As I’ve read Caroline Gordon’s letters and essays and lectures, I’ve collected what I call my “Gordon Method” textbook: her best, most timeless advice to writers. Here’s a sample of one of my favorites, sent to Flannery O’Connor in November, 1951, while O’Connor was revising her first novel, Wise Blood. Gordon writes to O’Connor:
“I admire the core of dramatic action in this book very much, but I think that the whole book would gain by not being so stripped, so bare, by surrounding the core of action with some contrasting material. Suppose we think of a scene in your novel as a scene in a play. Any scene in any play takes place on some sort of set. I feel that the sets in your play are quite wonderful but you never let us see them. A spotlight follows every move the characters make and throws an almost blinding radiance on them, but it is a little like the spotlight a burglar uses when he is cracking a safe; it illuminates a small circle and the rest of the stage is in darkness most of the time. Focusing the reader’s attention completely on the action is one way to make things seem very dramatic, but I do not think that you can keep that up all of the time. It demands too much of the reader. He is just not capable of such rigorous attention. It would be better, I think, if you occasionally used a spotlight large enough to illuminate the corners of the room, for those corners have gone on existing all through the most dramatic moments” (The Letters of Flannery O’Connor and Caroline Gordon, 25).
There’s so much I love about this passage.
Gordon credits O’Connor’s strength as a writer : : : like the spotlight a burglar uses when he is cracking a safe; it illuminates a small circle: : : her ability to capture a precise description: a mother with a face as “broad and innocent as a cabbage.” Details that reverberate beyond mere characterization.
Have your camera’s eye zoom in, I tell my students. Color. Texture. Sound. Smell.
But O’Connor’s weakness is –in her early days–the panorama. The wide screen. The contextual lens. Illuminate the corners of the room, Gordon tells her. Those areas, Gordon understood, allow us access to the transcendent.
Today I met with Nazifa. She is writing an essay that requires both skills Gordon describes. In one scene, Nazfa arrives in the United States from Bangladesh, 9 months old, held tightly by her youthful, optimistic parents. In the next scene, 19-year old Naz travels to Amsterdam, to the Anne Frank House. Together, she and I climb the stairs, beyond the hinged bookshelf to the attic hideaway. Wooden floors creak below our feet; Nazifa sees lead pencil marks lining the wall, marking the rising height of the growing children. When Naz and I walk out of Anne Frank’s house, we learn that children sit in cages at the U.S./Mexico border. Nazifa wants to link these scenes. Her ideas are intangible, inarticulate–and I understand her completely.
Pan out, I say, echoing Gordon’s advice to O’Connor. Tell me about the trolley thrumming outside, the the light of the afternoon sun, the tilt of stars after midnight. I am waiting, waiting now, for Naz’s final revision.