A Close Read

What makes good writing good

"I liked acting, at that age. You got to dwell on feelings, which were all I dwelt on then anyway, and turn them over, play them out. We had long discussions: would a child afraid of her father show the fear in public? would a man who was in love with a woman talk more loudly when she entered the room? Those who'd had real training (I was not one of them) spoke with scorn about actors who 'indicated,' who tried to display a response without actually feeling it. An audience could always tell. What was new to me here was the idea that insincerity was visible. I understood from this that in real life I was not getting away with as much as I thought." —from "My Shape," in Ideas of Heaven, by Joan Silber (Norton)

Like a gymnast off a springboard, Joan Silber begins this, and many other flawlessly pitched paragraphs in her recent story collection, with a punch—a short, simple sentence that establishes a particular. She sticks her landing, too (having traveled some distance in the meantime), with another demonstration of muscle: two final sentences, as arresting in their slow pace and awkward construction as the epiphany they describe. In between this opening and closing Silber's words flow organically.

It's largely sentence variation and balanced rhythm that make this passage pleasing. Silber twins clauses—"You got to dwell on feelings, which were all I dwelt on"; "turn them over, play them out"; the two questions; "indicated" and its clarification—and these branch like rivulets, adding nuance, while the solid, simple sentences between them lend backbone. There is variety and balance in meaning, as well, in that the paragraph touches on emotion from every angle—experienced, expressed, and observed. Silber's writing is smooth, yes, but it's also liberally spiced. Here, juxtaposing the present and the past, she peppers her lines with gentle mockery as the mature woman looks back at the silly, insubstantial person she once was.

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