Want to Write Well? Open a Doerr

Want to write masterfully? Read masterful writing. For example, open a Doerr—something written by Anthony Doerr, that is.

Here’s my take on two examples: Doerr’s Pulitzer-winning novel All the Light We Cannot See and his short essay “Two-Minute Entreaty,” which at one time appeared on Chipotle cups.

Example 1: Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See

This author’s novel All the Light We Cannot See, published in 2014, is the opposite of a page turner. What would you call that … a page lingerer, maybe? As I read this story about a blind French girl and a German boy who endured the devastation of World War II in occupied France, over and over I set aside my curiosity about what happens next to slow down, reread, and savor the language.

For one thing, Doerr’s verbs nail the action in arresting ways. Bombers “shed” altitude. Pigeons “cataract” down a cathedral spire and “wheel out” over the sea. Teacups “drift” off shelves, and paintings “slip” off nails. Dread “trundles” up from the blind girl’s gut. Car horns “bleat.” Snowflakes “tick and patter” through trees.

This prose begs to be read aloud or at least heard by your inner ear. Consider these snippets:

  • “…the low moonlit lumps of islands ranged along the horizon.” (Oh, the consonance—all those lush l’s, not to mention the two soft m’s woven in: “moonlit lumps”!)
  • “…the last unevacuated townspeople wake, groan, sigh. Spinsters, prostitutes, men over sixty. Procrastinators, collaborators, disbelievers, drunks. Nuns of every order. The poor. The stubborn. The blind.” (Oh, the rhythm—you can practically see the conductor’s baton twitching to the beat of “wake, groan, sigh.” My toe is tapping at the next line: “Spinsters, prostitutes, men over sixty.” I’m clapping along as if to a jumprope chant by the time we get to “Procrastinators, collaborators, disbelievers, drunks. Nuns of every order…”)
  • ”…each storm drain, park bench, and hydrant…” (Each DAAH-dum, DAAH-dum, and DA-dum!)
  • “Cold fog hangs in the budding trees.” (Each of the first three words—“Cold” and “fog” and “hangs”—takes a full beat, slowing the sentence down, defying forward movement. It’s as if these three words themselves are hanging there—BOM BOM BOM—in the budding trees.)

No wonder this novel took me so long to read. I read it for the poetry.

Whether or not you read for this singular kind of pleasure, you’ll find this story a timely reminder of humanity during a time of inhumanity.

And you’ll write more masterfully for reading it.

Example 2: Doerr’s “Two-Minute Entreaty”

I got my first, well, taste of Doerr’s writing from this Instagram post. (Thank you, Joe Pulizzi.) From what I find online—not to mention from the reference here to a burrito—I take it that Doerr created this short piece specifically for Chipotle.

Below is a more legible version of the essay. I’m leaving out the explication this time so that you can make your own discoveries about what makes this particular constellation of words so effective.

“Tattoo Earth’s 4.5 billion year timeline onto your arm, shoulder to fingertip, and your upper arm will get nothing but geologic mayhem: meteorites, magma, acid rain. Life won’t begin until your bicep, and from there to your wrist it’s all single celled, ocean-going stuff. Reproductive sex won’t show up until your wristwatch, and creatures that are finally big enough to see—tubes and fronds and weird Precambrian plant/animals—will crisscross the back of your hand.

“Trilobites paddle across your palm; ancient forests grow from your knuckles; dinosaurs wind around the joints at the ends of your fingers. Mammals burrow into your cuticles.

“Orangutans, arrowheads, Cleopatra, the names of all the stars—they all have to fit on the sliver of fingernail at the end of your longest finger.

“And you? Your grandma’s toffee bars, your CD collection, your tree house, your best-ever Halloween costume, every regret you’ll ever have, every dream you’ll ever dream, every mouth you’ll ever kiss (or wish you had)—they’ll all ride the microscopic edge of your fingernail, a tattoo so thin you’ll need an electron microscope to glimpse it.

“File your nail and you’ve wiped out your entire family tree, and Shakespeare and Ancient Greece with it.

“We are each no more than a spark, a mote illuminated for a split second as it passed through a beam of light.

“Pascal said ‘When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up by eternity before and after … I am frightened.’

“People say ‘Who wants to feel so small? Let me eat my burrito.’

“I say, be big. Big-hearted, big-witted, big-eyed. See, try, love, read, make, paint, and taste everything you can while you can.

“You still have some hours left. Go.”

Imagine being able to write like that. Keep reading Doerr and other writers of his caliber, and you’ll get closer every time.

Whose writing has helped make you the writer you are today?

4 thoughts on “Want to Write Well? Open a Doerr

  1. Dear Marcia, I am hard at work but needed a minute’s distraction. Your site will do that for me.

    Then I came upon this column and read the title on Doer’s book. I read it again and again and was mesmerized by the poetry in that short, simple line: ‘All the light we cannot see’. It made me silent, motionless. It gave me tears in my eyes and a shiver deep in my soul.

    Where did that come from? Is there a message hiding in the way the words wallow in the rhythm, a world behind the words, an important wisdom one instinctively feels?

    I don’t know, but to me it just proves the tremendous power that lies in words, and in the way we arrange them. The emotions they can conjure up while painting images before our minds’ eye. Language well used can truly be magical.

    The column and the two-minute entreaty finished me off. Tears.
    You have made my day. And Doerr is firmly planted at the top of my reading list. Thank you for that.

  2. Thank you, Coen. Beautifully expressed. This title struck me too, and I kept wondering as I read whether the story would directly address it. While I never came across a reference to unseen light, the Doerr does quietly drop in various kinds of unseen light through the book, like tiny hidden treasures. It’s just occurring to me that the book is, in this way (and perhaps others), a sort of puzzle house like the one the father made for his blind daughter. If we seek them, gems await.

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