Out of Africa: A Love Story

Out of Africa, a memoir by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) is a love story. Reading her descriptive passages, I too fall head over heels with the Africa that exists in her memory. The first sentence is a simple declaration that sets up her longing: “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.”

13 words with comma

I could go on an on about this sentence and what we can learn from it for our own writing. It has stayed in my mind since first reading it years ago—the gentle, sure voice, solid grounding, and ring “Ngong” that echos throughout the book. The sentence gives just enough information and makes us want to read on. It’s a master teacher, whether for writing memoir or fiction, so perfectly crafted that seeing the 13 words with comma again, years after finishing the book, catapults me into Dinesen’s feelings for the landscape, animals, people—even the air—as if I’d glimpsed the face of my own long-ago lover.

Let’s examine it:


Simple. Standing alone. Tells us we will hear the story from the person who experienced it.


Establishes the distance where we  join her in remembering and from where she will draw us into her love affair with her beautiful and haunting Africa. If she’d written “owned a farm,” the sentence would not have resonated with such personal loss.

a farm

Pages later, we learn that she “had six thousand acres of land, and had thus got much spare land besides the coffee-plantation [600 acres]. We learn it’s not the dairy farm she’d thought her husband was buying. It’s a lot of work. But as an opener, “a farm” sets a warm, intimate tone. We all have seen farms and know something about them. Her story is exotic in its depiction of place and people, but she begins with the familiar. It’s comforting.

in Africa

She drops a hint at the vast and exotic scope of her story. Africa is huge. Here’s her little farm, and now it’s overwhelmed by Africa. She takes us from the intimate to the vast and then with the comma, next, places us.


The sentence would work grammatically without this punctuation, but she needs it for her sake and for ours. The comma acts as a fence would, marking her territory.

at the foot

Elevations play an important part in the story—the altitudes of weather and social hierachy. Her farm may be at “the foot,” but still it’s at 6000 feet. The mountain above her is at 8000. The town of Nairobi is at 5000. “The geographical position, and the height of the land combined to create a landscape that had not its like in all the world. There was no fat on it and no luxuriance anywhere.” This contrasts to the privileged European life she’d known. In Africa, she lives at high elevation but doesn’t flaunt her privilege.

of the Ngong Hills.

This literal “gong” sounds the exotic vocabulary and culture of her spiritual home. We can nestle here, inside the reverberation, and then roam over the hills to the next sentence—”The Equator runs across these highlands…” feeling again the vastness.

Declarative to descriptive detail

For the first 14 pages, she begins her paragraphs with simple declaratives about geography, landscape, and the farm, and then layers detail upon detail, each prose section depicted in words that want reading aloud.

Declarative: “The geographical position…” Detail: “and the grass was spiced like thyme and bog-myrtle…”

Declarative:  “The chief feature of the landscape, and of your life in it, was the air.” Detail: “In the middle of the day the air was alive over the land, like a flame burning; it scintillated, waved and shone like running water, mirrored and doubled all objects, and created great Fata Morgana. Up in this high air you breathed easily, drawing in a vital assurance and lightness of heart. In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be.”

Declarative: “From the Ngong Hills you have a unique view…” Detail: “The brown desert is irregularly dotted with the little marks of the thornbushes, the winding riverbeds are drawn up with crooked dark-green trails; those are the woods of the mighty wide-branching Mimosa-trees, with thorns like spikes; the cactus grows here, and here is the home of the giraffe and the Rhino.”

Declarative: “Coffee-growing is a long job.” Detail: “the black-jack, which has long scabrous seed-vessels that hang on to your clothes and stockings.”

Declarative: “There are times of great beauty on a coffee-farm.” Detail: “with many hurricane lamps in the huge dark room of the factory, that was hung everywhere with cobwebs and coffee-husks, and with eager glowing dark faces, in the light of the lamps, round the dryer; the factory, you felt, hung in the great African night like a bright jewel in an Ethiope’s ear.”

Declarative: “Whenever you walk amidst the Kikuyu shambas…” (as if this was the most natural thing in the world that we all do!) Detail: “I used to shoot spurfowl in the sweet-potato fields round the squatters’ houses in the blue late afternoons, and the stock-pigeons cooed out a loud song in the high-stemmed, fringy trees, which were left over, here and there in the shambas, from the forest that had once covered all the farm.” (Whoa! Read that last sentence aloud a few times, take a spurfowl and two fringy trees, and call me in the morning. Whatever ails your writing will be much better.)

