This post continues our series of reflections on the nature of “good writing.” For Laura Valenza, Campus Collections Assistant at the Princeton University Art Museum, writing at its best requires the engagement of all the senses and a willingness to embrace the unexpected.
A writer must also be an observer. Writing at its best expresses something universal and complex by showing a scene or just a moment that might otherwise have gone unobserved.
Every tourist has certain obligatory photographs that must be taken of classic destinations such as the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, or the Taj Mahal. In my photograph taken at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, the Gate itself is nowhere in sight. I stood in front of it with my camera poised for that iconic shot to memorialize my voyage to Berlin, and I turned away. With my back to the Brandenburg Gate, it fades from my memory, and a scene facing me from the opposite direction becomes the distinct impression by which I remember Berlin. The view looking back at East Berlin showed the Unter den Linden lined by a mix of nineteenth- and twentieth-century buildings. History played itself out on one street. History had never felt so close. And in the distance made hazy by a thick covering of gray clouds, several cranes bowed in the heavy winter sky lifting, swinging, placing, building a future era.
If everyone is looking at the Brandenburg Gate, turn around and look back. Whether you’re looking to write an essay or tell a story, it needs to be built on details that explain a deeper idea. Writing at its best requires an element of the unexpected that reaches the essence of a place or experience — often hidden in plain sight.