Essays March 2006

A Close Read

What makes good writing good

“Woolf was not a romantic, not a celebrant of that getting lost that is erotic love, in which the beloved becomes an invitation to become who you secretly, dormantly, like a locust underground waiting for the seventeen-year call, already are in hiding, that love for the other that is also a desire to reside in your own mystery in the mystery of others. Her getting lost was solitary, like Thoreau’s.” —from A Field Guide to Getting Lost, by Rebecca Solnit (Viking)

Like Solnit’s subject in these essays, “getting lost,” her first sentence here is indirect both in its approach—she is defining what Virginia Woolf is not and in its style. Its progress is hardly linear as she interrupts it to redefine and modify her idea and in the middle devotes a grand flourish to an aspect of the sentence that isn’t even the point. The sentence seems nearly to run away with its author: a wonderfully lively effect. Particularly animating is the locust simile, with its vivid specificity—“underground,” “seventeen-year”—and its concreteness (unique in this argument about abstractions). Inactive verbs, generally deadly, here provide restraint. Solnit also tames the chaos by repeating words—becomes/become, other/others, mystery/mystery. And if neither of these measures is enough, the final sentence—short, tight, direct—gives a firm tug on the reins.

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