Lessons for writers

Love is in the details

How could we not love Dinesen’s Africa? Her Ngong Hills? And how could we not feel bereft in leaving, as she does at the end, and as we do when we close the book? The lesson here for writing our love stories is in the details and in her delivery of them. She gives them to us slowly—sensation by sensation. We see, hear, touch, taste, smell, using our whole bodies, becoming intimate with the ultimately incomparable, immeasurable love of our life.

There is also a romance in the memoir. You may be familiar with the characters played in the film by Meryl Streep (Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke) and Robert Redford (Denys Finch Hatton). I’m a fan, especially of Streep, but the movie is a different animal than the book. I don’t think an actor can say “fringy trees” and get away with it. But a writer can. And that’s one of the reasons we write and read—to walk amidst the shambas in our minds.

Have fun with language

And how about this one: Declarative: “Out on the Safaris…” Detail: “I had time after time watched the progression across the plain of the Giraffe, in their queer, inimitable, vegetative gracefulness, as if it were not a herd of animals but a family of rare, long-stemmed, speckled gigantic flowers advancing.”

Break the rules

Dinesen breaks “rules” you read about in writing craft books regarding using too many adjectives. It’s a caution to abide in most cases and to consider in all, but in her abundant stringing together of words, she brings to life her lover—the marvelous, incongruent, often absurd, demanding and memorable Africa, which I’ve never known but feel that I have through her writing.


Imagination Unleashed

My friend Padi Selwyn (coauthor of Living Your Life Out Loud) plans on taking the Read to Write workshop I’m giving at Copperfield’s Books. She’s picking up the fiction trail after having followed a career path from journalism training to marketing professional. She says, “My biggest challenge is prying open my imagination after years of being in the non fiction groove.”

Are you picturing a can opener to the head? A crowbar? I know how she feels. It’s not a matter of having no ideas. They’re in there somewhere. It’s a matter of getting them out and knowing what to do with them.

Prompts & triggers

Books and articles on writing craft are full of prompts, our lives are full of triggers. In my writing group, we’ve often flipped open a novel, pointed at a passage, and used it as a story starter or free write. I have stacks of free writes. You probably do too.

Circumstances and characters to suggest compelling stories are everywhere—in photographs of familiar or unfamiliar people, events, and places; overheard conversations on a bus; the face of the grocery clerk. We can take the classes, devour the craft books, get published, and still we come up against it: What next?

Starting a story is fairly easy. Taking it somewhere worth our time to write and a reader’s time to read is always a challenge. Here again, we do well to learn from masterful authors who craft a memorable tale inspired by a gesture, pairing of unlikely elements, or simple question: “What if?”

Story seeds

Alice Munro

In her Selected Stories, Alice Munro talks about story seeds, how from “the girl in the costume dress bending over the kittens” she began Simon’s Luck. Munro gives this gesture to the hostess of a party that the central character, Rose, attends, where she observes the moment. “‘That’s Tasha,’ the hostess said. ‘We can look at her kittens but we can’t touch them, else she wouldn’t feed them anymore.'” Rose observes the woman “crooning, talking to the mother cat with an intense devotion that Rose thought affected. The shawl around her shoulders was black, rimmed with jet beads. Some beads were crooked. Some were missing.” Details, when noted by a character, have significance. Rose, we discover eventually, has her own fears of touching and being touched, of giving someone power over her by being touched by him or touching him, of giving and receiving love. She is the cat and the kitten.

Yann Martel

In Life of Pi, Yann Martel assembles zoo animals, shipwreck, lifeboat, and—bingo!—a talking tiger! Pi tells a fantastic story, unbelievable but for the details of his survival. “In my case, to protect myself from Richard Parker while I trained him, I made a shield with a turtle shell. I cut a notch on each side of the shell and connected them with a length of rope. The shield was heavier than I would have liked, but do soldiers ever get to choose their ordnance?”

