One Question Interview: Torii Grabowski
A semi-regular series, One Question Interview examines the nature of "good" things in fields as disparate as art, advertising, business, film, food, music, and prose, via one question answered by someone in the know.
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One Question Interview: Torii Grabowski
This week's One Question Interview features writer Torii Grabowski. Grabowski's short fiction can be found in The Manchester Review, The Southern Pacific Review, and THE BOISEAN, and her most recent work is forthcoming in The Hudson Review. She is also a two-time winner of The Glenn Balch Fiction Award, a screenwriter of short films and documentaries, and has served as Associate Editor on The Idaho Review. Originally from Chicago, Grabowski works as a writer and educator in Boise, where she lives with her fiancé and two canine children.
Joel Wayne: What's good writing?
Torii Grabowski: I remember reading academic articles in high school and college and struggling to understand them. At that age, I felt you had to be a very, very good writer to professionally write about a subject and get it into an academic journal (the same journals I would frantically scan, trying to prove whatever researched point I had been assigned.)
These articles took a lot of time to get through. The sentences were often long and convoluted. Yet, because they were difficult to read, I equated them with “good” writing, because I thought these scholars must know something more about writing than I did. I believed once I reached a certain age, I would hold the key to make scholarly writing unfold in clarity the same way other writing did.
I’ve become more comfortable with scholarly writing over the years but I've never been handed that elusive clarity key. And the more I've studied writing, the more I reject the idea that good writing equates to heightened intellectual language, stylistically clunky sentences, or intentionally obscure meaning.
In other words, good writing is simple.
Does this mean I reject complex sentences? Of course not. Just like music, there is a rhythm to good writing, and a page of simple sentence after simple sentence, unless it's intended for a certain stylistic effect, can prove to be just as distracting as a page-long sentence.
So, technically speaking, I believe there's a natural rhythm to good writing that—once achieved—goes virtually unnoticed by the reader. (Unless they’ve taken too many academic writing courses, in which case reading for enjoyment has probably been ruined for them anyway.) And before any fun or interesting effects can be achieved in writing, clarity must always be a writer’s first priority. An old English teacher of mine put it this way: “Is there a simpler way you can write that? If so, why aren’t you using it?”
Of course, clarity, rhythm and simplicity in writing is not what gives a reader goosebumps, not what turns children into readers in the first place, and it’s certainly not why I’ve chosen to write professionally. The magic in writing, what makes it “good,” is the ability to make a reader feel something, to take a reader out of themselves for a stretch of time—a chapter, a stanza, a paragraph—and bring them back, feeling slightly different about the world.
"...there's a natural rhythm to good writing that—once achieved—goes virtually unnoticed by the reader. (Unless they’ve taken too many academic writing courses, in which case reading for enjoyment has probably been ruined for them anyway)..."
So back to the question: What makes writing good? Clarity and rhythm and concise prose may be the building blocks to effective writing, but there’s certainly more to it than that. And we already determined that the academic level of the writing does not necessarily make it “good.” In fact, some of my favorite children’s books have taken me outside of myself, worked their magic, so to speak. ("Where The Red Fern Grows," anything by Roald Dahl, the Harry Potter series, etc.)
But when I look at my favorite authors now, the authors who truly make me feel something when I read their stories or novels - Lorrie Moore, Mary Gaitskill, Anthony Doerr, Haruki Murakami, Junot Diaz - I realize the commonality between these writers is their ability to show me something I have never seen before, or allow me to re-envision something I thought I knew. Murakami is famous for creating worlds and unfolding them for his readers, whether it be an underground city or a labyrinth hotel. Gaitskill takes uncomfortable and unfamiliar situations and forces her readers to sit with them as she characterizes and paints the situation in stark and confident detail: in “Girl on a Plane,” a man who had once committed gang rape arrives on a plane and sits beside a girl who had once been raped. In “Tiny Smiling Daddy,” a father confronts his unfair treatment of the lesbian daughter he has refused to accept. Doerr’s work constantly confronts the familiar and reimagines the world sentence by sentence so we are forced to slow down and appreciate its beauty, as well as confront its horrors.
Quite simply, good writing changes you. It need not be a big change—perhaps it makes you slow down and notice small happenings around you, things you would normally pass by: the sound of water rushing, the facial expressions of those walking near you, the way light plays on and through the trees. Maybe it allows you to see someone, or a group of people, in a new light, as Doerr’s “All the Light We Cannot See” allows us to sympathize, however briefly, with a member of the Hitler Youth. Good writing draws you into its pages, holds you hostage for a period of time, and releases you with new knowledge, new awareness, new depth of feeling.
"I truly believe something can be gained from reading all different kinds of writing—whether it's a mass market mystery, a romance novel with Fabio on the cover, or a Charles Dickens classic. There are certainly worse ways to spend a couple hours..."
Of course, this magic cannot happen without the aforementioned clarity and rhythm. This is why “bad” writing is so frustrating. Perhaps I would have been extremely moved by “Twilight,” had I not been frustrated by the slow pacing of the novel, the clunky sentence structure, the predictable storyline. However, to be fair, even some critically-acclaimed books and authors are lost on me when I feel style, voice, or gimmicks inhibit clarity. As I mentioned earlier, I believe clarity should always come first, lest the fun, creative elements of writing be lost. For this reason, I did not enjoy Jonathan Franzen’s works as much as others have.
With all this being said, I have to end by asking: Can there be one true authority on what makes writing good? Of course not. Or at least, if there is, that person is certainly isn't me. Just because I didn’t enjoy reading "Everything Is Illuminated" doesn't mean it was not worthwhile to read. I truly believe something can be gained from reading all different kinds of writing—whether it be a mass market mystery, a romance novel with Fabio on the cover, or a Charles Dickens classic. There are certainly worse ways to spend a couple hours. (Netflix marathon, anyone?)