Kay Boyle Taught Me to Write

…What have your favorite authors taught you?

A writing exercise from Kay Boyle:

“Describe a bird in flight. Look for shape and movement, describe how the bird adjusts the angle of its wings to take advantage of the wind currents, show how the shadows change. Be precise; note the smallest detail. Know what kind of bird it is. Then use what you see to reveal character.”

As a novice writer, it seemed impossible.

But I traipsed down to the bay with my notebook. Sitting on the rocks, pen in hand, staring at the gulls, I may have appeared to be a sketch artist as I worked at translating a living thing into words.

“A white gull circles. Wings hinged to his sleek grey body raise, alight in the sun, and fall, shading his belly. On the rocks, a man stands facing the bay. His tanned arms are bent close to his body, hands in his pockets, knees together. His pale blue shirt whips against his back.”

That gull, or its cousin, has shown up in several scenes since. Each time, I think of Kay Boyle and what she taught me about writing, lessons I hope are evident in my just completed novel, The Pieces of Me. Written in tribute to her, the novel is based on Kay’s tragic love affair with the poet/publisher Ernest Walsh, and her meteoric rise as the golden girl of ex pat literary Paris. She’d gone on to write more than 30 acclaimed novels, story collections, poems and essays.

Seeing, really seeing, that first gull, finding the words to capture its essence, has always stuck with me. Writing about Kay, I wanted to remember the precise wording she’d used.

But I couldn’t find my notebooks.

Fate, or simple serendipity?

I searched everywhere for Kay’s letters and notes when I started my novel. I imagined them as totems, guiding my work, helping me to absorb the details of her life, imbuing them anew with emotion and telling detail.

Kay’s papers had long been safely stored in the bottom drawer of my writing desk. But then my mother died and I was suddenly uprooted to care for my father in his last years. The desk stayed behind. Eventually, its contents were packed up along with old clippings, household ledgers and holiday cards and stored away, some in an overflowing closet, the rest in the old house’s musty basement.

If I hadn’t put in my shelter-in-place hours cleaning out closets and dumping old files, I never would have. Amidst the detritus, treasures were uncovered. An unmarked box held a cache of Kay’s letters and drafts of my early writing.

Kay’s critiques and words of encouragement are neatly inscribed in the margins: “Work to make your writing as sensitive as your intuition by a ceaseless regard for detail.” “A very fine and moving story.” “This story has a very appealing quality, you could make something good out of it.”

And now they were found. A final edit of my novel convinced me I hadn’t needed the physical renditions. Kay’s lessons had been with me all along. But as I reread Kay’s comments, I wondered what inspired other writers What had they learned from a favorite author or teacher? Were there tips I could pass on to others?

Tell the story you need to tell

Rachel Kadish, winner of the National Jewish Book Award for The Weight of Ink, got “permission” to tell the story of Jewish history and the holocaust — her family’s story — from Toni Morrison in a writing class at Princeton.

Photo courtesy of Rachel Kadish

“She’d examined my most recent story’s flaws and strengths with her usual surgical precision, but it was clear that there was something else she was after,” Kadish says. “The story I’d written was all right, it had its merits. But was it really the story I needed to tell?”

With Morrison’s encouragement, Kadish went on to write about her family’s world, Jewish life and the context in which her family’s events took place. In addition to The Wight of Ink, her novels include the award-winning From a Sealed Room, Tolstoy Lied; A Love Story and I Was There (Fancy Sisters Press, 2014).

Emotional truth

Morrison also passed on this key advice: “What fiction is after, is the human truth. The writer has to prioritize telling that truth over piling up more and more facts, no matter how compelling those facts might be.”

Advice I could have used as I struggled to hone in on the essence of Kay and Walsh’s story.

Writing bio-fiction depends on a willingness to take risks, to bring understanding and imagination to the task. Without that, you’re writing biography, which certainly has its place and which provides reliable source material. But in a novel, the writer has to trust there are other ways of getting at the emotional truth of a character.