Italo Calvino

When Italo Calvino wrote Baron in the Trees, I wonder if he asked, “What if a disobedient boy named Cosimo, dressed up in his tricorne hat and green tunic, climbs a tree and never comes down?” Or did he just start writing, as if reporting: “It was on  15 June 1767 that Cosimo Piovasco di Rondo, my brother, sat among us for the last time. And it might have been today, I remember it so clearly. We were in the diningroom of our house at Ombrosa, the windows framing the thick branches of the great holm oak in the park.” We might doubt the narrator’s memory, except that we get reliable details bit by bit—”a breeze was blowing from the sea” as Cosimo “pushed away his plateful of snails.” 

Lesson for writers

Asking “What if?” can start a story. Asking “What now? What next?” can unleash imagination for vivid writing.

Take your story for a walk 

Let a dog teach you a few tricks. Our beloved black Lab, Sparky, who died last summer, took me on walks for twelve good years. He’d sniff the grass, pee, pull at the leash, stop, sniff, pee, pull. He’d gnaw fallen apples, try to chase cats, yanking me along with him. He’d be excited in the moment, eager for the next. At the dog park, he’d run free, sniffing furry behinds, chasing balls, and eagerly come running when time to leave. He’d pant at the gate—”What now? What next?”

If you feel you’re forcing your idea, just take your story for a walk—literally and metaphorically. Stop and sniff. Look and listen. Touch and taste. What’s there? What might be? Follow the trail. Build detail upon meaningful detail. If you think you know the destination, keep it in mind, but allow for detours and surprises. If you don’t know the destination, look into the distance every now and then. Stop along the way, read a good book. Pay close attention. Accompany the author as he or she asks, “What if? What now? What next.” Learn how his or her story becomes.

In future posts, I’ll discuss techniques for making imaginative leaps. But it always comes back to feet on the ground, step, step, walk the story or let it walk you, detail by detail. And daily, also, let imagination run free.

The Days of Abandonment: Back Story in Bed

Pain on page one

In Ferrante’s second paragraph, she puts our protagonist in bed—a double bed—desolate. Most craft books warn beginning writers: don’t start your story with a character in bed. However, so much has happened to this poor woman by the book’s seventh sentence that she deserves a rest. She can’t sleep, but only obsesses about her husband. She can’t figure out why he’s left. “I knew him well, I was aware the he was a man of quiet feelings, the house and our family rituals were indispensable to him.We talked about everything, we still liked to hug and kiss each other, sometimes he was so funny he could make me laugh until I cried.” She’s baffled: “It seemed to me impossible that he should truly want to leave.” She’s sympathetic: “When I recalled that he hadn’t taken any of the things that were important to him, and had even neglected to say goodbye to the children, I felt certain it wasn’t serious. He was going through one of those moments that you read about in books, when a character reacts in an unexpectedly extreme way to the normal discontents of living.” Hmm. Does she really know him as well as she thinks she does? She sees him as a character, just as we do. She’s a character too, after all, but by naming him as such, she (the protagonist guided by Ferrante) adds another layer of detachment to her crisis and moves closer to the reader. We feel her physically.

Transition to back story

Then in paragraph three, she confides: “After all, it had  happened before: the time and the details came to mind as I tossed and turned in the bed.” This is a masterful transition to back story for many reasons. Ferrante moves from the present to the past keeping the woman in place—in bed— for four pages. During this time the protagonist remembers what happened that other time her husband left, then muses over their relationship with a realtor, Gina, that they’d engaged to buy their house and her teenage daughter, Carla. With the back story, the protagonist can leave the bed in her mind and take us with her: she gives us a taste of Turin, the city to which they’d moved five years ago—metallic, green, yellow, red, leaves, stripped by the wind, foggy air, fresh sparkling breeze. She paints a picture of Mario (her husband is named on page three) with Carla, realizing “it wasn’t the mother I had to worry about but the daughter.” The girl has a “swaying body, restless eyes.” Though this is still back story, it’s sensuous, fully fleshed in our protagonist’s mind as if in the present. We’re told that the marital crisis of the past was resolved and that her husband “returned to being the man he had always been.” By now we’re not sure that is such a good recommendation, if, in fact, he was a man who, as she’s revealed, broke off relations with her for no apparent reason only six months after they had been together, because “there had come upon him a sudden absence of sense,” and then used that same excuse when he became infatuated with the the realtor and her daughter.

