I was doing some actual writing yesterday (hurrah!) and some revision (hmph.) And as I was doing each, I was thinking about something that I often find myself thinking about lately. It kind of goes along with my initial hesitation in writing anything at all — the thing that kept me from even really officially trying for about 30 years. Does every word, every sentence, need to be lyrical and impressive? Does every sentence need to sing? Or is it okay to just tell a good story?
I think I get a bit of both. Now and then I come across a sentence I’ve written and think, “wow, who wrote that? That’s great!” (Perhaps these are the darlings I’m supposed to kill?) But more often, I am reading for the story more than for the words. The language sort of disappears behind the storytelling, except in places where things are awkwardly phrased or there is an obvious error, and in those places I rewrite.

I’ve been thinking back over some books that I’ve really enjoyed reading, and trying to remember if I enjoyed them because I spent the duration of the book thinking, “oh what lovely phrasing, ah what nice alliteration!” And I don’t think I do much of that. Instead, I am happiest when I can lose myself in a story — shouldn’t the author’s voice be secondary to the tale they are trying to tell? (With obvious exceptions, maybe, in poetry and some narrative?) The books I’ve liked most, I think, are those where the story just seems to tell itself. And that’s a gift, isn’t it? To be able to push and pull language to act on its own, to use our tools to deliver something interesting and rich to the reader without making it obvious that we’re doing so? Sometimes I stumble over sentences where a writer has clearly worked a bit too hard, tried to force something that just didn’t work.

I guess my question is this: where does the art really lie in writing? Is it in the ability to tell a story clearly, compellingly, with the words flowing well and unobtrusively so that the reader doesn’t have to stop and re-read? Or is the writer’s job to play with language, to make it cry and sing and whine, to demonstrate their mastery over it?

Maybe a little of both, I suspect. But I think most writers do more one than the other. And though I began with poetry, I think I’m pretty squarely in the category of the former at this point. I just want to tell the stories, and entertain the reader. Where do you fall?