone.  All these hint at death.   Hemingway could have said simply, “Frederic Henry [the main character] watched the soldiers march off to their deaths”, but the reader would have lost the experience of living that time with  Frederic and he would have lost sharing Frederic’s experience of witnessing an event and puzzling out its greater meaning for himself.    All the artistic beauty of that chapter would have been lost.

I recall reading somewhere several years ago this idea described as the principle of contraction and expansion.  That is no doubt true.  Yet, to describe it so unemotionally as “contraction and expansion”  seems aesthetically too clinical, too sterile, too confining a term for an idea concerning the breadth and depth of literary intellectual and emotional perception.

I think I prefer to think of this idea in terms of a dog, a living, breathing being full of warmth, love, loyalty, joy, anger, fear, tenderness, intelligence, stupidity, pain, and all the other abstract qualities sentient creatures have.  Yes, I can simply say “dog” and hope my readers see all the nuances of a dog’s existence that I do, but they might not and I would be depriving them of the experience of sharing my perception and all the intimated nuances and emotions that come with it.  So sometimes it is best just to describe the nuances of a dog’s life and let my readers enjoy drawing their own conclusions and along with these conclusions enjoy the subsequent discussions and debates among them as to who was right, who was wrong, who knew what he was talking about, who did not, and so on.

There are times when it is necessary to be concise, to pick a single word you hope is as pregnant with meaning for the reader as it is for you, but those times must be balanced against the times when the reader needs to experience an event and all its nuances. The writer, as artist, must decide how to balance out those moments.  The writer strives to achieve a balance of ideas and perceptions. Balance is part of the art of writing.  Balance is part of the Tao of writing. 

Sometimes it is best to simply say “dog.”  At other times it is best to talk about a dog without actually saying that you are talking about a dog.

Thoughts?  Comments?