Transition to present story

The protagonist breaks her reverie, gets out of bed for a cup of chamomile tea. From her window, she sees the musician Carrano, her downstairs neighbor, “coming up the path,his head bowed, carrying over his shoulders the giant case…” He “disappeared beneath the trees in the little square.” She goes back to bed, believing everything will return to normal. We’re at the end of page six, all the major characters have been introduced, we have a sense of place and time, sensuous detail we can touch, taste, and see, full-bodied characters, an informative and vivid back story—just enough. We’d like to get in bed, too, and believe in normal, but we know that can’t be—or why would this story exist? The tension is palpable. We’re not sleeping tonight. We have to turn the page.

Lesson for writers

Create a “vivid, continuous dream”

Use sensory language to create scenes in the present, past and future. Bring your reader into the character’s consciousness and create the vivid, continuous dream that John Gardner talks about in his artful book The Art of Fiction. He’s not referring to a dream in the character’s mind, though the character may be dreaming. He says that “fiction does its work by creating a dream in the reader’s mind.”  The pull of place—in the above example the bed, a comfortable setting we all know and understand—and sensory language—casts a spell. Olga’s husband’s sudden “absence of sense” is replaced in our minds and its opposite heightened by familiar and vivid sensations. Even when she breaks her reverie, Olga’s desire for camomile tea steeps the transition from back story to present story in sensory detail.

Read to Write Workshops at Copperfield’s Books

In 2011, I’ll be teaching a nine-month fiction craft course again at Copperfield’s Books in Sonoma County, California, beginning in March. The course structure and book list from the 2010 course appear below. The 2011 structure and lists will be the same with a few substitutions. I explore novel craft and close reading in this blog. 


Registration for the class is not yet open, but I am taking names of interested participants. The classes will meet at Copperfield’s Books Sebastopol and Petaluma locations. The course consists of nine two-hour sessions meeting once a month. The description below highlights content. If you have questions regarding whether it fits your goals and interests, contact me at chris (at) christinewalker (dot) net or through the contact link on my website.

Build literary community

I designed this course as a way for writers and readers to build literary community while supporting their local, independent bookstore. Nine lively sessions reveal and stimulate creative process, teach useful tools and techniques, and animate intentions. If writers and trusted readers form enduring relationships during the course— all the better! Buy local, read global.

Please respond to the blog with your own discoveries and craft lessons. 


A course in fiction craft and close reading

We are all experts and all learners. Let’s go deeper into fiction and have a good time while we…

• Enhance writing skills and literary enjoyment through close reading of masterful books

• Share literary discoveries with fellow writers and readers

• Investigate and learn craft techniques and methods to further writing and reading goals

• Enjoy a creative, low-risk workshop environment

Writing is a solitary act with a communal spirit among writers and readers. To become accomplished, writers benefit by studying authors who’ve honed the craft techniques and nuances of fine fiction. In this course, we’ll examine masterful writing, incubate the lessons, and use expanded knowledge to read more closely and write more skillfully. 

 In my two-year MFA program, the promise was fulfilled: “Read one hundred books. Write one.” In this nine-month course, a shorter book list will step participants through crucial concerns of long-form writing. 

Writers wanting to move their projects to the next level—whether to draft, revise, cohere, or polish—will be shown tools and methods to do so. The course will help bring fullness to works in progress—novels, story collections, narrative nonfiction, memoir. Fellow writers and book lovers will inspire and encourage one another. 

Course structure

What makes fine fiction? How or why did that author do that? We delve in with authors who enrich our writing and reading journeys. Participants are asked to focus on a book from each month’s list and be prepared to share discoveries. I demonstrate visual, hands-on techniques and tools that I use when writing and suggest optional hands-on homework activities for participants wanting to further enhance their writing craft or literature appreciation. 

Each session combines book and craft discussion with voluntary reading aloud of passages from annotations and writing projects and voluntary sharing of homework activities. The course structure prompts participants to write outside of class, as suits their project goals and craft concerns, but class time is not devoted to free writes or personal writing. The workshop is not designed as a critique group, but participants may request thoughtful comments and questions on the passages that they read aloud. 

The nine sessions cover craft concerns based on reading selections.

