This is the first in a series of reflections on the nature of “good writing,” a phrase more often invoked than defined. While each of us may have a different take on what constitutes such writing, there is much to be gleaned from others’ definitions. For Emily Reardon ’16, Princeton Writes’ Undergraduate Fellow, good writing has the power to change our perspective – sometimes dramatically.
When I think of writing at its best, I think of a trick I once played on my sister in the summer. While she was out fighting the ocean current that was determined to slowly pull her north, I dug a hole in the sand, covered it with a towel and waited. My entrapment was carefully constructed: it considered her expected travel route back to our chairs, which were set a dozen or so feet from the water’s edge, and it factored in her irrationality, her willingness to walk in misguided, winding trails – the burn from the sand, she said, felt like the sun beneath her feet and she liked it. And when she returned from the ocean, dripping like her skin was spitting, wringing out her long hair the water had tattooed to her back, I waited until the burn beneath her feet was too much for her to handle (it was mid-August in New Jersey after all). I sat back in my chair, lifted my face to the sun and waited for the moment when she had to seek refuge on the towel, the moment she plummeted knee deep into the hole, the moment she looked around and her eyes went thin, weary and wondering, and she took the world in from this new angle.
When I think of writing at its best, I think of works that destabilize the landscape. I think of works that have little regard for how things should be but, instead, tell how they are from a particular set of eyes, at a particular moment in time, at a particular place in this world. I think of curling up on my window seat in middle school reading Sold by Patricia McCormick and thinking about what life was like for a young girl living in Nepal; finishing The Things They Carried in high school as rain stoned my windowpanes and thinking about what it was like in Vietnam. Be it scientific writing or narrative, an archaeological report or an article that details a medical breakthrough, good writing calls for its reader to reconsider the way things are – the way we think about a biological process, the way we understand the arc of human history, really, the way we think of the world, the way we think of life. I suppose what I mean to say is this: my sister never walked on sand the same way after the ground opened beneath her feet, and when we read good writing, we reconsider what we know to be safe, to be stable, to be true.