Writing With Simplicity

All eyes turned to me as I audibly drew in my breath with a loud “huuuh” and my legs bent too quickly at the knee, causing the weights to crash down on each other.  I blushed and pointed to the little white buds in my ear. “Podcast,” I explained.

From reading those few lines, you know exactly where I was and pretty much what I was doing.  You can picture the gym, the machine and the iPod attached to me.  You probably know what a podcast is, also, and can relate to the experience of doing something audibly when you meant to keep quiet, causing people to look at you funny.

The above story is absolutely true, but what’s more important is the lesson I learned from listening to that podcast.  It was a podcast from _New Yorker Magazine_ fiction.  Each month an author who has contributed to the magazine gets to pick a short story that has been in the magazine and read it and discuss it with Deborah Treisman, the fiction editor.  In this particular episode, Junot Díaz, author of _The Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao_,  read Edwidge Danticat’s “Water Child.”

The theme of the discussion was simplicity.  Throughout the story, the reader is in the main character, Nadine’s, head.  The point of view, however, is third person limited, so we see her actions and reactions, but not her thoughts.  For example, we know that the patient she sees as a nurse has no hair and is bony.  We can assume cancer and I’m not sure we’re ever told outright that we’re correct, but there are many other context clues that confirm the assumption.  We know there’s a shrine to a lost baby and a reference to a “procedure” – we can assume an abortion.  We hear a message on the answering machine from a long-ago lover and wonder why she won’t give him a second chance, but then when she calls him back, we hear the wife answer, and that act clicks the relationship sharply into focus.

The thing that is amazing about Danticat’s work, and then Diaz’s discussion of it is the assumptions that we’re allowed to make on our own and the simplicity of the language that leads the reader to make these assumptions.  There’s not any exposition in the story and we’re not told many extraneous details.  In fact, I’m not sure what Nadine looks like except that she is Haitian.  I can’t hear her actual voice, but I hear the voice in her head.  She weaves the story together masterfully with the manipulation of language in a way that appeals to the reader with its simplicity.

As I revise my two novels, as is my goal for the next six months, I will strive for such appealing simplicity that can wow the readers with it’s austerity and richness all at once.

But in the meantime, I might listen to music instead of podcasts in the gym.

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