Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

I Wish I’d Written That

I can’t remember if I’ve relayed this story before, or used this title in a post before. If I have to either (or both), forgive me, the old brain ain’t what it used to be.

A few years back, the Magpie’s English class did a big project. The teacher partnered with the head of a small arts center in town to put the students’ work on display. The event ended with an open mic event in the courtyard, and it was quite an evening.

The school is blessed with a number of talented musicians, many of whom were in attendance that day. At one point, I went inside the main building and was talking to the arts center’s director, who is a friend of mine (this is the same center where our Writers’ Circle meets, and the director was also a participant in our group). While we were talking, the music continued outside, which was quite nice as a backdrop.

During the course of our conversation, whoever was performing finished up, and two brothers took the stage. We heard the sounds of them tuning up (acoustic guitar and violin) but paid little attention.

And then they started playing.

I don’t remember if I was talking, or if my friend was talking, but the second the music started, we both shut up. It was a “mouth hanging open in surprise” moment, and then we both turned and looked out the window to see who was playing. I’m also pretty sure I said, “Holy shit.” These boys were good. I mean, really, really good. As I said, there was–still is–a lot of talent in this school, but these boys were a cut above everyone else. It’s funny how you can listen to singers and performers and say, “Yeah, they’re good,” but there’s a line between “good” and…whatever word you would choose that comes next, and you know it the instant you hear it.

It’s the same with writing. There are tons of books out there, tons of books published every year. Lots of books are well written. There are lots of books where I think, “Yeah, I wish I’d written that,” but every once in a while, you come across something that is just beyond that line and into the next zone, whatever you call it.

Yesterday, in Writers’ Circle, one of our members brought in a short story collection she had picked up at an event in town earlier in the week. The Brink was written by Austin Bunn, the story in question called, “The Worst You Can Imagine Is Where This Starts.” It’s a brilliant story about a man who makes a truly horrific discovery in his basement. The line that caught me–in describing the protagonist’s basement, Bunn writes, “The place was a warehouse of his unfinished business, the tool table an open grave.”

Wow. This is one of those descriptors that does in so few words what it would take others (like me) a page-and-a-half to write. Immediately, an image came to mind of a basement, with work strewn about, bits and pieces and parts all over, the detritus of projects started and abandoned–or even completed, but with the cleanup not quite finished–it’s fixed in my mind as soon as those few words hit my ear. And even if you’re the sort of person whose basement is immaculate, I suspect you can see it. It is perfect, in my mind.

I wish I’d written that.

Interestingly, while I sometimes get depressed when reading really good writing–you know how it goes: “How can I ever hope to reach those levels?”–this I found rather inspiring. Maybe I, too, can reach these levels. Time to start trying.

6 Responses

  1. How do you know that author DIDN'T take a page and a half to write that and dwindled it down to that when someone may have told him to "tighten it"? It's possible! Just keep telling yourself that the next time you're tightening a scene. 🙂

  2. And yet you've learned to recognize the awesomeness of that sentence. You recognize it now and can keep learning, trying to find ways to emulate. When I hear a phrase in an audiobook, I like to write things down so I don't forget them. Sometimes it's the sentence structure, and sometimes it's the word choice. Either way, it's something I can play with for myself. It's a slow process, but I think I'm getting better. A little. 😀

  3. -Stacy–It's entirely possible that he DID that–all I know is, the finished product was the picture of effective economy!
    -Donna–I sure hope I'm learning!

  4. Hey Jeff… I think the fact that you can see something a peer wrote and acknowledge it as very well written says volumes about you. People often have a propensity to downplay the success of others, so praising a peer – in public no less – tells me you're confident enough in your own skill set to praise someone else's. So maybe have a look at your own work and take a moment to acknowledge that there's probably some genius hiding in there, too.

  5. I think knowing what authors you want to emulate, or what lines you wish you'd written, is the beginning of achieving it. If you know what you want, study it, and attempt it – then little by little you get better. (Unless you're trying to write like King, in which case pack it in now. lol)

  6. -Dan and Lexa–I definitely have those moments where I say, "Yeah! Nailed it/Love it!" I'm much more likely to do that when reading someone else's work, though. Thanks for commenting, and for your positivity–I hope I'm learning!

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