Friday Writing Experiment No. 33: A Little Bird Told You


This week’s Friday Writing Experiment celebrates the publication next week of Donna Tartt’s very exciting new novel The Goldfinch.

It’s getting the fantastic reviews it deserves, but I do suggest you don’t read any of them until you’ve read the novel itself, as too many reveal far too much. Even things such as the settings are best left to unfold for themselves – the second (or maybe it’s the third) act of the book took me someplace quite unexpected, and it’s richly rendered and full of further surprises. And that is what much of reading for pleasure is about: the surprises, the narrative tension.

This is touched upon in this very inspiring (and spoiler-free) clip from an interview with Donna Tartt shown on the BBC this week:

When asked what she wants people to read her books for, she answers:

First I want them to have fun. Reading’s no good unless it’s fun … What I always want is the one quality I look for in books and it’s very hard to find … I love that childhood quality of just that gleeful, greedy reading, can’t-get-enough-of-it, what’s-happening-to-these-people, the breathless kind of turning of the pages. That’s what I want in a book. But I also want something that’s well constructed, too. I like to be able to drop down in. Dickens goes so fast, he goes like lightning, but at the same time any sentence you can lift up and it’s a marvel and it’s a miracle. To me, I want those two qualities, the two qualities of any great art: density and speed. Density and speed.

Kirsty also says that her books are about secrets, and Donna replies that all books are about secrets and have mysteries at their heart. ‘Every book has some secret, there’s always a secret.’

One thing that can probably be revealed (something I knew before reading – not least as it’s on the cover) is that the story involves a painting. A painting of a little bird: ‘The Goldfinch’ by Carel Fabritius (and if you don’t know much about it, maybe don’t follow that link till you’ve read the novel either: let the novel bring it into your world in its own way). It’s a beautiful, beautiful painting, or so I believe – I’ve never seen the original, but we’ll all want to now, and thanks to Donna Tartt for describing it so well.

This set me to thinking about ekphrastic writing, which is writing that in some way describes art or uses it as an inspiration. Some examples are mentioned here. I remember my friend and co-teacher Stephanie Heit using Pictures From Brueghel in a workshop at Naropa.

Something further: that bird, that little bird. My goddess, that little bird really haunted me – its exquisite form, its vulnerability, ‘a yellow finch, against a plain, pale ground, chained to a perch by its twig of an ankle’. A little bird painted three and a half centuries ago comes to stand for so much, and mining this meaning allows for the depth and richness of reading this great book.

For this week’s writing experiment, create a piece that takes The Goldfinch as a model for writing:

* As an inspiration, use a painting of a bird or an animal, or maybe a fish or a lizard or an insect.

* And then also place a secret at the heart of this piece.

* And it might not hurt to aspire towards density and speed in your work, too: perhaps some of its sentences can be marvels and miracles.

* Most of all, your readers must have FUN.

If you’d like to explore some inspirations, try Animals In Art or even visit the Animal Art Fair. Or take yourself on an artist date to one of your favourite galleries, or root around in gallery websites. Really take in all the details of an artwork featuring your own little bird or animal, and in your own writing embody whatever it – and its subject – might mean.

Back To Work

The Goldfinch

Actually, this summer has been busier than I expected workwise. But I did have very lovely breaks in Stockholm, Berlin, and the Isle of Wight, and I did get some good reading done, and also adored Orange Is The New Black. And yay, we had sun! Decent summer weather was gratefully received.

Going back to my last post, my reading highlight must have been Donna Tartt’s new novel The Goldfinch, which is FANTASTIC. Maybe I’ll say something about its many wondrous wonders anon, but it’s one of those books where (probably) nothing should be known in advance, so duck the reviews and just get hold of a copy (coming to a bookstore near you in October, and yes, I’m very grateful for friends in high – and lowly – places in publishers, especially when they have access to very desirable advance reading copies). The Goldfinch was for me one of those (increasingly rare) experiences that was really all about the pleasure of reading. I cleared the decks of work and television and friends, and really made time for this great fat book (771 pages), and I finished it in the garden one sunny Friday morning, and the ending made me cry. That pretty little bird, that sweet little bird. I just got teary looking at the end again.

Tomorrow I’m off to the Writers’ Workshop’s Festival of Writing in York. I’m finally catching my breath after typing up notes for thirty one-on-one book doctor sessions, and I’m just here procrastinating before I finish handouts for the workshops on Editing For Writers and How To Write A Sentence. I’m also running a mini-course on the Four Elements of Creativity (woo woo, a bit hippie there, bring on the patchouli) and taking part in a panel on fantasy and science fiction.

And if you’re reading this while thinking about getting feedback from myself or anyone else at York (or most anywhere else, for that matter), don’t be anxious! (Not that you are, of course. But some people can be, especially if they’ve not attended such an event before.) The point of giving and getting feedback in such contexts is finding ways to improve the writing. Some people get nice strokes to the ego too, and sometimes even agents and book deals. But for most people such rewards are further down the line. Usually we’ll be having discussions like: This has a lot of this, but maybe not much of that. Or: This works well, so why don’t you do more of it, or let it stand out more clearly. Or: Have you maybe thought of trying this? Or: Why did you do that? Or: Concrete and specific details, please. Or: Don’t forget to paginate your manuscript. Or: Publishers might HATE this, but do it anyway, because much of the time they don’t know what the hell they’re doing (only kidding – maybe …). So: it’s a dialogue, and it’s pretty relaxed, and intended most of all to be helpful.

And beyond your book doctor sessions and the workshops and keynote speeches and literary competitions that are intended to give you professional insights and fire you with inspiration, you’ll be enjoying the company of writers and readers – and after all, good editors and agents are simply good readers, so they are included there too. It’s likely that there’ll be more work to do, after the weekend, but something that can come immediately is the forming of new friendships with like-minded booklovers, and they will be there in droves.

I’ll report back next week, when regular blog service will resume. Not sure I’ll be doing Friday Writing Experiments, or even posting weekly, but I’ll make regular-ish posts of some sort or other.