Revolution of the word

From her earliest days writing for transition in Paris, Kay rejected intellectualism and abstraction. Remember, when she started writing there was a revolution going on. All the best young talents were exhausted by the old structures and norms. They were after a new language, words that cut to the bone, exposed the heart. In a word, poetry.

Finola Austin, whose debut novel, Brontë’s Mistress, comes out in August 2020 from Atria Books, says she has learned so much about language from reading and analyzing poetry.

Photo courtesy of Finola Austin

“Take these famous lines by William Carlos Williams,” she suggests:

So much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white

“They hold wonderful lessons about the beauty of simplicity, the importance of well-chosen verbs (‘glazed’), and the power of being specific (here the two colors do that),” she notes.

Poetry also reminds us, Austin says, “that words are only ever repeated deliberately and echoes (of rhyme, rhythm and sentence structure), are always intentional.” Standards she aspires to meet in her prose.

Beyond language, she notes, “Poetry can teach narrative lessons, too, especially about the introduction of character.”

Consider the following from Charlotte’s Mew’s “The Quiet House:”

At first I did not like my cousin’s friend,
I did not think I should remember him.”

“Such a simple statement,” Austin says, “but it raises questions: Does she like him now? Why does she remember him? Those are the sort of questions that keep us reading.”

Go deep

“Novelists must be able to carve out time to do ‘deep work’ in order to make a contribution that’s uniquely ours,” says art historian and historical novelist, Laura Morelli.

Photo courtesy of Laura Morelli

And she should know. Morelli has two titles coming out this year: One from William Morrow / Harper Collins called The Night Portrait, a dual-timeline tale about one of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous portraits and its theft during World War II; and another called The Giant, the story of the creation of Michelangelo’s David. When she needs help overcoming distractions, she turns to Cal Newport, author of Deep Work.

For me,”she says, “that means turning off the phone and WiFi for at least part of the day to immerse myself in my writing world.”

While she admits to not always keeping them turned off, she says, “Every time I reach for my phone or the internet to just ‘quickly look something up,’ I realize how easily distractions interrupt our truly important work.”

Another bit of Newport’s advice — to shut down consideration of work issues at the end of the day — is reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway’s credo for keeping a story alive: Always stop for the day while you still know what will happen next, then never think about the story when you’re not working.

Let the subconscious do its deep work.

Read writers you love

I recall an afternoon gathering in Kay’s Frederick St. house in San Francisco. A small group of students and friends were perched on the blue velvet sofas in the front parlor — blue to reflect her vividly blue eyes.

“So,” she asked, with an arched brow, “just who is your favorite author? And you better say me!”

We laughed, but Kay was making a point: You should be reading and rereading those writers you love, who speak to you. Absorb how they make you feel, how they stimulate your thinking, why you connect to their work. “Otherwise,” she said, “what are you doing listening to me?”

My modest library is well-stocked with Kay’s novels, story collections, essays and poetry; most read multiple times. I return again and again to dip into those pages for examples of her fresh language and the originality of her images and characterizations.

Consider the energy and sense of threat in her description of a river rushing in from the sea in Plagued by the Nightingale:

“(Up) came the riders, tearing and pitching forward with the volumes and miles of blue water piled at their galloping heels, this thunderous advance of white horsemen with the gulls screaming and picking at their heads, the deep blue sea behind them in full cry.”

Or the clear sign something was amiss when her story, “The Wedding Day” begins:

“The red carpet that was to spurt like a hemorrhage from pillar to post was stacked in the corner.”

(Kay would, I’m afraid, be appalled that that Hemingway shares space on my bookshelves. She held a deep animosity for the man. Hemingway, she believed, had taken advantage of Walsh’s generosity and worse, had described him in A Moveable Feast as “ a man marked for death.” Whatever Hemingway meant by it, Walsh died young from tuberculosis, and Kay would never forgive the dig. With apologies to her, I love Hemingway’s spareness and the way he uses imagery to convey deep wells of emotions. I’ve learned, I hope, from him as well as Kay.)

