Writing at Its Best

by Anne Merrill

This post continues our series of reflections on the nature of “good writing.” For Anne Merrill ’18, Princeton Writes’  Undergraduate Fellow, writing at its best transforms the way we experience the world and all the creatures in it.

It happens all the time — I’ll be walking across a field on a misty morning, for example, carefully placing my feet to avoid stepping on worms, prompted by respect for these “lowly organised creatures.” Darwin’s words guide me, his assertions about earthworms are stored in my memory and spring to the surface on a rainy day. “It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world,” he wrote, his confident words entertaining as they inform and educate me.

When I consider good writing, I think of moments such as these. Words that communicate and express information more directly, completely, amusingly, than my own inarticulate thoughts. Words that suggest I look more closely, or that take me to places I’ve never been, from burrowing underground to seeing the crocodile whose “golden eyes glinted with interest” in anticipation of his attack on writer Val Plumwood, or to places where no one can go, like the “pleeblands” landscape viewed by Margaret Atwood’s Snowman. Crossing the line of good writing with elegant simplicity or pithy complexity, great writing makes us laugh, cry, think, sweat — bringing us closer to others and to ourselves, to a greater understanding of what it means to be human and what it means to live in the world. Great writing captures time and place, and transcends time and place, sings within its form, and explodes against its form.

It seems like an empty justification, an easy way to opt out of the discussion, to say that great writing is writing that stands out in a sea of human expression. Yet context informs. Seamus Heaney’s “Little pleasant splashes” evoke tears by incorporating his love for his mother, her death, and shared everyday activities with the sound of the potatoes falling into the pot, but it is these three words that make me pause, and that change mundane activities into thoughtful experiences. At the end of the day, great writing is perhaps most easily pinned down for me in Justice Potter Stewart’s well-known statement regarding obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” Stewart’s words perfectly convey the essence of something difficult to define, including great writing. Writing that transforms the way we live, that walks with us on our path through the physical world, and through the imagined worlds of our past, present and future — writing that inspires admiration for the earthworm, instills caution, incites understanding, narrows our focus, broadens our outlook — for me, that’s great writing.