A lot of the writing advice out there focuses on what NOT to do. “Why it works” is my occasional series where I take books I love and try to pinpoint what the author does especially well.
Today’s entry: Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin, which I recently re-read.
When you’re a genius you can get away with breaking the “rules”
Go Tell It on the Mountain has an unconventional, nonlinear structure, a narrative voice that shifts between different perspectives, and scenes often veer off into reveries.
Why does it work? Because it’s written by James freaking Baldwin.
Sure, by all means, break all the rules and eschew conventions. Just make sure you’re a once in a generation genius.
Key details bring the setting to life
Baldwin’s writing is extremely palpable and immediate in part due to the incredibly precise detail he brings to bear.
Take a look at this passage describing a Sunday church service. Not only does he hone in on key details, but he also brings a sense of sound and movement with the “charged air,” the “rustling and the whispering,” the street sounds creeping in, and then the music starting:
It seemed that there had never been a time when he had not known this moment of waiting while the packed church paused–the sisters in white, heads raised, the brothers in blue, heads back; the white caps of the women seeming to glow in the charged air like crowns, the kinky, gleaming heads of the men seeming to be lifted up–and the rustling and the whispering ceased and the children were quiet; perhaps someone coughed, or the sound of a car horn, or a curse from the streets came in; then Elisha hit the keys, beginning at once to sing, and everybody joined him, clapping their hands, and rising, and beating the tambourines.
Just by describing one hushed pause and the start of the music, Baldwin is able to put us directly in the scene and infuse the moment with something close to transcendence.
It’s one thing to be good at metaphors. It’s another thing to extend those metaphors in a way that connects dots, deepens the implications, and complicates their initial meaning.
Look at how Baldwin takes a shadow passing over John’s mother’s face and connects it to their entire lives and religion:
Dimly, he felt that he ought to console her, and he listened, astounded, at the words that now fell from his lips:
“Yes, Mama. I’m going to try to love the Lord.”
At this there sprang into his mother’s face something startling, beautiful, unspeakably sad–as though she were looking far beyond him at a long, dark road, and seeing on that road a traveler in perpetual danger. Was it he, the traveler? or herself? or was she thinking of the cross of Jesus? She turned back to the washtub, still with this strange sadness on her face.
This is such an incredible moment that joins together John’s path, his mother’s path, and anyone who tries to follow a religious path. The moment joins them through their shared journey, but also creates distance because of the sadness on her face.
All of this achieved through a metaphor of a long, dark road with a traveler in perpetual danger.
Brilliant turns of phrase
Reading James Baldwin is a perpetual delight because he brings such ingenious precision to his prose:
He hated the evil that lived in his body, and he feared it, as he feared and hated the lions of lust and longing that prowled the defenseless city of his mind.
Lions of lust and longing that prowled the defenseless city of his mind!!!
And, yes, there was singing everywhere; the birds and crickets and the frogs rejoiced, the distant dogs leaping and sobbing, circled in their narrow yards, and roosters cried from every high fence that here was a new beginning, a blood-washed day!
A blood-washed day!!!
The trembling he had known in darkness had been the echo of their joyful feet–these feet, bloodstained forever, and washed in many rivers–they moved on the bloody road forever, with no continuing city, but seeking one to come: a city out of time, not made with hands, but eternal in the heavens.
Every page is a masterclass. It’s unreal.
If you haven’t already, do yourself a favor and read Go Tell It on the Mountain.
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