When I was a college freshman, I saw Richard Burton play Hamlet on Broadway, and I was never the same again: Burton opened the door to a larger and more exciting world than I ever dreamed existed.
Some 20 years later I read an essay about Hamlet by Lawrence Danson in the university library at USF, and once again my life changed – but this time there was a closing down (or so I thought). I knew I would never write anything that daring, brilliant, and exhilarating. I remember wondering how Danson was able to go on with his life after finishing that essay. How do you go to, say, Walgreen’s to buy razor blades when you’ve just realized that you’re absolutely, unarguably…brilliant?
What I couldn’t see back then was the gift Danson had given me: Something to aim for, along with clues about how to go about achieving it. After all, I had his essay in front of me, and I could pick it up any time I wanted to take another look at it.
A couple of weeks ago I reread the essay (it’s from his book Tragic Alphabet: Shakespeare’s Drama of Language) as inspiration for a current writing project. It helped me untangle a few knots and plot a course for what I was trying to do. (I also tracked down Danson’s email and wrote him a grateful letter – and immediately received a lovely reply.)
But enough about me. I am trying to work my way up to an important point that doesn’t receive enough emphasis from writing teachers: If you want to write better, find a model of good writing – and learn from it.
The years I spent reading James Hillman’s books taught me lessons about a) supporting a point and b) making an idea sound exciting that I never heard in a conventional writing class. Danson did that for me again.
And here’s what I’m excited about right now: I just came across the same idea in a magazine article (“Unbreakable” by Wil S. Hylton, NY Times Magazine, 12/21/2014). For some years now I’ve been hearing about Laura Hillenbrand, an American author who’s written two gangbuster bestsellers: Seabiscuit: An American Legend and Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption about hero Louis Zamperini. Here’s what I read in the article about her:
Hillenbrand’s approach has already begun to influence leading writers. The author Daniel James Brown has spent more than six months on The Times’s paperback list for his book about the 1936 U.S. Olympic rowing team, The Boys in the Boat. Over the past four months, he and Hillenbrand have held the top two positions nearly every week. Brown told me that even before he began writing his book, he had Hillenbrand’s in mind.
“When I first started The Boys in the Boat — I mean, the day after I decided to write the book — I had an old paperback copy of Seabiscuit, and we were going on a vacation,” he recalled. “So I threw it in my suitcase, and I spent the whole vacation dissecting it. I put notes on every page in the book, just studying all the writerly decisions she had made: why she started this scene this way and that scene that way, and the language choices in how she developed the setting.” Brown told me that his notes in Seabiscuit even influenced his reporting. “One of the things I wrote down in the margins of the book was that I needed to do this or I needed to do that,” he said. “I went into the whole research project with a list of guidelines, which were drawn from this close study of Seabiscuit. ”
You’ll never hear a better piece of advice about writing.