Learning from Kingston

“I told a woman who plays in the orchestra how uncapturable music is, how I cannot think of organizing the music I hear, but only be its audience. But she said that writing is the most abstract form; the other forms have concomitant human sense organs; music has the ear, and painting the eye, sculpture the hands, and acting and dancing the voice and body. But writing, she said, does not have its organ. She began to cry; I’ve not sure why.”

Maxine Hong Kingston, quoted in Metro: Journeys in Writing Creatively

If you know where this anecdote originally appeared, please let me know.

  • The stories characters tell are especially effective ways to characterize.
  • This story starts with one character (“I told . . .”) describing another (“a woman who plays in the orchestra”) and making an assertion about a form of art. There is a clear connection between one of the characters and the subject of the assertion (orchestra/music). It’s a simple straight-forward beginning.
  • The paragraph takes the form of an assertion in the first sentence, a general qualification (“But she said . . .”) in the second, a more specific qualification (“But writing, she said, . . .”) in the third, and a reaction to conclude.
  • The story is told and reacted to by the teller and hearer. Their reactions are close to the story and to each other (“She began to cry; I’ve not sure why”). This proximity highlights the contrasts and focuses the characterization.
  • As short as this anecdote is, it shows the value of asking big, philosophical questions and capturing insights or close observations about the world.
  • Finally, the story shows or lists examples of a word (“concomitant”) it uses (“music has the ear, and painting the eye”) These examples show the meaning of the word with specifics. Those specifics are far more interesting that the abstract definition: “concomitant: naturally accompanying or associated.”

Here’s an effort at some of what I’ve talked about: “I told the blacksmith that I could never make a sword, that I’m not a creator, that I’m afraid to risk the time it takes, that even standing in the heat for hours is beyond me. But he said that once you’ve seen it done, once you’ve followed the steps–they’re the same each time–over and over, you don’t have to think about it much. And once you’ve been rewarded for your work, he said, once you’ve been paid, your days are just repeating the steps over and over as fast as you can. That’s all. He wouldn’t look at me after that and wouldn’t sell me a blade; became too good for me, I guess.”

What do you think? Can you provide an example?

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