Gail Godwin

Gail's Web Tips for Writers

"Web Tips" will be a new feature on this site, inspired by e-mail requests which were waiting when I returned from my travels for Heart on February 14, 2001. "Thank you for allowing yourself to be addressed like this," wrote one person, "people like me need you!" Why not? I thought. I can answer these questions about writing; I certainly have pondered them enough. Then I thought further, lying in bed with my cat and my book tour cold: why not offer a regular "tip" column for writers, addressing problems of technique that arise every day as we struggle to find the best words and the best techniques for that day's work? 

The word "tip," for instance, is perfect when you wipe away the grime of colloquial overuse and look at its meaning afresh. It came into the language fairly recently (mid 1800's) as a noun. It meant special information conveyed by an expert or insider: horse tips for the track, stock tips for the money markets, "tip-sheets" to prepare for school examinations. It no doubt derived from the sense of "tipping the recipient's chances toward success." 

I like the combination of "web" and "tips." This whole Web thing, to which I am so new, is a giant web of human consciousness. And every little tap or tip or drop or drip sets a new motion going in our mutual endeavor. If those questions had not been waiting in that stack of e-mails forwarded from my web site, I would never have thought of Web Tips for Writers. 

Web Tips for Writers #1: Inscrutable Characters or See-through Characters? 

Stephanie Jones asks whether it is better not to describe your character's feelings, leaving them unspoken, or are there circumstances "when it's profitable to jump into your character's mind?" Then she adds, "I have the suspicion that these things are best left unsaid so that the reader has some task of his own." 

Gail: Your choice depends on what experience you hope to give your reader. If you want to make her/him work at your story like a puzzle, if you wish to convey how much can be revealed by understatement, or to convince your reader that every human attempt to penetrate another's heart is like flying through clouds without radar, the Inscrutable route is probably the way to go. 

Inscrutable example: Take a look at Ernest Hemingway's "Hills like White Elephants," a five page story written almost entirely in dialogue. A young American woman named Jig and her nameless boyfriend are waiting for a train to Madrid. The two are lovers, that much we know from the story's problem, which is never put into words. For five pages they order drinks, talk about the drinks, about the hills across the Ebro valley, which Jig says look like white elephants, while the man assures her "it's not really an operation at all," it's "just to let the air in," and we leave them still waiting for the train. "Hills like White Elephants" has been anthologized to death, and English classes all over the world continue to debate the symbolism of those white fleshy mountains like elephants and to argue whether Jig had the abortion or not. 

On the other hand, if your most compelling desire is to plumb the mysteries of an individual consciousness, to give your reader that shock of naked human connection, you might do better with a See Through character whom your readers can know intimately and suffer along with. Read Anton Chekhov's "The Lady with the Dog," a longer story, also about lovers. 

See Through example: Read Anton Chekhov's "The Lady with the Dog," which provides a striking contrast to "Hills Like White Elephants." A longer story, it is also a tale of lovers, but this time we are inside the consciousness of Dmitri Gurov, a cynical, middle aged-philanderer as he meets, plans to seduce, then falls in love with, a young woman walking her little Pomeranian by the sea. This story provides a totally satisfying "see through" experience. Not only do we come to know these people through Gurov's (and Chekhov's) keen observations, but our hearts awaken with Gurov's to the mysteries love can reveal to us. 

Here is one of the most astonishing "see through" passages in literature. Some would say it is an authorial intrusion on Chekhov's part, but he gets away with it by staying within Gurov's mind. This passage occurs just after Gurov and Anna have become lovers: 

At Oreanda they sat on a seat not far from the church, looked down at the sea, and were silent. Yalta was hardly visible through the morning mist; white clouds stood motionless on the mountain tops. The leaves did not stir on the trees, grasshoppers chirruped, and the monotonous hollow sound of the sea rising up from below, spoke of the peace, of the eternal sleep awaiting us. So it must have sounded when there was no Yalta, no Oreanda here; so it sounds now, and it will sound as indifferently and monotonously when we are all no more. And in this constancy, in this complete indifference to the life and death of each of us, there lies hid, perhaps, a pledge of our eternal salvation, of the unceasing movement of life upon earth, of unceasing progress towards perfection. Sitting beside a young woman who in the dawn seemed so lovely, soothed and spellbound in these magical surroundings -- the sea, mountains, clouds, the open sky -- Gurov thought how in reality everything is beautiful in this world when one reflects: everything except what we think or do ourselves when we forget our human dignity and the higher aims of our existence. 

A man walked up to them -- probably a keeper -- looked at them and walked away. And this detail seemed mysterious and beautiful, too . . . 

"The Lady with the Dog," Constance Garnett translation 

It would be a useful and revealing exercise for any of us who practice the writing trade to: 

1. Imagine a crucial turning point in a story about lovers. 
2. Write it using Hemingway's inscrutable technique. 
3. Write it using Chekhov's see through technique. 

Which technique suited your story better? 

A Confession 

While we are still on the topic of Inscrutable vs. See Through characters: Colleen Hennessey e-mails that she is writing an English paper on my story "A Sorrowful Woman," (in the Dream Children collection) and has a different take on the story from others in the class. Would I care to explain my intentions? 

Ah, yes, Colleen, it's high time I did, though the explanation is somewhat embarrassing. I wrote "A Sorrowful Woman," (which has since become my most anthologized story and has baffled and divided many an English class) when I was a student at the Iowa Writers Workshop and not yet a published writer. The original story, called "The Sorrowful Mother," was meant to be about a woman overcome by the sheer significance of being a mother. She begins to have violent dreams (my "see through" into her current state of mind) in which she is in a small boat with her husband and child and the sea grows rougher and rougher as the dreams progress. She withdraws more and more from her family, abetted by a doctor husband who makes up sleeping potions for her "to rest better." Her final burst of energy, during which she makes and cooks all those compensatory gifts for them, is then followed by her final suicide dream in which the family's boat breaks up and dashes them all to pieces. My teacher, Robert Coover, loved the story and sent it to Gordon Lish at Esquire, who said he'd like to publish it if we could take out the dreams. "Makes her more inscrutable that way," Lish said. I wanted to publish my story and so I agreed. However I think the story without the dreams is still about that woman I envisioned in the first place, a super-sensitive, perhaps depressed, human being who becomes overwhelmed by the sheer significance of being a wife and mother. Unlike her dreams, the husband and son survive the shipwreck.