Note: For first session, please prepare by reading any of the Session 1 selections from the book list below. Also, please bring first and last paragraphs from favorite books for investigation. If you’d like to share first sentences from your own writing or initial sentences (story seeds) that inspired a project, even if they’ve been discarded or altered in revision, please bring those. 

(This is the 2010 Schedule)

1. Gatekeepers & Story Seeds ~ March

Examine first and last sentences that successfully set up, complete, and resonate within the story. What do those first words promise? In what ways do last words glance back or look beyond? How do words and images germinate a story?

Hands-on homework suggestion: Put a first sentence on parade and identify what instrument of story delivery each word plays.

2. Voice, Style & POV ~ April

Listen to and learn from your narrator or narrators. Who tells the story and how? What does distinctive voice have to do with style? 

Hands-on homework suggestion: Write a scene two or more ways using different points of view and/or voice, or bring passages from books with contrasting points of view and voice.

3. Character ~ May

Care about your characters. How do writers make invented people come alive on the page? How much do you need to know about a character as a reader or as a writer? 

Hands-on homework suggestion : Create characters scrapbooks and other prompts to inform character development.

4. Place ~ June 

Ground the story. How do writers establish a felt sense of inhabited place? Can you picture where your characters live? Does place serve as character?

Hands-on homework suggestion: Map a story’s environment and/or architecture.

5. Tension ~ July 

Entice readers to turn the page. What is tension? How does it relate to plot? How, when and where do masterful writers weave it in and make it pay off for readers? 

Hands-on homework suggestion: Graph a story’s high and low tension points. 

6. Time & Consciousness ~ August 

Expand and compress time, pick up or slow down the pace. How does a book that engages readers for only several hours give them the experience of time, whether the story spans a day or decades? 

Hands-on homework suggestion: Track the baton relay of time and consciousness in a story.

7. Love & Other Emotions ~ September

Get second-hand emotions to first base. What’s love got to do with it? Explore the purposes and limits of the popular writer’s maxim: “Show, don’t tell.” 

Hands-on homework suggestion: Create a graphic storyboard of a love scene or emotional passage.

8. Image & the Senses ~ October

Make the fabulous real and the real felt. How do writers paint vivid impressions with words to enliven narrative and awaken readers’ senses? 

Hands-on homework suggestion: Find or create images that encapsulate aspects of a story.

9. Theme & Gestalt ~ November

Draw it all together. How does an author integrate big ideas and intentions into his or her story without overpowering it? 

Hands-on homework suggestion: Continue a deep engagement in literature.

Suggested book list

Focus on one book or portions of a book each month. As the workshops progress, participants may suggest books for the list that illuminate topics scheduled for discussion. With an annotative approach, rather than a book report approach, we’ll explore and contrast specific craft concerns within several books. Our individual literary investigations cross-pollinate for hybrid thinking among the group. The nine sessions cover these reading selections:

(This is the 2010 schedule)

March ~ Gatekeepers & Story Seeds 

“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.”

Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen; The Quiet American, Graham Greene; Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee; The Awakening, Kate Chopin; Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner; Selected Stories, Alice Munro 

April ~ Voice, Style & POV

“Richard Parker, can you believe what happened to us? Tell me it’s a bad dream. Tell me it’s not real.”

Life of Pi, Yann Martel; Don Quixote, Miguel Cervantes; Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad; Vanity Fair, William Thackeray; Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan; The Middleman and Other Stories, Baharati Murkherjee; To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee; Bell Canto, Ann Patchett

May ~ Character

“Cosimo climbed up to the fork of a big branch where he could settle comfortably and sat himself own there, his legs dangling, his arms crossed with hands tucked under his elbows, his head buried in his shoulders, his tricorne hat tilted over his forehead.”

Our Ancestors:Baron in the Trees, Italo Calvino; The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien; Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, Richard Yates; How to Make an American Quilt, Whitney Otto; The Country Life, Rachel Cusk; To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

June ~ Place

“For the Lighthouse has become almost invisible, had melted away into a blue haze, and the effort of looking at it and the effort of thinking of him landing there, which both seemed to be one and the same effort, had stretched her body and mind to the utmost.”

To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf; Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson; Of the Farm & Pigeon Feathers, John Updike; To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee; Dubliners, James Joyce.

July ~ Tension

“He has never been seen in the company of a girl on the factory premises, nor anywhere in the immediate neighborhood. Nothing like that on your own doorstep is the rule he has.”

