Those Little Bells

By Mark Stevens

(This blog is a note to self. Thanks for letting me share.)

I recently read a New Yorker profile of the writer Lydia Davis and I felt as if I’d entered a very calm, clear space.

It’s a long piece, by Dana Goodyear, but it’s behind a paywall at the New Yorker web site so I thought I’d highlight one major point here. I highly recommend that you track down a copy (March 17, 2014).

Lydia Davis is a very-short-story writer. The New Yorker piece calls her “one of the most original minds in American fiction today.” There much to be gleaned from reading the entire profile.

Davis is 66 years old now and still writes regularly. She’s inspired by unlikely vignettes she encounters throughout the day. Unlikely and unusual. You get the impression her writing mind never shuts down.

Since this blog can’t cover everything, here’s one bit that stuck with me: Lydia Davis thinks about every word.

Yeah, sure, whatever. Writers think about every word—don’t we?

Not on the Davis scale.

Lydia Davis is after precision in the words like…

(Actually, I’m afraid to write a metaphor right about now.)

For Davis, there are no throwaways.

“A little bell goes off in my head first,” she says. “I know something’s wrong here.”

Demonstrating her point for Goodyear, Davis read an image from a published novel:

“A paper bag stuffed with empty wine bottles.”

Spot the issue?

“I thought about that,” says Davis. “You’d think he could get away with it, but he can’t, because ‘stuffed’ is a verb that comes from material. It’s soft, so it’s a problem to stuff it with something hard.”

Davis concludes: “Whenever I read this kind of thing, it tells me the writer is not sensitive to the full value of the idea of comparison.”

I thought to myself: yikes.

Yes, high standards. Not surprising for a woman who was once married to master stylist Paul Auster and, to mention many other accomplishments in her long writing career, translated Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way from French to English. (Some critics lashed Davis for her preference for “obscure cognates” over than going with “flashier English renderings.”)

It’s the old lesson: every word counts. Every word has meaning. Every word carries weight.

Do everything you can to avoid ringing those little bells.

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Mark StevensMark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.

Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014.

One thought on “Those Little Bells

  1. Patricia Stoltey

    Thanks for the excellent reminder, Mark. We need to pay attention when those little bells go off instead of ignoring them. I tend to do such a good job of tuning out the world when I’m writing (at least that first draft) that even fire sirens and the neighbor teen’s drums go unheard. Lydia Davis is clearly in pursuit of not just good writing, but brilliant writing, so she stays on high alert when focused on her craft.

    Reply

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