Intelligent and Interesting

How do you get to “intelligent and interesting” without sacrificing readability? It’s a problem that besets every writer.

Today I’m going to use an incident from Kathryn Hulme’s novel The Nun’s Story to show you a useful strategy. Two missionary nuns – Sister Augustine and Sister Luke – are traveling on an ocean liner bound for Africa.

Although the nuns aren’t usually permitted to drink wine, the convent has lifted that prohibition for the cruise so that the two nuns won’t seem different from the other passengers. Hulme describes a dinner during the voyage:

[Sister Augustine] picked up her wine glass and turned it slowly. She smiled back at her companion as though saying, “It’s a good wine. We are blessed with the dispensation to drink of it freely on shipboard so as not to singularize ourselves in the eyes of passengers by drinking water.”

They ate in silence as always, anticipating each other’s needs for salt, more bread, a bit of horse-radish, passing these back and forth with practiced grace and little nods which occasionally caught the eyes of diners at nearby tables and made them stare musingly at the two white sisters who seemed able to read each other’s thoughts.

I first read The Nun’s Story as a teenager. Back then I was completely caught up in the story, and I’m sure I missed the deeper meaning of that dinner on the ocean liner: the superiors at the convent never thought about lifting the rule against talking during meals. The result is that the nuns are “singularized” even though they’re drinking wine like everyone else.

Old-fashioned convents were odd institutions. It would be easy for a writer to portray nuns as ogreish women who have lost their humanity. But Hulme’s novel never does that. Instead she shows us – again and again – how convent traditions got in the way of the purpose they were created for: helping nuns attain ever-higher levels of spirituality. I would certainly place The Nun’s Story in the “intelligent and interesting” category.

* * * * *

In my most recent post, I talked about the positive spin on slavery in Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the WindCould she have written her novel differently – without turning it into a treatise on social justice?

I think the answer is yes. Mitchell could have done what Hulme did – offer readers small details that gradually build a case against slavery. For example, Gone with the Wind could have used a  slave funeral to show us – without commentary – some of the indignities of slavery:

  • the white slaveowner conducted the service
  • he was in a hurry
  • the slaves stood a respectful distance behind him
  • the slaveowner walked past the slave’s widow without acknowledging her
  • in a casual conversation later, the slaveowner speculated how much it would cost to replace the deceased slave

A brilliant novelist like Margaret Mitchell could probably have come up with much better ideas than I just did! But I hope I’ve made my point: understated, pointed details can build a powerful case without disrupting the story to explain why slavery was wrong.

The same principles apply to a memoir, a business report – almost anything that a thoughtful person might sit down to write. If you’re an ambitious writer who’s trying to take your writing to the next level, here’s a suggestion for you: keep a journal where you record details of your everyday life. Start looking for the meanings attached to everyday actions.

I’ll get you started with one of my own: After I moved into my own apartment, I came home on many Sundays to eat dinner with my family. My mother used to make oven-roasted potatoes because my father liked them – and mashed potatoes for me. If I were writing a memoir, I would be sure to put two plates of potatoes on the dining-room table.


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