Writerly Roundup December 2020
Our Writerly Roundup series features a curated collection of articles on the craft of writing and the creative life that we don’t want you to miss.
As we turn the corner into 2021, many of us are reexamining the past, and looking towards a new and reimagined future. What better time, then, to reexamine Charles Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol”, as Anna Hundert does in her essay for Ploughshares. The ghosts of 2020 will will certainly haunt many of us for years to come. How may they spark change in us as writers? Like Scrooge, we may find ourselves questioning our past selves or haunted by the ghost of unfinished manuscripts. New ideas and projects may take shape, perhaps others will be discarded. Perhaps, like Dickens, we can find humor and lightness in difficult times.
The new year is also a time for redecorating. Stephanie Hunt’s essay draws parallels between home decorating and the craft of writing, giving us a fresh perspective on both art forms. Finally, we offer some authors’ suggestions on what motivates them. Perhaps you’ll find a nugget to spark your imagination.
Please enjoy and share. If you have a current piece of writing you would like us to feature in our next Writerly Roundup, please send it our way to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Levity and Storytelling in A Christmas Carol, Ploughshares, Anna Hundert
In her essay (originally published in 2018), Anna Hundert explores the lightheartedness in Charles Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol”. The levity is apparent when reading the novella, but often lost in the stage and screen adaptations of the tale:
If you know where to look, there lies at its core a distinct lightness and musicality that might run contrary to the way Dickens (and Victorian literature more generally) appears in today’s popular imagination.
Hundert observes that Dickens’ structured the novella in musical “staves”. He was aware that he was blending “moral gravity with stylistic levity”. In the preface to “A Christmas Carol”, Dickens clearly states his intentions for the reader:
Dickens’ original preface reflects an acute awareness of how he is attempting to blend moral gravity with stylistic levity:
“I have endeavoured, in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it!”
What does it mean for a story to haunt its readers “pleasantly”? When the ghost of Scrooge’s dead business partner arrives, initiating the series of literal “hauntings,” his message is anything but pleasant. Marley shows Scrooge the reality of the spiritual “chains,” which he forged during his lifetime through selfish deeds and which weigh him down in the afterlife.
In another example of the tone Dickens intended Hundert highlights a passage in which Dickens plays upon our attachment to certain figures of speech:
Even in discussing death, Dickens cracks a joke about people’s attachment to familiar figures of speech. To attribute such a quotidian saying as “dead as a doornail” to the “wisdom of the ancestors” also reminds us that all language is also a form of time travel, a form of resurrecting the dead through re-using the words that they once uttered.
Hundert’s essay made me eager to revisit the tale again, with an eye for Dickens’ meticulous and playful craft.
Craft: Reflections on Roomy Writing, hippocampus, Stephanie Hunt
Stephanie Hunt blends a craft essay with personal recollections of her mother-in-law’s beautifully crafted and layered home decoration. She lovingly describes the meticulous makings of a house, and the care her late mother-in-law took with sewing drapery and imbuing the home with meaning. It is not unlike the writer’s process:
Strong writing, I realized, is similarly a roomy endeavor. A craft that entails the layering of textures and patterns, of contrasting the endless colors and hues of language, of thoughtfully placing words and paragraphs in such a way that there is an inviting, comfortable space to sit and consider whatever it is you are trying to say. Stuff too much in and a room or a sentence, an essay, can be cumbersome and stifling. Leave out poignant details and it’s bland, impersonal.
Hunt describes how her mother-in-law recreated the feeling of her stately home when she moved to a smaller place. It was the stories behind each piece and the care that gave the home its warmth and character. Hunt also examines the decorator’s ability to move things around if they are not working: “If a chair is too clunky for one corner, move it to another.” So, too, the writer may squirrel away a wonderful turn of phrase that doesn’t quite fit and wait for the perfect location in a future piece of writing.
The life of the room, and a piece of writing, is more than the sum of its parts, and the magic, the craft, lies in the orchestrated details that create an overall atmosphere. The hand-sewn drapes that fall in gentle folds. The patina of antiques long-loved. Like my mother-in-law, Virginia Woolf knew something about this. A writer, she said, must have “a room of one’s own.” And of one’s own making.
Writers’ Recommend, Poets & Writers, Various Authors
Finally, you may have made a resolution to write more in 2021. In this survey, various writers share what motivates them, what keeps them going, and what’s on their bookshelves. Suggestions range from keeping a notebook of ideas and clippings, to reading Zadie Smith, to reexamining the “stuck/unstuck” dichotomy we often apply to writing and how to get out of that mindset.
Wishing you a wonderful reading and writing year in 2021.
Have you read a compelling article about craft or the creative life that you think should appear in the next Writerly Roundup? Please send links to lmblogcontact (at) literarymama (dot) com—we’d love to hear your input!