Beauty is unbearable, drives us to despair

Someone who should know told me today that my manuscript looks “very, very capably written but not with a tremendous amount of beauty.” She encouraged me to scour my draft and mine for beauty.

My style is direct and journalistic. My personality style is direct, and I am, or was, a journalist. I appreciate aesthetic writing, but it does not come naturally to me.

Oh, woe, this work of writing is work indeed.

The analyst of my work suggested I look at a memoir like “Angela’s Ashes” by Frank McCourt for beautiful writing. Here’s a passage from McCourt’s Chapter 1:

My father, Malachy McCourt, was born on a farm in Toome, County Antrim. Like his father before, he grew up wild, in trouble with the English, or the Irish, or both. He fought with the Old IRA and for some desperate act he wound up a fugitive with a price on his head.

When I was a child I would look at my father, the thinning hair, the collapsing teeth, and wonder why anyone would give money for a head like that. When I was thirteen my father’s mother told me a secret: as a wee lad your poor father was dropped on his head. It was an accident, he was never the same after, and you must remember that people dropped on their heads can be a bit peculiar.

Because of the price on the head he had been dropped on, he had to be spirited out of Ireland via cargo ship from Galway. In New York, with Prohibition in full swing, he thought he had died and gone to hell for his sins. Then he discovered speakeasies and he rejoiced.

One reviewer describes McCourt’s voice as having “originality and immediacy” and another describes his memoir about his poverty-stricken childhood and alcoholic father as having “astounding humor and compassion.” McCourt’s writing is, of course, superlative; he got a Pulitzer Prize for his work. Pulitzer Prize winners are like that — with a bit, or a lot, of clever language, they can turn a tale of sorrow into a humorous redemption story, a classic.

“Because of the price on the head he had been dropped on” is both beautiful and funny. McCourt deserves the kudos.

My story is a tale of sorrow — and redemption — and my editor said I write “fairly objectively about a highly emotional, subjective experience,” which is perhaps compassionate, but I am not astoundingly humorous or even sort of funny. I am the straight man in any skit. Wry maybe. But funny is out. I must aspire to beauty.

“Beauty is unbearable, drives us to despair,
offering us for a minute a glimpse of an eternity that
we should like to stretch out over the whole of time.”

~ Albert Camas

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2 thoughts on “Beauty is unbearable, drives us to despair

  1. I identify with your post very much. The memoir I’ve been working on is full of sorrow and pain, and I struggle with exactly the things you talk about. I somehow feel it is more difficult when you’re writing about your own life. I personally got so good at burying how I felt as a kid, it’s nearly impossible to get my brain to go back there and see the setting, notice the details, get to the place where I can “show, not tell.” Nonetheless, keep at it. And remember there are tons of us in the same spot – it really is hard work! Good luck!

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