Felicia’s Journey, William Trevor; The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith; To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee; The Days of Abandonment, Elena Ferrante 

August ~ Time & Consciousness

“Though sometimes in my brain I go back to that afternoon, to relive it, sail up there again toward the acoustic panels, the basketball hoops, and the old oak clock, the careful harmonies set loose from our voices so pure and exact and light we wondered later, packing up to leave, how high and fast and far they had gone.”

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, Lorrie Moore; Lie Down in Darkness, William Styron; Larry’s Party, Carol Shields; A Country Life, Rachel Cusk; Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf; Bel Canto, Ann Patchett 

September ~ Love & Other Emotions

“This sound seemed to enter him, pierce him down his length so that his whole body opened up and he was able to step out of himself and kiss her freely.”

Atonement, Ian McEwan; Jasmine, Baharati Mukherjee; Selected Stories, Alice Munro; Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov; A Passage to India, E.M Forster; Bell Canto, Ann Patchett; The Days of Abandonment, Elena Ferrante

October ~ Image & the Senses

“I have never seen anything like it: two little discs of glass suspended in front of his eyes in loops of wire. Is he blind?”

Waiting for the Barbarians, J.M Coetzee; A Good Man Is Hard to Find, Flannery O’Connor; Life of Pi, Yann Martel; Invisible Cities and Our Ancestors: Baron in the Trees, Italo Calvino; Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky

November ~ Theme & Gestalt

“One is constantly wondering what sort of lives other people lead, and how they take things.”

Middlemarch, George Eliot; Passage to India, E.M. Forster; Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton; Waiting for the Barbarians, J.M Coetzee; The Human Stain, Philip Roth; To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee


“Christine is a natural teacher with such a clear and gentle manner.”

—Gillian Parker, PhD, Philosophy Professor, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, California

“Christine is extremely talented and is a true educator.”

—Denise Rosendahl, Director, Life Learning Center, Santa Rosa, California

“Christine really knows how to bring out the creative soul in each student. She has the magic touch to get the women motivated in a completely different way than any other class they would take.”

—Karen Whissen, Director, Sonoma County Library Literacy Program, County Jails, Santa Rosa, California 

“Without your help these past weeks, my stories would be in a folder in a suitcase, and maybe I’d work on them or maybe I’d procrastinate and not do anything at all. You guided me to a much improved manuscript, one that I feel confident to submit.” 

—Sally Dawson, writer, Greer’s Ferry, Arkansas

“Your curriculum and presentation were great and I feel inspired.”

“One gem I pulled from your class on Saturday is to believe in my work. That you care and are passionate about what you do and wish to share is evident.”

 “I loved your workshop. I walked away from it, for the first time feeling like a writer.”

—Workshop participants, Inkling to Ink and Beyond, Sebastopol Center for the Arts, Sebastopol, California

The Days of Abandonment: First Paragraph

Entering the story of “The Days of Abandonment,” author Elena Ferrante drops us right into the protagonist’s pain, and does so with a detachment that sets up the woman’s emotional state. “One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. He did it while we were clearing the table; the children were quarreling as usual in the next room, the dog was dreaming, growling beside the radiator.”

Masterful control of narrative

Let’s examine this first sentence from the hand of an author who is in complete control of her narrative and kind to her readers, even though she is about to take us into the depths of the narrator’s despair. With calm clarity, Ferrante places us in time in this domestic drama: “One April afternoon, right after lunch…” Nothing could be more ordinary. The repeated “after” propels us forward. This is a story about what’s coming next. We can’t hold onto the past any more than the narrator can, though she tries in vain to do so. She gives us the reason for what will be the narrator’s unraveling: “my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.” Already we sense narrator’s out-of-body response to the news: “He did it while we were clearing the table”—as if the crisis were just another dish to wash. We learn later how much she has given up to be wife and mother and how little self-identity she still claimed, even before her husband abandoned her.

Punctuation matters

Punctuation plays a role. The semicolon separates her husband from the children and the dog, just as his leaving splits their family life. The children and dog remain in her care, though the children’s “quarreling” anticipates it won’t be easy to be the single parent and the dog’s “growling” suggests he may play an role other than silent pet, and he does.

