A Close Read

What makes good writing good
More

"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.

Christina Schwarz is the author of the novels Drowning Ruth and All Is Vanity.
Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In