Did You See What I Did There?

Olympic figure skating is one of those things. I never mean to watch, and then, somehow, there I am and five hours have passed and it’s late and my head is full of salchows and axels and spangles.  There are a lot of brilliant technicians out there on the ice, and they’re riveting to watch, but the ones I love are the performers. Anent this, I was directed to Jason Brown’s 2014 performance at the US National Championships. He’s not just good–he is a brilliant performer, and more than that, his joy in the doing is both infectious and endearing. The audience is on its feet at the end of the routine, and well they should be. And his face just shines, because he had fun and made something beautiful; in the compact between audience and performer, it’s a perfect transaction.

This doesn’t work as well for writing, I think. Does this mean, I want the author to disappear? Maybe. Perhaps. Sort of.  At least while I’m engaged with their words. I don’t mean this punitively: I want the author to be engaged in her own work. And as a writer I am not immune to the satisfaction of pulling off a phrase, or a scene, or a whole book, where you feel like you’ve done your best and better, maybe. But the writing/reading compact is a little different from the performing/watching compact, and when I’m reading one of the things I don’t want is to have someone (particularly the author) standing between me and the text.

I was reading something the other day–an op-ed piece, I think–when I came across a phrase that was so clearly beloved of its author that I immediately heard, clear as a bell, a voice in my head saying “Did you see what I did there?” It’s a boy’s voice, maybe the voice of a nine- or ten year-old, excited, desirous of praise, a little tentative about asking for that praise because the owner of that voice knows damned well that you’re not supposed to do that. But also nakedly proud and pleased and SOMEBODY ACKNOWLEDGE THIS NIFTY TRICK I JUST PULLED OFF. And while the trick was nifty, the insistence that I stop engaging with the text and engage the author for a minute is irritating.

Maybe this is the basis for the “kill your darlings” dictum.  Mind you, in the case of this op-ed piece it was true: the phrase was a clever one. If I’d been let alone to admire it, I might well have applauded. But the author, having delivered his knock-out phrase, got a little sloppy and soggy thereafter, like a skater who pulls off a quad salchow in the first minute of her routine, after which everything it a little lackluster.

Sadly, Jason Brown isn’t competing at the Olympics this year (injuries hurt his chance to give the kind of performances he gave in 2014). But I watch figure skating anyway, when I stumble upon it.


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Did You See What I Did There? — 7 Comments

  1. Just descended into ice skating nostalgia via YouTube. I’m supposed to be writing an essay!

    Some of the best and most memorable routines I’ve seen through the years were by the underdogs who threw caution to the wind and just let their joy of skating flow through. Somehow, all those quads leave me a bit cold. They’re stunning, and stunningly difficult, but show me what else gets you out of bed in the morning!

  2. It occurs to me that I don’t want to see a performer do anything during the performance that says “see what I did there.” After the show, it’s fine with me if the person raises a fist or jumps in the air or says “I did it!” Likewise, as a writer, I want all of my phrases to work together so that the end result is creation of awe, not that one point with a beautiful sentence. Because while creating a perfect sentence can be fun, it’s no good if it doesn’t lead to a whole.

    Unless, of course, you’re on twitter.

  3. They should all be beautiful, perfect sentences. I do not believe in “the prose doesn’t matter, it’s the story.” The prose IS the story. What we write about only exists in words, not in life.

    • They should be at least competent sentences. Style is the rocket, but it’s the rocket’s payload that matters.

      • And everybody’s definition of competent sentences (or good writing) is going to differ.