“She had never brought courage to either life or love. Her eyes ransacked her heart.”
From The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder
“Easy reading is damned heard writing.”
Everyone has favorite books that they return to from time to time, still marveling at their power and beauty. For me, one of these cherished works is The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Thornton Wilder wrote it while in his thirties. It was published in the late 1920s and won the Pulitzer Prize. It’s short — only 150 pages or so — a novella really. And yet it seems to grow bigger, more universal, deeper, and truer every time I read it.
A while ago, I came across advice from an agent who said that if you want to write, you have to read. And when you read, he said, you should read first for pleasure, and then with a pencil, trying to decipher exactly how a writer that you enjoy manages to create the emotional effect on you that he or she has.
That’s what I’m doing now with The Bridge of San Luis Rey. A few of my writing buddies in my writing group have decided to start a book club, not just for pleasure, but for the purpose of “reading like writers” and analyzing works of fiction with an eye toward improving our own craft. Happily, The Bridge is our first pick.
So what have I come up with? Admiration. Awe. What a writer! There is something so expansive yet economical about Thornton’s style; so compassionate and yet objective; so particular and yet universal; so lovely and lyrical — and yet plainspoken. When I read The Bridge, I feel like a pendulum swaying back and forth between these poles: It’s dizzying and yet I’m carried to some place deep and mysterious. I feel as if I’ve glimpsed into the heart of life. To me, that’s the hallmark of a great writer.
How, how does Thornton do this? I’m still not sure, but I want to figure it out, because I’d love to bring a dose of his restrained emotional power to my own writing. Some of this power comes from his tone: In his role as omniscient observer, Thornton constantly plays with distance. In one sentence, he examines a character’s heart with a microscope and in the next, he pulls back and it’s as if he’s seeing the character’s suffering through the eyes of God. Somehow, he transforms a moment of intense, intimate pain into a meditation on the human condition. What an amazing gift!
Are there writers who hit you hard emotionally? How do you think they create this effect? It’s something to ponder. I’d love to hear from you. Write on!