My friend Helen Cassidy Page, a top writer on Medium.com and author of historical Irish novels, mysteries and ghost stories, affirms that she learned to “show don’t tell” from a careful reading of Cormac McCarthy.

Photo courtesy Helen Cassidy Page

“Sometimes different writers seem to appear as if called up by a genie to teach the secrets of a specific technique,” says Page. “There’s a scene in McCarthy’s THE CROSSING where the father kills a wolf. McCarthy narrated that scene in such detail that it seemed you were witnessing it in front of your eyes. I recall reading those few pages on the bus going to work and I’m sure my mouth hung open as the technique of writing a scene moment-by-moment revealed itself to me.”

Page concedes other writers do it equally well, “But that morning, McCarthy was there to tell me, ‘Pay attention. Let me show you how it’s done.’”

It’s easy to see McCarthy’s influence in Page’s novel In the Shadow of the Manor when a woman attempts to shield her child from the spirit of a corpse they’ve uncovered in the hedge:

“For just a moment (the shawl) billowed over their heads like the canopy that protected Father Gilmartin’s statue of the Virgin. The garment descended and engulfed Agnes in claustrophobic horror.”

Give voice to the disinherited

Kay fervently believed “all human misery can be seen as the failure of love.” She meant it in the broadest sense, from the intimately personal to the global. Keenly aware of life’s moral complexities, she insisted writers speak for those who cannot speak for themselves — “the miner in the mine who can’t write for himself, the prisoner in his cell, and all the disinherited.”

It’s what Kadish does in her novels and what Page conveys in her history of the Irish famine.

In The Pieces of Me, I describe Kay, in defiance of wary critics, defending her story about a young priest, defrocked for his love of another man:

“It’s the church that’s let him down. The love of Christ wasn’t enough, and now it’s human love he craves. Finding it where it isn’t expected isn’t an argument for homosexuality.”

Every experience has a story to tell

When my son was born, Kay sent a beautiful Irish wool blanket. I was overwhelmed that she thought so much of me. Instead of wrapping my son in it, I tucked it away to preserve as a precious inheritance. I don’t think she would have approved.

Kay Boyle was never about “tucking things away.” Her loves and relationships were the very stuff of her art. She would have swathed her baby in the soft wool and written a story comparing the apparent ease of a wealthy young woman’s life as a new mother to that of a poor beggar she encounters on the street, whose infant is swaddled not in fine wool but in threadbare rags.

In my own example of turning experience into story, I wrote an entire novel about the aftermath of war on the island of Isola d’Elba prompted by a view from the sea:

“The boy, whose father was killed here, pointed to a series of dark rectangular openings spaced regularly along the shore, just above the level of the sea, shadowed in the crevices of the stony hillside.
‘Oh, look, caves!’ he exclaimed.
‘Bunkers,’ the boatman corrected him. ‘For the guns.’
The boy’s father had been her fiancé. Madeleine thought of his ship passing this way on its journey to the carnage on the other side of the island.
‘Howitzers?’ she asked.
The boatman spat into the chop. ‘So many lives lost when the French and British came.’”

Let your inspiration guide you

As I write this, the descendants of Iris bulbs from Kay’s garden bloom outside my window. Those blossoms, too, are a lesson from Kay. Planting the bulbs was only the first step. They had to be watered, and checked for snails; dug up periodically and separated and replanted. Just as our work has to be cultivated and edited and rewritten and fussed over.

Kay Boyle was my inspiration — the gift of her language, the clarity of her observation and the depth of her understanding of the interiors of the heart. Each of us has our own muse, but like Kadish, we have to find our story; like Morelli, we have to manage distractions; like Austin, we have to attune our ear to the poetry of language; and like Page, we have to take it moment by moment. #

Contributor’s Note:

Carol Piasente is an award-winning writer who takes her themes from history, travel and the mysteries of the human heart. I’m especially interested in writers and artists in transitional generations , the aftermath of war, and how the mistakes we make can shape entire lives.  www. carolpiasente.com

Photo courtesy of the author
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