Thursday, August 29, 2013

Measuring Literary Success Through Memorability


If I can't remember what happens in a book, or recall a glowing line from a poem, story, or article, then it has failed my test of success. Something--a character, a line, a scene--has to stay with me for me to add a title to my list of works I recommend to others. Too often I read a literary work and can't recall anything a week later. Now I could blame that on my age, but the fact is, I have forgotten many books throughout my 45 years of reading. The reason that some works have stayed in my memory files long after I've deleted many other brain files holds the answer to my own creation of memorable words. STUDY THE WORDS THAT HAVE RESONATED WITH YOU AND YOU WILL DISCOVER THAT MAGIC MEMORABILITY.

For example, I recently reread a book that I cherished as an elementary school girl: A Girl Called Al, by Constance C. Greene. I was shocked when I realized how much I still remembered--over 40 years later--and how much that work has influenced me as both a writer and a teacher. I teach many lessons related to nonconformity, and the first time I ever heard that word was in Greene's book, used to describe the girl, Al, who taught me that it was cool to think and act differently from the so-called "popular" kids. I brought out this old treasure of a novel for my youngest student, in fact, at the same time that I was using a few poems and stories on the same theme for a few of my older students. Al came into my life and stayed there, apparently.

Similarly, Holden Caulfield met me when I was a new teenager and has resided in my brain, along with his self-deprecating opening in which he doubts that I, his reader, will really want to hear about his story--a hook I will never forget. His voice resonated then and now echoes through my own YA works-in-progress in various ways, I see. And John Irving's style, which captivated me with The World According to Garp, with its matter-of-fact punchlines that left me saying, "Wait--what?" and laughing or gasping aloud, and his wandering storytelling style that always manages to bring the reader back to the original point from which it began meandering, now manages to find its way into the style I use in my current middle-grade novel. One editor who read an early draft called it "John Irving for kids."

Even nonfiction lines stay with me as both a writer and a teacher. Anna Quindlen wrote an article just after the September 11th bombing of the World Trade Center, in which she described how the world changed with an image of a To-Do list floating 80-something stories to the ground below, against a backdrop of smoke and rubble. Other journalists described the rubble, the ambulances, the sightings of falling bodies, but her To-Do list struck a chord with me. The list represents all the things that will never get done by the person who wrote it, as many of us do each day, without any inkling that he/she would never complete it for reasons beyond anyone's imagination, reasons that make us realize that we must never take anything for granted, or stress out over task lists that mean we are alive and well to pursue their completion. That fragile piece of paper floating against such destruction strikes an indelible image not just visually, but also emotionally. That is the kind of image I want to write. I have used that image to teach writers about the importance of choosing the perfect detail to convey multiple messages--MEMORABLE details that matter.

I could go on and on, clicking on the many documents in my brain that comprise the Memorable Documents File, but I know you understand and are now clicking through your own mental documents. Find them, analyze them, and see how they infuse--or should infuse--your writing today.