Not Misunderstood

“Get at the heart of what is before you.”    Paul Cezanne

“Don’t write merely to be understood. Write so that you cannot
possibly be misunderstood.”    Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson is one of those renaissance writers who seems to be able to do it all and do it effortlessly. Whether he’s penning the sunlit poems in A Child’s Garden of Verses or the dark, sinister story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, he seems equally at home, equally at ease. He’s a writing hero of mine and so I was thrilled to see in an interview in the back of his Newbery-winning novel, Crispin: The Cross of Lead, that Avi, a children’s writer I greatly admire, is also a fan. Here’s what Avi said:

“The ultimate model for all my historical fiction is Robert Louis Stevenson — he epitomizes a kind of storytelling that I dearly love and still read because it is true, it has validity, and, beyond all, it is an adventure.”

Storytelling that’s true, has validity, and offers adventure — whatever genre we’re writing in, this is surely a standard to aspire to. With this in mind, I’ve been pondering Robert’s advice: “Don’t write merely to be understood. Write so that you cannot possibly be misunderstood.”

There’s something very deeply true and helpful in these words, I think. I’m not sure I’ve gotten to the heart of this yet, but here’s a first pass:

“Writing to be understood” is just the first step in telling a tale: It’s a workmanlike attempt to say what we mean and want our readers to know. Beyond this lies true craft and mastery: a higher level of clarity and precision that makes it impossible for the reader to mistake our
meaning or to not see what we are writing to show them. This level of clarity brings us to a place where literally, no other words will do. We are so precise, so deft in the words we choose that readers experience them, not as words on a page, but as a time and place that
we are summoning up and thrusting them into.

Yes, Robert writes adventurous stories — and shouldn’t every story be an adventure? But
when I read his tales, I am struck by his ability to create both truly memorable characters and to evoke atmosphere and feelings through his descriptions of settings. Jekyll and Hyde aren’t just creepy, sinister characters — so is the London in which they flit back and forth. Masterful! I can see Robert’s influence in Avi’s artful word choices — Crispin: The Cross of Lead has a true, essential quality to it.

What’s your take on Robert’s comment? I’d love to hear it. Bravo, Robert and Avi. May they inspire us as we all write on!

About karinwritesdangerously

I am a writer and this is a motivational blog designed to help both writers and aspiring writers to push to the next level. Key themes are peak performance, passion, overcoming writing roadblocks, juicing up your creativity, and the joys of writing.
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