Lessons for writers

Point the way in the first sentence

When I read masterful opening sentences such as these, I wonder how they evolved. Did the author write them first? Did she know where she was going and how well they’d lead her there? Did she go back to the beginning with each draft, honing these sentences to direct the final manuscript? In the novels I’ve written, there are many attempts at first paragraphs which set up the same story from radically different entry points. Rewriting the first sentence helps me understand the story—a pointer showing where the story wants to go.

Drop details bit by bit

In Ferrante’s first two sentences, the major characters are introduced, except for the “other woman” and the narrator’s new love interest, both of whom will be mentioned by page five. But this novel is mainly about the dissolution of a family, the abandonment of a marriage covenant. Why does the dog appear here? Because he will play a major role in the narrator’s descent into hell and her redemption. Do we need to know this as readers starting out? No. But novel writing is a bit like Hansel and Gretel’s dropping of bread crumbs to mark the trail. Ferrante’s crumbs keep us turning pages, yes, but also introduce bit by bit the ordinary and terribly extraordinary daily details of abandonment.

Make characters complex: Give flaws to protagonists, redeem antagonists

Read Ferrante’s next two lines: “He told me that he was confused, that he was having terrible moments of cowardice. He talked for a long time about our fifteen years of marriage, about the children, and admitted that he had nothing to reproach us with, neither them nor me.” Wouldn’t it be so much easier for the abandoned wife if she could hate her husband with better reason than that he left her? How much simpler it would be if he was cruel to the children or beat her. How more likely we could hate him if he just walked out, didn’t “talk for a long time” and reproached her unfairly. How much easier for us and for the narrator to despise a bully than a coward.

Use vivid detail, vivid metaphor

The first paragraph consists of six sentences. Here are the final two: “He was composed, as always, apart from an extravagant gesture of his right hand when he explained to me, with a childish frown, that soft voices, a sort of whispering, were uging him elsewhere. Then he assumed the blame for everything that was happening and closed the front door carefully behind him, leaving me turned to stone beside the sink.”

How could we not read on? She’s turned to stone and we don’t even know her name. In fact, she’s so lacking in her own personal sense of identity that we don’t find out her name—Olga—until pages into the story, long after the name of the “other woman” is mentioned. But the “turned to stone” tells us that Olga isn’t taking this calmly in the course of her day, as the narrative tone suggests.

Thread tension: create friction between opposites, against expectations

The tension established between what seems to be and the true depths of emotion keeps tension on the page.  The dropping in, little by little, of information tucked among sensory language—”dog growling, radiator (the heat will be echoed later in Olga’s August entrapment in the apartment), extravagant gesture of his right hand, childish frown, sort of whispering”—keeps us reading. We can see, hear, and feel the scene. The “turned to stone” anticipates how bad it will be for our protagonist, who is left not in a romantic upheaval—on the bed! under the train!—but “beside the sink.” For this women, there are dishes to do, even though her marriage has fallen apart. Ferrante shows us well that when things go wrong it’s harder to bear real life if there is no escaping from it.

In my next post, I’ll examine how Ferrante masterfully brings in the necessary back story—never an easy task, always a pitfall for a writer.

Books as Teachers

Writing is a solitary act with a communal spirit among writers and readers. As writers, we need to be close readers, not only to learn from the masters, but also to be the audience that we would like to have for our own books. In this blog, we’ll examine good books to learn craft and technique, as well as to enrich our appreciation of writing. We’ll ask, “What makes fine fiction? How or why did that author do that?” 

Lessons for writers

We’ll discover the lessons that masterful writing and wonderful books can teach us. Topics include: Gatekeepers (first & last sentences)& Story Seeds (inspirations, triggers, starting points); Voice, Style & Point of View; Character; Place; Tension; Time & Consciousness; Love & Other Emotions; Image & Senses; Theme & Gestalt; and more. Some of the material investigated comes from a course curriculum I designed for a workshop series at Copperfield’s Books.

I hope you’ll read to write and join the discussion when you have a discovery or question to share with this blog.

I’ve just read for the third time “The Days of Abandonment” by Elena Ferrante. From the first sentence to the last, this unassuming, raw domestic drama riveted me to care about Olga and her world as it broke around her and came together again. In the next posts, I’ll examine what this book teaches.