How do you take your writing from mundane to transcendent? Incorporating these seven attributes of exquisite writing is a start.
Read this beautiful opening paragraph from Sandra Cisneros’ story, “My Friend Lucy Who Smells Like Corn.”
Lucy Anguiano, Texas girl who smells like corn, like Frito Bandito chips, like tortillas, something like that warm smell of nixtamal or bread the way her head smells when she’s leaning close to you over a paper cut-out doll or on the porch when we are squatting over marbles trading this pretty crystal that leaves a blue star on your head for that giant cat-eye with a grasshopper green spiral in the center like the juice of bugs on the windshield when you drive to the border, like the yellow blood of butterflies.
Every story in the collection Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories has the seven brilliant attributes that are hallmarks of great writing. Cisneros is such an accomplished writer, they are evident in her first sentence.
Exceptional word choice
Cisneros selects words that arouse the senses: you can smell the Frito Bandito chips, tortillas, and nixtamal. You can feel the smooth coolness of the marbles rolling around in your hand. She uses jewel words to spark the imagination: cat-eye, grasshopper green spiral, juice of bugs, and yellow blood of butterflies. Her language is concrete, creative, and colorful.
Beautiful, clear phrasing
All 93 words of this first paragraph flow out in a single, beautiful sentence. It’s poetic and easy-to-grasp, despite its considerable length. This is because Cisneros sculpts her prose in phrases. Here, they work to imitate the chatter of small kids, breathless, enthusiastic, and innocent. Her sentence is fitted together so it rolls off the tongue in a lovely rhythm: “… the way her head smells when she’s leaning close to you over a paper cut-out doll …”
Less is more
These 93 words tell us loads. Much more than she has to tell us explicitly. As readers, we are filling in details that help bring the scene to life. She makes us understand they are both young, by the way they squat and the games they play. We know they intensely like each other, a key dimension to the flavor of the story. We know they play game after game. One is the leader, perhaps, and one is keenly observant and feels lucky. We are pulled into the scene by the vision of a perfect childhood friendship, the kind that is remembered forever and is the object of envy. We get the inkling they are poor and making the best of a limited situation. We get a picture of Lucy’s ethnicity. We know they are familiar with “a border” and even though she never mentions it, we know it’s Mexico.
Intense verbal imagery
Cisneros picks a common scenario, kids playing, and uses it to paint vivid image, full of motion. In our heads, we see two young girls, heads close together in friendship and concentration, squatting, palming marbles.
The extraordinary ordinary
Her subject matter is commonplace. Millions of little girls play together. But she succeeds in making it exceptional. Who thinks of their friend smelling of corn, something so homey and warm and huggable? Linking Lucy to food gives comfort. You can relate to the idea, it’s totally familiar and yet uniquely observed.
Cisneros excels at making the ordinary extraordinary. Her topics include: turning eleven, a boy at school, going to the movies, playing with Barbies, going to church. Everyone does these things, but Cisneros repeatedly makes these events magical by creating unique characters with strong emotions and using a backdrop of extreme situations, like poverty, and inserting colorful details drawn from religious and ethnic identity.
Each small snippet of life told in these short stories has a universal message; the whole book is about love and finding your way in the world.
All of these aspects contribute to the voice found in this book. It is unique and widely celebrated.
Look at your own work and stack it up against these seven attributes of exquisite writing. How do you fare? Are there aspects you could strengthen? These are your goals: use exceptional words, develop beautiful and clear phrasing, make more out of less, craft intense verbal images, make the ordinary extraordinary, establish an authentic voice, and convey a universal message.
Finding Your Voice As A Writer
Use All Five Senses To Enrich Your Writing
Variety Is The Spice That Will Improve Your Writing
Choose Words That Convey Your Meaning
A Lesson In Storytelling From The Ultimate Dog Tease